Death and Stupidity

I love Neil Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, which is unfortunately out of print (so get it from a library!).  Postman defines stupid talk as

words.  It is not something people “possess, like their kidneys.  Stupidity is something we speak, sentences that do not “make sense” or are self-defeating. We may speak such sentences to others or only to ourselves.  But the point is that stupidity is something we do with our larynx. (p. 3)

People aren’t “stupid”, but they commit stupid verbal actions.  All of us do–we use words in ways that don’t help us achieve the purposes we say we wish to accomplish.  But some life events seem to bring out stupid verbal actions more than others.  The death of a friend, relative, or even stranger is one of those events.

Much of the verbal stupidity is not malicious; indeed it is meant to comfort those left behind, especially if the deceased is a young person.  This kind of thing is altogether too common:

  I know you don’t share this belief, but the only thing that makes any sense to me right now is that XXXX was just too good for this world. I truly believe that God, in his wisdom, just had a higher calling for her. She is serving a greater purpose now. He chose YOU to deliver her. You had the privilege of being called Mama by an angel for 18 years. Yes, it was hard sometimes. But he knew that only you could serve as his agent for that task.

I’m sure this wasn’t meant maliciously, but it is a verbal stupidity too often committed by religious people, and has little chance of comforting the survivors.  Obviously, the writer knows that this belief is not “shared” by the bereaved.  And what the writer’s “belief” is, which “makes sense”, is a form of proselytization to someone at an emotionally vulnerable time in their life–when the proper response of “shut up” is unlikely to be within the range of what the receiver of this nonsense can muster.

What parent wants to be told that their child’s purpose is a life cut short, that it is somehow more important to God in his “wisdom” to remove a young person from the love of their family and the potential of a rich and rewarding adulthood? If the purpose is to bring the bereaved to share this belief and come to an acceptance of this God, I hope (and expect) it was a spectacular failure.  Who can believe a loving and wise God would have need of a young person’s death?

People often say, especially when a young or young-ish person dies, that s/he is “in a better place.”  This also is a stupid verbal act, and the bereaved recipient of this idiocy is far too often in no position to tell the speaker so.  I got this when my mother passed away suddenly at the age of 58, and I’ve been determined (successfully, so far) never to utter it to anyone else.

A year ago this week, I found myself driving a few hundred miles across the Great State of New York to the funeral of a high school friend.  He was a few years older than me, but we were in music and theatre activities together, and a little bit of the universe got dark when this vibrant man passed away at age 54.  His lovely widow, grown children, parents, and siblings, were not going to be at all comforted by talk of “better places” or “higher purposes” or God “needing” another angel (angels are beings in their own right, by the way–not dead humans in heaven).  And I sincerely hope that, had anyone said such a thing to the bereaved family, someone would have given that person a stern telling-off.

If someone has been ill or disabled for a long time, it might be true that s/he is no longer in pain.  But when a vibrant life is cut short, there should be no talk of “better places” or “higher purposes”.  The best place for my friend is not in the ground–it is at the dinner table with family and friends.  The “higher purpose” of a young adult is not to be God’s “angel”, but to finish her education and become a source of inspiration and joy to others in her chosen line of work.

I stood at my friend’s casket in the funeral home the night before the Mass of Christian Burial. I hadn’t seen him in years (in fact, he was the first person who showed up at my mother’s wake, and that kindness is my last memory of him).  Prayer wasn’t happening, at least not standard conventional approved prayer.  The closest I could get was to touch his hand and say

Shit, buddy, this is just way too soon.

And then go find the family, and try to say a few words to them.  And find some old friends and remember how much fun our times with this vibrant man had been.

The problem with death is that we think we need to say something original to the survivors–but that usually isn’t necessary. The standard words of “I’m so sorry for your loss”, “She was a wonderful person”, “I’ll miss her too” have become standard because they are true and they work. (They also keep the line moving if there are a lot of people talking to the immediate family.)

If you really must say something more, try telling the family of a short but good memory you have of the deceased–something only you might know, but that speaks well to the character of the person who died. Leave them with pride that their loved one had made a positive impact on you.

But please, don’t tell them that the grave is a “better place” than  the family table or their child’s wedding, or that God “needed” their child/spouse/parent more than they did.

Because, if the aim is to comfort the bereaved or to help them connect with divine love and wisdom at such a difficult time, there is a strong possibility that such words are not going to go very far toward that goal.

And that makes those words a particularly bad form of stupid talk.


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