Why Sentimentality Tries (and Fails) to Comfort
Anyone who has ever been to a funeral knows the profound feelings of helplessness that accompany the days leading up to it. Questions abound. What should I bring? How can I help alleviate my friend’s suffering? How do I rightly communicate the weight of the occasion? Though these are good and important questions to ask, responding too quickly can lead us to incredibly unhelpful solutions.
Like the sympathy card section of the drug store.
Here among the endless waves of pink and white we are confronted with vasefuls of dew-laden roses, picturesque bridges spanning sparkling rivers, and pastoral sentiments like: “Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.” And here, too, we pause and wait for the distant echoes of nausea to subside. All the right “ingredients” seem to be here, and yet something feels — wrong.
I believe such uneasiness arises from the unwelcome intrusion of sentimentality.
What is sentimentality? 19th-century British playwright Oscar Wilde once described it as “desiring the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” I believe Wilde has hit on something important here. Sentimentality, at its heart, is a shortcut to true emotion. It is an attempt, through the multiplying of certain words and images, to evoke the weight of sympathy without requiring any actual investment on behalf of the sympathizer.
Though the intention behind the sympathy card may be well-meaning, to the mourner likely falls somewhere between thoughtless and insensitive. And no wonder. To sprinkle the fairy dust of sentiment on a grieving soul is like coming alongside someone struggling with a heavy load and saying, “Gee that looks heavy, just want you to know I’m thinking about you.”
There are at least two reasons why I believe sentimentality tends to aggravate, rather than alleviate, grief.
Most of us prefer food that’s free of artificial flavors and colors rather than the “simulated” variety. This is because we are all suspect that what occurs naturally in nature is likely more nutritious than, well, whatever has been produced unnaturally in a lab somewhere. From this illustration perhaps we could arrive a tentative principle: the simpler the ingredients, the better the product.
The same could also be said of true emotion. There is a simplicity and a reality to emotion that is difficult, even dangerous, to replicate. Sadness starts as an inner ache, which graduates into a burning around the eyes, which eventually manifests in tears. All an involuntary process.
Sentiment, on the other hand, always responds with too much, too quickly. Too many roses, too many dewdrops, too many domesticated woodland creatures, too many roasting chestnuts. We see here sentimentalism’s roots in romanticism, an artistic movement that grew out of a desire not to communicate things as they actually were, but as artists imagined or hoped them to be. Such a legacy lives on in the twinkling, dusky cottages of Thomas Kinkade and in the innumerable ranks of Instagram filters.
There is a simplicity and a reality to emotion that is difficult, even dangerous, to replicate.
The reason such pastoral scenes seem artificial because they are. Everyone knows that real life rarely plays out so smoothly. In real life, bridesmaids forget to wear deodorant, jackhammers interrupt piano recitals, and Uncle Blaine won’t stop talking during your daughter’s valedictorian speech. Far from a lessening, however, such moments (not all mind you) tend to add real and poignant weight to otherwise forgettable events.
But the raw simplicity of these human moments also means they are difficult to imitate, which may also be why sentimentalism falls so miserably short of actual sympathy. As tempting as it is to resort to “approved,” methods of empathy, the griever does not need a clean and dewy facade, but a flesh-and-blood commiserator. Grief, being an unsanitized process — the tears, the sleeplessness, the new loneliness — requires an equally gritty comfort. The kind that is willing to shoulder the risks and awkwardness of actual empathy rather than the illusion that sentimentality provides.
It Prioritizes Expedience Over Process
We are an expedient people. By this I mean we are a people obsessed with finding the shortest distance from A to B. We like lists, meetings, reports, and anything else that helps us feels like “progress” is being made. This being our M.O., no wonder we feel demeaned and useless when confronted with a situation that can’t easily be “fixed.” And no wonder we try to avoid, or expedite, such situations when they arrive on our doorstep. And no wonder we attempt to deal with the complexity that is grief by resorting to cliches and compact solutions. The reality is that many things in life — a marriage, a trade, a death — defy expedience.
To walk with someone on a journey through grief is to embark on a quest with no foreseeable end. It requires that we lay aside our own griefs and preoccupations in order to enter, at least partially, into the experience of another. It isn’t something that can be ordered from Amazon; it isn’t something that fiber internet will improve; it isn’t something that can be wrangled into a DIY spectacle or a TED talk.
The reason that sentimentality is invalid is not because of its desire for happy endings, but because it attempts to arrive at them through contrived, unbelievable, ways.
Genuine sympathy will cost us. It will be emotionally burdensome. It will require us to sit and listen when we would rather be doing something more manageable and quantifiable. It will force us to stare our own limitations in the face and acknowledge that we are not omnipotent. Such sacrifice seems almost reckless in our day, but should it surprise us? Should a process requiring so much of the griever cost the sympathizer nothing?
Sentiments Silver Lining
I could stop here, but I want to say something to any cynics who may be reading. Perhaps you are one of those who pride themselves on a stoic, hard-bitten resolve through times of grief. Someone who wouldn’t be caught dead with a romantic comedy, or a fairy tale, or a Thomas Kinkade calendar. To these I would say that though I believe sentimentality itself is unhelpful, the inclination towards a happy ending is a valid and necessary ambition. In fact to desire such resolution is at least part of what it means to be human.
The reason that sentimentality is invalid is not because of its desire for a happy ending, but because it attempts to arrive there through contrived, unbelievable, ways.
I bring this up only because I’m not suggesting that it is never appropriate to move towards answers or to take the first cautious step towards hope again. But it must be measured and mindful encouragement. It is one thing to assist someone towards full mobility after surgery; it is another to expect them to run a full marathon two weeks after the fact. Such unrealistic expectations will likely only leave the patient hurt, frustrated and reluctant to trust you again. We must remember that true sympathy ultimately has the healing of the victim in view rather than a desire for everything to just go back to the way it was as soon as possible.
So next time you attend a funeral, make an early commitment to avoid the shortcut of sentimentality. Among other things, this means leaving the sympathy-cards — and their sentiments — warming under their fluorescent lights.