The ritual of loss is a strange routine, danced on tiptoes and spoken in whispers. It’s full of euphemisms and clichés and awkward gestures. It smells like lilies and hot tea and a duvet pulled close to your face. It tastes like tears. It tastes like fire at the back of your throat.
Like most things in life (such as poaching an egg, riding a bike, or day-drinking for seven hours without falling asleep at dinner), it’s something we seem to get better at with practice.
And with good reason: it’s easiest, in difficult times, for us to stick to what’s safe. To send flowers and cards and our sympathies; to show up when we’re expected to. It’s a series of predictable steps choreographed to navigate an unpredictable time. Because of that, it sometimes feels performative and trite — but that’s exactly why it works.
What else do we want when we’re reeling from the shock of grief but an anchor to steady ourselves with? What else is more comforting in the waves of uncertainty than an island we’ve known all our lives?
We’ve been dancing this dance for many years now, and we rarely stumble or miss a step. One thing we haven’t quite nailed, however, is the language of loss.
There’s a slew of Hallmark-approved phrases we trot out when we’re trying to comfort someone in the wake of death. “Sorry for your loss.” “My deepest sympathies.” “Thinking of you at this difficult time.”
“Sorry,” is what you say when you accidentally bump into someone in a bar. “Sorry,” is blame. “I’m sorry for doing that.” “I’m sorry for saying that.” Why we use it when someone dies, I’m not sure — but I can’t think of a suitable alternative.
When someone says, “sorry for your loss,” I think of where I lost that person. And for me, the place I lost them is the last place I saw them. Like anything else you might “lose.” Makes sense, right?
I lost a friend at 3.00am on a Saturday night under the bright, clinical lights that hung over the sticky-smooth plastic of a McDonald’s table. He didn’t die until more than a year after that, but I lost him that night. The last time I saw him, he was waving at me from our friend’s car as I disappeared into my house with a McChicken Sandwich growing cold in one hand and a giant cup of ice and Sprite chittering in the other.
I didn’t know that would be the last time. Who does?
We always say, “if I’d known, I’d have done it differently,” and, “I’d have told them I loved them,” and “I’d have told them how much they mean to me.” So why don’t we?
The truth is, we don’t know shit and we never will. We don’t know when a goodbye might be the goodbye.
And, honestly — it would be exhausting if we treated every goodbye like it was the goodbye. Can you imagine saying goodbye to your wife or girlfriend or boyfriend or whoever every time they left the house like it might be the last time you saw them?
Shouting, “I love you, you mean everything to me, I’ll always cherish all the memories we made together, you make me happier than I’ve ever been —” and on and on and on at your husband as the poor guy walks down the driveway thinking, “Jesus Christ, do we have to do this every time I go out to pick up coffee?” EXHAUSTING. And pretty annoying for the neighbours, probably.
So we just have to make do with the goodbyes that end up being the goodbyes. We have to hope that a quick wave under the fading warmth of a McChicken Sandwich and the chill of a Sprite and the glow of a night spent talking nonsense under too-bright lights is enough.
We have to hope that if we do somehow get to see those we’ve “lost,” again, the hello will be as sweet as the goodbye was bitter.