Thursday, August 08, 2013

Are We Not Words?

Death has not stopped now that society has the internet. The degree to which we can be connected to our circles of friends combined with the ease of sharing information to those circles means that death also needs its space. Recently, a family friend noted that her brother had died in hospital. Seeing the news was only twenty minutes old, I called my parents and relayed the news to them. News of loss, spreading at the speed of electrons.

One of the traditions that has emerged is posting bad news on the social networks. Like announcements of breakups or engagements, it's usually a complete surprise to some percentage of the friends you have online. Often there is no better way, no ideal method for cushioning the shock.

Last evening, one of my acquaintances announced the death of his brother-in-law. There was the usual outpouring of a shared grief, but one of the comments caught my eye.

"There are no words."

It's not the first time I've seen this particular sentiment. As a matter of fact, it's become somewhat of an internet shibboleth - a common formal way of expressing grief in an online setting. I usually see it used in comments relating to tragedies or accidents, or even just expressing frustration about corruption or dubious moral choices.

I hate it.

For one thing, this particular user went ahead and typed it as the middle sentence in a three sentence condolence. So, clearly there *are* some words. Maybe the writer is trying to make the bereaved feel a moment's burst of intellectual pleasure by highlighting the use of the ironic, but I seriously doubt it.

Second, I think it's incredibly lazy and trite. I think the rampant use has to do with seeing so many messages lined up in a row that all say some variation of "I'm sorry for your loss." We receive no extra attention if we simply parrot the sentiment of everyone else, so sometimes we are all but compelled to do something different just for the sake of originality. I see this most often in messages for happy birthday.

It's the sort of situation where having "no words" is - you'll pardon me for saying - monstrous bullshit and unacceptable. We have socially-appropriate cliche that can be applied without thought or even sentiment. When informed of a death, a simple answer of "sorry for your loss" or "you and your family have my condolences" is perfect. No more need be said, unless you are particularly close to either deceased or survivor.

No one cares if you aren't original, because the onus of sparkling conversation is removed by a society-wide agreement. Nobody need be pressured to be eloquent about the arrival of death.

Besides, there are those who have felt inspired to write the feelings mournful. The poets strive mightily to produce words we can use. When there are fields of words we can use to uplift the sorrowful and fill the lonely, it betrays only a catastrophic lack of imagination to say there are no words.

I myself have felt there are sometimes no words, when composing and deleting and composing and deleting messages of condolence over and over. In the end, I may say to myself, "This is a horrible thing. There are no words." But I do not ever use such an absolute statement on another person. A loss brings them only grief, and it is no comfort to bring only words that say, "There is nothing I can say that will show you I feel compassion or connection to what has happened. No words will be uplifting. You are alone in your grief because it is indescribable."

Infinitely better and more appreciated to say simply, "I am sorry."

Epitaph on William Muir 
by Robert Burns

An honest man here lies at rest,
As e'er God with his image blest;
the friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm'd,
Few heads with knowledge so informed;
If there is another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.

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