I’ve been ruminating on a topic since I heard this interview between Michael Silverblatt and Aleksander Hemon last week.
The Bosnian author was talking about his book, The Book of My Lives, which contains a personal and very emotional remembering of the loss of his daughter. In the interview the author talked about how he was confronted by a friend at that time who said: “words fail in these situations.”
No, Hemon said. Being a writer, he has belief in words. Words don’t fail, he said. Platitudes do. Empty phrases that don’t instigate connection or communication fail.
I totally agree. Words are power. Words are what will help us get through any feeling state, any situation, whether they are spoken aloud to ourselves, whether they come to us from others, or whether we sit and write them down.
This hit home to me because I recently watched some of my best friends struggle with the sudden death of another beloved friend, a woman who I did not know well, but who touched many of the lives of people close to me. It’s a horrible time, burying a loved one. I wish I were more naive on the subject, but I grok the shit out of everything they were going through.
I remember those times in my own life and the words that people chose to say. I’m grateful for the good intentions of everyone who tried to say things that they thought would be comforting, but was also bemused at the multitude of platitudes that people fall back on. “Everything happens for a reason.” “She’s in a better place.” He’s at peace now.” All those words are meaningless when strung together like pearls of wisdom and offered up to a person whose heart is breaking in grief. You accept them, absorb them, because you know they come from a good place, not because they have any real value of their own.
Really I think the only thing we can say in those moments is this: “This sucks. It sucks that your mother, brother, sister, friend, lover is gone from this life right now. It sucks that you will have to wake up every day and know that they no longer see the same sky as you, breathe the same air. It’s not OK that they won’t be there for births and weddings and celebrations and drudgery. It’s not OK that you will never hear them laugh again. It’s not OK, because you love them and you will miss them. You will miss them every day. It will suck, and it’s not OK, but you, yourself, will be OK. You will.”
I know there are those who believe we will see our loved one again someday. That’s a lovely thought, but no one, no matter how righteous or how faithful, no one can prove to me that that is the case. And even if they could, it doesn’t exactly take away the pain of the now. Today I live without the loved ones I have lost. And today comes every day. Until it doesn’t.
And that belief, that beyond death, that at the end of all my todays all will be well, to me, becomes a platitude itself. And platitudes are empty in the moment.
I think the reason platitudes fail is because what we’re really trying to say, what we really want to ask and answer is—why? And that is a fruitless question to ask because the answer is simply—because. Because, we all, some how, some way, some day will die.
There is no why about it. It just is.
But when you’re in pain, when you’re experiencing loss, when you’re trying to console a friend who is in that situation, you don’t want to think that, you don’t want to say that. And yet, you know in your heart that you cannot ask and answer the question “why” so out come the supposedly comforting phrases that are really more about numbing the pain than dealing with it, or healing it.
I really believe that the only way to heal from this kind of pain is to face it with raw honest human emotions and raw, honest words that don’t just serve to anesthetize, but that tell the truth as each one of us knows it, and rip open wide the fears we all have inside. That’s where the connection comes, that’s how the understanding comes, that’s where acceptance will start to creep in. And that’s where healing starts.
This, as in most things in life, can be illustrated by a choice moment from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I have Buffy on the brain, well, pretty much all the time, but especially this week). A 1,000-year-old demon recently turned human had no platitudes to share as she and her friends were suffering the loss of Buffy’s mom. She only had words.
Oh and later? Anya said to Buffy: “I wish Joyce didn’t die…because she was nice….and now, we all…hurt.” And it’s really kind of that simple.
We’ve all been there. We all miss someone who would probably rather be here, enjoying fruit punch, sneezing, watching her children grow up, getting excited about the new Superman movies. Or at least, WE would rather they were here doing those things with us.
And it’s not OK that they’re not.
But we can all be OK. Today. For as many todays as we get, making them as real and true as we can make them.