Good Grief: Tips on What To Say (and not to say) To Those in Mourning
In 2005, I was 15 going on 16. Most kids that age are concerned with getting into a good college, sneaking out to cool parties, getting the lead in the school play, and getting a prom date. However, I was concerned with a new hospice care person being in our house, if I was going to make any new friends at my new school, and if my mom being on a breathing machine meant that she was actually going to die that week. I carried a lot of sadness and anger, but have grieved privately for the most part (by choice). In the 13 years since her death from cervical cancer, I’ve had a lot of time to process my feelings during that very emotionally vulnerable time and have since tried sharing that wisdom with those who have recently lost loved ones. In my opinion, grief is an ongoing process, and there is not a “right” or “wrong” way to show or feel it. Everyone grieves differently. I hope that this piece helps you understand your own grief, and understand the grief of others as well. 💝
People say a lot of weird things when a loved one dies. At my mom’s funeral, I remember friends and family members telling stories about her, hugging me with tears in their eyes saying things like “You look just like her”, or “I’m so sorry for you and your father’s loss”. While comments like this always seem to come from a place of love, they have always made me (and still make me) feel incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Even to this day, when it comes up in conversation that my mother is dead (something I typically try to avoid when at all possible) the conversation usually goes like this:
Person 😃: And does your mom still live in Sacramento as well?
Me 😀: Oh, it’s just me and my dad- my mom died when I was 15.
Person 😨: …oh, wow…I… I’m… I’m so sorry.
Me 😅: You’re welcome — I MEAN- Thank you? I mean- er um, yeah- it was a long time ago. HAHA ANYWAY, IT’S OK, SO AS I WAS SAYING ABOUT THE MOVIE LADY BIRD…
Person 😓: Well, if you ever want to talk about it —
Me 😅: NOPE HAHAHA SO ANYWAY, LADY BIRD WAS FILMED IN MY HOMETOWN AND…
[Person looks at me like I’m crazy 😳]
Needless to say, I still haven’t managed to find an elegant way to have this interaction. Nor is it something I wish to spend the time “workshopping” or putting mental energy towards. While the average person usually says “thank you” and moves on, I just don’t feel comfortable having someone apologise for my mother’s death… or for bringing it up. More often than not, with strangers, I’ll fib and say she’s still alive to avoid unneeded awkwardness. For example, a retail consultant at JCrew doesn’t need to know my life story and the grief I carry from that. Nor does a group of people I just met at a conference. I’d much prefer to move the conversation along, sans the awkwardness. This, of course is my personal preference. I’m sure some people appreciate the condolences and reply with a simple “thank you”, but for me it’s been so long that I don’t like to put mental energy towards it. But again, everyone grieves differently.
In my opinion, there are 2 things you should never say to someone who has lost a loved one. Lucky for me, I was hit with both of these several times at my mother’s funeral, and countless times in the 13 years since her passing. While they usually come from a good place, I think it’s important to give perspective to those who may feel inclined to say/ask these things, and provide some guidance to those who have to navigate situations where these well-intentioned people say them.
“Why aren’t you crying?”
Death is weird and brings up different emotions in different humans. For example, I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. No, I wasn’t a moody teenager, I was a 15 year old who was numb, terrified, and simply out of tears to cry. The whole thing was so bizarre, and I didn’t want to be there. I vividly remember squeezing my new school friend Tim’s hand as some random dude sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, but less in a “I’m so sad” way and more in a “what the actual fuck?? LOL” way. My mom was on alllll the drugs in her final moments to ease the pain she was experiencing, and had been singing that song (because… drugs 💊). I think my family members had decided it would be fitting to have it sung by this random deep-voiced Paul Robeson- type, but I pictured my mom looking down from somewhere going “I WAS ON DRUGS YOU GUYS, I DON’T EVEN LIKE THAT SONG?!”. Picturing the scene in my head still makes me laugh. I’m sure we both would have been giggling at it, had she been there… which is weird to say, because it was her funeral. But, you know what I mean.
We knew my mother was in her last years for several years, and therefore in a weird way, I have always felt thankful. Of course, there is nothing more terrifying and horrible than knowing your best friend would no longer be with you in the near future. But unlike those who lose a loved one in a tragic accident, we were both able to share the important things that perhaps others “wished they could have said” when it was too late. While this was a heavy burden to carry around in her final years (especially as a teenager), it is something I’ve always cherished in a best-of-the-worst-worst-worst-case-scenario kind of way. I feel so lucky to have had her in my life for the brief time that I did.
Because of this, by the time my mother’s funeral had occurred, I had personally mourned. In my mind, when my mother lost her mobility, ability to function without heavy pain killers, and was given a breathing machine- that was a sign that the time I had left with her was nearing. For weeks, I mourned. I cried in my room, I cried in the school bathroom, I think I even remember crying during a drivers ed test when the instructor asked what my mom did for a living. By the time I found myself at her funeral, surrounded by friends/strangers/random dudes singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot, I was numb.
Not only was I fresh out of tears, but I was fresh out of fucks to give of what people thought about my outward emotional state. I’ll once again reiterate that everyone grieves differently. In that moment, I was processing a lot. I have carried a lot of anger for many years over a school friend telling me that the popular girls who teased and tormented me at my old high school were making a big show of my mom’s death to “get attention”. The image of the beautiful, tall, social butterflies crying big alligator tears in the quad over my mom to get hugs from the popular boys put a sick pain in my stomach. These were the people who giggled and pointed at me eating alone at lunch. These were also the people who caused me to start eating my lunch in the bathroom because I couldn’t stand people seeing me cry anymore. It’s taken me 13 years to forgive these girls, and needless to say, in 2005 I was a 15 year old with a lot on her mind. In addition to fucks, my crying reserve was fresh out.
