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Justin Lee on faith, culture, and nuance

Justin Lee on faith, culture, and nuance

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My mom just died. Here’s what you should say.

A few days ago, my amazing mom died from a progressive brain disease. We were very close, and I’m still in shock.

As I’m going through the grieving process, I’m discovering that a lot of very good people are very bad at knowing what to say at a time like this. So over the last few days, I’ve been making a list of things I wish people would do when they find out I’m grieving. (It’s one of the weird ways I’m working through my emotions right now.)

Everyone grieves differently, but maybe this list will prove helpful to you next time someone close to you has a tragedy and you aren’t sure what to do or say.

1. When you see me, ask how I am. A simple “How are you doing?” or “How are you holding up?” works wonders. It shows that you care, and it gives me the freedom to respond with a simple “Fine, thanks,” if I don’t want to talk about it—or to give more detail if I do.

2. Pay attention to the mood I’m in. I’ve come to realize that I have three different ways of handling grief:

  • Sometimes I want to talk through it.
  • Sometimes I want to get my mind off of it for a while.
  • And sometimes I just want to be alone.

The best friends are good at noticing which mode I’m operating in at any given moment. If they aren’t sure, they ask. “Would you like to talk about it, or would you prefer a distraction?” “Would you like to get out? Or do you need some space right now?” These are wonderful questions.

3. Let me decide what I need in the moment. At times, I’ve said I wanted to get my mind off of my grief, only to have someone say to me, “No, you need to talk about this to work through it. Avoidance isn’t healthy.” That doesn’t help me. Yes, I will talk through this at some point, but this may not be the right time for me, and you might not be the person I choose to talk through it with. (I might choose a therapist, family member, or pastor, for instance. Please don’t take it personally.) Remember, everyone grieves differently, and only I know what I need at any given moment.

4. If I want to talk, let me talk. Don’t worry about saying the right things; there aren’t any magic words you can say to make me feel better, and we both know it. Just listen. You don’t need to say anything at all beyond “I’m sorry.”

5. Don’t try to fix it. I don’t want to hear about how she’s in a better place. I don’t want to hear about how “God called home an angel,” or how it’s good she’s not suffering, or how she’ll live on in our hearts. I already know these things, and I might say them myself, but when you say them, it feels a bit like you’re trying to cheer me up and stop me from grieving. Right now, I need to grieve, so let me grieve.

6. If I don’t want to talk about it, you can help by being a distraction. When I’m in distraction mode, it isn’t the right time to ask for details about what happened, how the funeral went, or what she was like, even if you’re insanely curious. Right now, I want to make jokes, go for a walk, watch a movie, or something else. Don’t treat me like I’m fragile, and don’t worry if my mood seems to shift a lot. I might laugh one minute and cry the next. It’s okay. I’m glad you’re with me, and I still don’t want to talk about the other stuff. Not right now.

7. If I want to be alone, let me be alone. Don’t take it personally; it’s not about you. I just need some space to process my grief. Don’t try to cheer me up. That only makes me feel worse. Let me know you’re intentionally giving me space and that you’re available when I want to call on you—that lets me know you’re not just abandoning me—but then leave. Let me have the time and space I need, without my having to worry about what you are thinking.

8. Don’t tell me you “know how it feels.” You don’t. You can’t know how it feels to be me right now because you’re not me. One of my best friends also just lost his mom to a similar neurological disease, but even he doesn’t know exactly how I feel, and I don’t know exactly how he felt. We’re different people, our moms were different people, and our experiences of grief are different.

What is appropriate is to relate: “I’m so sorry. My mom died years ago and I still cry when I think about her.” That tells me that you understand that this is difficult, but that you don’t necessarily think your grief was equivalent to my grief. If you’ve never had a serious loss, just say something like, “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now,” and follow it up with letting me know you’re here for me.

9. Instead of asking if there’s anything you can do, offer something specific. In the past, I’ve been guilty of asking people, “Is there anything I can do?” But I’m discovering I don’t like it much when people ask me, because I really don’t know what to tell them.

I know, when people say this, they just want me to know that they care and that I can call upon them. But when my friend from many states away asks me what she can do, I don’t know what to tell her. She can’t bring my mom back. She can’t take away my grief. She can’t make it all better. And when I’m already feeling emotionally overwhelmed, it’s easy for her well-intentioned question to come across to me like, “Knowing you’re sad makes me feel helpless. I don’t like feeling helpless, so I’m now transferring the burden to you to find something I can do so that I’ll feel less helpless, or so that you’ll say there’s nothing I can do and I can feel better and know that I’ve done my duty.”

That might sound strange, but I’m amazed at how often I find myself, as a grieving person, having to comfort other people for their feelings of helplessness and discomfort surrounding my grief. It’s okay that you don’t know what to say or do. I don’t expect you to. And if you can’t think of anything you could do in this situation, there’s probably not anything. It’s okay to just be a good listener. I’d rather not be tasked with the responsibility of finding something for you to do.

On the other hand, if you can think of something specific I might need, it’s great to offer that: “Can I bring you dinner?” “Can I finish that project for you so you can spend more time with your family?” “Would you like to get out for a while for coffee or drinks?” I appreciate the offer, and I might take you up on it. Just be sure not to pressure me or be offended if I decline.

10. Understand that this is a slow, difficult, often confusing journey. Sometimes, I might seem very inconsistent in what I want. As I write this, I’m feeling fine. That’s no guarantee I’ll be feeling fine ten minutes from now. The day after my mother died, I poured myself into work like nothing was wrong. Today, I’m taking the day off to be alone. Months from now, when you’ve forgotten this post, I may still be grieving and have times when it seems like more than I can bear—but feel awkward bringing it up for fear of being a downer.

Don’t assume everything is fine just because I seem to be my usual cheerful self, and don’t assume I’m not fine if I say I really am. Sometimes, grief comes in waves.

The grieving process is a weird thing. But if you are comfortable enough to let me grieve in my own way, you can make it much easier for me to do what I need to do and keep moving forward. And that is one of the marks of a true friend.

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