What do you say to your parents when their friends start dying?
April 18, 2016 9:40 AM   Subscribe

This past week, an old family friend passed away. This lady was a contemporary of my mom (they were friends/peers) and her passing was very sudden. She's super freaked out about this, and I have literally no idea what to say.

For reference, my mom will be 70 this year but I'd never believe it. The one grandmother I knew at 70 was a white-haired hobbling old lady, and my mom is a badass woman who rides horses and drives tractors and a host of other crazy stuff. She's got mostly zero health problems other than a weird bout with kidney stones in the recent past and I just don't think of my mom as old. She doesn't act old.

So her friend passed, someone who was an "unofficial aunt" to me - and 5-6 years ago, her sister passed after a long, weird illness. In general her friends are just obviously getting older and this is going to start being a thing that happens.

My mom isn't great about talking about feelings. I think she was probably punished pretty heavily for "weakness" as a kid (unverified suspicion) so she tends to report things like, "SO AND SO DIED" in a pretty neutral fashion and doesn't say, damn, that freaks me out, or whatever, until she's so wound up about it that she ends up crying to me about it on the phone. We aren't a family of sugar-coaters, and I just don't know what to say. "Don't worry about it," is obvious bullshit. I've gone with, "Well, you're really active" and "you got sent away from the cardiologist because your heart is more than fine, so that's good." I've also gone with, "that sucks, Mom."

But I mean, the fact is: people get old and people die and those things are not always hand-in-hand but it's kind of inevitable. I feel helpless and stupid. What do you say at times like this? My mom facing her own mortality is super weird.
posted by Medieval Maven to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm so sorry you lost your friend. Would you like to talk about it?"

I'd avoid commenting on her health at these times. If you mother's friend was paralyzed in an accident you wouldn't point out to your mom that her legs still work. You'd focus on the friend and the loss and how to support those involved.
posted by cecic at 9:52 AM on April 18, 2016 [17 favorites]

Yeah, we're all going to die, so the best thing you can do is commiserate with her loss. Say nice things about the departed, share memories. Tell your Mom how much you love her and tell her how happy you are that she's still with you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:56 AM on April 18, 2016

Of the statements you give, "That sucks Mom" is probably the best one. The others sound more like you, with the best intentions, are trying to make her feel better by telling her what she should be feeling. And it's not going to be helpful to her to mention her own good health - she knows that's only temporary, it doesn't really help her deal with the loss, and it can really come off as invalidating her feelings, which you clearly don't want to do. (Maybe it helps you deal with it because you fear losing your mother - which is a totally natural way to feel during these times - but not what your mom needs to hear - I hope that you have someone else you can talk to about that.) One possibility would be asking her questions. How are you holding up? Are you doing OK? How do you feel about it? And let her talk. And then there's just something simple like "I'm really sorry" or "that must be hard." I've had a lot of people close to me die, and I'm well aware that nobody can really make it better. However, sincere expressions of sympathy go a long, long way. And if she cries to you on the phone, the best thing you can do is let her cry and listen to what she has to say. You cannot make this easy. You cannot make the bad feelings go away. All you can really do is provide a sympathetic ear and let her feel the way she needs to feel.
Also, sometimes people think it's best to try to distract someone from thoughts of a death - it isn't. The person who is mourning is not going to just forget the person who died. The feelings need to be expressed and dealt with one way or another. You can give your mother the valuable gift of listening to her.
posted by FencingGal at 9:57 AM on April 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry your mom is having such a sad time. She sounds really cool by the way.

When she gets upset about it on the phone, why is she getting upset? I wasn't quite clear on this from your post, apologies.

If the main reason is the mortality-facing, then maybe you can dig into that a bit on your next call. Is there stuff she hasn't done yet that she wishes she had? See if you can help her make it happen. Is she worried about any little health niggles? Book her a checkup and go with her if you can. If it's bare existential dread then maybe she could benefit from counselling or a meditation programme.

BUT, is it more just the weight of the grief that is upsetting her? If so, there's a big grey area between "that sucks" and "sugar-coating", including asking her to tell you about the friend who died and their experiences together, and asking if the friend has left any relatives behind who could use support, that kind of thing.

