I have here an email from a woman in North Carolina, named Pam, who writes:
“My dad died of COVID-19, and there could only be a few of us at his funeral for obvious reasons. I don’t know how to stay positive anymore, I don’t know how to cope, I’m crying while I write this. He was my best friend and he’s gone.”
Pam, after I read your letter, out of pure reflex I was tempted to say, “I am sorry.”
But I caught myself. People are programmed to say that little phrase without even thinking. We say it because we don’t know what else to say at funerals. It just slips out. I don’t care for the phrase.
I don’t mean to imply that saying “I’m sorry” is insensitive. It’s just that EVERYONE says it. And sometimes, it comes off as insincere.
The day of my father’s funeral, for example, I must have heard this phrase about 24,192 times. By the end of the day I never wanted to hear “I’m sorry” again.
There are other things people could say in these instances. People could always go with something honest, like: “Hey, I don’t know what to say.” Or they could just hug you and say nothing.
But alas, most folks stick with the old standbys. “He was a good man.” “Life is short.” Or my personal favorite: “He’s in a better place.”
Do you know what I wish people would say at funerals sometimes? The truth. As in:
“This really sucks.”
One time, my mother had a momentary breakdown shortly after my father passed. Her emotions overtook her. She screamed until her voice broke. She said over and over again, “THIS SUCKS!!!”
We’d never heard her say that word before. But she was saying how we all felt. And it needed to be said.
The ironic thing is, my mother didn’t talk that way. My mother is a foot-washing churchgoer, a gentle woman who purchases Gaither albums and would be practically free from all sin if it weren’t for Paul Newman.
But sometimes you just need to shout a little.
A few weeks ago, I got a letter in the mail. I read it while standing on my porch. It was from a man who said he had experienced an “NDE,” which I later found out is short for “Near Death Experience.”
At age 44 he died from a heart attack. He was clinically dead for more than three minutes. He said that those few minutes seemed like three thousand years.
One of the most interesting things he wrote was that dying was not like he thought it would be. He said it was like “falling into warm water.” He said he felt safe, and loved.
He went on to say that in those moments of death, he realized that daily life is hard work. “Striving” was actually the word he used here. Endless striving. Striving for food, water, shelter, love, friendship, money, fulfillment, deeper meaning, happiness, cell phone service, decent auto insurance, etc. Take your pick.
But death changed all that. No more swimming against the current. No more striving. He said it was peaceful. He heard music. He felt the same sensation you feel when you cry from pure happiness. He said it was almost like the simple beauty of a flower, blooming before your eyes, only this flower was about the size of three solar systems. I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds pretty.
His words gave me comfort. I guess I’ve always wondered about death.
The last time I ever spoke to my father was on the telephone, minutes before he died. I had no idea it would be our last conversation. I was a kid. He told me he loved me, and he put a strange emphasis on his final words.
It wasn’t long after hanging up the phone that he turned a shotgun onto himself. Ever since then, I’ve always associated death with pain, agony, and sadness. Everyone does, I guess. To most people, death equals bad; life equals good.
But what if I’ve been wrong about death? What if death isn’t at all like I thought? What if it’s not agony. What if it’s not sad?
Have you ever been around a hospital delivery room? You know how the whole hospital lights up like a Christmas tree when new life comes into the world? It’s like a big party, minus the huge cake and the bad singing. Nobody is sad.
Even the baby’s mother, who is performing a bodily feat that belongs in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not exhibit, is crying happy tears.
She is bleeding and screaming. But nobody in the delivery room is saying, “I’m sorry.” Because why would you be sorry? This is the greatest rite of passage in human life. Sure it hurts, but not for long.
What if in some small way, death is kind of like that, and we’re just too human to understand it? What if the transition from here into Whatever Comes Next is a glorious graduation ceremony? What if there is such happiness surrounding the process of dying that it feels like falling into warm water?
What if there are symphonies playing, laughter from old friends, and love swirling all around? What if your father’s death was accompanied with such dignity and splendor that he almost wishes he could come back, just for a moment, to tell his little girl not to cry?
I am an average man with almost no education. I wish I had the words you need right now, but I am so feeble and I know so little. The truth is, I don’t know what to say.