Speaking to death and grief, part 1

The problem isn\’t that people do not know what to say to you when you tell them that your mother is dying it is that people want to say something wise, moving, insightful or spiritually uplifting.

Perhaps because so many of us are from small families and so few of us have experienced the practical details that attend sickness and death people have trouble understanding the deathbed realities of the grieving family.

The address book

My mother had an old well-thumbed address book. I think she bought it decades ago and over the years she had drawn lines through many of the addresses. In some cases my mother had simply lost touch with the person named but in a heart-breaking number of cases the struck-through addresses had the word \”dead\” written over them in red ink. But we could not simply pass on because of the red line drawn through the name. That person might still have living parents (unlikely), be survived by a spouse (somewhat less unlikely) or by children and grandchildren. We would search through the ragged address book looking for candidates.

We sat down and made a list of the people who needed to be called and shared the names out amongst us. We discussed what needed to be said and what was better left unsaid. And then we began making the phone calls.

How many times can one say \’my mother is dying?\’
How many times times can one politely and patiently answer the questions?

\”Are you sure?\”
\’Yes,\’ I would say, while thinking, would I call a near stranger to tell them this news were I not sure?\”When did you find out?\”

\’Well,\’ I would say \’I am fuzzy about the exact day,\’ while thinking, please please don\’t be offended that my first response was not to call you.

\”Is there anything I can do?\”
\’No,\’ I would say, while thinking, if I knew of anything anyone could do for my mother do you not think I would have already asked that it be done.*

You know that these people don\’t mean to hurt you. They may even think that they are helping you by giving you \’a chance to talk about it.\’ But talking about it doesn\’t make you less tired, less worried, less concerned about your father\’s health, less concerned as to whether your mother is scared or in pain.

Every second talking to someone else is a second you are not spending with your mother. And your mother has very few seconds left. You don\’t know when she will draw her last breath but you do not want to spend some of those last few precious moments of time telling yet another person \’my mother is dying.\’

So you answer the questions with as much speed and as little emotional involvement as possible.

And then you go back to your mother\’s bedside. Talking didn\’t help. Sharing didn\’t help. Answering questions didn\’t help.

Your mother is still dying.

* There are some wonderful people do don\’t say vaguely \”Is there anything I can do?\” but instead make suggestions as to what they could do. This frees you from the fear that you have misunderstood the nature of their offer. \”Would you like me to pick up your groceries?\” or \”Do you need to have any books returned to the library?\” are much more useful offers than a vague \’anything.\’

5 thoughts on “Speaking to death and grief, part 1

  1. It's amazing how many times, when I told people my grandmother was dying, the first response was, \”Oh, I'm sure she'll be fine.\”I know that's just people trying to be nice (and not wanting to deal with death), but I would just think, \”Really? Because I'm sure she won't.\”

  2. There are some wonderful people do don't say vaguely \”Is there anything I can do?\” but instead make suggestions as to what they could do. This frees you from the fear that you have misunderstood the nature of their offer. \”Would you like me to pick up your groceries?\” or \”Do you need to have any books returned to the library?\” are much more useful offers than a vague 'anything.'This is an interesting thought, and something I'll have to remember in the future. In the past, I've been the type to say \”anything\” simply because I'm not sure what the other person's needs are at the time. However, I suppose considering and suggesting some possible needs I think they might have makes a lot of sense.

  3. However, I suppose considering and suggesting some possible needs I think they might have makes a lot of sense.What I found was that if someone said \”is there anything\” I felt reluctant to ask for something concrete because I was not sure of the level of effort they might find reasonable. But if they said \”could I do something like return books to the library?\” I felt more comfortable in saying something in return like \”you know I have drycleaning I need to pick up — it would be fantastic if you could get it for me.\”The offers set the \”level of willingness\” and nudge one's grieving mind off generalized problems to the specific things one needed done

  4. Mmy: I saw the note you'd left on the Slacktiverse on the anniversary of your mother's death, and I thought of this poem, which reminds me of my father.If you find it intrusive or inapplicable, please forgive me and delete it.Thinking of you.fromWhere You Are—Mark Doty 2. EverywhereI thought I’d lost you. But you said I’m imbuedin the fabric of things, the waythat wax lost from batik shapesthe pattern where the dye won’t take.I make the space around you,and so allow you shape. And alwaysyou’ll feel the traces of that waxsoaked far into the weave:the air around your gestures,the silence after you speak.That’s me, the slight wind betweenyour hand and what you’re reaching for;chair and paper, book or cup:that close, where I am: betweenwhere breath ends, air starts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s