And so, when the people around me started showing their grief with big displays of emotion, I didn’t know how to react. Suddenly, the girl who had just lost her mother became the therapist/sounding board/Kleenex distributer/and recipient of too many “I’m sorry”s and “You’re so strong”s to count. And when the “Why aren’t you crying? Show some respect for your mother” bomb was kindly dropped on me by an “adult”… well, that certainly made me cry. But I wasn’t crying because my mom was dead, I was crying because some dipshit had the audacity to say something like that to a 15 year old, experiencing intense grief (albeit privately). Of course, I’ll reiterate, everyone grieves differently. I would soon learn that grief makes acquaintances cry, family members lash out to you with anger, and people you thought were strong crumble into complete despair in front of your eyes. But grief also shows you how dear friends come over to your house and drop off a month’s worth of food, families you just met will take you in as their own child, and family members will step in to take the much-needed female mother figure you needed to have in your teenage and adult years. Everyone experiences grief differently, and it is not your job to judge, critique, or guilt anyone for that.
Which brings me to my next no-no…
“I know how you feel…”
This lovely segue shows itself in many forms. Here are some examples:
“I know how you feel… I lost my mom 3 years ago and it still hurts” — 🧔🏽Adult man who lost his mom at 47
“I know how you feel… I was at my grandma’s side when she passed” — 👩🏽Stranger at Whole Foods
“I know how you feel… I loved your mom so much. I think about her every single day and the affect she had on my life” — 🙍🏼Woman on Facebook you know, for a fact, your mom wasn’t a fan of, and was an acquaintance at best.
“I know how you feel- my mom’s not dead, but I just hate the idea of Mother’s Day. Such a Hallmark card holiday- who cares, just call your mom every week, ya know?” — 👨🏼💼Co-worker who asks you what you’re doing for Mother’s Day this weekend
This one is my least favorite of the two. Seriously, do not start a sentence with this to anyone in mourning. Ever. I don’t care how close you were to your grandma, I don’t give a shit if you think your relationship with your deceased parent may have been similar to mine, and I’m certainly not interested in getting MySpace messages about how difficult this whole situation is for you (it was 2005, y’all- peak MySpace). If you want to relate the situation to your own personal experiences, the best thing you can say, is nothing. You may think it’s helping but you’re hurting a lot more than helping. It’s like telling someone who just lost their leg in war that you had a really painful hangnail once. There’s no comparison, so please refrain from making it.
In speaking with many friends who have lost parents recently, the “I know how you feel” is just about as bad as the family/friends/relatives who turn you into their therapist. Oh, yes, there’s that, too. People who somehow don’t understand that being an ear to their grief/pain about your parent/loved one/etc. is something you can/want to deal with while you process your own grief. Don’t get me wrong, it sometimes help to talk things out with others (trust me, I’ve done a lot of that with my dad and other close friends). But when it comes to texts at 11pm saying “I just miss her so much” from someone who you don’t have the mental capacity to babysit emotionally, the best course of action for me has always been “Hey- I’m sorry you’re feeling pain over this, but I don’t think I’m in the right headspace to discuss this with you”.
So what SHOULD I say or do?
Again, I’m no grief expert, and I’m writing from my own experience. But, the best thing you can say to someone in mourning is “I am here when you need me- let me know what you need”. Sometimes, people need space to process their grief. Other times, people need to cry and have someone listen for an hour. Or perhaps, what they need is to go out to a movie and get their mind off the whole thing. The point being- the best thing you can offer a person in mourning is an open invitation to help (within your capacity to do so). When I look back at the crazy emotional journey of 13 years of grief, the people who stand out in my mind as those who were the most helpful were the ones who were there when I needed them- be that with food, a hug, an ear to listen, or even something as simple as a text that says “Thinking of you- I’m here when you need me”. Grief is a terrible beast, but one we all have to face at some point. Sometimes it needs to be battled solo, and sometimes you need a team. It’s important to respect that.
The quote “be the person you needed when you were younger” has always made me think of 15 year old Chloe. I wish I could have scooped her up, given her a hug, bought her some froyo, and said:
“this is going to suck for a long time, but it will get better”.
I’d also probably say…
“Chloe, come on… your boyfriend is obviously gay. How are you not noticing this? Girl… your first date was to ‘Mamma Mia!’ … open your damn eyes😑”
…but I digress. What I mean to say is, grief hurts a lot. No matter the age, no matter the person, no matter the circumstances. We all lead such different, unique lives, and no 2 people in mourning are the same. Approach those mourning with love and caution, and make sure to be tactful with your words.
If you’ve said/done either of these things to me or someone who is/was in mourning, don’t sweat it. I wrote this not to shame or call anyone out, but rather to educate and prepare those who may soon experience one of these situations. Don’t feel guilty- just try do better going forward. Grief is strange- it makes us act differently, overwhelms us at the worst possible times, and sneaks up on us when we least expect it. As mother’s day approaches, be mindful of those who aren’t able to use it as a celebratory occasion, and perhaps reach out with an invite to brunch or a movie. Or even a nice “I’m here if you need me” text. I’m sure it would be much appreciated (don’t worry- I’ll be at Rupaul’s Drag Con… you know, because everyone grieves differently, and I prefer to do so with drag queens). 💝