Sara Hess died more than thirty years ago. I am not over it yet. She lived next door to my childhood home and was one of my mother’s closest friends. Sara had five children, she played the organ at a local church and was the kindest person in my little world. To this day when I try to picture human kindness, Sara Hess’s face comes to mind.
Having attended and presided over hundreds of funerals in my life, it is curious that Sara dying of cancer when I was thirteen holds such a prominent place in my memory. I imagine it has to do with my age and the circumstances surrounding the death.
Sara’s illness and decline caused me as a young boy to confront certain hard questions for the first time. How could someone so good be struck with such a cruel disease? How could doctors and clergy be powerless in the face of this grave threat? But most importantly, what words could I say that would ease the heartache my mother was experiencing?
The day of Sara’s funeral is etched in my mind. The most vivid memory is of my mother walking in the cemetery having to be held up by my brothers as her grief overcame her. I spent the rest of that day actively searching for words I could say that would make the pain less for my mother. I never found those words and felt ashamed about that failure.
It does not take a therapist to see that a young boy searching for words to comfort a grieving mother might be a good candidate for the ministry. By the time I was twenty I was already serving as the pastor of a small, country church. Shortly after taking the position, a tragic death occurred. The mother of twin babies took her own life leaving the grandparents to raise the boys.
Sitting in the living room with this couple that was mourning the sudden death of their daughter, and contemplating the prospect of raising two babies, I once more felt the overwhelming need to find the right words to say. And, again, I failed.
The good news is that after spending many years as a minister, and now as a counselor, I have had countless opportunities to sit with people who have suffered a terrible loss. I am now an expert on what to say in such circumstances. Do you want to know the secret? There is nothing to say.
On December 14, 2012 we suffered a tragic loss as a people when twenty children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We have been through these mass killings too many times as Americans, but there was something about the fact that most of the victims were six-year-olds that made this event even more horrifying. Such violence and madness makes us physically ill and emotionally distraught at the realization of what the human species is capable of doing.
In the days since the killings there have been many words spoken. Traditional and social media outlets are ablaze with updates, speculation, accusations, policy proposals, name calling, political posturing and various expressions of outrage. I am having a hard time tolerating most of it. Oh, I am heartened to see that people across the political spectrum are in agreement that something must be done to stop these mass shootings. What previously seemed like empty rhetoric might actually lead to something constructive this time. I pray it does.
For me, the consolation this week has come from a dead philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein said almost a century ago, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I take him to mean that there are limits to what language can express and achieve. There are things that are beyond words. And in the face of such moments in life when we feel compelled to find the right words to fix a situation, or take away the pain of someone we love, we would do well to be silent.
So, I have spent 700 words to say there are no words. It is time for me to take my own advice and shut up. It is time to grieve.