The Unevolved Etiquette of Grief

Mourning is incredibly painful. So why does it have to be awkward too?

“Yes, I’ve eaten.”

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve offered this reassurance in the last hour. I’m not entirely sure what the rationale is behind the question. Perhaps there’s a well-known case study I’m not aware of, where, after the loss of a loved one, a grief-stricken person immediately forgets how to interpret the biological signal for hunger? Or perhaps all those expressing concern about my diet are aware of some mystical threshold of potato curry I must consume to bring my grandfather back from the dead? Facetiousness aside, there is no mystery here. People ask this question because it feels like a benign way to offer support in a moment where saying literally anything else feels risky.

Considering how frequently people deal with death, it strikes me as rather odd that the social etiquette surrounding mourning remains so unevolved. Even in my state of grief, I notice that my friends and relatives are walking on eggshells as they speak to me, opting primarily to sit in silence, almost as if they’re worried that I’ll rudely shoot down any conversational premise they throw out.

“How did you spend your weekend, Hershal?” / “I can’t remember, my grandfather is dead.”

“How are things at work?“ / “I don’t know, my grandfather is dead”

“Did you see the new–?”  / “For f***’s sake, my grandfather is dead!”

Consolation texts funnel in at a rate that is more overwhelming than comforting. It quickly becomes apparent that group-texts, despite being an intractable feature of modern communication, are a uniquely terrible forum for relaying these sentiments. For one thing, receiving ten virtually indistinguishable condolence messages in the span of 12 minutes somehow sucks the substace and sincerity out of each individual one. At a certain point, I find myself concentrating less on the meaning behind each text, and instead focusing on trivial questions of decorum, such as, “Is an exclamation mark really the appropriate punctuation for ‘our deepest condolences!’?”

There are no parallel situations in life that truly prepare you for the task of having to share such deeply intimate moments with so many people.

Of course, I vastly prefer these text chains to the constant influx of phone calls that my mom is receiving. As I listen to her robotically speak into her phone, her repetition of the same few talking points has me convinced that she is blindly following a telemarketing flowchart: If the person on the line says, I’m sorry for your loss, reply with, Thanks, it was his time. If the person on the line says, This must be unbelievably hard, reply with, Well, at least he’s not suffering anymore. If the person on the line insists, We just had our ducts cleaned, reply with, Regular duct cleaning helps to prevent the onset of respiratory diseases.

Whenever I use one of these stock lines myself—At least he’s not suffering anymore— I notice that I’m likely to foster a very specific type of discomfort. People aren’t quite sure how to respond—seemingly wanting to latch on to this silver lining—but evidently worried that any less-than-gentle corroboration of this sentiment will be met with an angry cry of “SO, YOU’RE SAYING YOU’RE GLAD MY GRANDFATHER IS DEAD?!”

If any of this sounds like I’m ungrateful for the vast outpouring of support, I’m not—it’s just that it occasionally becomes exhausting. There are no parallel situations in life that truly prepare you for the task of having to share such deeply intimate moments with so many people. Distant acquaintances suddenly offer to serve as my impromptu grief counselors. People I’d never ask for a simple favor suddenly want me to open up about my sense of loss. While I don’t necessarily mind dishonestly reassuring these people that I’m okay to quell their well-intentioned anxieties, the unspoken expectation that I will provide comfort to all those who are ostensibly trying to comfort me eventually becomes draining.

In the moments where I consider sharing these observations with my family, I ultimately think better of it. I’m clear-headed enough to understand that my personal process of buffering my sense of loss by hyper-analyzing the petty details of mourning etiquette may not be palatable to a wider audience. As I sit in a room filled with people who are manifesting their grief through healthier outlets, like crying, I find it hard to imagine that they’ll be in the mood to listen to my excessively neurotic observations. I remain silent out of an irrational fear that someone will react angrily to my dumb non-sequiturs by yelling “THIS ISN’T AN EPISODE OF CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, MAN, HAVE SOME RESPECT!”

A month after my grandfather’s death, I find myself sitting silently in a home I’ve never been in, waiting to offer condolences to my cousins on the passing of their grandfather, a man I’ve never met. Of the 60 or so people who are also here, five are close relatives, another dozen or so are people I’ve met in passing, and the remainder are complete strangers.

With memories of the previous month’s strained encounters still fresh, I find myself floundering, unsure of how to act now that I’m on the opposite end of one these mourning interactions: offering condolences as opposed to receiving them. Around the third time a grief-stricken person goes through the motions of politely introducing themselves to me, however, I become painfully aware that my presence is entirely unhelpful.

I wait a reasonable amount of time before deciding to depart. On my way out the door, I say a quick goodbye to one of the dozen or so people with whom I’m mildly acquainted. A Pavlovian urge overwhelms me, and before I know it, a very ill-advised salutation escapes my mouth. “Good to see you,” I inadvertently say, as if the circumstances of our meeting are somehow pleasant. Mortified, I scan his face to see if he’s registered the inappropriate nature of my greeting. He remains expressionless. It’s clearly not the first time he’s tolerated a conversational misstep today, and it definitely won’t be his last.

Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto, who has written in the past for popular publications like DJBooth, Splitsider, and McSweeney’s. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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