I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve had good reason. These last few months have been extremely busy as my family has struggled to catch up on missed work and return to normalcy after losing both my wife’s father and mother in a span of less than one hundred days. At times the gallows’ humor has kicked in and we’ve joked that we have become quite good at planning funerals, but the plain fact is that we’re just stunned and numb. There is no real way to be productive in this state. Yes, we have both found that work is comforting in the sense that it gives you immediate purpose and direction. But our work has been mechanical, not terribly creative. So I’ve taken a few weeks off from blogging and will return to the task slowly as winter approaches.
However, it is now November and while Canadian Thanksgiving is not long past, American Thanksgiving—what my family still calls “real Thanksgiving”—is on the horizon. There are all kinds of superficial things that I’m thankful for. The New England Patriots are 7-0, we’ve yet to have a hard frost here in the Montreal suburbs, and we still have jobs and food on the table. Yes, you read that correctly…I just referred to employment and food as superficial, because that is how they feel at the moment. Save your sermons about unemployed folks and hungry people around the world. I’m well aware of the present condition of global humanity. My point is existential, not geo-political or even moral. One of the marks of grief and deep loss is that almost everything seems trivial in comparison. So it is very hard right now to feel thankful for much of anything except the continued health of our now smaller family. How very delicate and contingent even that fact now appears.
I hesitate to voice full-throated thankfulness in regards to these blessings not because I do not register their reality and value, but because they are such minor blips on our emotional screens at the moment. Just now thankfulness for the small things feels like standing on the deck of the Titanic as it slides into the icy ocean and noting appreciatively that at least it’s a cloudless night and the constellations can be seen clearly. Who cares!
These past few months my wife has become quite the observer of awkwardness. She’s a brilliant academic with a keen mind, so when the waves of friends and acquaintances at work, in church and around town have made their way over to offer condolences or send cards, she has done her best to respond gracefully, even as she has catalogued the clichés and inapt platitudes. The plain truth is that, no matter how well meaning, no one knows what to say or how to help. The older folks who’ve dealt extensively with death just say how sorry they are. The less experienced attempt some kind of comforting cliché, insisting that “they are in a better place now,” or pointing to the way in which a person died as a kind of blessing in disguise…”at least she didn’t suffer!” And the cards!!! Oh the cards!!! My wife appreciates them and takes them as signs that at least she and her pain are not going unnoticed. The things people write by hand are both genuine and beautiful. There is something profoundly moving about watching people stumble so terribly to deal with ultimate existential matters. Words fail them all, no matter how eloquent they usually are. But the cards themselves, and by this I mean the words chosen and printed on the cardstock, are just so BLEH! The one’s that quote scripture are the most helpful insofar as they point to the fact that for millennia we have been facing the challenge of losing those we love. The least helpful ask us to look at the bright side. “CHIN UP,” Charlotte the Spider tells us, and so many card manufacturers seem to agree. What nonsense. It’s more than nonsense, it’s almost cruel to say such things to someone in genuine pain and grief.