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Thursday, August 04, 2005

How to comfort someone whose mother or father has died

Watching my mother die was a wrenching experience I still don't have the words to describe. I have experienced no deeper grief than the day she died, ever. I'd felt heartbreak before, over lost loves and the death of other relatives and beloved pets ... but nothing broke my heart so thoroughly as that week of watching her sick and in pain, fighting, seeming to get better, and then dying.

Aside from just not thinking too hard about what was happening, I coped in large part by writing each day in a friends-only weblog. Most of my friends replied with encouragement and condolences, and I ended up getting literally hundreds of supportive emails after my husband posted about my mom's death on the HWA and Shocklines discussion boards.

And those messages did help, quite a lot. Although nothing could make losing my mom "better", the well-wishes and condolences did give me a slim tether to the world of the living that kept me from teetering over the edge into a black hole of despair.

While I got supportive emails from people who were near total strangers, I heard little or nothing from most of my mother's relatives. I also never heard anything from a few people I count as friends who had access to my blog.

Later on, one of those silent friends made a post to her own journal that began "I suck at sympathy ... Not because I don't feel it, but because I don't know how to show it correctly."

I understand how she feels. Many of us geeks, when presented with a friend in trouble or in pain, want to try to do something to "fix" their troubles. There is no "fix" for the death of a loved one. There can only be offers of support or words of comfort -- which may feel awkward, trite, or just plain hard to give if you don't fully understand what the person in grief is going through.

And here's the bitch of it: you probably don't understand what they're going through.

Everybody's grief over the death of a parent is unique. Even if you have also lost a parent ... you don't know what they're going through, although you have an inkling. If your parents are still alive and well, I guarantee you don't know what the person is going through, even if you have lost other relatives.

I was there when my husband's mother died a couple of years ago, and it was awful. But she was not my mom, and I had no way of understanding the sheer depth of the grief, regret, and anger he felt at her death.

I've got a clue now. But I still can't feel what he felt, nor can he feel what I feel.

Most of us, if we have loving relationships with our own parents, don't want to think too hard about them dying. That's natural, especially if you're in your teens and 20s and have lived a life sheltered from the realities of death. But being unwilling to put yourself in another person's place can cause you to come off as deeply unsympathetic and say or do things that could add to the person's sense of grief and isolation.

However, you can just as easily add to a person's pain by remaining silent and thus seeming to not care about them or their loss.

So, in the end, it's better to give the ol' communication thing a try if you care about the grieving son or daughter and your relationship with him or her.

The Emotional Landscape of Losing a Parent in Woefully General Terms

There's grief, of course. If you have a loving relationship with your parents, your folks are your most stalwart supporters and your #1 cheerleaders in life. They've always been there for you, and would do anything to help you out. You could always turn to them for help, for advice, for encouragement -- and now you never can again. Losing that kind of a relationship leaves a chasm that can never be filled -- a parent simply can't be replaced.

And if you had a troubled or abusive relationship with your parents, there's often still a tremendous sense of loss: the loss of what should have been, could have been, and will never be.

There will be regret. Regret for things done, or not done. You might start remembering all the stupid shit you pulled and all the dumb things you said to them as a teenager and wish to hell you could do something to take it all back. You'd give anything to talk to them just one more time to say all the things you never thought to say -- and you can't. If your relationship with your mom or dad was troubled, the regret may become crippling.

There will be anger. You may be angry at yourself ("Dammit, why didn't I check on her?" "Why didn't I go home for Christmas?") or at your dead parent ("Why didn't she go to the doctor?" "Why did he have to get up on that roof?"). If your parent was negligent or abusive, you probably still feel unresolved rage towards him or her that you now feel guilty about.

In short, a person who's lost a parent is experiencing a whole mess of very strong emotions, and will very likely be depressed and might feel horribly isolated. We as outsiders expect sadness and regret -- but we might not expect or know how to handle someone who reacts with anger and bitterness to a parent's death. The griever's pain may be downright ugly.

And there's no magic time period for a person to adapt to their loss and feel their grief scar over. Some people can fake happiness a lot sooner than others (and that's not always a good thing). Some aspects of the loss of a parent are permanent, and you can never fully recover from them.

