Every couple of weeks there’s this girl I went to high school with who messages me and asks how I’m doing. How I’m doing isn’t always great.
After losing my mom to breast cancer in 2017 and having my father diagnosed with Stage III Esophageal cancer one year and 11 months after I buried my her, I’ve been through a rollercoaster of emotions. I’ve victimized myself, wondering what I did wrong to deserve this in my late twenties. I’ve victimized my parents, wondering what they did wrong to deserve their lives being cut short at 61 (and late-70s, prospectively). I’ve victimized life in general, envying married women in their twenties with burgeoning baby bellies, first homes and an opportunity to travel. You can’t travel when your parent has cancer. What if you’re gone and they die alone?
These moments have laid on top of grief: the mornings when raising my head off the pillow is a task worthy of achievement, the moments when I sneak away to the bathroom, getting clumps of mascara on my cheeks, the pile of laundry that’s laid dormant in the corner of my kitchen for a year. Grief has a way of turning your life inside out. You’re a foreigner, looking in from the outside wondering how you get back in the house.
“How have you been?” she asks me with sincerity. Most days, I answer honestly. Most days, I tell her about what it was like to inject my father with insulin. Most days, I tell her what it was like watching my nephew handling my dad’s eBay business, his bills, his pets, while he was recovering in the hospital for over a month. Most days, I tell her that I miss my mom, that wedding planning scorched my soul, that life’s unfair, that sometimes it was hard to get out of bed. Most days, it’s the only time I have to be vulnerably honest about the bad patches of my life. Most days, it’s the only time I can complain to someone who has greeted grief and death and loss as much as me.
But her response is always the same: positivity. She reminds me that I have to cherish this time that I have because it’s a gift. I have to remain strong. I have to be the best daughter, the best wife I can be. I have to find courage—find strength—to face these darkened moments when it seems like fate is crumbling beneath my stilettos. I have to be thankful for these opportunities; I have to enjoy this time I have left with my dad.
I enjoy spending time with my dad when he was still my dad but not a grieving husband. I enjoy sitting on the porch with him sipping coffee, not when he breaks down in tears, barely able to say, “I don’t know what we’re going to do without her.” I enjoy going to the movies with my dad, not sitting in countless waiting rooms watching cancer-riddled patients be rolled out with oxygen tanks, bald heads and wheelchairs. I enjoy my dad, but I don’t enjoy his dying.
Platitudes are just part of the territory of the grieving process. When people used to comfort me by saying my mom would still be at my wedding, I used to respond and ask them, “Yeah? Which seat?” When people said my mother would never leave me, I turned my gaze to the empty seat at the kitchen table, the single text message that remained unread, the space next to my dad as we ate lunch at their favorite diner.
It’s not to say that platitudes don’t work. I think they do in the beginning of the grieving process. In the beginning of the process, when the loss hasn’t set in yet, when you’re still denying how much that loss has changed you, finding comfort in the notion that your absent parent would never leave you brings a tranquil peace.
Actual grief—from the anger to the depression to the eventual acceptance—doesn’t benefit from platitudes because you’ve finally emerged wiser and with a content understanding that how you feel is valid.
You’re entitled to feel bitter on an overcast Monday morning, when all you really want to do is text that person who passed away. Sometimes, that will dictate your mood during the day. Other times, it’ll be a fleeting moment, an interval, a passage of time that simply becomes the norm. Both are inherently normal.
There’s nothing enjoyable about watching your parent or anyone else you love go through chemotherapy or radiation. There’s nothing enjoyable about every conversation focusing on death, wills, and chemo fatigue. There’s nothing enjoyable about wondering if it’s going to be your parent’s last Christmas. Don’t let someone pressure you into believing there is.
People provide platitudes because they don’t know what else to say to make it better. They want to remind you that you’re strong, that you’re a decent human being who will make it out the other side.
I don’t believe in platitudes because life is not that cut and dry. Yes, you will make it out the other side, but the obstacles you have to overcome to do so will most often feel insurmountable. Getting up IS a challenge. Smiling IS a challenge. Having fun IS a challenge. Acceptance IS a challenge. Depression IS a challenge. Taking care of an ailing parent IS a challenge. Not having any time for yourself IS a challenge. Grief, cancer, death—these three interlocking components—work together to ensure you’re as far removed from yourself as possible. And guess what? That’s the antithesis of easy.
Maybe for this woman, she spreads positivity because it’s what helped her cope through her own losses. Maybe she wishes she had someone there to tell her, “Be brave, be bold, be strong,” when her life seemed insurmountable. But that’s the thing about grief: no two processes are alike. What is inherently universal is needing support, allowing someone to vent about their problems without the silver lining showing through. When you’re dealing with a friend or a relative in grief, it’s better to say nothing at all. But if you do, here’s some words of encouragement: “You’re not alone.”
Because grief, death, cancer… these are words that cultivate situations that spur a feeling of loneliness. Because, there’s so much truth in the concept of not truly understanding what it’s like until it’s happening to you.