I have never been able to say the right words at a funeral, so I often remain quiet, waiting for it to pass. I struggle not to echo the borrowed words we condition ourselves to use upon death, instead choosing silence over greeting-card sincerity. This is my failure.
We are conditioned to use words like “sorry” and “condolences” along with “time of sorrow” and “loss”—take your pick. We manipulate the words but they never change the situation. We use scripture and God and Jesus and Heaven to shift our focus, to look forward instead of backwards. We are conditioned to use these words and we hand them out like favorite recipes. People die and we continue to say the same things over and over until we believe the words mean something when in truth they just make noise. The words make background noises that lull us; at least this is how I feel right now at a time when I cannot say the words nor change the situation.
So when the call came in that a close friend’s nephew drove off the road into the moonlit woods, killing himself and a friend, the cycle of recycled words began again and I couldn’t bring myself to speak the expected. I couldn’t say those hollow words to his parents who woke up in the middle of the night without a son; to my friend who got the call he lost a nephew; to his sister who lost a protector; to the 2006 class of South Gwinnett High School who lost a friend.
I saw Ryan Medlock about a year ago at a birthday party he attended with his father. Paul Medlock, my good friend and Ryan’s uncle, was given a surprise birthday party by a group of friends and Ryan’s attendance was among the many surprises. I can’t recall his face or how he walked or what he did. I don’t remember if we spoke or shook hands. In truth, Ryan made no impression on me that I can recall except for the events that followed his death at 3:15AM on suburban Annistown Road just miles from where I grew up.
At the funeral I finally got to know Ryan. Between the hymns and prayers there surfaced happier moments and accounts of his personality: he always sat at the back of the bus surrounded by friends on church trips, he exaggerated his prowess at snowboarding and even told his graduating class a couple of weeks earlier that he one day hoped to win the world poker tournament (if only someone would loan him $10,000.) Ryan readily served-up humor as well as kind-hearted warnings to his friends that his beautiful sister was off-limits. Various young people spoke about Ryan’s ability to turn strangers into friends and how he encouraged them to try new things they otherwise would not have done. He was an angel who died on earth and fell to heaven.
I have long held the belief that good people die, but great people die young. The stories I heard about Ryan certainly puts him in the category of great people who die young, and there is no more proof needed beyond the words of his Uncle Paul who said, “I hope I can become the person Ryan thought me to be.”
As the only member of the family to speak at the funeral, Ryan’s father said, “During one of my many pity parties over the last few days I wondered how you would think of me. Would you see me on the street and say ‘There’s Ryan’s dad, poor guy.’ I hope not. I hope you will see me on the street and say ‘There goes Ryan’s dad, what a lucky guy.’”
On the road home after the funeral it finally hit me; I let myself cry for the words I couldn’t say, for the family who faces a lifetime of memories as trade for a son, for this unnecessary death and for the awful truth: this could have been my own nephew’s funeral who had graduated from high school hours apart from Ryan. In the days that followed the funeral I called my sister and told her of Ryan’s death and of the car accident that could have been prevented. I hoped that a short conversation about safety and decisions could prevent a crisis in my own family. She agreed to discuss it with her boys again.
Truly, to inspire people after death is one of the greatest gifts we can give the living. Thank you, Ryan.
Ryan Parks Medlock
July 2, 1988 to June 12, 2006
Curious about everything, Michael plans to do it all. A ruffian by day and a lover by night he's managed to go where no one else has gone. His slight forgetfulness means he is curious about everything and plans to do it all. A ruffian by day and a lover by night he's managed...
ABOUT MICHAEL D. DRISCOLL
more about michael d. driscoll
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.23.06 @ 12:34a
They say that only the good die young - I have learned that it doesn't matter what age a person is when they die, if they were a good person, it is ALWAYS too young to lose them. And that's why that phrase is always true.
When my friend Dave was killed in a motorcycle accident this past April, just days before his 33rd birthday, I was just starting to overcome the worst of the grief I felt when my Mother died in February. In addition, I lost a very close friend a few years ago, very unexpectedly. In and among these very close deaths were the ones you "expect" - older relations, those with long-term medical issues. What I have learned through loss is this: We can NEVER fill the holes in our hearts those people we love leave when they die. But with time, we CAN learn not to fall into the holes every time we encounter them, and we CAN build bridges of love and friendship over those gaping holes.
It is not just a cliche: I am so sorry to hear of your loss.
6.23.06 @ 8:36a
I agree with you Juli, and as I type this I'm preparing for another funeral today. This one is for a friend's mother who was in ill health for a long time and her passing, while extremely sad, is an end to her suffering. I am honored to have known the deceased and I think I'll tell the family that today.
6.23.06 @ 10:21a
We bring comfort food to the home filled with the "survivors" before and after a funeral because everybody there needs comforting. We hold their hands and say, "I'm so sorry," and "If there's anything I can do....." Nobody can really do anything much to help except be there when needed, but don't forget the comfort food. It helps to comfort them and makes us feel useful.
6.28.06 @ 2:57a
Mike, this was really beautiful.
I don't believe anyone is really expecting another person to have a magic box filled with phrases and clauses that will take the pain away.
But the stories of a life, the little details - that's what really seem to matter. Too often we don't look away from the mirror long enough to shine it on someone else. So to pay attention, even the slightest bit, to everyone you encounter, is a living tribute, and one that we will all hopefully deserve one day.
7.7.06 @ 2:13p
This is Ryan's father, Parks. I just wanted to thank you for your words. I tend to agree with you about the never-ending list of condolences and comforts that are spoken during times like these. Yet even as we continue to hear those words that seem so inadequate or inconsequential, your written words have touched me.
Ryan was a "great" person. If there can be a blessing that comes out of all of this pain, it has been the realization that Ryan touched so many lives and in so many positive ways. We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support we have received from so many people.
When faced with death that hits so suddenly and so close to one's heart, we are forced to define our faith in exact terms, not the generalities that we use to paint over our beliefs. Is this all there is? Are we drifting through this space and time with no rhyme or reason to our existence?
I am comfortable with my faith and secure in my belief that this is NOT all there is. There is a God. And while I may never know the reason that Ryan was taken so young, there is no doubt in my mind that the world is a better place because Ryan was in it. I read a quote this week that has brought me some comfort. "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience." I look forward to continuing that spiritual experience once my stroll through this world is over.
I thank you once again for your words, for being a friend to my brother and for being there with my family when we said goodbye to my son.
7.7.06 @ 3:23p
great piece, michael. shows you're a true southern gentleman to the core. and there are fewer and fewer of them every day.