You Need Help: A Lesson Before Dying

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you seek advice and we try our very best to give it.

This has traditionally been done by way of individual Formspring accounts, Autostraddle’s Tumblr and a Formspring Friday column, which has all been very fun and insightful. But, because Formspring has a character limit and we’re wildly optimistic w/r/t our time-management skills, we thought we’d go one further and let you use our ASS private messaging to share advice-related feelings, too.

For more info on sending in questions, see the bottom of this post. Let’s get down to bossing people around on the internet! Today we’re gonna talk about the death of a parent.

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Question:

My best friend’s mother is going to die. She’s been battling breast cancer this summer, and it’s spread to the bone. She refused another round of chemo, and is now refusing hospice care, which looks like it’s the only option. She is going home this weekend to be with her… I was just wondering if you have any advice for her, or honestly, for me. My heart is breaking into a million pieces, I love her so much. She’s just 20 years old, a senior in college–her mother raised her alone, and they are best friends. I know I can’t do anything except be there for her, however she needs me to be, whether it’s making sure she eats every day or letting her sleep over at night, but I can’t even begin to imagine what she’s going through. I know your experience in this department is incredibly personal and private, but would you be willing to share any advice for picking up the pieces of your life after the death of a parent?

 Answer:

First you must accept that you cannot make it better. Nothing will make it better. That’s not temporary, either — the pain becomes familiar over time but it never gets better and nothing makes it better. Eventually the best anyone can do is recognize that tragedy isn’t a glitch in the matrix, tragedy is as much a part of life as happiness is.

Before I go on I want to say that my ‘experience in this department’ is similar to your friend’s but also different — I think it’s really different to lose a parent to a disease that kills over time than it is to lose a parent to a sudden unexpected accident/medical emergency. There’s no hierarchy, just difference with respect to how you see the world from then on out. I’m not sure she can imagine what it was like for me to lose my father suddenly and absolutely any more than I can imagine what it’s like for her to lose her mother gradually and then entirely.

But I know about the hole that you can’t make better. I guess I know about all the things that are the same, which is everything that happens after the death itself.

Be there. Just be there. For months afterwards I couldn’t be alone, which was so strange for me ’cause I’d always relished alone time. In order to survive entire days, she’ll have to start by surviving entire hours. At first it was minutes.

I cannot listen to As I Lay Me Down by Sophie B Hawkins for one more minute

I cannot watch Home Improvement for one more minute

I cannot be an actress in this play for one more minute because he will not be there on opening night so what is the fucking point

It helps to fill them. The minutes and then the hours and then the days. My Dad’s funeral was on a Saturday and I went back to school on Monday. Everyone thought I was crazy and I should take more time off. “Time off” sounded like purgatory.

If she is alone with only her own thoughts for many hours, she might feel like a piano has been dropped on her head and she might feel like the piano keeps on playing right there on her head. Like it’s playing really sad songs on top of her head and the keys are banging against her heart like hail.

But if she wants you to go, then go.

Basically do what she wants you to do. But sometimes it helps to pick the movie you’re going to see because deciding things can get exhausting.

Listen to her. Make her laugh.

Let her cry more hysterically than you knew human beings were capable of crying. It’s like animal sorrow, just wild and suffocating. Let her feel desperately sorry for herself. Let her feel entitled to everything else because she lost the only thing that mattered.  Dave Eggers, in A Heatbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, wrote about the sudden death of his parents which left him as caretaker for his younger brother and I admit I felt this way at times:

“Look at us, goddamit. The two of us, slingshoted from the back side of the moon, greedily cartwheeling toward everything we are owed. Every day we are collecting on whats coming to us, each day we’re being paid back for what is owed, what we deserve, with interest, with some extra motherfucking consideration–we are owed, goddamit– and so we are expecting everything, everything.”

Everybody grieves differently. For me it was like holding my breath. The first year is unfathomably terrible. Every holiday reminds you of last year’s holiday. It’s the first snow since they died. Oh, the movie they’ll never see but wanted to see just came out. So, this is what it’s like to not have parents on Parents Day.

