Both my parents died in the past few months, leaving me an orphan in midlife. As I am an only child, they took with them the remembered archives of their marriage and my girlhood. The loss is tremendous.
The language to mark it isn’t. “I am so sorry,” people say. “You are in my thoughts,” or, for short, “My condolences.” I used to think that simple statements like these, which seem like platitudes, showed a lack of sensitivity and imagination. I thought that sympathy needed to be offered through personalized language that reflected the character of the dead person and anticipated the state of mind of the survivor.
In years gone by, I spent ages at my desk, straining to come up with something fresh to say to a grieving friend and once or twice felt so inadequate to the task that I didn’t send anything.
How I regret that now. Until my parents died, I had no idea how welcome simplicity can be. A statement such as “Our hearts are with you” doesn’t feel canned when your heart is aching. It feels like consolation. Traditional condolences convey that the thing that’s happened is so profound that novelty is beside the point. In their accessibility, the standard phrases acknowledge the universality of loss. And, given their formulaic nature, they make possible a simple and painless response.
“Thank you, I really appreciate that,” I’ve said countless times these past weeks. And you know what? I’ve meant it every time. I really have appreciated the expression of fellow feeling. I really have appreciated people’s use of a compassionate shorthand that lets them off having to say something original and lets me off having to talk about how I’m feeling or to go into detail about how it all came about.
My parents were unique and irreplaceable. My father, Allan, was a meticulous fine-finish carpenter, a droll raconteur and a lover of the Rolling Stones. My mother, Noel, was a superb organizer, a dauntless traveler and an…