As I looked for pictures for this post, I decided something: there are entirely too many pet sympathy cards.
Maybe it’s just the hard-hearted anti-animal lover in me, but I found this card (and others like it) ridiculous:
I’m a terrible person for laughing at sympathy cards, especially because I know for some people, the passing of a pet into the Great Kennel Beyond is a big deal. But still. “Paw prints on your heart”?
Also, anything with angels is fair game to be looked at with a smirk.
We don’t become angels in heaven, people. That’s not a thing.
And this one:
While I love the artwork of this card, I feel like fireflies are a bad illustration the text, because it reminded me of those mean kids who squished them on the sidewalk to leave a glowing trail.
And don’t even get me started on the Lion-King-cosmology represented in this card.
These are the exceptions to the rule, though. Most of the cards I found were fairly general: “With Sympathy” (sometimes modified by “Sincere,” “Heartfelt,” or “Deepest” for those emotional people out there) in script font with either flowers, butterflies, or leaves in the background. Most sympathy cards look alike, and are similarly vague.
I think that’s because we’re never quite sure what to say when people die, much less what to write in a card. It’s a hard thing, and maybe if the background is soothing enough and the words inside poetic enough and the verse at the bottom hopeful enough, we can avoid the awkwardness of putting our feelings into words and just sign our names.
At least, I’ve had that thought before. And it’s true that sometimes what people need most during a time of loss is silence—someone to grieve with them and listen to them.
Christians sometimes feel pressure to fill up that white space with (deep, sincere, heartfelt) assurances of faith and hope and heaven. Our theology of life after death will fit neatly in the space left by generic greeting card messages. Our words of comfort will fill the awkward silence after the funeral. Our “at leasts” and “somedays” will soothe the doubts and fears and heartbreaking agonies of a world that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
Except they sometimes don’t.
Whenever I don’t know what to write in sympathy cards or don’t know what to say at funerals, I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a German theologian and pastor, he came from a long line of people who were not known for being economical with their words. (German theologians don’t write books; they write tomes.)
Yet this is what he had to say when one of his students, a young man, died in battle: “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We have comfort…but it is not in the fact that “At least you have other children” or “It was his time to go” or “Heaven needed another angel.”
Sometimes even the promise of Easter is a dim encyclopedia knowledge when you’re at a gravesite. And that’s okay. Just like our body reacts violently to viruses that are foreign to it, so we react violently to the things we know are not supposed to be here: suffering, death, grief, goodbyes.
When someone you know is experiencing loss of any kind, don’t be afraid that God needs you to defend him and his actions and make everything all right again.
Leave the gaps open: the margins of the sympathy cards, the silence at the funeral, the pauses in the “want to talk about it?” conversations. They are the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Be present in them—just as God is—but don’t try to fill them.