An entire year of awkward pauses when people ask “what does your mother do?” (Somehow “mostly just lies around in the dirt” wasn’t funny to anyone but me, because nobody is as sick in the head as I am, apparently.) The first year is the hardest part and after that the pain just settles in for the long haul, less acutely but there all the same.

It’s like you’re being followed by a ghost that’s actually a hole. So I just tried to hold my breath — watched 90210, wore glitter from the craft store on my face like it was makeup, made music videos with my friends. I gradually built a life so different from the one I lived while he was alive that I no longer noticed his absence in every room. I built a life around rooms he’d never been in. I ran away.

I was six years younger than your friend. I don’t know how it would’ve been if I’d had six more years. I don’t think I would’ve run away. Maybe I would’ve known enough about myself to know where to begin with grief.

I can tell you what my friends did: they slept over. For the first week or so I had friends sleeping on my floor or in my bed. For a while I slept in my Mom’s bed with her. All of our friends brought food because everyone brings food. They listened to me. They let me try to push them away and didn’t take it personally and came back when I was ready.

Ask her questions about her Mom. Like ask her questions about when her Mom was the funniest or what was the best thing they ever did together or just ask her things so she knows that you know that her Mom is still a part of her forever and just because she’s dead doesn’t mean she’s not there.

If five years from now you say something like, “I think your Mom would’ve liked [x],” it will mean so much to her.

I was young and didn’t have very many things to keep track of, but for some people it helps to have assistance keeping track of things:

Did she eat dinner?

Did she pay [bill]?

Did she enroll in [x] before the deadline of [x]?

Maybe it feels good to be taken care of. To feel like someone is looking out for her even though her mother is not, especially if she’s been taking care of her mother for a long time. Ask her about her things and take her out to dinner when things go really well. Make her feel like someone is tracking her progress so she knows her progress matters.

Take care of yourself. Sometimes step back from the situation and think “I am okay, and that is why I can be here for her in this sadness and not also die.” Recognize that you need to do things for you in order to do things for her. That means going out and gathering happiness where you can find it so that it all balances out. Don’t lose yourself. Take care of yourself too.

Your mission isn’t curing a thing, it is easing the pain of a thing, and there isn’t much reward in that. But it makes you a really good person, after all, to do it anyhow.

She will be okay. We all are. You go on. You have to go on, and so you go on. You just go on. You can’t imagine going on until it happens and then it happens and you do. I promise you this. Believing that you won’t go on — that’s part of it, too.

Nature is morally blind, without values. It churns along, following its own laws, not caring who or what gets in the way. But God is not morally blind. I could not worship Him if I thought He was. God stands for justice, for fairness, for compassion. For me, the earthquake is not an ‘act of God.’ The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake, and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can.”

– Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

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Riese is a Jewish lesbian and the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2632 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Two years ago one of my best friends lost her dad very suddenly, right before your final year 12 exams. I wish I had this article then- it was beautifully written and painfully truthful. Thank you.

  2. This has been my life for the past three years. First my friend lost her dad. 8 months later, I lost my grandmother, who had lived with me almost my whole life. I might as well have lost my mom too, because she was so depressed she could hardly get out of bed for weeks. 6 months after that, another friend of mine lost her mom. And 5 months after that, my grandpa passed away. My mom, who was just starting to get better after my grandma, pretty much lost it. Thankfully she is doing a lot better now. She got a new job, and that definitely helped distract her and pull her out of it. She can laugh again, and it doesn’t sound like she’s trying not to cry all the time. I don’t come home from school to find her huddled on the couch sobbing uncontrollably. And now I’m sobbing, because this article is so sad and beautiful and true. Those wounds are always there, waiting to rip open again like a scab that will never heal. Sometimes it will bleed and sometimes it will just twinge a little, but it will always, always be there.

