Here’s a truth for you: someone in your life has died. And now, nobody knows what to say, and it’s going to really, really piss you off. That’s the nature of the beast here. Nobody knows what to say, so they will say things that are quite stupid. And they’ll say things that make you cry and things that’ll make you want to punch them in their ugly fucking face. Try not to hold it against them.
Here’s another truth: you’re going to get tired of pity. That’s probably already true.
Steve Case, F**k Death
When my father died a few months ago, a lot of people had a lot to say about it. Even though it (generally) came from a kind place, a lot of it fell flat. And for the first time I could remember, I found myself getting irritated talking to pretty much everybody, even my friends.
Because even if they weren’t talking about Dad or my grief, they still had a way of annoying me by what they said. Because for them the world hadn’t changed overnight. They were all dealing with the pandemic and current events (as I also was of course), but they weren’t dealing with a death in the family.
They were talking to me as though I were the person I was before my father died. But I wasn’t.
It made every conversation — no matter what it was about — feel awkward. Like they were sending mail to a person who had died (my former self), and I was having to answer it anyway.
All the while, I knew this was an overreaction. That people meant well. And that my irritation was kind of rude, when viewed from another angle.
It was all so exhausting.
Permission to Be Grouchy & to Throw Out Anything That Wasn’t Working for Me
During this time, my mother-in-law reached out to me via my husband. Not just once. But multiple times. As I’m wont to do, I ignored it at first. I like to handle things on my own if I can. I think it comes from being told by multiple people over the years (especially my mother and my ex-husband) that expecting emotional support from other people is inappropriate — setting aside the fact that I supported these people emotionally in a one-sided fashion.
It sunk in.
Plus, I dislike being the object of another person’s pity — all the time and not just when I’m grieving. And to be honest, that’s what most people offered. Either pity (expressed awkwardly/offensively) or an interaction that assumed normalcy, treated me as I was before — which frustratingly wasn’t working quite well either.
So I didn’t reach out to my mother-in-law at first, expecting it would go nowhere.
Eventually, however, I did reach out and was pleasantly surprised when I did. She knew what to say. Magically. It helped, I think, that she lost her own father when my husband was young and could remember what that was like and empathize in a way that was authentic. And it also helped that she and I have a lot in common as people. My mother-in-law and I are friendly. I think if we were the same age and had been in the same area, we would have been close friends quite naturally. (This is quite different from my mother, with whom I have very little in common. We wouldn’t talk to one another at all if we were strangers.)
She’s also worked with a lot of folks in hospice. So she’s comfortable with death and insightful about it in a way that most people frankly aren’t.
Anyway, one of the most useful things she did, she did immediately: She gave me permission to be grouchy. And the way she did this was by sharing times from her own grief process when she’d been grouchy or annoyed with people or what have you.
And I felt instantly better about that piece of it. Because someone I admire had had the same strange emotional overreactions that I’d had.
And as we continued to talk, she reinforced this, normalizing a lot of what I was struggling with. When she sent me a tool to work through my grief with, she also told me that I could throw away any part of it that didn’t work for me and keep only what I liked.
She freed me from having to be gracious or appreciative of help. It was frankly a form of unconditional love I’m not at all used to. It told me she’d continue to be there to listen, to help, to support — even if I didn’t always behave the way I should.
It was what I needed.