How Not To React When I Tell You My Parents Are Dead

My father died in November of 2004 (from complications during heart surgery, when I was 16 and he was 51) and my mother died in March of 2007 (from a possibly-intentional morphine overdose, when I was 18 and she was 49). They had been divorced since 1996. While there are plenty of books and message boards about grieving the death of your parents, no one quite prepares you for the odd way people speak to you when it comes up in conversation — and when most people your age still live with their parents, it comes up surprisingly often. As a public service announcement, here are a few things you should avoid when addressing dead parents (Note: I recognize most people who hear this from me likely feel awkward themselves and are merely trying to be polite and/or empathetic).

1. “Aaaaaaawwww!”

I realize such a reaction may be instinctual and not well thought out — but I didn’t just tell you I adopted a blind kitten with three legs; I told you my parents are dead. Try and give a different response than you gave that 7-year-old rapper on America’s Got Talent who cried when Howard Stern didn’t like him. My favorite part of this monosyllabic “Pity Moan” is its upward inflection, as if the speaker is mourning my parents with a vocal scale. The heart of why this response annoys me is not that it comes from pity. Although no one but Dave Eggers will talk about it, pity feels awesome. It’s a selfish and evil pleasure to have people feel pain for you, but a pleasure all the same. No, what angers me about it is the lack of balance between pity and respect for the fact that I have grown from the experience and am not in need of help. At 23, I’m not exactly waiting to be adopted by Daddy Warbucks.

2. (Typically with a hand on my shoulder) “You are so brave.”

Oscar Pistorius is brave; he raced the fastest men in the world with what appears to be two Venetian blinds strapped to what used to be his legs. Ernest Hemingway was brave; he fought in World War I, followed troops in World War II, and went safari hunting before it was an activity offered by Groupon. I, on the other hand, had to pack a bag and move in with my aunt and uncle. Truth be told, outside of emotional support, I was fairly independent of both my parents at the time of their respective deaths. Make no mistake: I loved them both dearly and miss them every day. But this isn’t something I chose to do, like skydivers or shark-wranglers, and it’s not even something that happened to me. They died, not me. They went through a shitty thing (I’m presuming death is at least somewhat shitty), so why am I brave for getting to remain here with my friends and… oxygen? And yes, I get the idea that I’m somehow stronger for continuing to live without them, and there were admittedly times I didn’t feel that was going to be possible. But remember those people in Missouri who survived a tornado by hiding in a beer cooler? No one is calling them brave, just lucky. And that is what I did: a tornado hit my life, and I hid in a metaphorical beer cooler of junk food, Modest Mouse, and psychotherapy until it passed.

3. “I know just how you feel. My ____________ passed away.”

Probably the truest cliché of mourning is that everyone does it differently. Some, however, choose to mourn their lost beloved by relating to others who have likewise suffered a great loss. I went to a boarding school where, as a requirement, nearly every student there led a screwed-up life. So I was not instantly made special by losing my parents the way I might have been had I gone to public school. The side effect of this was that many people I knew attempted to relate to me using the death of their own parents. However, as anyone who has dated anyone else can tell you, everyone has a vastly different relationship with their parents. Therefore, the loss of said parents creates a very distinct and individualized feeling within each person. It is not merely the loss of “parents,” but the loss of “my parents.” These were individuals I’d known literally my entire life up until their deaths. By comparing my loss to yours, I think it does a great disservice to your own loss. When I returned from my father’s funeral, a housemate of mine had written on a card “Been there, done that.” No, you have not been where I am — the closest corollary to my experience would be my sister’s experience, and even she, by most measures, had a rougher time than I did (she was in basic training for the Marine Corps at the time our father died and was pregnant with her first child when our mother died).

All of that said, far above on the scale of annoyance are those who try to relate my experience to the death of people who aren’t their parents. There is a fantastic moment in the otherwise-amateur film Garden State when Natalie Portman feels guilty for putting on a funeral for her hamster while Zach Braff is in town to attend a funeral for his mother. This scene illustrates a very real truth: parents are like nothing else. My girlfriend was kept from meeting her real father until she was 19. What, at 19-years-old, makes a person seek out and find their real father? Her experience illustrates a truth in life: whether your parents were negligent, absolutely loving and caring, or nonexistent, understanding them helps you answer the one question we all ask ourselves at some point: Why am I here?