  3. I think it needs to be made absolutely clear that you shouldn’t do anything without asking first, and seriously listen to what they tell you. There are a lot of misconceptions about the way people deal with personal trauma, what works for some may be the opposite of helpful to others.

    Ultimately, I think advice regarding how to help a friend going through the death of a parent (or anyone else for that matter) could be boiled down to:

    Ask them, they know best, they are that person.

    I lost my mother at 16 and father at 21 and would have found some of the suggestions to be at best an annoyance or at worst vaguely offensive.

  4. I cried reading this. I’m crying still. Tomorrow I will think of this and I will no doubt cry again. But it’s a good crying. And I thank you. Despite the tears..Despite the running nose..I thank you for this.

  5. thank you.

    I think I might lose my grandmother soon, and whenever I talk to my dad I can hear if he’s been crying.

    I wrote down “It helps to fill them. The minutes and then the hours and then the days.”, and this could be a constant reminder for the next weeks or months, even, I think.

  6. I’m lucky, I’ve yet to lose ayone really close to me. But a friend of mine lost his mother last year; he was living in the UK and his family were in Kenya. He got a call one day telling she was ill, and she dies before he got there. She was young and otherwise healthy, and it was a total shock. What he told me was that the worst thing, apart from the obvious, was that suddenly nothing felt safe anymore. If this could happen, then the world wasn’t a safe place for him and anything bad could happen. He had a lot of anxiety problems and panic attacks, but a year on he’s doing really well. He also told me that the best thing anyone can do is listen. Just listen, to whatever they need to say, and acknowledge what they’re feeling. That’s all you can do, and he said to him it made a huge difference for people not to try to reassure him or persuade him that what he was feeling wasn’t true or that he’d feel better soon. but just to listen to what he was feeling now, and not to try to pretend that everything was okay.
    I’m so sorry for what your friend’s going through, and still has to go through. Of course she’ll survive, but that doesn’t make it any less unbearable. I think maybe the best thing you can do is to know that you can’t make it better, and be there anyway.

  7. My friends mother died while we were doing our A level exams and I believed from seeing it that she would die from sadness.
    I think basically there is nothing you can say to make it better, and as long as you aknowledge that you will find the right words. And you have to hug her a thousand times tighter than you did before, and let her hug you really tight even though her fingernails are digging in and hurting you, because she will wail and cry and hug you like her soul wants to climb inside your body and be a part of your physical being just so she feels less alone.

  8. Rie,
    I could have not said it better myself.
    And I would like to add a few tips from my way-too-vast experience.
    There are many many stupid things people say, usually well-meaning people who are feeling uncomfortable themselves. Try not to yell or smack someone who says: ‘they’ve moved onto a better place’ or ‘you’re lucky to have gotten to know them before they died’ or ‘don’t cry, they wouldn’t want you to be sad’ or ‘there there now, it’ll get better’. My personal favorite is a variation of ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ to which Riese and her brother said ‘yeah, but who needs this much strength?’
    As Riese said so eloquently, it never gets better, just more familiar. Like the dull ache of a sprained wrist, you learn to work around it.
    A few months from after the funeral and everyone has gone about their lives, this is when your support will be needed the most.
    And, celebrate the person’s life, long after they’ve gone. On the 1st year anniversary of Riese’s father’s death lots of our old friends came over for Boston Cream Pie, one of his favorites. My mother who died decades ago, around the anniversary of her death, I have purple flowers everywhere, purple was her favorite color.
    Sorry if I’ve rambled on to long.
    Nice job Rie.
    love,
    -mom-
    p.s. (For those who are Jewish, remember to go to Yahrezit service tomorrow)

    • I got the “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” to which I replied “Well then, He is seriously over-estimating me” But yes..Celebrate them whenever and however you can. Thank you Riese’s Mom!

