Knowing what to say to someone who’s lost a loved one is hard. Different people want and need different kinds of support and it’s not like their eye color will reveal what you need to know. I definitely don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I think I did it better on the other side of the fence and this is my guide for all you social morons. But now that I am the one who’s lost someone very close to me, I felt like I had to write about how frustrating the interactions have been, if for no other reason than to remind myself in the future.
I’m not made out of glass. Or C4.
Here’s the deal: If I’m out in public these days and I’m not buying toilet paper or refilling prescriptions, chances are it’s by choice. If I feel okay enough to be out in public, the odds of me having a total meltdown when I interact with you are slim. So please, for the love of all things fuzzy, stop cringing and bracing yourselves (or worse) after, “How are you?” In reply, you can expect something vague like, “Hanging in there,” or “Depends on the time of day,” or “Good days and bad,” because I’m not going to say that I’m okay right now, but if it’s an unplanned interaction, I’m definitely not going to spill my guts, either.
Bringing you up to speed is not the same as proclaiming my thirst for brainz or doing any of these things.
If you don’t know what’s going on in my life already and/or I mention it because it’s somehow relevant to a discussion we’re having in person or online, please don’t act like I just pulled a gun and you’re doing the smart thing by edging toward the door, like your drink suddenly and desperately needs ice, or otherwise like I just majorly derailed the conversational train. Don’t be a dick either, but I can handle it if you still disagree with my point about social security or whatever. If you are a person who didn’t already know what was up, I’m not bringing her death up because I want your sympathies; no offense, but I have people who’ve known for the past month for that kind of support. Maybe it’s my inner UChicagoan coming out, but if we’re on friendly terms at all and you find out some other way after seeing me in person and making small talk about how we’ve both been, isn’t that more awkward?
Assume that, if it’s said in passing, my reply to “How are you?” is simplified and abbreviated.
This will be helpful for those of you who are social morons: I’m not okay right now. I mean, sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m content, sleepy, happy, hungry, or otherwise not a hot mess at the exact time in question. But generally, this is a hard and messed up time in my life and that of Boyfriend’s, so if my brief social nicety actually convinced you that everything’s back to normal and so it’s okay to be a dick to me/us right now, UM, NO. This applies more to Boyfriend than to me because people (Okay, I have a particular one in mind and if you’re reading this, it’s not you!) have been acting like recent events don’t affect him. Newsflash: It’s not Ryan Gosling who gets to watch me ugly cry at random. Nor is he “Hey girl”-ing his way back and forth with me to Ohio to clean out my mom’s house because my mom’s relatives, with one exception, won’t help. That’s all Boyfriend, whose plate was already plenty full. (To be fair, I’m sure Mr. Gosling’s is, too, as a first-time dad.) And that’s on top of two months of long-distance-ness, my [thankfully, increasingly less] debilitating sciatica, and the flu. Which brings me to…
Stop saying, “At least you have Boyfriend!” I already had Boyfriend!
If this were Legends of the Hidden Temple and I had to choose between meeting Boyfriend through the death of my mom or not meeting him, I don’t know what I would have done. But thankfully life isn’t a ’90s game show (let alone one I almost certainly forget the rules for) and we had already been together for three years when I moved in with my mom this fall. And we’d already been through some ~real~ shit, so we were already plenty strong and committed, thankyouverymuch. Don’t get me wrong: Boyfriend has been amazing and I’m beyond grateful for him. While our relationship is still strong, all this stress and the distance to boot has not been good for us as individuals, nor did I want for us the pressure that these developments put on our relationship.
Now, of blood relatives that I count as family, I have an aunt with whom I have a lot in common but as of yet lack the proportional closeness, and a cousin with whom I have almost nothing in common and whom I really only got to know when I moved in with Mom. I know Boyfriend’s family will love me no matter what, but that his family is now [sort of my only] family and that he is the only person (other than me) primarily responsible for me is basically a marriage we didn’t get to choose. I plan to marry him and he feels the same, and we were already the people most responsible for one another, but it was by choice. We aren’t already married not because we have doubts about one another, but because [we’re poor and because] I’m not the person I want(ed) to be when I enter(ed) into a lifelong commitment in which I want to be an equal. I want(ed) a strong foothold in interests other than Boyfriend and I want(ed) a strong identity separate from my relationship with Boyfriend, both of which have been more difficult to foster for having chosen to stay in a place where my career (whatever that may turn out to be!) and earnings are behind schedule while he’s in grad school. (Though I’d make the same choice every time, knowing what I do!) Now, I’ve actually lost more of myself, with my mom and all of my grandparents gone; the part of my identity that was shaped by the way my family saw me will continue to fade. Boyfriend is my family now and that’s wonderful and humbling, but it’s another thing about me that’s not independent. It’s another thing I feel like I can’t bring to the table when we do make it official, which makes me a little sad because I’ve grown so close to his family.
Please note that I am not an heiress. In fact, if that word has an antonym, I’m probably that.
This happens less now that she’s gone, but I’ve gotten a lot of, “It’s so wonderful you are/were able to be here [with her],” like people thought I must be independently wealthy. If by “able to,” you mean flirting with the poverty line, trying not to think about the damage to my career or nonprofit, on painkillers so as to physically function, and in a bad place mentally, then perhaps it’s “wonderful” you don’t know the definition of…? Did I want to be there for my mom, knowing it was my last chance? In theory. Am I glad I was there, in retrospect? In some ways yes, in some ways no. (e.g. It took going through the 40 years of documents in her house to drown out the bad and confusing memories of her from the past few months. Having had the memory of her stolen from me by her, at least to the extent that her identity can be seen as continuous, was… indescribably awful.) Was I there because I wanted to be? Not after the first few consecutive days, no. (All the complicated reasons that I stayed, including her expectations about the end of her life, others’ expectations of my duties, my desire to minimize or avoid guilt, her relatives’ lack of flexibility and/or empathy, mom’s lack of funds to hire in-home care, etc., were summarized in my last post on the topic.) I was there because, like it or not–and believe me, there were a lot of times when she did not–she needed someone there 24/7 and no one else in her life was willing to/able to/under the impression they should have to sacrifice as much.
Okay, I think that about sums it up. The TL;DR on this post is that the safe answer to a friend’s heavy shit is “That sucks. Let me know if you ever want to grab a beer.”