Despite death being fairly common, no one knows what to say or do.
My sisters and I learned on the job just how much work goes into grief. Suddenly we had to deal with our mother’s sudden, avoidable death and with gnarly life crap- flying family members in from Europe, and all over America, airport runs, texting lunchbox menus to a husband while composing her obituary, choosing which prayer card image perfectly sums up Mom (sunrise over sunset) picking psalms, choosing a casket, selecting her final outfit (do bodies wear Spanx?), canceling all Mom’s future manicure and medical appointments due to her busy life being severely interrupted by death.
In between death tasks, we grieved. A friend texted- You don't do grief, grief does you. And grief did us big-time, once the benevolence of shock wore off.
With all the funeral stuff on our checklist, we didn’t anticipate the worst part of grief-- other people. So many people said and did EXACTLY the right thing- delivering food, wine, picking people up from JFK, taking out the garbage, washing dishes, and simply listening.
Yet, for every helpful person, there were ten 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. Since now we are members of the club no one wants to be a member of, The Dead Mom Club, we’ve composed some pointers...
What Not Say When Someone Dies
1. Why The Closed Casket?
Do you really 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 pillow as if she were quietly napping in a pine box in a room full of 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 seriously dead corpse. 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 cable about Liberace. I’d rather that last fun night be my last visual of Mom instead of staring at her body and face swollen from medical attempts to save her life, topped by some undertaker’s make up job, which was way, way off.
2. What Happened?
Do we really need to tell you the details of her demise? And then listen to you probe what the doctors said and did? We are in shock, we are beyond grief-stricken, do we need to spell out for you the missed warning signals, her neglectful doctor, her not realizing how sick she was until it was too late? You knowing how she died isn’t going to make her less dead. Can you just be okay with not knowing?
3. At least you're not going through my________ (insert personal tragedy).
While finding out that you actually ended up just as wackadoo as we thought you were when we were all kids is somewhat gratifying, and normally I’d enjoy hearing about your well-deserved divorce, there are 48 people behind you ready to confess how shitty their lives are or composing something appropriate at my loss. So please stop spitting on me and raid the mint jar.
4. Your Mom wouldn’t want to see you so upset/unhappy/heartbroken.
Clearly, you didn't really know mom. I know my mom is thrilled we are mourning her this profoundly. Would me being happy at my mom’s death seem more appropriate or might it make everyone wonder about my mental state? Another thing I know: just how fucking pissed off Mom is about being dead. She is FURIOUS that she died from the stupid fucking flu.
5. I Know Exactly How You Feel.
Grief is universal and everyone has a dreadfully detailed and nuanced story about losing someone very dear to them, 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/ God Needed Another Angel.
Do you personally know God or his plans? You got God’s memo on my mom's demise and I didn't? How do you know she’s in a better place? I'd like to Google this new, better place. If you knew anything of the woman we’ve lost, you’d know her best place was extremely alive, among 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 say the perfect thing-- because in our grief we won’t remember the lovely things you murmur, but we do remember the statements of certainty that might feel comforting to say, but suck to hear. Sorry. It’s the truth. Just be real. Be sad, be honest. And she isn't an angel, she is my mom. God doesn't need anything more than I need my mom.
7. Stay Strong
Can I stay strong by using you as a punching bag? If ever in my life I don’t need to be strong, it’s right now. You go stay strong someplace where stupid people saying stupid things about staying stupidly strong feels somehow right. Like a Trump rally.
8. Everything Happens for a Reason.
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. I don’t care if life will someday resume being okay. Are you okay with my not being okay? Is it okay that I want to kick you really hard in the shins for telling me it’s going to be okay?
10. Are you suing her doctor? Did she suffer? Did she know she was dying? How old was she?
Ummm, are you trying to make us feel worse? Are you trying to make us feel more guilty for not knowing how severely sick she was? Will suing her doctor make her not be dead? Would her death be less tragic because she was 74? It doesn’t matter how old or well or sick a person is- their family will still be destroyed when they die.
Also, if you have to tell me who you are, a gentle forearm squeeze is sufficient, please don’t subject me to a full body, rocking side-to-side hug, while sighing in my captive ear.
PS: Within 3 months to a year after the passing of a parent, if you ask —
YOU: How are you?
US: Meh, my mom died.
YOU: Wow, that was months ago. You must have really loved her!
It was 3 MONTHS ago. I don’t even have to like her that much to still be grieving. In fact, the more complex the relationship with our parent, the harder we will mourn. We don’t have to have ALWAYS loved our mom to be grief-stricken at being motherless.
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. Text things like: I’m leaving dinner and a bottle of wine outside your door.
3. Or this: Coming to walk your dogs and do your laundry.
4. Or this:“Reaching out to say I’m sorry. You do not have to respond. I’m thinking of you.
5. Or this: “Whatever you need- let me know. Or not.”
6. Or this: I have no idea what you are going through or how it feels to be you.
7. Can I help you stay on top of bills and stuff?
8. Can I drive you someplace? We don’t have to talk.
9. Can I take your kid for an afternoon? Sleepover?
10. What can I do to help today?
To prove I'm not completely humor-free, here is a musical number from Fun Home, Alison Bechdel'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.