My Mom Died. Please Stop Asking Me This Question.

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My mom passed away suddenly a little over a week ago. To say it was devastating to my family is a gross understatement. Like many mothers, she was the anchor of our family. She was my idol, an icon in my life and heart. Like many people who go through loss, I am also fortunate to have an incredible support system of people around me. With that said, I am writing to tell you about a mistake I’ve made with friends who’ve lost loved ones. It’s a mistake I didn’t realize I was making until I lost my own mother.

We ask this simple question with the best intentions, trying to bring peace to those we love. But now that I am on the other side of grief… living it instead of watching from the sidelines, I beg everyone to reconsider asking; “How are you?”

Greenlight To Lie

I know, I know, you’re checking in. Please don’t stop checking in. That’s what good people do. I was checking in too when I asked my friends about their lost loved ones. The problem with this question is not the compassion you are trying to show. Us grievers need that compassion right now, desperately, and you’re an amazing person for stopping to make sure we are ok. There is a constant fear that life moves on without you while you cling to who is gone. Check-in. Be present. Just don’t ask “how are you?” The problem with the question is that it puts pressure on the griever to make up an answer that isn’t awkward or sad. My mom was the first person who ever loved me. She was a force in my life that left her mark of literally everything I know and love. She’s gone now. How am I supposed to answer that question honestly?

Nobody Is Ready For The Real Answer

The problem with the question “how are you” is that people ask it and aren’t ready for the real answer. Or maybe the real truth is, I’m not ready to give it. So we grievers lie or dilute our answer, to spare you from the awkwardness of hearing how are really are. Because how we really are changes literally minute to minute. In the past thirty minutes of writing this, I’ve gone from feeling a deep sense of peace to crying my eyes out and having to take a break from finishing a sentence. It’s that extreme, and it’s all day long. I’ve heard that from friends who’ve lost people before, but I didn’t really understand it until now.

Grief Is Radioactive, and I Don’t Want To Hurt You

The problem with grief is that there are no warning signs. It is radioactive and it infects everything it touches. I used to talk to my mom every day at lunch and then call her every night before the kids went down so they could say goodnight. So a logical person (I consider myself logical) would think that those are the times I would need to go below ground to protect myself from the nuclear fallout. Turns out, I’ve cried at every time of day except those times.

Because grief isn’t logical. It tiptoes through the day and tackles you when you aren’t looking.

And because I know that now, I guard myself on who and when I pick up the phone.

Why would I make your day bad just because mine is? How could I possibly answer a simple “how are you” with “I’m sad and grateful for her life, and I feel lost, and I feel comfort in small reminders of her, and I feel like I’m walking around without skin on, and I feel total peace when I know she’s here with me, and I’m tired, but I can’t sleep, I’m also so grateful for you checking in, but I also feel guilty because you’re having to check-in. How was your day?”

See? It’s too much.

So we just say, “I’m good.” Because the truth is in that minute, I probably am. I only respond when I feel like my head is bobbing above water.

What You Can Do

The day after my mom died, my husband had to drive back to our house and stumbled upon two of my best friends mowing my lawn. We had no idea they were coming, they just showed up. Friends took the kids while I was planning the funeral. Others sent a text with amazing memories about my mom. Others sent cards with verses that helped them through a loss or recommended books. Others came over and drank wine. Others dropped off food, or helped with schedules, or offered to help me go through my mom’s things. Others challenged me to come work out with them because it helped them through a tough time. Others just said, “I just wanted you to know I’m thinking about you”, which means everything when you’re terrified you’ll be left behind because your life got swallowed up in a black hole of grief.

My point is, please stop putting pressure on people who are grieving to answer “How are you?” We don’t know, because it changes all the time and we don’t want to drag you through it.

How To Ask The Question If You Really Want To Know

A friend of mine, who’d recently lost her mom, texted me last night “I know you’re not good, so don’t answer that, but on a scale of 1-10, where are you right this second”. It was basically a zero-pressure “how are you” that I felt like I could answer honestly. So I did. I was a 1 when she sent it. I was a 7 by the time we ended the five-minute exchange. And I’m grateful for her, and everyone else who chips in every day to make the day brighter. Grievers might not always be responsive, but I promise we notice what you’re doing. And it helps. God, it helps.

The last week has been dark, but it gets brighter every day because of family and friends surrounding me with love and love for my mom. I’m back to feeling peace again. I hope this feeling lasts.

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Charleston native Whitney Williams McDuff has devoted her life to being the best daughter, sister, friend, wife, coworker, leader, and now mother she can be. She graduated from USC with a double degree in Public Relations and Psychology, partially because she’s fascinated by the nature of people, and partially because it set her free from the claws of a monstrous statistics course that she was eager to avoid. (Hey, sometimes the truth isn’t always pretty). Her career spans across the world of sales, marketing, and public relations, thriving in a realm where building relationships was the key to the contentment kingdom. Her passions include writing, reading, painting, her piano and guitar, interesting conversation, film, her pug Bee, and a great glass wine. Ok, glasses. She and her husband Jimmy are expecting their first child, Baby Holbrook, this summer, so wine bottles have been left on the shelf for now. Her blog, No Wine for Nine, began when Whitney became fed up with the pressure to be flawless and knew that laughter and sharing her stories with her girlfriends was essential to making it through this thing called Motherhood.  Her hope is that her blog is a cherished place for any woman who longs for an escape from the stress of perfection, because she believes that true magic lies in the imperfections and hilarity of everyday life. Still trying to navigate Babies R’ Us. Biggest fears include spiders and mis-posting on a mom-swap site.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Oh Whitney….This has been my advice to people who are acquainted with anyone who has lost a loved one. It was the question I was bombarded with after my husband died. Well meaning but pointless question. I avoid it now in any situation. WEll stated and written.

  2. Love you girl! I lost my father quite suddenly almost 20 years ago. The grief almost overtook me. It never ends, but it does get easier over time. You are blessed with so many fond memories of her. I’m sure that she was so proud of you, you will carry on her legacy I’m sure. Praying for you and your family and hope your days get easier, give it time.

  3. Thank you for putting this out there. I lost my mom almost 3 years ago .. and I’m not OK.. some days are better than others but you are right in that I’m forever changed and the waves of grief still hit me. I want to go back and apologize to everyone who lost a loved one and I asked ‘how are you ?’ And replace it with a shared memory of the loved one because I now know what those means
    Hugs to you on your grief journey.

  4. So sorry you are going through grief. It totally sucks. When my husband died suddenly and I was left with two young boys, people asked me all the time if I was ok. Obviously, I was absolutely not ok on any level. I just started quoting a line from Pulp Fiction, “F****** far from ok.” That accomplished two things. 1. It was refreshing to be perfectly honest. 2. It taught the asker what a silly question that was.

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