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Condolences that hurt

I just listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast where he interviewed Nicole Byer (both are comedians, actors, podcasters). Marc asked Nicole when her parents passed away. Both were in their mid-50’s. Like anyone who loses parents too young, Nicole had a hard time.  

And like most well-intended people who console the bereaved, the condolences came pouring in. Death is uncomfortable. What to say, what not say.

I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll miss her so much. I’m here for you. What can I do? Let me bring you dinner, help with arrangements, whatever you need.

These words are kind, comforting and thoughtful. A salve to ease the unimaginable.

But there are a few words that harm, “At least she’s in a better place.”

Nicole said she heard it a lot.

I know. I really believe they think they’re offering Christian comfort.

But to the survivors, even after long intense suffering, losing their loved one feels like hell on earth. Even if their loved one passing is a relief.  

“Better place” translates to, “I know you’re hurting but maybe feel a tiny bit of comfort because where they are is better than where they were.”

Still, it’s a crushing platitude for what the survivor feels. 

Profound breathless gut-punched loss, aching grief and suffocating loneliness. How to move through the next moment, the next hour, the next breakfast and bedtime’s oppressive emptiness. 

The smell of his shirts, a stray sock near the bed, his favorite mug or leftovers. The photos, travels, shared spaces in every inch of the house. His children’s faces and tears. Thousands of lingering floating reminders that stab over and over and over.    

Marc laughed when Nicole mentioned “in a better place.”

“Yeah what the hell is that,” he said. “Better place? No it’s not better. Better is here, with me. That’s better.”

That’s how I feel. Better is here.

This is probably why I never sense my father’s presence like lots of people do with deceased loved ones. I envy their connection. Their surprise ethereal embrace. Some people sense a spirit, or meaningful personal objects fall down for no reason, supernatural events that tell them their loved one is close. I’m here. I’m okay. You’ll be okay.

I loved my father with every cell.  I told a friend years before he died in 2006 that when he went, I’d crumble and never recover. I felt it years before I lost him which is why I think I did recover. That and relief that he wasn’t suffering anymore.  

My deceased father has never been a spiritual presence. He’s gone. Finite. Only pictures, videos and memories that I choose to look at bring him back. Perhaps I never sense him because spirit energy isn’t enough for me so I don’t even try. Also, the supernatural freaks me out a little.  I believe but don’t want to experience.

I want all of my father or none of him. Not his essence. Not his energy. Energy can’t congratulate my daughter on graduating from high school, college and getting her first career job.

At least I had years to say goodbye even as his Lewy Body dementia and Parkinson’s advanced. I got a lot of my dad even as his mind changed.  Even when he was confused about things, like constantly falling because he forgot he shouldn’t shuffle to the kitchen to clean out his teacup. He’d forget his body didn’t behave the way his mind wanted. But he never forgot people. Not one. He’d forget time frames, like that I’d recently visited. 

Marc Maron’s longtime girlfriend Lynn died fast and unexpectedly two years ago. He didn’t get to say goodbye in the hospital after paramedics picked her up in his apartment. It was during COVID. Death was quarantined. It’s one of the saddest things I heard during the pandemic. Barred from holding a loved one’s hand. 

I understand when someone is suffering with no chance of recovery that dying is the better place. Whether it’s heaven or the relief of nothingness. The pain stops. That’s better.

My stepmother has this expression she often says about end of life. “There’s worst things than death.” No one said “better place” when Dad died. They understood my father would shoot them a dirty look from the universe. 

My father’s illnesses stole the brilliant, witty, loving person I knew all my life.  For the most part he lived and communicated marginally well thanks to a litany of meds and my amazing stepmother.

Until the last year or so when he was wheelchair-bound he got around with a cane and walker. He ate okay. He continued to read voraciously. The day he died on Halloween, his mother’s birthday, two weeks before we’d gone to a famous Tampa steak house for my birthday. We pushed his wheelchair into the elegant table. Dad barely touched his spectacular food. His face rigid the way Parkinson’s involuntarily freezes expressions into faux angry.

That’s the night my father’s quality of life shrank to nothing.

One of his last passions, good food and wine gone. No taste. No appetite. All his pleasures now diseased.

Two days before he died my stepmother asked me to try get him to take a bite of ice cream. Sweet is apparently the final taste to go. My father reluctantly slurped a small spoonful of vanilla just to make me happy. His last bite was for me. His last words, “Thank you, but that’s all honey.”   

So yes death is a better place than that.

My father, a gentle quiet agnostic who never mocked my beliefs or cared what others followed, would say that the better place is here on earth and healthy. That death is a black void with sad survivors in the wake.

The better place lives longer than 74. The better place is with his wife, girls and grandkids, sipping a beautiful Burgundy, seasoning his all-day spaghetti sauce, reading the New York Times, ribbing everyone with his perfect Boris Karloff and endless British accents, at peace with past mistakes, watching the sunset over Indian Rocks Beach every summer, screaming at his NY Giants.  

Laura G Owens

Writer. Blogger. Essayist. My focus is wellness, social commentary and personal essays that explore the messiness of being human. Our ambivalence. Our uncomfortable feelings that when revealed, shed shame and reveal our authentic selves.

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Site last updated March 14, 2024 @ 3:00 pm; This content last updated March 22, 2022 @ 10:29 am

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