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The Questions That Hurt — Not Help — Someone Who's Grieving

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Editor's Note

If you’ve lost a loved one to cancer, the following story might be triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I considered opening this piece by defining grief, but I quickly realized that it’s undefinable. How can you put a specific name on something that disguises itself as a shadow that overcasts your entire day in ways hard to understand, something that can take an enjoyable outing with friends where everyone is laughing and engaged with one another, but isolate only you to the point that you realize too late that you’re crying and can’t stop.

I lost my mother last year — March of 2019. She was in charge of my everyday education from kindergarten to high school, my schedule and interactions with peers, family vacations, family mealtimes — in a word she was the consummate executive director of our home.

She started getting sick while we were on vacation in December of 2018 while on a family Christmas cruise for the holidays, and then she never stopped. As soon as a diagnosis of cancer began to slowly emerge from the seemingly hundreds of tests, I began receiving an outpour of messages from friends and family asking me deep questions I didn’t have the answers to or things I didn’t truly want to consider yet.

Will she get better? What’s the cancer‘s name? What can we do to help? 

Quite literally every question seemed impossible to answer because it was so hard to even think about anything other than the day to day. And with every question I realized how incapable I was to make her better and the situation as a whole. It was so hard to know what our family needed, and I think I ended up pushing away more help than anything simply because it was impossible to even know what we needed.

Almost overnight I had to transform from a devil-may-care college student into a fully functioning, emotionally strong and capable adult during the most difficult period of anyone’s life, regardless of age. I had to be alert, adept at change and able to balance some incredibly challenging experiences with a cool and level head.

For months, I was living off of packs of Skittles and protein bars with a regimen of energy drinks to keep myself awake, hyperalert and afloat through the school year. Only a few people truly saw what was really happening to me and to our family and stepped in to be genuinely supportive outside of a considerate card or text message that said that they couldn’t believe this was happening and all so suddenly.

I was just desperately trying to make it to every class at school whenever I wasn’t at the hospital or at home trying to keep everything afloat. Nearly every day I was on the phone with family and friends or making sure the house was a tidy, safe haven for everyone visiting.

A month before she died, I was asked even more questions and surprisingly, demands were made of me. Individuals began asking me questions like:

What are your future plans? Are you taking your mother’s cancer seriously? What are you doing to be helpful to your grieving father? 

A few times I was told that if I actually cared about my mother, I would drop out of college until she died or until she was on a path to complete recovery. While some may say that these individuals asking questions were well-intentioned, I have tremendous difficulty seeing how that could be possible.

If you’re someone attempting to reach out to an extremely fragile, grieving person, it is your duty and responsibility if you’re going to engage with them to be as compassionate and empathetic as possible. You have to think through your words and your actions.

Excluding those who came to visit my mother in the hospital, most people never saw what I saw — a woman who went from dancing, full of life and energy on a Carnival cruise ship to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to a paper-thin, skeleton shell of a human who could barely breathe without assistance, who never understood my choked goodbyes because her brain was at that point unable to form complete words or thoughts other than make hollow sounds.

I still have weekly nightmares from what I saw and what I was fully incapable of stopping.

Everyone fully expected her to get better, but something in my spirit and energy told me differently. I remember calling my close friend while in the elevator leaving her hospital floor just sobbing as I realized she wouldn’t leave the hospital alive. My father was unable to see beyond the present, so I took up making sure the house operated smoothly, family was called and brought to the hospital from across the United States.

Family came, and a few agonizing days later, she was gone, and family had left to return to their homes.

I was left picking up the pieces of my daily schedule and life with the sense of searing loneliness that took me a year to purge from my heart, and still to this day, it still crops up, especially around the holidays. Just a month later, my mother’s mother — my only living grandmother — died of broken heart syndrome.

Suddenly our family had lost the two matriarchs that tied us all together.

Looking back on the questions I was asked, there wasn’t a question that didn’t hurt. Even the well-meaning ones. Grief, experienced even as the situation that’s causing it hasn’t fully resolved, sets a person’s brain on fire.

The best, most healing experiences I had with friends and with my partner did not come from questions but were instead experiences where I could engage with them in light conversation where I knew it was safe for me to bring up my grief unprompted if I chose to.

These people arranged simple, safe spaces where we could experience something together without having to interact with others such as walks at the mall, visits to the beach, just spending time together in the same room while watching a Netflix comedy special, etc.

I also remember my college advisor and professor who allowed me to sit in her office and just stare at the four walls of her office while she handed me carrot sticks and a sandwich from her own lunch box only for her to allow me to not return to classes for a week after her passing and instead focus on catching up on sleep, writing my mother’s obituaries and plan her remembrance ceremonies.

If you’re someone supporting a grieving friend or family member, know that there’s nothing you’re going to be able to say to make it better. And that’s OK. Your presence of being in that person’s life is what really matters. Your grieving individual isn’t focused on anything other than the situation they’re in. Bring a meal unannounced. Love them quietly and steadfastly. When the time comes that they’re ready to speak about their experience, they’ll tell you and it’s then that you’ll get the chance to listen, instead of asking questions.

Listen and observe your grieving friend or family member. Recognize it’s not your job to fix the situation or the person, but instead to be there for them as a kind of sounding board and warm presence in what could be the very darkest period of a person’s life. I would go so far as to say not to engage with a grieving person unless you’re willing to put in the full work of being genuine and supportive through whatever their experience looks like.

Grief takes many forms, and each one is indescribable. But at the end of the day, be compassionate and loving to the grieving ones in your life.

You have no idea how badly they need it.

Getty image via Vaselena

Originally published: December 16, 2020
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