If you’ve been on this earth for more than a decade, there is a very VERY good chance that one or more of your parents has passed away, has kicked the bucket, is 1001% dead. And despite how common that fact is, no one tells you how weird an existence that is, or how to talk about that in a conversation. And if your parent died in a bizarre or extremely violent way, good luck talking about that at the dorm mixer or at a company happy hour. Because here’s the thing, it will come up more often than you think. People know that kids lose parents, people know that talking about it is awkward (or still painful), and yet people still ask “What do your parents do?” or “Oh? Where’s your dad?”
And then what the fuck do you say? I’ve got a few ideas.
This is not an answer to the bigger question of how to deal with grief after the death of a parent or how to channel your grief. Christ, there are professionals with degrees coming out of every orifice whose job it is to properly tell you how to do that. My rough estimate is that at least a third of them have given TED talks. Watch their talks on Youtube, read their blogs, or buy one of their soothingly textured paperback books to find out how to do that. PLEASE don’t make me your grief guru. That is a terrifying prospect. There is only one thing that I can share with you to help you navigate the death of your parent, at least in some small way. This is just a practical guide for how to broach the topic of a parent’s (possibly tragic, possibly Mufasa-like) death in casual conversation, without imploding a social situation.
1. Keep it short and vague.
At least to start. For example, “It’s just my mom, actually” is probably a better answer to a probing question than “My dad was killed by armed robbers in Virginia” (a true story where I’m concerned) or even “My dad is dead.” Other useful phrases are “Oh, my mom/dad isn’t around” or “Oh, I was raised by my (insert living relative here) actually.” If the person you’re talking to is paying attention and has even slightly more social grace than a pickled radish, they’ll pick up on what you mean and leave it there.
2. Fallback (gently) on a cliché.
Shit, so you’ve got a straight-up pickled radish of a person on your hands, don’t you? They’ve decided to push a little further, asking something slightly clumsy like “Oh? Where’s your dad?” Bless your heart, you pickled radish.
Okay, you and I can handle this. We have the technology. At this point my go-to is usually, “Oh my dad passed when I was younger.” It’s graceful, it’s not heavy or uncomfortably specific, but it leaves no room for uncertainty. Ninety-nine percent of people that you are not close to and are casually chatting with will not push any further than this.
3. Go all in or shut it down.
So maybe you’re dealing with the 0.1%. They know what exactly you meant, but they want more detail, asking you something along the lines of “Oh what happened?” Okay, this is dangerous territory. What exactly are they expecting (or…hoping) you’ll say? What are they looking for here? Because nothing you could say in reply is going to make them feel good. At least, you hope it won’t. And if it’s just an attempt to be sympathetic, well…the thought is nice, but now you’re on the spot.
This is one of the hardest places to be at in this kind of conversation. If your parent(s) died of an illness, you’ve honestly got an easy out here. You can reply with a simple “She was sick for a long time.” or a slightly more direct “She had cancer.” Alternatively, this is where (as with every previous point in the conversation) you are fully within your right to say “I don’t really talk about it.” This will make the other person feel a little guilty, maybe slightly scolded, but if I never teach you anything else, let me instill this in you: You’re in control, and you have to take care of yourself. If the direction of a conversation doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to let it go there.
4. Let the story (and your feelings about it) come out organically.
There’s a situation that we haven’t talked about yet. It might be that you’re talking to someone in a less casual social setting. Maybe a more intimate conversation, perhaps a person that you’re on your way to being close friends with but you aren’t quite there yet. In this case it’s less about how to shuttle her past the topic entirely while you’re shrieking “Nothing to see here!’ and throwing glitter in her face, and more about how to ease her into some knowledge about yourself.
The good thing about this is is that the person you’re talking to is likely to help you out with prompting questions. So instead of having to launch full force into “My mother was killed by a driverless Zamboni machine that had been left unattended by some teenager getting high in the bathroom of the ice rink,” the person you’re talking to will probably help you get there in stages. This only works in a situation where you’re settled in and have time to talk. This is not a cocktail conversation. This is someone wanting to learn about an experience that for better or worse, whether it was dramatic or not, has in some way shaped who you are. They might turn out to have a similar experience that you can find common ground on. You might worry that you’re exploiting something, or telling “a sob story.” You’re not. You’re telling your story.
Talking about any negative or traumatic experience is something no one teaches you in school, but it’s a fact of life that we’ll all have to do it at one point or another. Hopefully reading this has helped you make those conversations a little less scary and a little more empowering.
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