My sisters and I had to learn on the job just how much work goes into bereavement.
Suddenly we were not only grieving our mother but making gnarly decisions- flying family members from Europe, college and California, coordinating pick ups, texting husbands lunchbox menus while composing obituaries, choosing the quintessential prayer card image that perfectly sums up ‘Mom’ (sunset on beach or sunrise?), psalms, readings, hymns, picking a casket, calling Mom’s friends to deliver the worst news possible, picking out her final outfit, fielding incoming calls, and canceling future appointments of a severely interrupted life. It’s a wonder we found time to lose our shit at all in the tiny intervals between the massively time-critical-doing-of-death stuff.
But as a wise friend texted- You don’t do grief, grief does you.
Between planning and crying we braved the mall. We did not pack for bereavement.
We did not pack at all. My sister and I flew to New York in jeans, assuming we were rushing to nurse a seriously ill mother. Two days later we numbly stared at round toe black medium heel Tommy Hilfiger pumps for answers not usually found in the Century 21 shoe department.
Yet with all the stuff we suddenly had to become experts at, we forgot to prepare ourselves for the hardest part of the grieving job– Other People.
SO many people said and did EXACTLY the right thing- they delivered soup, wine and water, hugged (appropriately), picked up people from the airport, took out the garbage, washed the dishes, and listened.
Yet, for every helpful person, there were ten (hopefully) well-intentioned people who had no idea what to say to a person who’s new shoes were killing her almost as much as knowing her mother did NOT have to die was killing her.
What Not Say When Someone Dies
1. Why The Closed Casket?
Why? Do you need to look at my dead mother? I don’t. I don’t need to see an undertaker’s best approximation of my mother, propped on a satin pillow as if she were quietly napping in a pine box in a room full of people, flowers and Kleenex. There’s nothing to hide by choosing a closed casket, except to spare us having our last image of our mother be her oddly coiffed corpse. That’s not her.
Actually my last memory of my Mom was pretty vivid- we stayed up way too late watching Michael Douglas get buggered by Matt Damon in that scandalous cable movie about Liberace and Scott Thorson. I’d rather that be my last visual of her rather than her body swollen from ICU attempts to save her life, topped by the undertaker’s make up job, which was lovely, but way off.
2. What Happened?
Do we really need to tell you the details of her demise? And then have to take follow-up questions, probing what we were told by doctors in the hospital? Really? We are in shock, we are beyond grief-stricken, a million people have already asked us– Do we need to spell out her last week of missed warning signals, neglectful doctors, her not realizing how sick she was until it was too late to save her? Ask someone else. Or be okay with not knowing. Please just live with not knowing how she died. You knowing how she died isn’t going to make her less dead. Be more comfortable with not knowing as opposed to making us have to relive and re-tell the tragic and avoidable story of how she died.
3. At least you’re not going through my________ (insert some personal tragedy.
While knowing that you actually ended up just as wackadoo as we thought you were when we were all were nine provides some small comfort, and hearing about your insane divorce is more than a little gratifying, there are 48 more people behind you desperate to either tell me how shitty their lives are or be appropriate. So please stop spitting on me and go raid the mint jar.
4. Your Mom wouldn’t want to see you so upset/unhappy/heartbroken.
Clearly, you didn’t really know my mom. Actually, I know my mom and she would be THRILLED at how heartbroken we all are. This is my mom, not yours, so you honestly don’t know just how fucking pissed off she’d be right now about being dead. She would be FURIOUS if she knew she died from the fucking flu. And my mom is beyond thrilled that we are mourning her as profoundly and fully and completely as we are. So, don’t tell me what my mom or anyone dead (or living) might feel about my grief. And another thing: what would people think if I was laughing, giddy and deliriously happy at my mom’s wake and funeral? Would me being happy at my mom’s death make her happy or would it make everyone deeply uncomfortable and concerned about my mental state?
5. I Know Exactly How You Feel.
We know grief is universal and everyone has an incredibly detailed and dreadfully nuanced story regarding losing someone very dear to them, but right now I don’t need to feel even worse than I already do. I don’t know if you are intentionally making me have to comfort you, but when you tell me about your dead mom, I feel like I need to take care of you, and I can barely take care of myself.
6. It’s God’s Will/She’s in A Better Place/ I Guess God Needed Another Angel.
Do you personally know God or his will or his plans? You got God’s memo on my mom’s demise and I didn’t? And please, just how do you know she’s in a better place? I’d like to Google this new address. If you knew anything of the person we are bereaved of, you knew her best place was extremely alive, among her family and friends. Platitudes might make you feel better, but they do not soothe the bereaved.
It’s not about you. Which should make you feel better! You don’t have to be perfect or say the perfect thing– because we are all so stricken that we won’t remember the lovely things you murmur in comfort, but we do unfortunately remember the wrong things, especially the holy statements of certainty that must feel comforting to say, but suck to hear. Sorry. It’s the truth. Just be real. Be sad, but be honest.
And she wasn’t an angel, she was my mom. God doesn’t need anything more than I need my mom.
7. Stay Strong
Can I stay strong by using your stomach as a punching bag? If ever in my life I need to not stay strong, it’s right now. You go stay strong someplace else where stupid people saying stupid things about staying stupidly strong feel somehow right. Like a Trump rally.
8. Everything Happens for a Reason.
Yeah. Until it happens to you.
9. It’s all going to be okay.
Until it is okay, it’s not okay. And I’m not okay. And you telling me I will or life will be okay isn’t making me feel life will be okay. I don’t care if life will someday resume being okay. What if it’s not going to be okay? Are you okay with my not being okay? Is it okay that I want to kick you really hard in the shin for telling me it’s going to be okay?
10. Are you suing her doctor? How did this happen? Did she suffer? Did she know she was dying? Was she sick? How old was she?
Ummm, are you actually trying to make us feel worse? Are you trying to make us feel more guilty for not knowing how severely sick she was? That her passing was our fault? Will suing her doctor make her not be dead? Is her death less tragic if she was sick or because she was 74? It doesn’t matter how old or well or infirm a person is- their family will still be completely destroyed when they die.
Not to sound completely fury-filled, but saying NOTHING about our loss is not helpful either. Any version of “I’m sorry.” is perfectly acceptable. Also, if you have to tell me who you are, a gentle forearm squeeze is sufficient, you do NOT have subject me to a full body, rocking side-to-side hug, complete with murmured humming in my captive ear.
What TO say (or do) When Someone Dies.
1. Call but we probably won’t answer. Texting is FINE. Just don’t expect a response.
2. I’m leaving dinner and a bottle of wine outside your door.
3. How do you like your coffee?
4. Reaching out to say I’m sorry. Do not feel you have to respond. I just want you to know I’m thinking of you.
5. Whatever you need- let me know. Or not.
6. I have no idea what you are going through or how it feels to be you.
7. Want me to call anyone for you?
8. Can I take your kid for an afternoon? Sleepover? Movie night? So you can sleep?
9. Would you like some water?
10. How are you doing today?
PS: Within six months to a year after the passing of a parent, if you ask one of us–
YOU: How are you?
US: Meh, my mom died.
YOU: Wow, you must have really loved her!
It was 3 MONTHS ago. I don’t even have to have liked her to still be upset that she died.
To prove I’m not completely humor-free, here is a fabulous number from the musical Fun Home, Alison Bechtold’s graphic-memoir-turned-Tony-winning musical– about growing up with a closeted, married undertaker father in a funeral home. Yes, it’s that funny.