So please, hold back your woeful tales about the uncle who taught you to throw a football or your grandmother who engaged your childlike curiosity with tales of the old country. We are here because two people, however psychologically messed-up or economically unstable, created us together. And the death of those two people brings with it a sincere loss of meaning. Your parents are the closest you will come to an actual god, and their deaths, no matter what age they occur, will be the death of the only god you knew. TC Mark

image – Garden State


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  • Doug Hart

    My father committed suicide when I was 15 and for about a year I Iived in another town. I just lied about it and said he died of a heart attack. It was still dicey but not so much so as the alternative.

    • CD

      My father did the same when I was 22. At first, I was staunchly upfront with everyone about how he died, in an effort to somehow wage an individual fight against the social stigma of suicide. Then, I realized that the truth made people so uncomfortable that they would alter their relationship with me so as to not be associated with what my father did. Now when it comes up, I still refuse to lie, but unless the person is a close confidant, I say that I prefer not to talk about it.

      It’s impossible to control how others will react to the tragedies (or really anything) in your life. It wasn’t until my father died that I realized how awkward “I’m sorry,” is when I hear it from others. I know it’s the standard reaction to death and expresses concern/sympathy, but what do I say in return? Thanks..?

      Anyway, I think this piece would be stronger if the writer talked about what he DOES want to hear from others. For me, people’s reactions are almost always inadequate because they cannot understand my experience. So now I have grown to appreciate realistic, uncontrived responses. Recently, I told someone about my father and he just said, “That happens.” While some may find that reaction to be too blunt and inconsiderate, I kinda liked it because it is simply the truth.

      • Doug Hart

        I hear ya. I was so freaked out that people asking me things…OK at that age they would ask me what he did for a living etc. Something innocuous. But you had to think of an answer. The truth was like violating my compact of denial. At least for the short term.
        For suicide it’s like awkward moment squared. How did they do it. How did you find out. Why? Where? At 15 it was more than I could handle. Now I don’t give an F. But it was a long hard road to get where I am today.

  • Doug Hart

    Sorry. I keep forgetting to click the follow up box.

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  • Ria

    So..what should we say?

    • MMF

      My mom died when I was a teenager. I’m 33 now. So what should you say? Probably nothing. I don’t tell people to get sympathy — it was a long time ago. If I’m telling you, it is part of a bigger conversation about my family so just keep listening. Most likely, though, I’m not going to tell you because I try to avoid everything mentioned above. Know what I mean?

    • Leeja

      If someone is telling you, it’s probably a big deal for them. They’re probably trying to share a part of themselves (because the experience of losing a parent often is truly formative, changes you in some very real way, whether you’re aware or willing to admit it or not) but the last thing they’re probably looking for is pity. No one wants a friend/lover/significant other to pity them. If someone opens up to you in that way, acknowledge it, maybe say ‘That must have been hard’, but even that’s not really necessary, take it as another piece of the puzzle that is their being that they’re allowing you to see and experience, and then move on.
      For me the hardest part of sharing it is when someone stops the conversation once it’s revealed to make sounds/faces of pity at me. I’ve dealt with these emotions already, you don’t need to try to feel them too.

    • Nancy

      A simple “Sorry for your loss” type of statement.

    • Meg

      I personally prefer when someone asks me a question after – i.e. When did it happen? When I reply what a young age I was (11) I’m able to draw the conversation away from my dad specifically, which is not something I’m always willing to discuss. However, if I do want to talk about it, that opportunity is still there.

      For me, I’m not a fan of the “I’m sorry’s”. An apology typically concedes an admission of fault. Don’t apologize for something out of your control.

      That’s just my personal preference though! And that comes from my experiences – so I’d say it definitely depends on the person!

  • Joe

    ‘Your parents are the closest you will come to an actual god, and their deaths, no matter what age they occur, will be the death of the only god you knew.”

