“‘We came over to sit.’
‘That’s what people do when tragedy strikes.’
‘They come over and sit.’”
Lars and the Real Girl

“Student death” is an e-mail subject line a teacher never wants to read. Yet, this past Friday morning I opened my internet browser to find these words neatly bolded atop my inbox. I stabbed the message open and immediately scoured the cleanly spaced text for details. I learned that earlier that morning a freshman student from another high school in the district had been attempting to cross a busy road to reach the bus stop when he was struck by a car, sustaining injuries that he died of two hours later.

There are not words I can write that could honor such loss. And as I sat in my silent classroom, I began to think of the empty desk in each one of his classes, of his friends being jostled from their happy-go-lucky high school routines, and of all the months and years of classes and extracurriculars and doctor appointments dedicated to growing a life that was just so abruptly uprooted.

And the more I thought, the more I realized how utterly useless others’ tragedies render me. Somewhere in this very city a family is split open with unendurable grief, and I could not manage to feel a single thing. I had never met the student or his family, I have never lost a child or a close friend, and, honestly, I hope I never develop the capacity to empathize in such a situation. In fact, the only feelings I can claim to have experienced were a concern for my own hollowness, a desire to discuss the news with other teachers, guilt for underappreciating my own wellbeing, and a culminating shame that I had succeeded in making even this catastrophe about me. Thus, I was left with the question of how I am supposed to respond to a tragedy I cannot feel.

The best answer I’ve encountered comes from one of my very favorite films, Lars and the Real Girl. In the film, an emotionally stunted Lars finally finds an escape from his self-perpetuated loneliness in the form of Bianca, a wheelchair-bound Brazilian missionary who most notably also happens to be a life-sized sex doll, a detail that Lars is unaware of. But while the story opens with an audacious, belly-laughing premise, it slowly settles into a poignant portrait of community as the members of Lars’s small town begin to ford their discomfort and welcome the inanimate Bianca as a way to express their love for Lars.

This is perhaps best seen in the film when Lars tearfully announces that Bianca has passed away and the next morning awakens to a porchful of flowers and a couchful of women from the church quietly knitting beside their casseroles. When Lars finally inquires if he should be doing anything, the women respond matter-of-factly:

“‘No, dear. You eat.’
‘We came over to sit.’
‘That’s what people do when tragedy strikes.’
‘They come over and sit.’”

This is one of the simplest and most authentic responses I could hope for, and after an evening of pondering, I have fashioned the sentiment into my own words: sometimes the best thing we can do is respect the power of presence.

The loss that Lars experienced may seem like a ridiculous and inappropriate analogy. However, while we, Lars’s family, and Lars’s friends cannot feel or understand the tragedy, it was deeply real to him. We witness losses like this every day: a department who lost a professor, a co-worker who lost a spouse, a friend who lost a dream, a classmate who lost a leg, a grandparent who lost his memory, a child who lost her happiness. These are losses we often cannot understand and absences we cannot cure. They are the kind of absences that make me personally feel guilty for having and unworthy of helping.

I think what’s important to remember, though, is that the only way to soothe even unhealable absence is with presence. This presence may arrive in a tableful of casseroles or a handwritten card or a hospital bed snuggle session or a shared quart of ice cream in a dorm room bunk or an awkward hug at a visitation or a simple decision to come over and sit with someone.

And so, when tragedy strikes and every loss seems only a precursor to another, we must remember and respect the power of presence. We must pause to be grateful for the presence of others in our lives; we must admire the thereness of our own flawed, ill-equipped presences; we must offer those presences humbly and faithfully to those saddled with absences. Not because we can understand or can fix anything at all, but because that’s what people do.


  1. Geneva Langeland

    You’ve accomplished what I’ve never managed to do: articulating how a film about a sex doll can be sweet, moving, and meaningful. I know what I’ll be re-watching this weekend!

    • Gabe Gunnink

      Thank you, Geneva! That is a high compliment. And you can make bed bugs interesting in a way I never could. (That walking across of a floor on meat hooks image will stick with me for a long time.) Enjoy your weekend viewing!

      • Gabe Gunnink

        correction: walking across a floor full of meat hooks


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