You don't have to do any of this, but it's some ideas of where to start.
posted by greenish at 9:57 AM on April 18, 2016

"I'm so sorry. I know you'll miss them." And then ask if she wants to talk about it. Or if it's someone you also knew, tell a short anecdote about them. Like "I remember when..." If she's hesitant to talk about her feelings at first, that could help her to realize that you're open to talking. Unless you aren't. And that's okay too.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 9:57 AM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

This seems to be one of those situations where what you say isn't nearly as important as what you don't say. Anything you say to try to draw her attention away from her own mortality is not going to be seen as helpful. She's grieving and that's often interpreted as a call for advice when what's best is (unfortunately) the generic condolences, sharing reminiscences, and letting her drive the conversation. Silence is OK. If you really feel impelled to say something, ask her to share memories.
posted by psoas at 9:58 AM on April 18, 2016

Oh, and if you live nearby and can go to the funerals with her, do that. See this essay.
posted by FencingGal at 10:00 AM on April 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

I asked a similar question a few years ago and got some helpful responses; hopefully they will help you too.
posted by headnsouth at 10:08 AM on April 18, 2016

"I'm sorry, Mom" works just fine. If she's worried about her health, maybe asking what she worries about, health-wise, that you guys could hash out or something?
posted by xingcat at 10:26 AM on April 18, 2016

Agreeing with the folks above: commiserate with her ("that's awful, Mom"), but don't compare them with her ("but you're still doing okay").

Probably part of her problem is, yes, knowing these are her contemporaries: it hits closer to home when you're old(ish) and someone near your age dies, than if we'd had a contemporary die in a car wreck when we were all in our twenties; it sort of emphasizes Your Time Is Coming!!

Another aspect is being the oldest person around: it's hard to ignore when everyone you know is younger than you. Something else along those lines is when you discover you're the senior member of your family --- it's a real shock to the system to suddenly realize everyone is looking up to you for wisdom and advice; to no longer have the emotional support net of having someone, a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle or anyone older to look up to: maybe you haven't asked for advice for ages, but it's still comforting just to know they're there. I liken it to that feeling of when you go down stairs and reach for a step that isn't there.... because the body may have aged, but deep inside we're still the same person we always were, we remember all our screw-ups, but suddenly we're the Wise Old Person?!? WTF?!?
posted by easily confused at 10:34 AM on April 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

My mom isn't great about talking about feelings. I think she was probably punished pretty heavily for "weakness" as a kid (unverified suspicion) so she tends to report things like, "SO AND SO DIED" in a pretty neutral fashion and doesn't say, damn, that freaks me out, or whatever, until she's so wound up about it that she ends up crying to me about it on the phone.

I'm not sure that it's fair to accuse your mother of not being "Great" at talking about feelings, based on what you've written. There's nothing wrong with crying to a loving daughter on the phone, and there's nothing wrong with not feeling, or choosing not to express feelings of sadness at the same time as reporting bad news. It just seems like she needs to be in the right mindset before she's willing to talk about and express her feelings, which is totally fine.

I also note that your question doesn't include your mom expressing feelings either way about her own mortality. I wonder if your anxieties here are wrapped up in the worry that you have about losing your mom at some point in the future. You're seeing her less active/healthy contemporaries leave us, and you're fixating on your mother's good health as a reason to somehow doubt that the same will happen to her, eventually. Which, you know, is a fine way for yourself to cope with your own worries (god knows I'm grateful for my mom's jogging habit), but which isn't really relevant to how you should communicate with your mother.

So, yeah, I agree that a good way to being loving to your mom through these times is to be "there" for her as much as possible. Attending the funeral, telling stories about what [contemporary] meant to you, offering your ear for her to talk, but not pushing her to talk before she's ready. It sounds like she's lucky to have you, OP.

I'm going to call my mom tonight.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:19 AM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Sorry, Mom" and ask something about the person... "Were you guys close?" "any fave memory?"
posted by artdrectr at 12:13 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Saying stuff about her being active and her heart probably being in good shape are silly from my perspective. I'm an ER doctor so I deal with death a lot. We see marathon runners who drop dead on a run all the time. Being healthy and active doesn't give you immunity against death. People don't only die when they "deserve" to die. The world isn't fair like that. At this point I'm sure your mom is well aware of that fact.

