“How are you doing?”
This is the question I heard relentlessly from friends, co-workers, and acquaintances after my mom died. Most of the time, I wanted to respond with “I have zero fucking clue.”
Some moments, I felt surprisingly okay. Some moments, I worried that this overwhelming feeling of grief would never go away. Some moments I was worried it would. Some moments I didn’t want to talk about it, others I wanted to talk about nothing else. Explaining all that felt impossible — it still does.
My mom passed away two years ago. The grief was unimaginable. Nothing can prepare you for what it will feel like, but one aspect I was particularly surprised by was just how many uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes straight up offensive conversations I would have with the people in my life after it happened. These were people who wanted to be there for me or say the right thing, but didn’t know how to do it.
I don’t blame them. Our culture doesn’t do a great job with processing death. It’s one of the most jarring experiences to go through whether you’re experiencing loss yourself or watching someone you love go through the grieving process. None of it is easy. But we can’t avoid it.
After my mom died, it seemed like my friends had no idea what to say to me
When I found out my mom was dying, I tried to scrape up any vision of what grief might look like. I watched movies, read about grief, tried to prepare myself, as if grief was some kind of final I could cram for the night before. It didn’t work, of course. Right after my Mom died, I was sad, angry, frustrated, nostalgic, strangely thankful, then sad, then angry again, you name it — I felt it all, usually all within one day.
This whirlwind of emotions made it so hard to interact with my friends as I normally would. I’m sure it was difficult for them, too. How were they supposed to help me if I wasn’t sure what kind of help I needed from them in the first place?
I often found myself giving them passive answers to pacify their questions: I felt like they didn’t really want to hear how I was really doing. I can recall multiple conversations generally starting like this:
“How are you doing?”
“Actually, I’m having a hard time. I’m not sure how I’m feeling most of the time. I keep thinking about the moments leading up to what happened. It all feels very surreal. ”
And then generally, a lot of people in my life would response with variations of these answers:
“Oh … I’m sorry for your loss,” followed by uncomfortable bouts of silence. Or: “That is just so sad. I can’t imagine what that would be like for me,” followed by a quick change in subject.
These kinds of answers made me feel like they just wanted to hear that I was doing okay, and that anything else was too much for them to get into.
But as I moved farther away from the day my mom died, I found myself wanting to talk about my experience with grief, not to mention her, constantly. I also noticed that this candid conversation I craved also continued to make people around me uncomfortable. It felt like any time I’d voluntarily bring things up, people would change the subject. Or they’d shift the conversation to something less “depressing.”
I understood what they were doing, but it wasn’t what I wanted. What does it mean if the thing that helped me grieve my mother made the people closest to me uncomfortable? What did that mean for me and my process — and not to mention, my relationship with these people?
So for a while, I decided to remain frustrated and confused. It felt like I couldn’t be myself around some of my closest friends. The only thing I really wanted was to talk about my grief, but I felt that I had to censor myself. I started saying less about my mom. I started being less blunt about how I was feeling. It was just easier that way.
Then, my frustration turned into flat-out anger. I was the one in pain — why did I have to be the one to accommodate everyone else’s feelings? It felt selfish to think like this, but it was the truth. Then, in the midst of this less-than-admirable rage stage of my grieving process, something strange happened.
My close friends’ father died. I didn’t know how to act.
One of my closest friends’ father died about a year and a half after my mom. I thought for sure that I’d know exactly what to say, what to do, right off the bat. I knew not to ask how she was doing. I knew not to beat around the bush and pretend like everything was okay.
But I felt totally overwhelmed. I was scared I would say the wrong thing or that’d I’d cause her more pain. So I worried, I hesitated, and when I finally spoke up, I did just as my friends did — I beat around the bush.
I think I know the reason why people clam up when attempting to console a friend who is grieving: shame. We live in a world where people are consistently afraid of feeling shame — so many of us make life choices to avoid the feeling at all costs. Being told that you said the wrong thing — that you hurt someone or said something awkward — totally blows.
And when we’re trying to comfort a grieving loved one, we’re so worried about saying the wrong thing and feeling that dreaded shame that we sometimes decide it’s just easier not to say anything at all.
But we, as friends and loved ones, can do better. Far worse than shame is grieving a loved one and having a friend avoid speaking up for the sake of avoiding their own discomfort. I promise you that’s not what your grieving friend wants. If you aren’t sure what to say — hell, most of us who are grieving don’t know what we want you to say either — tell them that.
What to say when you’re at a loss for words
I decided to take my own advice when comforting my friend who lost her father. It felt so difficult at first, but once I broke past the initial hesitation, the conversation between us completely opened up and went something like this:
“This might be a weird thing to say, but when my mom died, for whatever reason I really wanted to talk about what happened in detail. It helped me process and made things feel less surreal. So, if there is ever a detail that you feel you can’t get out of your head and you want to share it, please share with me.”
That’s when my friend started to open up to me. She told me about how hard it was to talk to people about what she was feeling, and that she often felt she didn’t know how to respond when people checked in because she felt she had to sugarcoat her response. She discussed feeling so isolated in her grief — just as I had in mine. This conversation continued over time, both of us sharing our frustrations and feeling so relieved that we weren’t alone.
Everyone grieves differently, so it’s important to really tune into what your friend needs. If you’re completely unsure of where to even begin, here are a couple of ways to start the conversation with a grieving friend:
- I’m not going to pretend like I know what this must be like for you. But I want you to know I’m here and I’m all ears for anything you want to share. And if you don’t feel like sharing right now, I can happily talk your ear off with my own problems. Or my detailed breakdown of the latest episode of Insecure.
- Where are you at today with everything? Anything you feel like talking about specifically?
- I just wanted to throw out that I’m thinking about you and what you’re going through. I know there’s nothing I can say that will change how you’re feeling today, but if you need a sounding board to talk to or at — I’m here.
- Do you feel like grabbing dinner?
I promise you — having these conversations in person is infinitely easier than over a text. This, sometimes, is the easiest way to start the conversation. If you can’t meet in person, call them on the phone. I’m talking to you, fellow millennials.
The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to be honest. And be open-minded to the idea that your friend’s world has completely changed. Grief isn’t finite; you don’t “go through” grief. It’s a spectrum of experiences that continue throughout your life.
Your friend may be different to you forever, and that’s okay. This can be intimidating, but, after going through this both as someone who’s personally grieving and as a friend to someone who is grieving, don’t be afraid to be wrong. Just do your best, be present, and be prepared to get uncomfortable. You may be surprised what you learn in the process.
Chelsea Gray is a writer living in Los Angeles. Learn more about her here.