Thursday, July 23, 2009

Communicating at a Funeral

On Wednesday, Matt over at The Church of No People posted an article about communication – about how we’re losing our ability to do it. Matt runs an interesting blog operation there – he’s a pastor in Kansas City (and a freelance designer, and a teacher), and his church is called Levi’s House. His blog, he says, is full of the messages that didn’t make it for church sermons because otherwise people would second-guess why he’s their pastor. I like that.

Matt’s concerned that, in the midst of the greatest communication explosion in the history of humanity, we’re losing our ability to communicate – to speak to and with each other. Instead, we resort to buzzwords and clichés and think we’re communicating, while we take a break from texting, tweeting and instant messaging.

Take funerals, for example.

When a friend or colleague or relative dies, what do we say to each other and the family? “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” If we’re not particularly religious, we’ll drop the prayers and say “Our thoughts are with you.” And we’ll say “He (she) will be sorely missed.” Sorely? I’m still waiting for someone to say “He (she) will be tenderly missed.”

These statements have become clichés. They mean nothing to us or to the bereaved loved ones. We say them because we don’t know what to say or, more to the point, how to say it.

Four years ago, a business executive I’d worked for years before died. I’d worked closely with the man until he retired – I was his speechwriter, and he did some remarkable things with his speeches. I got to go along for the ride, and what a ride it was. He was a humble, quiet man, who shocked everyone, himself included, when he turned his industry upside down.

I didn’t know the family, except for a casual acquaintance with a stepson (an allergist who did a patch test on me). I’d never met his wife or other children. When I read the obituary in the newspaper, the sadness I felt for the loss was overwhelming. But the obituary, written by the family, missed what the man had accomplished, because he wasn’t the type to go home at night and say, “Honey, I revolutionized the chemical industry today.” He was the type to go home and say, “Honey, how are you doing? I’m so glad to see you.”

So I wrote the story, went to the visitation, saw the stepson and handed it to him. I said it was a tiny measure of how I felt, and a tiny indication of what he had done for his company and his industry. And then I left.

I also sent the story to the editor of the newspaper’s op-ed page, who said thanks but no thanks, we don’t publish these kinds of things. Okay, I thought, at least the family has it.

Except, at the last minute, a big hole developed on the op-ed page, and the only thing available to fill it was my story about the executive. And they did it right, with a cool graphic and photo.

Nothing I could have said would have meant more to his family than that story. No one in the family knew what he’d done. The response was extraordinary, and not just from the family. I received scores of letters and emails from his children, from people who’d worked with him, from retirees and even current employees of the company who’d never met him but were thrilled to work for a company that had had an executive like that. Strangers sent me letters saying how much they enjoyed the story.

A month or so later, his widow sent me a short, sweet note that brought tears to my eyes. She sent me another one, almost a year later, and said that nothing had given her more comfort than that tribute to her husband. I cried again.

So don’t say “Our thoughts are with you” or “He will be sorely missed.” Say or do something that means something. Or just sit with them and be there, holding their hand. Sometimes that’s the most powerful communication of all.


L.L. Barkat said...

Stories, poetry, these give voice to pain in a way that helps us both feel and face it.

Poet Samuel Hazo says a similar thing about cursing being a lost art. Then he recites one that goes on like "I curse the carriage that crossed the town that was home to your mother..." Oh, something like that. :) I think you get the gist.

Hey, nice to have you over at Green Inventions, reading my Little One's poetry.

Matt @ The Church of No People said...

Thanks for the feature! Your thoughts were perfect, and even more coherant than my own!