I would just ask open ended questions about how this makes her feel and what specifically bothers her about it. Maybe she's thinking about some specific things that she wanted to do before she dies that you could help her get done. Maybe she's panicked because she realized she doesn't have her affairs in order. Maybe she is secretly terrified of some specific cancer that someone she knew or someone in the family had, or some symptom she's been noticing that she is now sure is a sign of cancer and is afraid to go to a doctor about. There might be something with a concrete solution you could help her work towards, there might not, but it's good to give her an outlet to discuss how she feels with you. Too many people are afraid to talk about death or just avoid talking about it in general. From what I have seen, that's part of the reason why many people are poorly prepared when it happens to them or someone they love.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:33 PM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm reading this thread with interest, because all of a sudden it seems like my mother's in this spot. The first loss was my stepdad who, a month before his 80th birthday, got a diagnosis of inoperable cancer and died 5 months later.

A couple months later, one of their friends dodged the cardiac trouble he'd been fighting for decades and slipped down a hill while taking a photograph on vacation, hit his head, and was done. A third friend is clearly on his final act. Another is fading with dementia. Then a couple weeks ago, my best friend's mother passed away somewhat suddenly; they weren't close, but they are close to the same age.

My mom feels like it's all happening at once, and I can totally understand that feeling because it seems completely accurate. She's coping well about it -- we talk frequently -- and as part of this she's made the decision to move from my hometown (where she's lived since the 60s) to the state capital 85 miles up the highway, where my brother and youngest stepsister live. Part of it is that she wants to move past mourning for my stepdad, and part of it, I'm sure, is to put some distance between her and the sudden influx of mortality in my hometown. I don't blame her.
posted by uberchet at 1:26 PM on April 18, 2016

Thanks, everyone, lots of good stuff here.

My mom has in the past expressed a specific fear of dying before her time. Her mother had a massive heart attack at a youngish age -- 56, I think? I was 3 when this happened, if that -- and it was a big deal to pass that marker. So I think as these people are passing part of that "It could happen to me" is resurfacing. And that feeds into my paralysis because, yeah. Everything just feels inadequate.

Anyway, anyone with anything else to say, please do. It's getting weird in here, and it's nice to know that the things you say are just going to feel inadequate and that's okay, actually. As odd as that may seem.

Oh, and my mom is a badass. Thank you, upthread person, for saying she sounded cool because she IS amazing, and I'd do a lot worse than to turn into her as I age.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:44 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mom, you are such a badass, you are going to outlive a lot of people; and for that, I am grateful. I am grateful for every day you walk this world. Let's get together!
posted by Oyéah at 4:50 PM on April 18, 2016

Everyone used to talk about how healthy and young my mother-in-law seemed, and she just died less than a week after suddenly becoming very not-healthy indeed. I think the shock of cognitive dissonance has made things worse on my partner and his birth family, so while I understand the impulse to logic your way through her worries about her heart, know that there are no promises in this world.

But yes. Everything is inadequate and yet, some of the most random, apparently-inappropriate-but-heartfelt things people have said to me have been the best*. Be sincere, even if you're only sincerely overwhelmed by the depths of grief and the cruelty of mortality. Listen. Be alive, and present.

*A dear friend regarding my dad's cancer: "Don't let it eat you up inside." I laugh everytime I think of it, and what more can you hope for?
posted by teremala at 4:59 PM on April 18, 2016

My mother's only sibling -- her sister -- died in December. Her parents are gone too. Last month her ex-brother-in-law and his wife (we are all still close) were in a car accident. She died on impact and he's clinging to life. Two of her coworkers are out with very serious cancers. She's now the matriarch of my extended family. And she feels completely alone.

She is deep in the depths of grief, and all I can do is listen. And when I get the chance to say something I tell her we have to enjoy each other while we're still here. And then I go back to listening.
posted by kimberussell at 7:03 PM on April 18, 2016

My parents are in this same stage, and it feels like every other phone call, they report that somebody died. Recently I expressed surprise that they were moving away from their longtime community and they very matter-of-factly said, "Well, a lot of our friends have died."

I try not to conflate "your friend just died" with "now you must face your own mortality." I tell them I'm sorry for their loss, and I ask about their friend and their friend's surviving family, and the funeral arrangements. I bring up my own memories of their friend, if I knew them. I may say something like, "You've had several friends all pass away recently, that must be really hard, how are you doing?" But unless they brought it up, I wouldn't jump to, "But YOU'RE probably not going to die anytime soon, so don't worry!" I think it seems kind of callous, it's not necessarily true, and it's not really the point.
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:59 PM on April 18, 2016

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