the circular runner

Hallmark: When Words Fail Us

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized, writing on March 15, 2012 at 6:15 am

Last week, I went to the funeral of one of my recent graduates. If you read an earlier post about her death and my reaction to it, then you’ll know that I’ve been struggling about how I’m struggling.  I know there’s grief under it all, but the grief’s not showing itself.  And then again, I did drive 400 miles to LA this weekend to hug my folks and my sister and her army of kids.  The grief is there. It’s pushing me around a little even if it isn’t dragging me down.

At the funeral, it was open casket which is tough. I paid my respects to the family, brought flowers, wore a tie.  (The latter made me stand out because everyone else was wearing t-shirts with the student’s face on it and/or SF Giant hoodies. This was a funeral for the neighborhood folks, and I must have looked a little like the “guero” “boojie” dude, but what can I say? I’m light-skinned, which makes most people think I’m white, and there’s the fact that my mom taught me to show respect by dressing as well as I can in situations such as these. Truth is no one probably gave a damn how I was dressed.  We were there for my student.  Or were we?

Grief and cliche have an oh-so-tight relationship to one another.  At one level, cliches cannot be helped. I get that. When we talk about death, we are talking about something that cannot be talked about. What words can get past the barrier between life and death? Prayer works at times like these. Prayer, in a sense, was the origin of Halmark.  It gives people words to say when facing tragedy.  But if you are not completely a person of faith, and you can’t give it up to God as they say, then what can you say?  Which words are best?

At the funeral, there were the posters made by my student’s young friends telling her to rest in peace, that she was an angel, that she was special and smart.  My student was these things, no doubt, but her body in the coffin made these words seem senseless to me, dead even.  These words are not her, no more than her dead body is.  And to say this does not mean I avoided cliches, myself.  I couldn’t help but say the words I’ve been taught to say when I reached out to shake my student’s mom’s hand.  But when I looked around and saw those signs and those Hallmark-isms, I couldn’t help but wonder if those Hallmark thoughts didn’t cover up something beside grief and desperation. Did it cover up a lack of ingenuousness.

Let me take this away from the funeral-setting for a moment. Think about another type of event–a deeply spiritual one. Imagine a religious revival somewhere out on some prairie.  I don’t doubt that people have conversions, just like I don’t doubt that some people were really grieving and struggling for language to describe the grief they were feeling for my student–but when that experience gets replicated, so that, for example, at some evangelical church on a Sunday, you have a preacher calling out for people who are moved by the Holy Spirit to come forth and repent, and he does this every Sunday, at what point does this just become routine?  The expression of something seen and copied? That feeling of the routine was there at this funeral.  Maybe it’s there at every funeral.

The Mission can be a dangerous place. Bullets fly there. Kids are senselessly killed. But among some of the people who were at my student’s funeral, individuals who might have pulled a trigger or two or known someone who was a victim, one almost got the strange sense that they spoke in Hallmark language to cover up their indifference. Death and sadness are badges for some. And funerals for young people are just part of the way.  The death of my student was tragic. No doubt. But tragedy expressed en mass forces everyone to express it in a certain kind of way whether they feel that grief at all. Grief comes when it does. No need to force it. But there was some forcing going on last week, and though I know it can’t be helped, I was bothered by it.

We are social beings. Don’t let the Ayn Rand-Rand Paul types fool you: we are a collective.  Some don’t want us to be that when it comes to taxes, but there’s no putting it off in death.  Here’s another cliche for you: resistance is futile.

  1. For your sake, I just hope Ayn Rand’s ghost doesn’t read this…
    Just sayin’.

  2. A girlfriend I dated for a long time committed suicide several years after we broke up. Although that was at least ten years ago, I still think sometimes of what I might have done differently while we were together that could have changed that outcome. Probably nothing. But I think about it. A combination of caring and self-centeredness. What strange beings we are.

  3. I read this through a few times to ensure I fully grasped your meaning and to ensure I left a half-way intelligent comment..
    My Mother passed away Jan 2011…her funeral (burial) was not until April 5th (Arlington Nat’l). We all flew up to DC from Fla. It was 3 months since her death yet no tears came from me that day. I know the Rabbi who said her service was shocked as to why was her only daughter not crying..I could not force tears. It was imperitive for me that my memories of leaving her there, so far away from me be one of grace & acceptance (the tears cam ewhen i got home). But Arlington will never be a memory of tears and grief for me..
    The youth of today are almost null & void inside when it comes to death as it is so commonplace..and the copycat emotions are quite disturbing..
    (my apologies for the rambling comment)

    • Not rambling at all. In fact, you were much more eloquent than I. I probably should’ve called the post, When Words Fail Me.
      Thanks again for reading and for commenting.


  4. I think the problem is just with words themselves. A friend of mine from high school just lost her husband — completely unexpectedly, at the age of 50. I’ve called her a couple of times (the phone rings and rings) but I have to think about it for days before I dial because I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT I CAN POSSIBLY SAY to help her. We can’t speak of it because we can’t bear to look at it, and we all know the futility of it.

    Someone told me once that it didn’t matter what you said, it just mattered that you tried, but I think some really hurtful, insensitive things can resonate even more within someone who’s already psychologically doubled over clutching their gut just trying to remember how to breathe.

    I think the Quaker silences might be the best answer. Let’s all just sit there, and wait for whatever voice it is that talks to you, talk to you.

    Hope you’re okay. Haven’t read the previous post yet. Life is hard, death is hard, it’s all just way more difficult than we ever imagined.

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