Please don’t tell me the way it is.
Especially when it comes to death.
My Mom died three weeks ago and I can’t tell you how many people sent me a message that said – in some version – “I know how hard it is to lose a mother.”
I’m certain all of the messages came with intentions to comfort. But instead of feeling consoled, I felt agitated.
I wanted to reply with something like this:
Maybe you know how hard your mother’s death was – or is – for you.
Or your friends.
Maybe you imagine it’ll be hard without having experienced it.
But what if it isn’t hard for me?
What if it’s actually wonderous, beautiful, and even easy?
What if, for some, having a mother is harder than losing one?
What if your intent to comfort is a lack of consideration for what the consolee might want or need?
So many what ifs.
Here’s an idea. When we find ourselves about to say we know how it is for others, let’s pause, bite our tongue, turn off our autopilot, and offer an inquiry instead – a wondering.
Like this …
How is it for you, your mother’s dying?
Here’s the thing …
Every time somebody told me they knew how hard it was for me, I turned away from their kindness. Why? Because they weren’t addressing me. They were projecting their experiences, fears, or assumptions onto me. That’s not a relationship – or a conversation.
I know we do this all the time.
We are rushed and habitual and don’t mean to be harsh or unkind.
But we are.
Here are some suggestions of how to change this.
Before we open our mouths, let’s consider what we’re about to say, especially to someone who is dealing with the death of a loved one, addiction recovery, losing a job, or basically any big life transition.
Consider approaching with an inquiry or an offer. Ask people how they are or if they feel like sharing. Ask them if there is anything you can do for them. Or if you have an idea of what you wish to do, ask if they would like that?
I know that some people in major transitions don’t often know what they want or need, and sometimes you just gotta bring over a pot of chicken soup whether they ask for it or not. But, as somebody who would likely feel imposed upon by such an overture – and I know I am not the only one out there – a little exploration of the territory might be beneficial.
Now, if you’re actually interested in how I’m doing, read on.
Dying is a labor.
Just as birthing is a wild, painful, blissful, and miraculous event, so is death. I watched my mother move through states of consciousness that were troubling, ecstatic, funny, and sad. She struggled. To be comfortable. To stay. To leave. To understand what was happening. I felt privileged to be with her – wherever she went. The week before she died I sat beside her all day while she slept, wishing I didn’t have to get on a plane and return home, telling her how much I love and appreciate her. It was painful for me to leave her to die without me there. After all, she was in labor – and labor likes company.
Dementia is a wonder.
Like death, dementia is another life circumstance that tends to have people telling you how awful, sad, and hard it must be. Though certainly troubling, disorienting, frightening, and uncomfortable at times, the disassembling of a stable sense of self can also be wonderous and mysterious. It depends on your perspective.
The stages before my mom stabilized in not knowing who anybody was were harder to be with than the final stage. In the earlier stages she seemed to know she was slipping into an untethered place, and she scrambled, often angrily, to maintain control – to hold on to some sense of competency. In the final stage she seemed to relax, let go, and get more playful and childlike. There were moments when she would totally crack me up and we’d laugh together and her eyes would twinkle as her brows would lift – leaving me delighting in the bittersweet angst of being human.
Though dementia and Alzheimers is a reality in our aging population that we must contend with, and is fraught with complexity and nuance, I suggest it is not something to fear or decide is bad or wrong. Rather, we might consider getting curious and examining what inside of us is scared or uncomfortable.
Death is weird.
Weird. It’s the word that fits the best. I have spent many hours contemplating, studying, wondering, and talking with others about death. Though there are many who claim to know what death is or what happens when we die, I’m not yet willing to collapse such a Mystery into a comfortable and falsely secure sense of certainty. I would rather allow the Mystery to remain intact and surrender to all that it gives – and takes away.
The word weird comes from the Old English wyrd, which means destiny. How perfect. Death is destiny. For all of us. Such certainty I can handle, and my mother’s death reminds me that mine is not far off. This is the good news, for it jostles me into a quality of sobriety that inspires me to show up.
Now that she is no longer here in this world, I live in the wondering of where she is and what or who is the “she” that does or doesn’t continue on. I’m taking this as an invitation to approach my relationship with my ancestors and my lineage with new regard and wonder. We shall see how that goes.
None of this has felt difficult, arduous, laborious, or demanding – if this is what one means by hard.
It’s been heartbreaking, mysterious, powerful, and humbling – in the best of ways.
May it be so for you.
But I promise to ask.