    This is true. And it is also why people have no idea what to say to a person who has gone through this. Sometimes people are insensitive. I agree with you. But it also seems that you might be “annoyed” with people who are possibly just trying to make you feel better/say the right thing/uncomfortable.

    If you told me your parents died, I would feel pity for you, then feel guilty for pitying you because you probably don’t need my pity, I would feel lucky, then feel guilty for feeling lucky, I would feel upset that this could happen to anyone, then scared that it could happen to me, then uncomfortable because I’d know that you’re judging my reaction. I would never know how to react in this situation because my natural reaction would upset you, which would of course be the opposite of my intentions.

    • melissa

      joe…that was deep. a really nice wrap up to the thoughts presented here in the post. it should be copied & pasted to the end of the post as a conclusion.

      • Joe

        Thank you Melissa!

    • Jane

      “(Note: I recognize most people who hear this from me likely feel awkward themselves and are merely trying to be polite and/or empathetic).”

      I cannot imagine I am the only person to have read and acknowledged the plainly stated preface most likely intended to curtail the slew of comments denouncing what is in fact a candid, beautifully written piece. I appreciate the author’s oscillation of emotional expression from self-consciousness to cynicism.

  • Asdf

    Yes. Damn people for caring and having sympathy. Damn them for trying to use a shared experience to relate. Damn them all!

    Sorry, but this article comes off as extremely cynical, anti-social and borderline angry. That perspective is summed up rather well in the closing paragraph. Perhaps the loss of your parents affected you more than you care to acknowledge.

    But what do I know. I can’t relate. I didn’t lose *your* parents.

    • Meg

      And this response isn’t supposed to “come off as extremely cynical, anti-social and borderline angry”?

      • Asdf

        No, Meg. It’s not. It was intended to be sarcastic. Sarcasm, in certain contexts, is not inherently cynical, nor angry, and certainly not anti-social.

        In this context, it was being used to attempt a demonstration of how unfortunate it is that he apparently feels annoyed with people reaching out to him. Essentially I read it to be that he finds annoyance with humanity’s empathetic qualities. If it’s a vapid or superficial attempt at reaching out — or an attempt to hijack his experience so they can pontificate on their own — I get the annoyance.

        But I have a difficult time imagining that it’s the majority of cases.

    • jjj

      why would you be angry at someone for expressing a point of view you can’t relate to? that’s not your fault, nor theirs. when one of your parents dies and someone responds with “oh my grandma died awhile ago lol” it’s perfectly normal to feel frustrated with them. maybe you should just enjoy the fact that no one close to you has died yet.

      • Asdf

        I’m not angry. And how do you know I haven’t lost anyone close to me? The point was using specific verbiage in his complaint. I can’t relate to him — no one can — because he lost his parents and one else lost his parents.

        Extrapolating that, it would be: please don’t try to reach out to me regarding this issue, because you can’t understand what it meant to me. So, please, don’t even try.

        And I certainly understand that perspective, but to be annoyed that people made the attempt… is, well, as I described.

  • Shelley

    I lost my mother unexpectedly at 17 and my father to cancer at 25. I don’t enjoy talking about it because I know what people’s reactions will be and it makes me feel like I’m creating a pity party for myself. I also don’t think that just because I’m experiencing the emotional pain of the loss of two parents, it gives me the right to be rude to someone trying to sympathize.. even if I know that they truly have no idea what it felt like for me.
    I agree though, losing anyone is an experience that is unique as the person was to you.

  • Gabriella

    Great article. While I have never reacted like any of the people in your article (People astound me on a daily basis), I’m still unsure what the best reaction would be. If I’m in a friend’s life when it happens, I am very supportive and there to hang out, take them out, listen to everything, do anything they want that will help them feel better. If it’s a new friend who is mentioning it in passing, I usually just go with it the same way I would if they were talking about any other subject that is a part of their life, and move along with the conversation as it flows. But I genuinely would like to know what you feel is the most appropriate way to respond, the least awkward, most supportive response.

    • Gabriella

      PS is it weird that I had a feeling the boarding school you referred to was Milton Hershey?

