When I was 13, my mother lost a short battle with lung cancer. Overnight I went from the girl with the really involved family to the girl with the dead mom. It wasn’t a label I was fond of having. Things got awkward. Friends didn’t know what to say. The word ‘mom’ and any synonym for it was avoided at all costs because no one wanted to upset me. This went as far as having a teacher remove me from a class prior to reading a story that dealt with a similar situation. Instead of making things better, it caused me to cry for being singled out in an attempt to spare me from any more grief. Looking back, I think she wanted me gone so that no one would have to openly acknowledge that awful things happen to good people. It was a technique used to shield the rest of the class from negative feelings, not save me from pain.
In high school, I was a well-adjusted (as well-adjusted as you can be at that time), smiling young girl who was always optimistic. That was, and still is my personality. I was resilient, coping well, and gave people no reason to doubt that I was working through the situation in a positive manner. Still, I often got asked why I wasn’t crying all the time or perpetually sad. How could I possibly live my life with a smile on my face when one of my parents was deceased?
What no one understood is that everyone grieves differently which is perfectly okay. I chose to write in my journal, pen poetry, and continue on with things I enjoyed. I wanted to embrace life after my mother’s death instead of dwelling on that day even though I remembered it like it just happened. Instead of falling into a depression, I was emotionally (and mentally) able to choose joy in her memory. While I know that’s not necessarily easy for everyone, this was how I decided to grieve and no one should have questioned it.
What I realize now is that everyone was more focused on their own personal issues surrounding death. No one ever asked me how I was actually feeling or talked to me openly about losing someone I loved. Instead, judgments were passed based on my lack of display of negative emotions because it’s not how others would have handled this type of tragedy. This only caused me to keep even more silent about the situation. Then, the cycle simply continued on with everyone tip-toeing around and ignoring the large elephant in the room known as death and dying.
Fast forward a couple of years and now I’m the girl with two dead parents. Due to a freak illness and sepsis after surgery, my father passed away right after I graduated from college when I was 22. The awkwardness came around again but on a different level. Now I’m not just the girl everyone feels bad for. Now I’m an orphan. More labels that I don’t want that try to drag me six feet down under where all the other dead parents lie.
Whenever I meet a new colleague or friend I wait for them to ask about my parents. Mostly everyone assumes they’re still alive (they have no reason not to), but when the topic eventually comes up I have a decision to make. If I choose to tell them my parents are deceased the conversation goes like this: “I’m so sorry,” they’ll say. Then they’ll avert their eyes and stand there with an awkward silence that I’m forced to fill. I never know the right response. If I’m too optimistic and say “thank you, I miss them but am doing well” then I look like an uncaring bitch. If I respond negatively as though I’m still deeply troubled over the situation, they don’t know how to comfort me. There is no middle.
I spend more time attempting to make others feel less awkward over the death of my parents than any one has ever spent making sure I was okay myself.
Sometimes I pretend they are still alive so I don’t have to go through this.
What all of this boils down to is that most people still find death to be taboo. They don’t know how to grieve, support others in their grief, or be truly empathetic of the circumstances. Many people provide inane comments or make negative assumptions that make the situation more uncomfortable than it has to be. Instead of having a respectful understanding that people die (and it’s terrible), they avoid the topic or turn it into a jumbled mess.
Don’t get me wrong. I can understand why no one wants to openly chat with me about the death (and life) of my parents. It brings up feelings that people associate with pain and so it’s avoided at all costs. In some regard, they’re right about this. It really sucks that my parents are dead. My mom never got to see me graduate high school, college, or graduate school. My dad wasn’t here to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day. Sometimes I’m sad and I cry and I miss them every day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t live my life in a positive manner. It doesn’t mean I can’t have an open conversation about how they, or their deaths, influenced me. It mostly certainly doesn’t mean I or others should completely avoid the topic of death just to spare a few negative feelings. With conversation comes enlightenment and with enlightenment comes healing.
So, as the girl with the dead parents, I ask you not to shy away from these conversations. If you are comfortable with the person, politely ask them how it feels and what they need from you, if anything. Discuss your fears and theirs surrounding the awfulness that is the death of a loved one. Talk about the positive memories just like you would if the person were still alive. If they don’t want to talk about it, it’s okay to sit with them in silent solidarity to show that you know it’s tough, but you’re there for them. Just don’t stand there and offer deadpan, unsympathetic condolences because you’re more uncomfortable with the situation than I am.
The more I experienced death in my life, the more I learned to cherish being alive. The more openly I began to talk about it, the better able I was to cope with very difficult situations. Learn to grow, question, and discuss the hard things. It may not be fun, but you will be a better person for it.