Arnie Schreder died about two weeks ago. Arnie was a legend throughout Northern Canada—a bush pilot, an instructor, a mentor.
Two memorial services, one here and one in Yellowknife, were packed with pilots mourning his death.
I never met Arnie. But his wife sings in our choir.
I live with words the way Arnie lived with aircraft. But I had trouble finding words to say to her.
Perhaps it’s the “rescuer” archetype that psychologist Carl Jung claimed is so strong in us—we want to find words that will make a difference, offer comfort, or convey some wisdom.
But words alone can never do that.
Arnie’s family chose Sarah McLachlan’s song I Will Remember You for his memorial service. Sarah got it right: “It’s funny how we feel so much, yet cannot say a word. We are screaming inside but we can’t be heard.”
In those circumstances, it’s so easy to blurt out the wrong words.
The last thing a cancer sufferer wants to hear about is your cousin Mabel’s miracle cure in Mexico. The guy who barely survived a highway crash doesn’t need to hear how you got rear-ended in a parking lot.
And it offers no consolation at all to be told that this was God’s will.
“God must have loved him very much. ” By implication, you didn’t love him enough.
“She’s in a better place now. ” Clearly, your home doesn’t measure up.
Or, worst of all: “You must have done something to deserve this.” Job’s comforters could not stab the knife of moral judgment any deeper.
So we struggle to formulate kindly words on sympathy cards. We rehearse messages of caring and then stammer awkwardly into silence as we gaze into eyes devoid of sparkle.
Instead, we rely on tears. And hugs. And casseroles.
Casseroles are thoughtful gifts, especially when one has lost any desire to prepare meals. But even casseroles can be too much, when your soul has been flayed raw by emotions.
After her son’s death, a friend lost her tolerance for good intentions as yet another tearful well-wisher came to her door. “Just gimme the casserole and shut up!” she snapped.
Perhaps it’s not what you do after the event that matters as much as what you did before it.
To put this bluntly, if you don’t know that I care about you when things are going well, nothing that I do or say when things go badly will penetrate your shell of pain. Conversely, if you know I care when things are going well, you will know I care when things fall apart, even if I can’t find any inspired words of comfort.
Just be there. Just stand by. Just be patient. Survivors have to work through shock, anger, depression. On their own. No one else can do it for them.
A hospital chaplain once told me: “You wouldn’t do a patient’s physical exercises for them. You shouldn’t attempt to do their spiritual exercises for them either.”
The time to be a true friend begins before they realize they need one.