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).
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.