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Portrait of Saint Peter Claver in the museum Palace of Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia
"What else could there possibly be to say?"

It's common practice in this culture, following the death of another's close family member, to ask a fundamentally unanswerable question as both an acknowledgement of another's loss and to serve as comforting solace. "How ya doin'?" seems the most common fundamentally unanswerable question offered at these times. The bereaved, then, either through prior practice or by common example almost always responds with the universally acceptable answer, by which I mean they offer a meek, "Okay." Of course, the bereaved does not usually feel anything in any way like Okay, but the response serves greater purpose than an accurate status update, for Okay works as few responses ever could. Delivered under this condition, it induces a trance which allows the receiver to translate it into whatever meaning they'd hoped their inquiry might elicit, thereby satisfying both the bereaved as well as the inquisitor. This exchange works like magic every time and proves much more reliable than any so-called more accurate response.

The asker didn't really want to know how the griever felt.
Who ever wants to actually plug into the bereaved's swirling emotions? The question serves as a godsend, though, eliciting an almost automatic response which nonetheless bridges the inevitable embarrassment inherent in such encounters. The bereaved feels relieved to be able to pass off Okay as an acceptable response, for, typical of those freshly experiencing overwhelming loss, he has no addressability in that moment to precisely what he's feeling. It's just a dizzying swirl then which evades successful classification and therefore accurate transmission. He does not actually know how he's doing or if he's even doing anything at all. He feels propped up and disoriented, unable to access his usual calibration. He's sad, sure, but somehow simultaneously transcending sadness. He inhabits previously unexplored territory and has no category with which to classify how he's feeling, let alone how he's "doing," which suddenly seems simply hollow and meaningless. "I'm doing something?", he's moved to wonder. Who knew?

I do not intend to demean these heartfelt expressions. An exchange does happen. We muster a closer encounter than might have otherwise occured. The inquisitor showed up, by itself a comforting event. The meaningfulness of the actual words seems meaningless and neither will very likely remember the encounter later. The exchange expresses presence, perhaps actually communicating that someone's there when another most prominently isn't anymore. They're certainly no reasonable replacement for the dear departed, but more a presence supplementing, however poorly, a fresh hollowness, which counts as more of a blessing than any words might reasonably ever express. The exchange amounts to a bumping into, a reassuring brush with someone familiar when the bereaved quite understandably feels utterly alone. An ounce of human compassion counts for much, regardless of the absolute gibberish it delivers when arriving.

Okay might seem a superficial brush-off, but it serves its intended purpose so exquisitely that I dare not demean it in any way. By perfectly fulfilling the inquisitor's need, it liberates its user from further explication. It also effectively blunts any further obligation from the inquisitor. The bereaved might have spewed a long list of particulars including plaintive pleadings for some impossible intervention, and no matter how giving or caring a fellow mourner might feel, he's universally unprepared to provide anything more than a fundamentally unanswerable question in that moment. The inquisitor, too, hardly desires a detailed exposition and feels reassured that he's provided enough for now. More later remains a possibility, but later. The truth might be that in that moment everyone becomes overwhelmingly needy but also essentially powerless to muster more than a scant moment of acknowledgement and recognition. Sorry never seems to quite satisfy either party, no matter how sorry everyone might feel. Advice, especially when intended to fix something, lands more like an insult than a comfort. When rendered speechless, saying nothing never seems entirely appropriate, so we have, by long tradition, concocted an exchange certain to produce no harm, which thereby might produce some genuine healing.

"How ya doing'?"


What else could there possibly be to say?

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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