This past week we lost one of our greatest writers with the death of Toni Morrison last Monday. She was 88 years old, a Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner, and a writer of stories that change you. I read her novel “Home” for the first time a few months ago and I so enjoyed reading her work again that I went back to reread “The Bluest Eye” and “The Song of Solomon.” (And, for the record, “Beloved” is one of my all-time favorite books).
Unfortunately, I shared one thing with Morrison. She lost her youngest son, Slade, to cancer in 2010 when he was 45 years old. He was a musician and artist and they had combined their talents for several children’s books. This gifted writer described herself as “wordless” in the face of his death. She was halfway through the novel “Home” but it was another 18 months before it came out, dedicated to her son.
In talking about how people approached her after his death she said:
“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”
After Oliver’s funeral there was a reception in the basement of the church and we stood and were greeted by many people. My wife and I really don’t remember who was there or who we missed — we were still in shock. But I do remember one colleague walking up to me. He stood in front of me quietly for he too had lost a child at a young age. It is a weight you could literally see on his back for years as he walked across campus. He didn’t say anything. He just embraced me and then moved on. And that I remember.
I’m not saying there are no words of comfort, but actions are definitely remembered more clearly amidst the deluge of words. So the next you have to approach someone suffering and you think “I don’t know what to say,” just remember you don’t need to say anything. “I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”