Ways to Comfort a Person Grieving Over a Lost Parent

  1. Start with your basic condolence It might seem trite try to say "I'm sorry for your loss; you're in my and my family's thoughts," but saying that is a whole lot better than saying nothing at all. Much more past that is hard if you don't know the person that well or you don't know what kind of a relationship they had with their mother or father.

    It's probably safe to say something like "You're in our prayers" unless you know for certain the grieving person is a hardcore atheist. But saying something like "he/she is in a Better Place now" is risky if you don't know the person's religion. I'm not religious, and hearing people say, "she's in a better place" made the cynical part of me want to say, "No, sorry, I don't think the inside of her urn is especially festive" even though of course I knew they meant well.

    If you can't find the words, at least send a card (but check first before you send flowers; some people may have allergies, and other people -- like my mother -- may have expressed a desire to have no cut flowers at their service). It's better than nothing.

  2. Offer your support The grieving person will probably need support to get through this, but don't offer if you're not emotionally or logistically prepared to follow through.

    Case in point: when my friend Carol found out my mom was dangerously ill and said "If there's anything I can do to help, I will," I replied, "Well, I can't get a direct flight into San Angelo tomorrow. Can you drive me down from Dallas?" And by God she did. She picked me up at the airport in a car laden with road food and drove me the six hours down to my hometown so I could see my mother before she lost her lucidity. That's friendship.

    Case in counterpoint: One of my mom's former coworkers (I'll call her "Anne") came to see my mom several times while she was in the hospital (she and my mom had stayed in touch after their respective retirements and seemed to be real friends). My mom at that point was in the early stages of kidney failure, had a brutal case of cryptosporidum, and wasn't conscious much. She also hadn't eaten much of anything in over a week, and had lost a scary amount of weight.

    "I hate seeing her like this," Anne said. "Is there anything I can do?"

    "Yes," I replied. I had been trading off with my dad in 8-hour shifts to sit with my mother and to call a nurse when she needed attention; we were exhausted and couldn't stay with her all the time despite our desire to. "My mom is starving. She needs to eat. If you come in here when we're not here and see that the nurse has put down a tray of food, try to wake her up and see if you can get her to eat something."

    Immediately Anne faltered: "Well, I'm really not good at taking care of people ...."

    I wanted to scream at her, "Do not pussy out! It is not hard to feed her! At least fucking try!" but instead I quietly replied, "If she does not eat, she will die. Getting some food into her would be a big help." Anne did not reply; I don't know if she ever worked up the guts to be a true friend to my mother or not.

    • Simply saying "I'm here if you need to talk" is a nice offer, but the person isn't likely to take you up on it if you two aren't already close. If they do take you up on it, you've got to be prepared to hear some pretty raw and upsetting stuff. You've got to be prepared to have them sobbing on your shoulder, getting snot on your favorite shirt. And if you've made the offer, let the grieving person do the talking. Let them direct the conversation. Don't divert things so you can talk about your own woes, and don't press them to talk about things they're not ready to discuss with you. They do need to grieve, and to cry, but they need to do it on their own terms -- don't press them to "let it all out" if they're not comfortable exposing themselves like that with you yet.

      I was determined to not become a blubbering mess at my mom's funeral. It comes from my stoic middle-class WASP upbringing that taught me that public displays of emotion are taboo. I was doing all right until one of my mom's coworkers came up to me and started talking about what a wonderful person my mom was and what a terrible, awful, tragic thing it was that she had died, and how sad it all was, and how devastated she felt ... this coworker went on and on, and I really came close to totally losing my composure. The lady was entitled to express her own grief, of course, but if her intent was to comfort me, she mainly succeeded in bringing my pain right to the surface where I could barely contain it.

    • Saying "Let me know if there's anything I can do" also sounds nice, but generally grieving people won't take you up on it. After all, what can you do? My first thought upon hearing this from a friend was, "Unless you've got a time machine and a cure for cancer, there's not anything anyone can do."

      But that's not true. The grieving person will have a hundred mundane things to take care of, and little motivation or energy to do them. So, if you actually do want to help out a friend in grief, take a look around, see if something appears to need doing, and ask about specific things:

      • Ask if you can bring them some food, or if you could cook them dinner or take them out to eat.
      • Offer to take them to a movie.
      • Ask if they want help arranging for a memorial service.
      • If you're a musician, offer to play at the service.
      • Offer to organize or host the after-service reception or wake.
      • Offer to do errands like grocery shopping or laundry.
      • Offer to walk their dog, change their cat's litterbox, or clean their fish tank.
      • If you have financial skills, offer to help them sort through the insurance, tax and pension paperwork.
      • If they've got to clear out the parent's house or apartment, ask if you can help.
      • Ask if they need help mailing out thank-you notes after the funeral.
      • If you're well-off and know the surviving family's hard up for cash, ask if you can help them with an interest-free loan; they'll probably turn you down, but it's easier to accept an unsolicited offer from a friend than to break down and ask for what's needed and feel like a charity case in the process.


