I recently lost my mother. Adapting to life without a mother is really, really hard no matter how old you are or how many oceans separate us. Having to reimagine a life without Mummy is not something I thought I would have to learn to do this early. My extremely resilient, courageous, strong, and beautiful in heart and spirit mother still had a lot of living to do and yet, was taken away from my sisters and me, not to mention her partner of nearly 50 years, much too early. I miss her every single day, in ways both big and small.
Traveling nearly 40 hours after having learned about the death of a loved one, just hours before leaving for the airport, is perhaps one of the worst emotional spaces to inhabit. Once I arrived at my destination in India, I got driven straight from the airport to the crematorium where my sisters and I participated in a variety of Hindu death rituals and performed the last rites of our beloved mother. She would have been proud.
In the days that I was in India during this time, I experienced a range of emotions. Phrases like “move on” seemed redundant and empty while concepts like the “new normal” seemed archival, cliched, and insensitive. I started writing down my observations of people visiting us to offer their condolences and their reactions to my family’s immeasurable loss. While I absolutely do not mean disrespect and appreciated a lot of the visits, I did end up learning a few things.
Here are 10 things I learned from the notes I made from my observations, written a few days following my mother’s death. Each point also has some advice, and dos and don’ts, when visiting a family who has just suffered a tragic loss (some of the things may only be specific to India and Indians):
1. People want to know: People are curious. If death is caused due to reasons other than those considered natural, everyone wants to know the details of how it occurred. It’s just not fair to the surviving spouse or family members to have to explain to others what happened especially when people want to know specific details. It’s painful to have to relive the experience all over again, multiple times. Please show some respect, sensitivity, and curb your curiosity. What does it matter to you what happened? Why do you need to know the details?
2. Don’t tell the grieving family about similar incidents that may have happened to someone you knew or heard about. Why would you want to share that? We don’t want to know what happened to your cousin’s wife’s grandfather’s fourth cousin’s neighbor. It’s insensitive and disrespectful to everyone.
3. People don’t know what to say: and that is okay. Friends, relatives, and even close acquaintances of the deceased may be struggling with their own grief and not know what to say to the immediate grieving family and we understand. Even if they are not personally grief stricken, they may not be able to find the right words to express their condolences. It really is okay. A friendly hug, a comforting pat, or even just saying you don’t know what to say, are all kind and thoughtful ways to express how you feel. As a side note, if all you can do is send a text message to say ‘Rest in Peace’, at least take the time and have the decency to spell it out instead of writing ‘RIP’. This is, in my opinion, unforgiving, if you are a family member who knew the deceased well and have shared many good times with her.
4. It is not the grieving family’s job to console you. Often times what happened was when people didn’t know what to say to us, we ended up, despite our own grief, consoling the other person. While this is okay, this can be an undue demand on our emotional resources. I am not opposed to doing this, I just didn’t know how to feel about this.
5. Even though you mean well, answering your “How are you doing?” question is not as easy as it sounds. Are we expected to say, fine, good, well when we are none of these. Our emotions and grief may not be obvious on our faces but how is one expected to answer this question? What would you like to hear as a response? I didn’t know then and I still don’t know how to answer this question. How am I? How will I ever be able to heal the ache in my heart that will never go away?
6. Phrases like “time to move on,” “life goes on” and others are meaningless. They will begin to have meaning eventually but not right away. They just seem like empty words, cliched words that are spoken for the heck of it because they seem like the right ones to say but the redundancy of their sentiment is nauseating. When is the right time to move on? A truism, life will, of course, go on for the living but may remain a hollow, a shadow of its former self. Otherwise, in every way and in everything, it will feel like something is missing, that something isn’t right...that all but one piece just doesn’t seem to fit in and that missing something will be the deceased person’s laughter, her encouraging words, her prayers and blessings for you, her predictable responses that you took for granted but now crave to hear, just one more time...
7. “Normal” will never be what it used to be and neither will the “new” normal. There is no template or script for how to behave or be when dealing with extreme grief. Everyone deals with grief differently and in their own way. Understanding, processing, and accepting these differences can be challenging and overwhelming if people close to you handle them in diametrically opposed ways.
8. Grief comes in waves. One minute you are smiling, reminiscing the fond memories of the departed soul, perhaps even laughing; the next minute, that same memory will bring in a fresh gust of tears. Healing is a process and takes its own time. Don’t let anyone tell you when to stop grieving. Only you can make that determination.
9. Believe in the community of supporters. People will want to help. Let them. Our relatives and close family, as well as neighbors were incredible in their emotional support as well as other tangible and intangible comfort. We appreciated all the different kinds of care and comfort we got and were extremely grateful for all they did for us.
10. Not everyone will mean what they say...and that is okay too as long as you don’t believe them. People say things that they feel the need to say under the circumstances... comforting words like promises to check in on the family member most affected by the loss, assurances of bringing food, and so on. People probably mean it when they say it but then their own life takes priority and we get it. Smile and thank them but don’t put your entire trust and faith in all of them coming through otherwise you are only setting yourself up for disappointment.
In conclusion, the best kinds of visits that warmed our hearts and comforted us were those where visitors reminisced over my mother’s different qualities, shared their memories of her that made us smile, laugh, and nod our heads in agreement over her gregarious personality, her generosity, her hospitality and food, and her few idiosyncrasies, and where sincere condolences were offered organically in conversation.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at strongertogether@