Thursday, March 27, 2008

Article: "The Comfort of Condolences"

OK, I know this is my third (!) post in about 24 hours, but I read something today that I wanted to share. The Globe & Mail has wonderful personal essays every weekday on the back page of the Life section... and I thought this one from today was so true... it's about the death of a parent (which in some ways is such a different experience than the loss of a baby), but the feelings of grief & loss, & appreciation of kind gestures from friends & neighbours, is universal, I think...

Facts & Arguments: THE ESSAY
The comfort of condolences
They sent food and flowers, mailed cards, called and lined up at the visitation to offer words of support. Some of them didn't even know my father
March 27, 2008

The first dish to arrive was baked chicken, breaded and full of flavour.

Then came soup - hearty vegetable and beef. A variety of lasagnas followed, at least four. One neighbour even called to make sure we all liked mushrooms.

More chicken arrived, this time with rice and gravy, followed by homemade macaroni and cheese. (For the kids, she said.)

And of course there were desserts - cookies, butter tarts, Nanaimo bars and a wide variety of muffins. One neighbour even brought over fresh-baked bread, heavy and dense with whole grains - an entire meal in itself.

Fruit plates, vegetables with dip and rolls arrived. The freezers were full, the fridges overflowing.

One neighbour plowed the long driveway and parking area, even after only a few inches of snow had fallen. Others stopped by to offer condolences and tell my mother to call if she needed anything at all.

My father's fairly sudden death at only 67 prompted this outpouring of generosity. He had so much living left to do, so many memories left to create.

His oldest grandchild is not yet 4, too young for Grandpa to have left a lasting, clearly defined mark on this child's mind. He might be able to retain some memory of him if helped along with stories, but the two-year-old and the baby will only know their grandfather from photos.

My father was outside playing on his tractor, pushing snow around and having a whirl of a time only a few weeks before he died of cancer; he was singing songs with his grandsons only the day

Perhaps that is why so many neighbours, many of whom barely knew my father - he rarely stepped foot inside the tiny church, the centre of our rural community - brought food or offered assistance. I suppose we, the living, feel such helplessness in the face of death, so undiscriminating, that we want to do something, anything, to offer support. Few can offer plowing services, but many can offer food.

Those who live far away sent flowers - grand pink lilies, coral-coloured roses, potted daisies and shy African violets. People who didn't even know my father, who had never met him, sent cards and notes to tell me their thoughts were with my family and me.

Some drove long distances, more than two hours each way, simply to give me a hug and offer their condolences to my mother. Others who knew my father but who had never met me lined up for ages to tell me how he had affected their lives.

I have never placed much importance on sympathy cards. I always mean to send one but then it slips my mind. Once in a while I manage to write a note but find I am out of stamps, so the letter languishes for months in a pile of clutter or stuffed deep and forgotten in my purse. How could a few words from me, likely stock phrases anyway, lend any comfort to people who have lost someone close to them?

But I have discovered that words of condolence are important. They do provide comfort. All the phone calls, the notes and cards, the flowers, all those who came to the visitation simply to shake my hand and introduce themselves, or to offer a hug and a story about my father, somehow made me feel better. And although she is tired and emotionally drained, I know my mother feels the same way.

Perhaps their words and support help to normalize the concept of death. The idea of having life and all it entails and then, suddenly, not having it is difficult to wrap one's head around. Knowing that others understand this loss has helped me realize that I don't have to explain it, because it is inexplicable.

I don't have to make sense of his death, because death just is. It happens to all of us. The support and sympathy of friends and neighbours has let me focus instead on my father's life, which was the incredible thing, rather than the fact that he is gone.

My father was not religious, nor am I. I do not require words of eternal life, heaven or angels to make myself feel better. We did not have a funeral for Dad; he made it clear he did not want one. But knowing that he touched the lives of others, either directly or through me or my family, is enough to help me come to terms with his death.

If my father now exists only in the minds, the hearts and the memories of those who knew him, then the fact that others are affected by his death or simply by my loss must mean that in those thoughts he lives on.

I have learned a little bit about mourning, and I am thankful to all the people who offered their support, no matter how small. The next time someone I know loses a family member, I will be sure to send at least a note, if not a savoury chicken casserole.

Hayley Linfield lives in Toronto.


  1. I think what's so important here is that it's not just the food but the message the food sends to the person grieving. That someone cares.

  2. I would have to say that I agree with the town criers. Just knowing people care that you are hurting makes a difference.

    Thanks for de-lurking on my blog. I am very sorry for the loss of your baby girl. I will comb your archives because I am so curious as to how it feels 10 years down this road and whether it gets any better.

  3. I'm glad people do this for people who are grieving...but I do find that it rarely happens for those of us who are grieving lost babies.

    We just don't get the same kind of care, and I wish so much that we would. It is so so sad to be alone instead of surrounded by friends and family.