  9. I think people have a perception that it takes X amount of time to get over the death of a loved one. I don’t think you ever get over it, you just learn to live with the hole.
    My dad died 8 months ago, this will be the first fall without him, the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas. I still see something interesting on the TV and think “I need to tell Dad that”. Football season is hard. I don’t know if that will ever stop.
    Thanks for making me cry like a baby, Riese #sartalics

  10. This made me tear up but in a good way, I think, about honoring life. This is pretty good advice about how to take care of someone you love, no matter what they’re going through.

    Thanks for what you do, Riese. Your writing has meant a lot to me for a long time.

  11. So many thoughts, but the first one is how your words touch me. You always “go there.” You are not afraid to be vulnerable. I think you write what about people think but are afraid to put out there. Thanks for living your truth and inspiring me and other people to live their life outloud.
    I often think about what will happen when my parents …. and I’m scared. This article comforted me.

    • Yes, this is what I admire about you the most, also, Riese. Your courage to just go on and say it, because your honesty is more important to you than your reticence. (sp?)

  12. Yes, to all of this and in particular, this line:

    Your mission isn’t curing a thing, it is easing the pain of a thing

    That sums it all up for me because no one can pause/stop/cure your grief. They just make the load a little more bearable. I appreciate the friends of mine who just REACHED OUT. The ones that called, stopped by, fed me, texted me to make sure I was at work, the ones that brought beer and sofrito to my house, the ones that sat with my mother while i was at work and made her laugh, the ones that took an hour off of work early to drive me to my best friend’s wake, the ones that left me awkward and totally loving voicemails of condolence: those are the friends that i’ve clutched to my heart and thanked the universe for…

    also, the people that listened and made me laugh. cuz i just couldn’t/can’t hold in my sadness and so i told everyone cuz it was spilling out of my pores…and they shared back. i’ve heard countless stories of grief and they all eased my personal sorrow.

    so listen to everything, make your friend laugh, feed her, leave her with others as you check on her laundry, get yourself a beer…etc.

    again everything riese said…oh and pray.

    pray with her, for her, around. it doesn’t have to be to any God in particular, it can just be to the world, to the human spirit for strength and hope. it helps.

    • yes, yes. I know there is no being right and no comparing in death, but this is what just happened to me and I am so very grateful.

      today, only hours after posting for the first time, I got the call that my grandmother really is about to die. but when my aunt called, I wasn’t alone and I had friends carrying me through the rest of the day, crying, feeding me, making me laugh. we talked about her and my family and about a whole lot of other stuff. and I got calls and messages just from the few friends I noticed, reaching out to me, knowing that I don’t have to be alone and that in itself is worth so much.

      I still wish you all the best, gabrielle, because your loss was so aweful and I cried reading your article. so I am very, very happy to hear about the great friends you have!

      • much love to you, Maria. Thank you for your beautiful words.

        I am so sorry to hear about the situation with your grandmother. A loss like that will totally change your world. I’m also glad that you have people in your life that love and protect you. Hold them tight.

  13. the part about being followed by a ghost that’s actually a hole is perfect. two nights ago i found myself in the floor of my bathroom at 1am crying hysterically about my dad, and it felt just like it did when i got the phone call. and when that happens i’m always so shocked — like what did i do to bring this on? but really it was nothing, just the hole i fell into. like it was right behind me so it was hard not to.

    i really endorse the advice to take care of yourself as well. i think it must be hard to absorb so much sadness from someone you love, and maybe resentment could accidentally build up if you don’t make a real effort to restore yourself as often as possible.

  14. It doesn’t get any easier to lose a parent as you get older. I was almost 40 when my mom passed away and I still get very emotional on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. I don’t think I’ll ever get over needing my mom, or my friends to support me when I feel her loss the most. They are just “there” for me, to talk, to tell stories about her, to distract me for however long it takes.

    My dad died when I was 6, I don’t have many memories of him and I don’t feel his absence like I do my mom’s.

  15. I know this article is way old, but thank you for this. My boyfriend just lost his dad this morning, and I hate seeing someone I love hurt this much. It’s like you feel you have to do something but really, there is nothing to do except sit there through the pain with them. I wish cancer was a person, so I could kick their ass.

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