    • Ella

      As someone who has gone through similar loss earlier in her life and often dreads the moment that it comes up in a conversation with someone new, I feel that it’s best to acknowledge the loss without assuming the person wants or needs anything in particular. “I’m really sorry, that must have been hard,” then let them guide how they want the conversation to go. If they want emotional support, their reaction will demonstrate it — they might cry or talk about their struggles with the loss. If they don’t want that support, if they’ve dealt with moved beyond the loss, or if they simply don’t want to talk about, they can simply say, “Thanks” and let the conversation go on to other topics. Obviously, this is going to vary depending upon the people involved and the relationships between them, but it’s important to remember that because everyone grieves differently, your response shouldn’t hold them to certain expectations.

      • Ella

        You don’t even have to say, “That must have been hard.” Just saying, “I’m sorry for your loss” without excessive sentiment would be enough.

  • Sharon

    I thought the article was great. Very to-the-point. It like she is just trying to get the word out about how she feels. It would be nice if the author answered Ria’s question, what do we say? If you feel this strongly about it, you probably shouldn’t tell anyone. Do what Doug did, if it comes up, just lie. If you tell someone, it is going to be very awkward for them to just sit there and say nothing. Personally, I have made it a rule to just say “sorry for your loss” and leave it at that, because as you said, not knowing the circumstances, is kind of a big deal. You will find that this is only a problem because you were/are so young. My father drank himself to death and my mother also died of a possible intentional overdose. But I am 50 years old. When the death of my parents come up, no one bats an eye. I don’t even get an “oh, I’m sorry” (which is fine with me). It’s like their saying “your 50, your parents are supposed to be dead”

    • Doug Hart

      The lying thing sometimes bit me in the ass. For me it was a quick fix to get over a hump. But if it got found out (I would confide in people that I got to know better) it was even more awkward.
      Sharon. Like you, I am at the age where if your parent is above ground it’s only because you have their mummified corpse tied to a rocking chair so you can keep getting their social security checks and depositing them in your own account.

      • Sharon

        LOL! That’s hilarious : )

  • Vivi

    As a person who’d lost both parents before turning 25, my reply to the question “What should we say, then?” would be. “I’m sorry for your loss.” …I mean, isn’t that what you usually say when someone has died.. so why would it be any different in the case of young people who’ve lost their parents?

  • Domino

    one of my best friend’s parents died when he was very young and he’s always had to deal with really strange responses when that comes up… i remember when i met him i just said “i’m sorry to hear that” and he said he appreciated how calm i was about it. most people just look at him with such pity and he absolutely hates that.

  • JK

    As someone who lost her mom at age 22, I can say that in my experience, the best thing to say is “I’m so sorry.” That’s it.

    • Doug Hart

      I think JK is closest to right. Don’t have the melodramatic clutching of the chest. Just say sorry and move it along. I don’t know what ASDF’s problem is. It’s easy to be snarky on a post about a subject he probably won’t have to deal with for decades. But for those of us who live it every day it gets old. At least after the first few hundred times we have to deal with it.
      Um JK. You are a woman?

  • Stina Marie

    Instead of complaining, be happy that people actually care for you. Not everyone knows how it feels to have a parent or close relative pass away and sometimes people don’t know how to react. I have a hard time accepting the fact my parents will pass away someday, and I don’t like to think about it, but I know it’s inevitable. Also, not everyone has friends that care. Feel blessed you have people you can talk to and will actually try to comfort you.

  • Jessica

    I lost my mother to a heart attack when I was 14. One of the things I dreaded was becoming, in my small public high school, The Girl Whose Mom Died. But that was so much easier than trying to bring it up in conversations with people who have no way of knowing — guys I’ve dated, for example. At some point, growing closer means I have to tell the guy about the most important thing event of my adolescence but Lord knows I don’t want them to assume that means they have to treat me with kid gloves because of it. I don’t want a pity party, but it is something you have to know about me if we’re going to be close.

    The best response is a genuine-but-not-sentimental, “That must have been very difficult. I’m very sorry for your loss.” Then let me guide how much detail I want to give you about the death and my evolving feelings about it as I’ve grown up.

  • Emily

    so for a follow up article, maybe you can do “how to react when i tell you my parents are dead” because i see your point here, but i still never know what to say in situations like that

  • Rebecca

    Great article; beautiful ending. Thanks.