  3. Show respect for and acknowledge the person's grief. It's an all-too human tendency to try to make another person's grief go away. If comforting doesn't work, there's often a tendency to pretend it doesn't exist.

    For instance, the friends who picked me up at the airport immediately started complaining about petty shit that had happened to them while I was gone. While their constant chatter did keep my mind off things, it got annoying in short order, especially since other than a quick "We're sorry for your loss" when they first greeted me, not once did they ask how I was feeling or even mention what I'd just been through.

    So, here's a by no means comprehensive list of things to avoid when dealing with a person who's lost a parent in the past year or so:

    • Don't in any way compare their losing a parent to your losing your cat or dog. Seriously, don't. Yes, losing a beloved pet is painful, but it's not even in the same ballpark.

    • Don't complain about your own parents around them. At least you've still got 'em. Even if your complaints are legitimate, now's not the time.

    • "Well, everybody has to see a parent die sooner or later." Yes, it's true, but it also trivializes their grief, and is about as comforting as a baseball bat to the knee.

    • "You'll feel better soon." It might not be true; some people never fully "get over" the death of a parent.

    • If they vent negative emotion around you (for instance, if they get angry at their dead parent or at God) don't tell them they're wrong for feeling like they do. They need support and a sympathetic ear, not judgement.

    • By that same token, don't act impatient, bored, or inconvenienced if the person shows grief months or even years later; there is no timetable to "get over it". Some people may in fact need professional counseling to cope with their grief, but while the death is still new, they're going to grieve; don't make it all about you and your personal convenience.

    • "Well, he/she is better off now." A risky thing to say if the bereaved doesn't firmly believe in an afterlife. The dead parent may no longer be suffering, but some people may view any life as preferable to the grave.

    • "God decided that it was her time."/"God works in mysterious ways." This is almost guaranteed to infuriate any atheist/agnostic, and it can be not-very-comforting even if they are religious and are experiencing a crisis of faith over seeing a good person suffer and die.

    • "She/he wasn't much of a parent to you, anyway; you're better off now that they are dead." Even if it's true, it's still a callous thing to say to someone in grief.

    • Don't use the person's grief as an opportunity to try to convert him or her to your religion, even if you truly feel it's in the person's best interest. If you feel you must witness to him or her, try to wait for a more appropriate time. If both of you already observe the same religion, inviting him or her to church with you is appropriate and may be appreciated.

    • Just because the person makes a wry comment about death doesn't mean it's appropriate for you to joke about the situation. A lightened mood is often appreciated, but ill-considered humor can hugely backfire.

Special Concerns When Comforting Children

Children who've lost a parent may get lost in the shuffle, and their grief may stay bottled up inside them. Younger children may not understand what death means, and you or others may have to very patiently explain over and over that their mom or dad isn't coming back. Little kids have the perception that sick people get better, and it's devastating to first learn about death by losing a parent.

Don't be brutal about it, of course, but don't euphemize the whole thing. Saying "Your mom's gone away" might make a young child wonder what he or she had done to cause Mom to abandon them. Likewise, saying something like "God wanted your father with him" also raises all kinds of questions in the child's mind that can cause problems. It's best to be honest as you can and patient as you can. Give a grieving child lots of hugs, and let them know you're there for them.

Slightly older children who have a grip on what death means may secretly think that they caused their parent's death by not being "good" -- this whole notion can get reinforced with comments like "God wanted your mom with him". Kids can easily get into a headspace where they think they caused bad things to happen, and they can start feeling incredibly guilty over things over which they had no control.

If a child did inadvertently contribute to a parent's death -- say, they threw a smoldering match in a trash can and the house burned down, or they threw a frisbee on the roof and their dad slipped and fell off trying to get it down -- the feelings of guilt will be there to stay. It's best to get a good professional counselor for such a child.

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