A Grief That Can’t Be Spoken

Dedicated to Dallin Hilton.

I am heartbroken. I just learned that one of my closest cousins died in a car accident driving back after the break. Death’s been around me for awhile, even coming to close members of my family (my grandpa and an uncle), but in both of those instances death was a sort of inevitable next step. I feel like I’ve been sucker-punched and the tears keep coming.

A particularly appropriate song from Les Miserables is running through my head, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”:

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken

There’s a pain goes on and on

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friend [is] dead and gone.”

We always had Sunday dinner together with aunts, uncles and other cousins at my Grandma’s house. And now, his chair will be empty. Dallin is dead and gone.

I feel like Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer in one of the best television episodes that has ever been created, The Body (S5E16):

“But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”

It just hurts. Perhaps it’s made worse by Dallin’s uncertain relationship with the Church, but he was so good. So helpful and kind (not in the way you would usually think, but in a devote countless, thankless hours to help put Christmas lights on our grandma’s house or swim with Chetna, our handicapped cousin, or slave over pies and cookies for family and home-teachees that he still cared about, or working to fix viruses on computers, or whatever).

There’s a powerful interview with Stephen Colbert, where the interviewer writes:

“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.””

I don’t really know what to do with that. I don’t know how to have gratitude in the face of something like this. I don’t know why I should. I don’t know how I can feel this sadness, this grief, and yet be grateful. Is that true? It strikes me with the ring of truth, but I just don’t know how to live that truth.

Sure, I believe that Dallin’s in a good place. That there’s peace and goodness waiting for him, but that doesn’t erase the pain that his empty place at the table leaves.

In a recent post on forgiveness and healing, I quoted “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton, which I’m going to quote again, but a little differently:

“If I could spare his life

If I could trade his life for mine

He’d be standing here right now”

Hamilton here is referring to trading his life for the life of his son. These words feel like they capture some of what I feel. Would I really trade my life for Dallin’s? I don’t know. I think I would, but why? I don’t know…perhaps because my cross country coach said that I was the selfless, loyal, kind sort of person that would take a bullet for someone else and I want that to be true. Perhaps because I feel like Dallin still had so much to figure out and to do (not that I don’t have questions and things to sort out). Perhaps because then I wouldn’t be feeling this emptiness.

So, what do we do? What do I do? I move on I suppose. I seek to feel that gratitude that Colbert feels. Seek the comfort of God and Jesus. Seek to empathize with those feeling this grief that can’t be spoken. Seek the quiet uptown.

And let Dallin continue to live. Let him live in me. Love the things that he loved. Keep sharing my snark that he appreciated. Think of him. Watch Pacific Rim, which he thoroughly loved. Keep up my pious irreverence.

Godspeed, Dallin. Live in me.


15 thoughts on “A Grief That Can’t Be Spoken

  1. Thank you, Conor. My daughter Mackenzie has really been affected by this great loss. My mother passed away in August but Kenzi did not experience the grief that she feels now. Your beautiful tribute to Dallin expresses what she has struggled so hard to say. She misses Dallin terribly. I never met Dallin but have heard so much about him. I am heartbroken right along with all of you. Keeping everyone in my thoughts and prayers.


  2. To a friend, on the passing of a family member

    My friend, I cannot know how you must feel,
    But allow me to share some thoughts
    That I hope will lift the shade of gloom
    That this sad event upon you has wrought.

    This grief is but a fleeting shadow
    Trying to obstruct the light of God’s pure day.
    Like a storm cloud it will harmlessly pass
    And the darkness shall drift away.

    Your cousin has not ceased to be;
    He is always safe beneath God’s wing.
    Death is no match for the power of Him
    Who turns desolate Winter back into Spring.

    The last enemy shall be destroyed!
    Even death must have its end.
    With Christ we all will breakfast on the shore
    And follow him, till we too ascend.

    So do not fear—for him, or for you:
    Life is a universal right.
    Your cousin has just passed over a hill:
    He is not lost, but simply out of sight.


  3. Thank you for this. I have been feeling all these things the last few days and am grateful they have been put to words. Beautifully done and not too sappy 😉 I think Dallin would have laughed and approved in his embarrassed but grateful sort of way.


  4. Conor, such a masterpiece. You knew Dallin as a contemporary. I knew him as a grandson. Surely Grandpa Gill and Uncle Rich are happy to have him in their midst now. The plan of salvation is real and true. thank for sharing your thoughts at this difficult time
    Grandpa Bruce


  5. Listened to ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ tonight for the first time, soon after reading this post. Though I’ve listened to other songs on the album dozens of times, it was my first through that one. I thought of you.

    God bless.


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