In the weeks since my mother’s death this year I several times saw something online about the unique bond between a mother and daughter and the particularly devastating loss that is the death of one’s mother. One article detailed a level of pain I frankly could not relate to, and I found myself wondering what was wrong with me. Why wasn’t I sadder? Why was I able to continue functioning instead of curling up in a ball in the darkness of my bedroom while people brought me chicken soup? What kind of a monster was I?
Don’t get me wrong. I miss my mom greatly. I cried the night she died, and I have cried since. Some days, I was too paralyzed to do anything productive. I have stood in her room in my house and looked at her things and breathed in her smell and wished I could have her back for a little while longer.
But other than her absence, my life has largely returned to what it was before she died, and I am at peace. I think that is due in part to my faith. As a Christian I believe death is not an end but a beginning. Because my mom shared my Christian faith, I take comfort in knowing her suffering is at an end and she is in heaven. But I don’t think that’s the only thing that has shaped my experience of my mom’s death.
Death and Grieving Are Highly Individual Experiences
Death is similar to birth in that, as commonplace as it is, it is one of the most significant things any of us has to go through, and each time it happens is different from every other time. So many things feed into the way we experience a death: What was our relationship to the person who died? How old was he or she? What was the cause of death? Was it expected or unexpected? How old were we when our loved one died? What was the state of our relationship? Was it healthy or unhealthy, blessed with a sense of closure or not? What was our own state of mind and situation in life at the time of the person’s death? The list could go on.
No wonder everyone experiences death so differently. Yet we often seem to think we know the one right way to handle it, and we can be extremely hard on and judgmental of one another about how we grieve. We fault one person for grieving too long and another for not grieving long enough. We wonder why that mother of five is mourning the loss of a 12-week-gestation baby or how that young widow could remarry only a year after her husband died. We tell the older widower that he needs to get back to living and find himself a new wife before his golden years pass him by. We wonder when the employee who used to be a peak producer is going to get over his father’s death and get back to business.
Ironically, at the same time we think we know how our fellow human beings should deal with their grief, we struggle with knowing how we ought to treat them. Having experienced a death in our own lives doesn’t make it any easier. I have lost both my parents and parents-in-law as well as two siblings, several friends, and a former pastor. But when friends have lost parents I have nevertheless worried about saying the wrong thing. I have had lady friends miscarry children and have felt ill-equipped to offer comfort, having not gone through that loss myself. Too often, the fear of saying the wrong thing leads us to avoid the topic, resort to truisms, or, sadly, avoid
the one who grieves.
Overall, in the weeks since my mom died I have been blown away by the outpouring of support and love that has come my way. Most people truly want to help in whatever way they can. If you have sometimes wondered what you should and should not do when someone you know experiences the death of a loved one, here are a few suggestions.
1. Don’t Ask If You Can Do Anything
Don’t say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Unless you are extremely close to the one who is grieving, she probably won’t let you know because people don’t want to be a bother. Instead, think of what you can do to help, and then do it, unasked. Don’t say, “Can I bring you a meal?” Say, “I’ll be by at 3:00 tomorrow to drop off a meal.” If your friend ends up with two meals, she can freeze one for later.
2. Do Express Your Sympathy
Yes, everyone sends cards and flowers. That’s because they help.
3. Don’t Judge
Remember that there are all kinds of things you probably don’t know about the mourner and his situation that are impacting how he is processing his grief. There is no one right length of time to grieve or one right way to do it. There are things that, looking in from the outside, you will never see or know. To some extent, grieving is a process that never ends, as grief over the death of a loved one can rear up decades later.
4. Attend the Funeral
If there is a funeral or memorial service that is open and that you are able to attend, do so. To simply sign the guestbook, pay your respects to the deceased, and be present demonstrates concern that will be of great comfort to those who are mourning. And if there is singing, you can lend your voice.
5. Share a Good Memory
If you have a good memory of the deceased, share it, preferably in writing so it can be digested again later. Conversely, if you have a bad memory, keep it to yourself.
Let the one who is mourning know you are doing so.
7. Offer Hugs
Lots of them.
8. Check In Later
Three or six or nine months down the road, check on the mourner and ask how she is doing. Don’t ask in passing but when there is actually time for her to answer—say, over a cup of coffee you bought for her. Listen to the answer. Don’t forget the pie.
I am 51 years old, married with three children and a full, busy life. My mom was 85 years old, tired and at peace with her Lord. Our relationship, while complicated (aren’t they all?), was one of love. That fact, combined with me not needing her in the same way I did when I was 15, made her death “easier” to bear than it would have been at another time and under different circumstances.
But I am thankful for a husband, family, and friends who have made it clear to me that if I have a day, or a succession of days, when I need to go climb into bed, bury my head in my pillow, and sob the hours away, they will hold my hand and pat my hair. And bring me chicken soup.