At Your Service: March 10, 2010

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Few phrases in our language are spoken with more sincerity than this one; yet it is also the phrase most likely to have a hollow ring for its listener. It is difficult because both the speaker and the listener have been forced into a confrontation with mortality. These are moments in which few of us are comfortable.
One of the simple facts of life is that we will inevitably face death and surrender to its power. It is a moment we try to avoid as long as possible. When we must speak to someone who has lost someone they care about, we often find that we have our own loss – a loss of words that adequately express our feelings.
Perhaps no process is more personal than grief. When a loved one dies, we are caught in a swirl of emotions. The nature of our experience hinges on the state of our relationship to the deceased, particularly at the moment of their death, and our relationship to our own mortality. We mourn their loss of life and our own loss of them in our lives. It is never easy and it takes time to work our way through the process. While we grieve, life goes on, and vice versa.
What I have noticed about those who breathe life into the process of consoling others is a willingness to be vulnerable to their own feelings. This vulnerability creates a judgment free zone in which others can deal with whatever emotions arise. It is a skill exemplified in the way that an adept funeral director steps a family through the necessary attending to details.
I write from afar as my family mourns the recent death of my aunt. Tom, the funeral director here (not his real name, but the name of someone I know who also does this with excellence), holds meetings on a schedule without ever pressing for time. His focus on the matter at hand kept my cousin focused, despite the occasional emotional moment, and ensured that the process stayed on track. It’s what I have dubbed “compassion in action.”
The direct manner in which Tom dealt with the most intimate of details made it easy to ask difficult questions. The fact that he had probably heard them all before was not revealed in his responses. His answers addressed the specific needs of our family, both expressed and implicit. This remarkable skill made easy a difficult task. As we left, my cousin commented, “He’s taking good care of Mom.” This sense of trust provides solace to the grieving and is critical whenever people are placing that which they hold dear in someone else’s hands.
The qualities of these services, delivered at the most difficult of times, can equally be applied to less intimate situations. Any meeting in which the parties are focused on the issues at hand runs more smoothly and is more likely to result in solutions that address core issues. Confronting problems in a direct and honest manner can take the charge out of even the most problematic situation. There is room in even the most commonplace service encounter for a little compassion in action.