“So what do your parents do?”
I tense. I’d been expecting the question: as you’re making friends, it’s hardly unusual to be asked about your life. But I could foresee the end of the conversation from here, and I’d grown tired of having this exact exchange.
Usually, I give my father’s profession definitively to try to settle the matter, and make a desperate attempt to change the conversation. “Enough about me; what about you?”
But more often than not, I’m pressed to continue. And this time was no exception. “Wait, what does your mom do?”
Breathe in. I say, with as much casualness as I can muster, “Oh, she died when I was 14.”
A stutter. A beat. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s terrible.” Pause. Sigh. “I didn’t mean to make you…”
I imagine my poor new friend is picturing what loss at 14 might look like. A teenage girl losing her mother? Nightmare. I shouldn’t have pressed her. I feel awful. What if I had lost my mother at 14? I would be so lost. How did it happen? Is that okay to ask? Why isn’t she crying? What am I supposed to say? Should I give her a hug?
Or maybe my friend is simply thinking, Oh, right, some people’s parents are dead. How sad!
And then, I say the words I hate, because I can’t think of anything else; the words I’ve used every day since I was 14.
It’s not okay. My mother died when I was 14. There was a long time when I couldn’t admit to that without tearing up, or even downright sobbing. Yes, it was a nightmare. Cancer always is.
But sharing that story with others even years later is still a mess. In that one moment, I must play both roles of victim and comforter. I inflict pain with my unpleasant story (how dare I not have a happier response?), so I must perform tenderness as well as sadness. I must assure my conversation partner gently (not too emphatically; that’d just be disrespectful) that no, they had done no lasting harm; it’s a terrible story but yes, yes, I’m not crying, see? I’m okay. So it’s okay. We’re okay.
What a racket.
It’s a silly thing: there’s really no great response to the question, but the question itself isn’t flawed. It’s polite to ask about one’s family, and it’s certainly not anyone’s fault my mother died. But there’s an angry part of me that asks why the onus always falls on me to make you okay. Why must you apologize? Why do you ask forgiveness for an event that is completely out of your control? Why should I have to teach you about death?
It’s not as though reminding me is something unusual. I remember my mother daily. I know that death happens. Asking about her doesn’t make me any sadder (or frankly, any less sad) at her death.
That’s the thing about grief: losing someone you love is filled with pain, complicated emotions, loneliness, and a lifetime of remembering. But in that death, you must grow to accept a society that finds death so incredibly bizarre. As a society, we’re afraid of dying, and of being left behind. And my reminding you that no, my story is not “a lifetime of mother-daughter brunches” is a sad moment for you. Death happens to everyone, remember? I’ve let you in on a moment of my lifetime of sadness. And I’m the one who has to see to your comfort (no no, we’re still alive, see?), to guide your temporary grief.
Experiencing death is supposed to turn you into an expert on teaching others in moments of grief. You’ve been through it, so you’re different. And I’ll admit, I’ve felt different after loss. But as someone who experienced death at so young an age, I’m an unusual professional griever. You’re supposed to lose a parent when you’re 60—that’s partly why you stop asking about parents’ professions after a certain age. You’re not supposed to lose your parent the summer after your freshman year of high school.
But those same words that we use to comfort others in grief aren’t useful when your mother died so young. I can’t say, “She lived a long full life,” or “At least she’s not in any pain anymore.” And so I just say, “It’s okay,” even though it’s not, and I’m sad, and it’s gross and miserable and wrong and unfair. My peers still had their mothers. Why couldn’t I? Why didn’t I?
A friend of mine, who lost her mother at 18, has a passionate loathing for those middle school “your mom” jokes.
“Your momma’s so fat, when she walks in a room, she sits next to EVERYBODY!”
“Your momma’s so old, she went to school with JESUS.”
And the classic response to any insult: “So’s your mom!”
When my friend comes across anyone still willing to use these jokes, she’s perfected her response: “Stop. My mother is dead.”
Cue panicked expressions. “Are you for real? Dude, that’s not funny.”
“I know. Stop using that joke.”
It’s fast. It’s direct. It gives immense power only to the person using it, while making the joker into a villain—who can call you out on that? (And honestly, the joke is a miserable excuse for an amusing comeback, so this technique is a fast way to help this joke format die out.)
The “dead mom” card is the ultimate trump.
And I’ll admit, when I’m in this situation (or something similar), I often want to use her response. When I’m sick of answering politely about my family, when I’m feeling vulnerable or when people are willfully ignorant, or when I’m tired of grieving on my own. It could be a comeback to a stupid joke, or a quick response to a casual question, or a reply to a friend’s story about a fight she had with her mom.
Suck it up. At least your mother isn’t dead.
Instead of walking someone through the experience of grief, it’s a quick punch to the gut, a reminder of the nearness of death without that comforting, “There, there; it’s okay!” I could use my mother’s grief as a weapon, to get what I want, or to make others feel sad. And doesn’t misery love company?
Yes, but I love company, too. And knowing the pain I’ve experienced, I want to be careful not to show people this sadness unless they’re already there. So I wait, and I comfort when I can.
As a whole, our society needs to be more open about its relationship to grief, and to understand the permanent identity shift with someone who is living with loss.
Death is not okay. But it happens. And it’s okay to feel loss, and to talk about it.