The Art of Losing the Dead

I left work early yesterday because I got sick.  I went out to lunch and something disagreed with me—out out out, said my body, vehemently pushing against this unknown intruder.  Sleep, sleep, it said then, muscles frayed from the stress of fighting itself.  But I had rehearsal for a show this weekend, so I slept a few hours and then went and moved sets around.

I came to work this morning and everyone asked how I was, whether I was better, how good it was that I was alive.  We joked about my being dead for a few hours, but I got better.  And then a colleague came into my office and said that a mutual friend was quite dead.  She was not getting better.

But what was that to me?  I had to present at a department meeting.  I had to figure out out how to balance a payroll deficit.  I had to work.

It’s such an odd thing, how the death of another can only wait so long.  Like my body that refused to be held in check until that magical five o’clock end time, it was while sitting at my desk that my soul said out out out, vehemently pushing at this concept of grief for a woman who was, as they always are, far too young.  She was not yet 30, set to be married later this year, a former classmate of mine who was adventuring states away.

I don’t know how to deal with death.  I never have, really, and I doubt that anybody actually does.  Part of my trouble with it is all the language that surrounds it:  “I’m sorry for your loss,” “S/he was such a great person,” “If you need anything…”  I understand completely that these sorts of platitudes often come from a genuine desire to help the people at the center of the grief, but they simply don’t make sense to me.  I’m sorry that this happened now, yes, but I know that everyone dies, and I don’t know how to be sorry that that will happen.  As to someone’s loss, I feel like that’s so flat—the person isn’t lost, literally or metaphorically.  The body was not misplaced, nor has the person been; s/he shines the brighter in the memories of those left behind, such that s/he is never lost, will never be lost, because we will cling the tighter to the possibilities that could have been.  And of course the dead person was a great person, but s/he was also petty, and selfish, and bitter, and unkind, because s/he was human and had days when absolutely nothing worked and people were jerks.  I don’t want to talk about the idea that s/he was nice because that means nothing, it means only that I don’t want to blemish your memory or mine, and that’s not real.  I want to talk about an instance when she was nice, and then I want to talk about one in which she made me want to pull out my hair because then she is real, she is alive, she is still here.

She is not lost.

“If you need anything” is one of my least favorite things for anyone to say in any context, and I hate when it’s the only thing I have to say because I don’t know what else to say (which, I suspect, is often the case for people).  Of course the person needs something.  S/he needs his/her loved one back.  S/he needs not to feel this aching space inside when that person’s laugh no longer resounds in the house.  S/he needs to have people stop saying that the person was lovely when the last thing that happened was a fight that the dead person started because s/he was angry, or needs to have people stop hugging him/her because the only arms s/he wants belong to somebody whose arms will never move again, or needs to say to God this isn’t fair and it’s absolutely no better when people say it’s all right, s/he’s in heaven, a better place.

Here is a better place.  The grieving person needs the chance to make it better, to go around again, to say good-bye.

I don’t say any of this, Reader, to suggest that all people who say these sorts of things are silly or heartless—far from it—and I don’t say it to say that no one should ever say these things.  I only say this to say that I don’t like to say them.  I don’t like to hear them.  And I don’t know how to tell my friend whose fiancée is now dead that I react to her death with him, grieve with him from several states away, and wish I remembered more about her.  I don’t know how to say that I don’t want to say anything because there is nothing to say; I want to listen, to hear his stories of her and watch the way he smiles just so because she was his light.  I want to celebrate how weird she was, and how it took me forever to remember her name, and that I wish I had gone to her moving-away party.

And I want to say that she is not lost.  Wherever her fierce soul may be, who she was to us will only be lost in the sense that anything is lost in the knick knack shelf of our minds, the memories worn from the oils of our hands as we thumb through them again and again, the dust that starts to gather years down the line as we continue to live settling comfortably amongst the other stories that share the shelf, making us someone who will die, and whose life will be told, and who will not be lost.


When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.  (Job 2:11-13, NIV)

4 thoughts on “The Art of Losing the Dead

  1. […] know, I know, this is a terribly cheery title—and painful, after last week’s post.  However, my books to review are piling up on my desk, and I do need to do […]


  2. Ah, okay. That makes sense. Thanks for chiming in, guys.


  3. I agree with Sheila. When we tell the grieving that we’re sorry for their loss, we’re telling the living that we know their lives will never be the same again, and we ache for them. We don’t mean that the dead are lost out there somewhere in the Great Beyond. We are telling the survivors how very sorry we are that they will not have that person in their lives the same way they did before. But yes, all of this is a part of life, as is our feeble attempt to speak about it.


  4. Sheila Bigelow says:

    This is very well stated (as usual) in so many ways, but I would argue that there is loss.  Yes, I remember my best friend of 40 years who died two years ago every time I water my African violets or see her granddaughter’s pictures on FB.  I have not lost our past, where we raised our children and shared oh, so many joys and sorrows.  I have lost the present, in which I want to pick up the phone when something important happens, because she was the first person with whom I would want to share it.  I have lost our future together, where I could more easily have connected with family members who remain dear to me, even as some of them have moved on.  This is even more acute when the person who has died was young:  all the dreams, the what-might-have-beens are gone.  And so I will say, “I’m sorry,” and I will hold you and your friend’s loved ones in prayer.  Sheila


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