As regular readers of this blog know, I recently lost my mother. Adapting to life without a mother is really, really hard and not something I thought I would have to learn to do this early.
“Move On” seems like the most overused line in the history of the English language and concepts like the “new normal” seem archival, cliched, and insensitive.
In the days that I was in India during this time, I was also writing down my observations of people visiting us to offer their condolences and their reactions to my family’s immeasurable loss. Here are some things I learned as well as some advice, and dos and don’ts, when visiting a family who has just suffered a tragic loss:
- 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 death occurred. It’s just not fair to the surviving spouse or family member to have to explain to others what happened especially when people want to know specific details and 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Words like “time to move on”, “life goes on”…and such other phrases 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 vacuumized 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…
- “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 an be challenging and overwhelming if people close to you handle them in diametrically opposed ways.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 and they probably mean it when they say it but then their own life takes priority and I 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.
- I have the strongest family. My father who has to relearn, reimagine, and relive life and living without a partner of nearly half a century, as well as my uncle who lost his own mother, his beloved aunt (my Mamama) who was as close, if not closer than his own mother, and his sister, three years back to back to back are the strongest men I know.
- Together, my sisters and I will and can face anything. We are stronger, together, in every way. Thank goodness for sisters!