Have you ever received a condolence card and wanted to rip it up and yell at it? I have. I hope I’m not the only one. I never knew that one of the hardest parts of grieving would be coping with other people’s reactions to my loss. But for me, it definitely is hard.
Death is weird. Especially when someone you are not expecting to die suddenly dies. This happened to my mum two weeks ago. She went to bed and never woke up. She was 66 years old and healthy. My sisters and I had just talked to her on the phone two days before. We were talking about our mother/daughter trip in February and already planning next Thanksgiving together. Then, that Monday, I got the most shocking and unexpected call of my life. My mum was dead. The doctors think it was a stroke. We’ll never know for sure.
The next two days were like a bad dream. I could not believe that she was gone. My sisters came over and we cried and talked about how crazy it was that she was dead. It was just too bizarre. I didn’t know what to do or how to act. I fell into an abyss. I didn’t know where I was or what was ahead of me. The floor had fallen away beneath me and I was wobbly, unsteady. I had to cancel things like hair and dentist appointments – things that were a normal part of life but that seemed silly now. I started texting a few close friends because I felt that this was news people were supposed to know. They immediately texted back – “I’m so sorry,” “Are you okay?” “Do you want to talk?” It sounded like drivel. It sounded stupid. I knew they were just being nice and offering comfort but nothing could comfort me. Nothing they could say would make me feel better. I could only handle talking to my family and my husband. They knew my mum personally and they knew what she meant to my sisters and me. They knew we would never be the same.
I could never handle what the Jewish religion does when it comes to death. The person is buried right away, within a day or two and then you sit Shiva and have everyone come and pay their respects and you are supposed to talk to people. All I wanted to do when I found out my mum had died was to be left alone and grieve on my own. After all, isn’t my grieving a private matter? There is nothing more personal than how I feel about her dying. I wasn’t ready to hear what a wonderful person she was. I didn’t want to hear the lame sentiments – “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I’m here for you,” “If you need to talk…” I was hurt, angry, depressed and devastated. I could barely believe it myself that she was dead. How could I possibly talk to other people about it? I did not want to open any sentiment cards. It made it real and I wasn’t ready for reality. The condolence cards are still stuffed in a drawer. I don’t know when I will look at them.
I did not pick up the phone when people called. I could only answer emails with a simple. “Thank you.” In short, I had no energy to cope. Mostly I did not answer calls because I was afraid I would be impolite. I might get pissed off when someone said, “Well at least she died peacefully,” (SO WHAT?! SHE WAS ONLY 66! SHE SHOULDN’T BE DEAD AT ALL!), or want to know every detail of how she died (NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS! SHAME ON YOU FOR WANTING TO KNOW ALL THE MORBID DETAILS). It’s not that I’m ungrateful or don’t want to know that my friends love me. I do. I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of anyone being able to help me feel better. It’s impossible. A friend of mine emailed me a condolence and wrote that she had lost both her grandparents this year. I read it and winced. I wanted to email back – “How can you possibly think this situation is even close to that? Your grandparents were old. My mum was young. Give me a break.” But I didn’t. I wrote back thanking her for her email. I am so grateful to technology for letting me hide behind it during these two weeks. I was able to be calm and say the right things because I had time to collect my thoughts before I responded. Lord knows what I may have said to people if I was on the phone or in person. I doubt I would have been able to be nice. I’m sure if someone said to me “She had a great life,” I would probably punch them in the face. If they said, “Remember all the great memories,” I would have said, “Fuck off.”
After a few days of crying, I have returned to a numb denial state. I can say, “My mother died” but it is not registering. I wake up, wanting to call her, but then realize I can’t. I see something in a store that I know she would love, but then get nauseous when reality hits that you can’t buy something for a dead person. The other day, I got an email from a friend. It said, “I hope you’re feeling better.” I wanted to slap this person. Didn’t she understand that grieving doesn’t have a timeline? It’s not the flu dammit. Oh yeah, my mum’s gone forever but I feel fine. I DO NOT FEEL FINE AND I DON’T KNOW WHEN I WILL. My own husband didn’t understand that I just couldn’t walk the dogs one morning. I tried to explain that I can’t plan when I’m going to feel completely depressed and out of sorts. I might want to make breakfast tomorrow. I might not. I had tried to plan a shopping outing before Christmas with some friends to cheer myself up, but then had to cancel last minute. I just couldn’t do it. Thankfully, they understood. I have had some good days last week. I was able to have a nice Christmas with my family. I broke down at church during the Christmas Eve candlelight ceremony. Reality comes and goes like waves. I WILL NEVER SEE HER AGAIN. Now, I’m back to numbness. I know I will have more bad days ahead. I can feel it, like a knot in my stomach. I know I will have to talk to more people about her and receive more condolences. I will need to be polite and thank them for their kindness, even though I know that no words they say could ever bring my mum back.
I know that when someone I know has a death in their family, I will write the condolence card with doves or flowers on it. I know I will tell them things like “I’m so sorry…” And I won’t blame them when they think these things are ridiculous. Why? Because a card can’t possibly heal the giant hole in your heart. A comforting sentence won’t bring your loved one back. And that sucks. The weirdest thing I have found out about death is that one of the hardest parts has been handling other people’s comments. I want to say the right thing and let them know I am thankful but my emotions of grieving are making me irrational.
In dealing with a friend who has a loss, here’s my advice:
- Send a card or email or text saying you are there for them and any sentiments you want to add. They might not be ready to deal with it at the time, but they will look back at it later and appreciate it.
- Don’t bug them with calls or insist upon seeing them. Everyone mourns differently. Some people like to be alone to grieve. Others want people around. They will tell you if they want to see you. (Exception: If someone seems so depressed that they might harm themselves and they are all alone, by all means, go see them).
- Don’t talk about your own losses and compare them. I know you want them to know you understand because you have been there, but they might feel that your story is nothing like theirs and that might make them mad. Right now, it’s not about you. It’s about them.
- Don’t get upset when your friend is defensive, angry or short with you. Grieving has many emotions and it’s like a roller coaster, with ups and downs. They might just be going through a hard bit, so don’t take it personally.
- When you see your friend, instead of having it be awkward by not talking about it, ask your friend if they want to talk about the death. If they say “No,” then don’t push it.
- Give your friends time. When someone special dies, it will affect your friend for the rest of their lives. You don’t just have the funeral and then get on with your life. Even if it’s four months after the death and your friend says, “I am really missing them today,” understand that death is forever and loved ones are never forgotten.