“Mommy, what does appropriate mean?”
My answer to that loudly whispered question was the same one I’d given to her other 473 questions that day: “We’ll talk about it later.”
When my husband told me he wanted to speak at his brother’s funeral, I just knew it would go badly. And when he said his oldest brother and dad also wanted to speak, I was convinced the whole thing would be a train wreck. After all, I’d been watching these stubborn, proud men fall apart from the moment I walked into the hospital waiting room. How could they possibly expect themselves to stand next to a casket and speak about the person in it, a man they loved, who died too young, who should simply not be dead?
I don’t know how they did it. But my husband and my in-laws stood behind that podium and spoke beautifully. I was so proud of them, even as I had to admit that I was completely wrong in assuming they couldn’t do it.
You know how sometimes you use a word or you hear a word and it just sticks with you? And the next thing you know, you can’t stop yourself from overusing the word until you begin to question the actual meaning of the word? That happened at my brother-in-law’s funeral.
Mark spoke first, and he said what we’d laughed about in the car earlier that morning. He said he wanted to share a funny story about his brother, but he just couldn’t think of one that was appropriate. His oldest brother and dad echoed that sentiment, mentioning inappropriate memories without actually sharing them until my squirmy, confused little girl whisper-shouted, “What does appropriate mean?”
It wasn’t as awkward as her repeated requests to look at the body during the visitation or even her promise to “not touch it.” And, I suppose, the comic relief was much easier to deal with than when she started crying, again, and saying, “I don’t want Brian to die!”
[Some might say that taking a 4-year-old to a funeral is inappropriate. Some days, I might agree. Honestly, I have no idea if anything we’ve done over the past week and a half is right or wrong or proper or not.]
But just like the word, “appropriate,” got stuck in my husband’s and in-laws’ head during the eulogies, the theme of appropriate – or not – has been stuck in my head ever since.
There is nothing appropriate about a 36-year-old man dying in an accident.
There is nothing appropriate about a 14-year-old boy losing his father.
There is nothing appropriate about a father losing his son just years after losing his wife.
Death is inappropriate.
My understanding of the book of Genesis is that God never intended for death to enter this world. But our sin ushered it in and offered it a seat in our earthly lives. So, while it isn’t right and wasn’t in the original plans, death is part of life. It feels wrong. Because it is. I think death is inappropriate.
When I started thinking that, I looked up the word to make sure I wasn’t misusing it. Based on the list of synonyms associated with “inappropriate,” I’m okay with my statement. After all, who could disagree that death is improper, incongruous, incorrect, perverse, unfit, unhappy, unseemly, unsuitable, wrong or out of place?
So many things happened last week that I could easily label as inappropriate. From our assumption that Brian was driving irresponsibly when the accident happened to our mixed emotions when the highway patrol confirmed that he was not, to the awkward combination of distant relatives and estranged ones, ex-girlfriends and co-workers, to white socks under a charcoal suit and Hank Williams, Jr. as background music – it was all so inappropriate.
But how could it not be? Death is inappropriate.
At one point during the emotionally charged week, I got really upset with Mark. He said, “I’m sorry. I’m not handling this right.” That immediately took the wind out of my hurt feelings and righteous anger, because, as I told him, there’s no right way to handle something like this. There’s no right way to grieve. There’s no way for any of us, for any of it, to be appropriate.
When I was in high school, my family experienced a particularly traumatic and confusing situation. Though it wasn’t directly related to me, I was thrust into the middle of things and expected to participate in the whole mess. Later, when I tried to express how it made me feel, I was told, “I don’t know why you’re upset. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
I was told that my feelings were inappropriate.
Last week, I found myself placing that same judgment on my husband, myself and so many others. But the truth is that our feelings, unlike death [or white socks under a charcoal suit], aren’t quantified like that. Feelings aren’t appropriate or not. Feelings just are.
I guess the same argument could be made for death itself, even when it happens to a healthy young man in the prime of his life. But my feelings aren’t having any part of that rationale. This? This death? It isn’t right. It isn’t proper. It isn’t appropriate.
– Falling to my knees and crying while my baby girl watches.
– Shooting daggers at the person demanding comfort from my grieving father-in-law.
– Jealousy at being left out of meetings and conversations.
– Relief at being told, finally, that we’re leaving the hospital.
– Keeping track of who called or messaged or emailed or visited.
– Being told I was awfully sad for someone who didn’t get along with him.
– Being asked to navigate family feuds and snapping when I couldn’t handle it.
– Feeling thankful for time spent with family, for afternoons of cousins catching frogs.
– Snickering at the number of ugly shirts in his closet . . .
. . . and shuddering at the thought of what I might find in his bedside table.
– Forgetting for a split second why I was cleaning out his bathroom . . .
. . . and being happy to take home an unopened box of white strips.
– Enjoying watching my husband drive his brother’s Corvette . . .
. . . and making jokes that included “over his dead body.”
– Telling the pastor that the service shouldn’t be “too Jesus-y.”
– Thinking I should make cinnamon rolls and crying because he would have loved that.
– Suggesting the worst songs ever for the visitation CD – and laughing about it.
– Forgetting the CDs at my father-in-law’s house and driving like a maniac to go get them.
– Not minding Mark’s expensive new suit because he looked so darned good wearing it.
– Wishing, just for a moment, that someone was there to stand by me, to hold my hand.
All of it was inappropriate. And that’s not even all of it.
You probably know. You’ve probably lost someone close to you or close to someone you love, you’ve sat in hospital waiting rooms and walked into funeral homes and stepped over neighboring graves in the cemetery. If you have, then you probably know. You know how it feels to say the wrong thing, to laugh – or cry – at the wrong time, to be hurt because someone else said or did the wrong thing.
There’s no right way to react, no right way to feel, no right way to grieve. Almost everything we do and say, in the face of death, is wrong when examined through someone else’s lens. And I think, in these moments, that just has to be okay.
There’s just nothing appropriate about death.
Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who commented, messaged, called, emailed, sent cards and prayed. I appreciate you so very much. And that will always be appropriate.