My grandfather joked that the person who would most enjoy a funeral is the deceased.
He insisted that the unabashed commemoration of life offered decent consolation for the fact of death. My sisters and I dutifully laughed through our eye-rolling and shushing.
In late October, I attended the funeral of a family friend. He died after a drug overdose, a fatal conclusion to years of drug addiction. On the Friday those drugs killed him, he hadn’t even reached his 30th birthday.
Grief cascaded down mountains of tributes. The demons he wrestled were acknowledged, but the anecdotes and memories focused on his sweetness, his humor, his loyalty, his numerous nicknames and his raspy voice. Neither Facebook nor the church that hosted his funeral could contain the people offering themselves as a testament to the impact of his presence and the shock of his absence.
I read the messages, and sat through the service, knowing my grandfather was being proved correct. I wished this young man were sitting, alive and well, at his computer, or next to his brothers by the altar, basking in warmth of those words. I wished that I could have recorded them, to play to him as his life’s true soundtrack. I would have been careful to turn up the volume when he would have otherwise opted for whatever silence he achieved with a puff or a sniff or a line or a hit.
I don’t know why he started doing drugs. I wonder if he knew. Was it because they were there, because he was curious, because his tolerance for risk outpaced his body’s tolerance for moderation? Or was it because they both gave him an identity and allowed him to run away from himself?
Maybe the why doesn’t matter. Maybe he started, and then he ended. Maybe there is no answer to a question that lives inside a Russian doll.
Or maybe, the why matters as much as he did. Maybe he started using drugs because he decided there was some fundamental flaw in himself, and the drugs distracted him from that. Maybe we can relate to his decision, and his ensuing struggle, and his premature demise, more than we think we can.
You’re stressed about money, so you eat too much. You don’t like the way you look, so you eat too little. You don’t think you’re desirable, so you settle for cheap intimacy.
So many of us are convinced of our own fundamental flaws, and so many of us have habitualized a supposed solution to our perceived problems. Any argument, against either the flaw or the solution, soon becomes filtered through an already firm perspective. The encouraging words help a little, but they’re discounted as being spoken out of compulsion, or panic, or guilt. We sprinkle our family’s protestations with generous grains of salt, fearing they speak only out of obligation.
When we gather as a community to celebrate happy occasions and to mourn sad ones, we risk being too late. Perhaps if we were onlookers less and demonstrative supporters more, we’d help each other drown out the self-defeating noise we hum inside. Perhaps if we vocalized kindness as early and as often as possible, the lonely vacuums we sometimes occupy would be counteracted with reassurance.
I’m not saying we create each other’s miseries, or that we’re responsible for each other’s weaknesses. I know that life is complicated, and so is living it. I acknowledge that perhaps words, however well-intentioned and well-timed, are not enough.
But perhaps they are. Let’s risk that. The worst that could happen is that we are the bright spot in someone’s day.
I’m advocating for an aggressive reverse-bullying. I’m suggesting more than just a restraint from meanness. I’m talking about putting an end to whatever prevents us from exchanging a compliment, smile, congratulations, hug, encouragement, shared memory or thank-you.
I mean that the unspoken nicety is a wasted one. I mean that compassion is an emotion best shared with the living. I mean it’s terrible to save words for a eulogy.
Let’s embrace this lesson from what might be part of his answer. What a lovely legacy for a boy known for his honesty and his heart.