When my mom’s mother died, I was a preteen child. I remember looking up as grandma’s best friend put her arms around my mom and cried along with her. Through her own tears, she told my mom, “I know I’ll never replace your mother, but I’ll try to mother you for her.”
Twenty years later, after my mom’s funeral, that same dear woman (who was then widowed and had long since become Mom’s best friend) embraced me and said, “I know how much it hurt when I lost my mama. It has been years and years, and sometimes it still breaks me up. I won’t tell you it will stop hurting, because you never lose the hurt when you miss the ones you love. But it won’t always hurt as much or as deeply as it does now. One day you’ll feel the sweetness of your love as much as the pain.”
I found comfort in her acknowledgement of my grief. Her words validated the pain I felt. They promised I wouldn’t forget the love I’d always felt from my mom. They assured my love for her would remain significant, even in her absence.
In that time and place of acute, agonizing new loss, I didn’t want to hear anything that diminished the significance of my grief.
- I knew I wasn’t the only person to have had a loved one die, but I didn’t want my grief compared to theirs.
- It was helpful to hear, “I know how much I hurt when my mom died. I’m here for you,” but it never helped to hear people say, “I know exactly how you feel,” because they didn’t lose my mother.
- I was grateful that Mom no longer suffered from the cancer that killed her, but I hated hearing other people say, “At least she’s not suffering anymore.”
- I fully believed then and continue to believe now that my mother’s soul IS “in a better place,” but it felt hurtful and trite to hear would-be consolers say, “You can take comfort that she’s in a better place now,” because the important, essential fact was that she was gone.
I didn’t want to hear that I would stop hurting, because in that moment of bereavement when my LOSS surrounded me, the pain of mourning preserved my connection to Mom. To think of not missing her or to consider that I might stop mourning her felt like thinking of dismissing the bond between us and dismissing the significance of her role in my life.
I was pregnant with our second daughter when Dad’s mother died, and I was pregnant with our youngest daughter when my mom died. I can’t count how many well-meaning souls attempted to console me by saying, “At least you have the new baby to look forward to,” as if I should be content and ignore my grief because welcoming a new life should “undo” my bereavement over the end of my grandmother’s life — and then over my mother’s. As much as I glowed and grinned in the anticipation of each child’s arrival, I grieved for their yet-unborn losses, too, knowing they’d never get to know their great-grandma who’d nurtured and inspired me as much in my adulthood as she had in my childhood. I mourned for my youngest, that she’d never know the grandmother who’d rejoiced in putting as much loving energy into her too-brief years of grand-mothering as she’d put into decades of mothering me.
The condolences that offered me the greatest comfort in my new, raw grief (as a granddaughter, a daughter, and more recently as a widow) were the simplest, most spontaneous and heartfelt expressions of acknowledgment:
- I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your mother, your grandmother, your husband.
- I wish I knew what to say. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
- This is awful news. I’m devastated for you.
- I’m keeping you in my thoughts. You’re in my prayers.