  • k

    I wish someone had just said to me: “I’m here if you need me: an ear, a coffee, a partner to escape with, whatever.” And then MEAN it. I was so tired and depressed, I didn’t have the energy to initiate a get together with friends and even though they said they were there for me, they never called, except to go out to the bars, which was the last thing I needed. Also, don’t put a deadline on people’s grieving. People thought that after a few months I should be better, but it never gets easier. You have to be patient. Also, #3 is THE worst reply. Never had someone say #2, but sometimes #1 is just an involuntary sound when people are caught off guard. I don’t judge people about it.

  • Joe

    #3. Point and laugh. (or is that too obvious of a thing to not do?)

  • Bets

    My mom passed away six months ago from a very rare, inoperable tumor. She was my best friend, and my favorite person in the world. I have not told a lot of people, it was one of those things where word just traveled and people contacted me about it. This is my experience with the responses listed above.

    #1: This response is only tolerable from someone who lost their mother/best friend as well. Period. Point blank. That is all.

    #2: No, I am not brave. In my eyes, being brave is knowingly walking into a situation in which one has to be courageous. I believe that I am “unfortunate” not brave. I did not have a choice in this situation. It was forced upon me and all I can do is deal with everything one day at a time and be selfish.

    #3: No one knows what you have been through, and I do not know what you have been through. So let’s look at this realistically. Say you lost your mom in a car accident. I watched my mom suffer for months and slowly melt into nothing. Yes, we both lost our moms. But no, we do not feel the same and we went through two completely different traumas. You did not get to say good bye and “I love you”. I had to watch someone suffer at the end of their fabulous life. I am not saying that one is worse that the other; they both just bring up different emotional reactions.

    The best things that people have said to me are
    1. a GENUINE “I am so, so sorry”
    2. “That is so, incredibly hard.” Having someone acknowledge that you have been through is draining and stunting is such a relief. It is like they are giving you permission to be sad and lazy because you are emotionally exhausted.
    3. “I cannot imagine” – unlike response #3.. this person is admitting that you have been through something entirely unique that they could never begin to relate to.

  • DS

    Regardless of how people react when you tell them these things, as long as it’s warmer than not, remember that their words likely come from a place of compassion. They’re put in a situation that can be very socially awkward and forced to handle it on instinct. Some simply have better instinct than others.

  • KSF

    Great article!

  • jaks83

    I appreciate that these thing are troubling for you to hear. As someone eho has not experienced this kind of loss, I want to learn. What would you like/want to hear from a person just finding out that your parents are dead? What reaction would show you that they care and not that they are insensitive pricks? What would tell you that it means something to them that you’ve experienced this loss?

    • Doug Hart

      I can’t speak for others regarding what they might want to hear. But I will TELL you that if the cause of death was suicide it really fucks with the resale value of the house.

  • audreyfaye

    To those asking “well, what should we say?”:

    My dad died when I was 10. I’m in my early 20s now. The experience of grieving that loss is a part of me, but it is not something I think about often. At this point, I usually only mention his death if it is relevant to a story I am telling or similar. I’m understanding of people who react with emotion or pity, although it is a bit tiring at this point. I’d prefer to just move on, but I never mind when people are curious and ask questions about when or how he died, or even about what it was like for me. That allows me to speak either factually or share something about my life now, which I’m comfortable doing.

    The reaction that gave me the most comfort in the few months after his death was “I’m here if you ever need anything” from people who actually meant it or, simply, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    Note – I relate especially to number 3. People’s attempts to relate their own experiences to mine were emotionally draining for me, because I had so much sadness of my own to worry about that carrying others was impossible (was it supposed to make me feel better when they talked about familial deaths in their own lives?). I had one friend start crying as she was telling me “I know just how you feel, my grandma died two years ago.” I had no emotional energy to offer her any comfort, and she basically coopted my grief as a reason to express her own. Of course I don’t begrudge her need to grieve, but I was not the appropriate person to do that with at the time.

  • zack

    I tend to go with a simple “Dang, that sucks man.” or something of the like in this kind of scenario.

    Because it does suck

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