For the whole 20 miles of highway, I tried to think of something to say.
There’s nothing, really – no words profound or edifying or even helpful that can be spoken to lifelong friends who have lost their daughter. As I drove to the funeral home, I tried out different phrases to test how they felt on my tongue or in my ears. Nothing seemed right enough to match the sadness; nothing seemed good enough for this family.
The young mother in her 30s died of cancer, leaving behind a husband and three young children. I did not know her well, but her dad is one of my best friends, reaching back to grade school, continuing through junior high band when we sat next to each other in the saxophone section, to high school when we talked every day in homeroom. He reminded me that most mornings he and I were the only two students who bothered to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
I think of our friendship as a long string of lights. We won’t see each other for months or a year, but when we do reconnect, we pick up right where we’d left off. My life’s been dotted with his bright, funny personality. And now I was about to see him, his wife and his family at their most heartbroken moment.
What do you say?
Every person who stood in the funeral home had the same doubts about what to say, and probably reached the same conclusion: you make a donation, send flowers, say a prayer, bake a casserole. Show up to the funeral home to pay your respects. And each of us will drive home trying to put this unfathomable loss into some logical perspective. Why her? Why this kind, lovely family? Why?
No answer comes, of course, and so you turn away from that question and take a more selfish approach and insert yourself into that heartbreak. This is where things move past sympathy and even beyond empathy and move into something so personal it’s almost like making up a story. We place ourselves and our own families and our own daughters into that same story, and ask ourselves, “Dear God, what if that were to happen to us? How would I ever survive such a loss?”
By the time we reach middle age, most of us have been to enough funerals to know what those first days look like: parents and grandparents and husbands and siblings putting on brave faces to stand there and accept all the bumbling, inadequate, but heartfelt phrases from their friends.
The day his daughter died, my friend messaged me. He said he was grateful he and his wife did have her for as long as they did. I’m not sure I would be so grateful so soon, but these people are better than I am, and stronger.
I never had the chance to know their daughter at all, but I didn’t have to know her to understand what is now gone, and what they’ve all lost.
I’ve spent 520 words just now, trying to explain how words fail me when it comes to the passing of this beautiful young woman. This fumbling, selfish, inadequate attempt brings me full-circle back to where I started. My dear friends had to say goodbye to their sweet daughter this week. All I can say –all any of us ever can really say – is this: I am so, so sorry.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.