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Susan Isaacs

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He "Will Be Missed." Yeah? By Whom?

Posted: 03/01/10 10:26 PM ET

Forget mindfulness, that living in the moment business. How can we take pleasure in the scents and sight of the Capresso dribbling latte when we know we're due for so much obligatory sorrowing? So much missing to do! Google "will be missed" if you're dubious and see the nation's to-do list.

Not that it's all heartrending work. Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show "will be missed," along with the Air America, Ugly Betty, Paula Abdul's hair styles on TV, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy's dogs romping on Capitol Hill. That's easy missing and we Americans are tough critters. No big deal to grab a wad of Kleenex and prepare to sniffle.

However, whether they rise to actual keening or stay at mere rue, most of our future missing obligations deal with people. Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Neil Abercrombie, retiring from the House, "will be missed," to say nothing of Evan Bayh (though not by me, given his resignation under pusillanimous circumstances) departing the Senate. Anyway... Dunta Robinson, a right cornerback leaving the Houston Texans, also "will be missed." Ditto Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui as they bid adieu to the Yankees. Even Simon Cowell WBM as he exits American Idol.

If not yet ubiquitous, the "will be missed" virus is spreading unchecked. The phrase is a cliché, sure, but I suppose not an intolerable one in the above instances. The member of Congress or Portuguese water dogs or hairstyles have not yet departed -- or did so very recently -- so the writer or speaker is merely observing that at some future moment, one or millions will be ferklempt.

What's unsettling is that mostly, "will be missed" is tagged on to individuals who have already gone for good. Mosi Tatupu, a running back for the New England Patriots who died last week, "will be missed" according to many accounts. But he has significant competition as so many others who have departed in the last year "will be missed" as well: Edward M. Kennedy, Patrick Swayze, Betty Carter, Robert Parker, John Murtha, Charlie Wilson, J.D. Salinger, E. Lynn Harris, Sheila Lukins, Brittany Murphy, and of course Michael Jackson (whose estate might have enriched itself even more by marketing a "will be missed" macro).

The first few times I heard or read "will be missed," my mouth merely contracted into its annoying-usage moue, the way it does at "very unique" or "less calories." I wanted to demand, Will be missed? Will? Nothing down, pay later? Now I've come to loathe the expression, not just for its omnipresence, but for its hollowness.

Our culture is so celebrity-obsessed that for individuals to show they matter, they need to display their intimacy to fame. Family and friends barely have time to begin weeping before the public bewailing begins: colleagues of the celebrity issue press releases: journalists send forth I-understood-the-late-lamented's-very-essence tributes (that often seem based on three-minute interviews at a movie publicity junket); anguished fans pour their hearts out into the sodden blogosphere, starting with some variation of OMG! and ending with a "He/She will be missed."

Others besides me might be sensing WBM's overuse -- not that it stops them. They just embellish the phrase. The head of the British Fashion Council said Alexander McQueen "will be sorely missed." Tori Spelling announced that Farrah Fawcett's smile "will be greatly missed." While Don Cheadle merely observed Bernie Mac "will be missed," George Clooney went even further by saying Bernie Mac "will be dearly missed." But tossing in an adverb to mitigate the offense is a mistake. Like sewing bugle beads on a vulgar dress, it makes a lousy choice more glaring.

"Will be missed" appears to be the verbal equivalent of boyfriend jeans and the breakfast pizza: Bad Fad. As for the grammatical pedigree of the phrase itself, I admit ignorance...even after looking it up; I'm not sure if "will be missed" is in the passive voice or merely a form of the verb to be with a modal auxiliary. What I am sure about is that it comes off as so damned cold.

Wouldn't the usually well-mannered George Clooney have seemed more of a mensch if he'd said: I dearly miss that Bernie Mac? And though I myself won't shed a tear, wasn't there a single member of the Senate who could remark, Darn, I'll miss that Evan Bayh!

"Will be missed" has little meaning. In fact, it could be seen as a slur, with its potential for being followed by though not by me.

And that future tense? Will be missed? When? On Memorial Day 2010? Okay, there were some eloquent speakers at Ted Kennedy's memorial, but couldn't more of his colleagues and constituents have whipped it up for an "is missed" or "I miss him" instead of a WBM after the Senator's years of service to his country?

Yes, I understand "will be missed" is cant. But the way we speak about each other not only reflects our culture, it influences it. WBM is not just too easy. It's downright icy to come out with a prefab statement of alleged sadness over a death. Better to just suffer (or not) in silence. A cliché like this shows not only lack of thought, but lack of feeling, as if we're too busy for even a heartfelt, "Jeez... I'm, like, I'm sad." It freezes the emotions of those who hear it and moves us ever closer to being a people who have no time for each other.

Also, for a democratic nation that considers itself the land of the free and home of the caring, "will be missed" is also an oddly stiff, detached way of expressing loss. Kennedy, after all, was a US Senator, not a member of the House of Lords.

"Will be missed" all but proclaims I have other things to do now, but I do have a reminder on my BlackBerry and, if I'm so inclined, I'll clutch my hands to my chest and lower my head in sorrow at 4 PM on May 31. "Will be missed" is a barrier between a speaker and his gut, a writer and her ability to describe the pain (or merely the sting) of someone's death.

I'm not railing about pop expressions. Some are dandy because they're lively and real, like the use of dog as a synonym for friend, as in "Hey, dog, you're looking fine." It's a language fad that makes sense, connoting attachment, what we feel about our pals and our pets. It's all about affection.

But "will be missed"? Pure affectation. When it dies, it will not be missed.