Home > Communication, Death, Entreaty, Health, Relationships > Please let grief breathe

Please let grief breathe

My mom breathed her last breath four years ago today.

I wasn’t there when she died, a fact that filled me with remorse for many months. I could have been there if I’d held out four more days.

I still occasionally cringe when I think of the last kiss I gave her. “I love you,” I whispered then. “I love you,” I repeated before fleeing her bedroom with the surreal knowledge I would never again see her alive.

When she died, I was haunted by those four days. 96 hours. 5,760 minutes. So little time. I should have been there. Time eased my guilt, as did having compassion for the me who existed then rather than expecting that-me’s behaviors to match an ideal visible only in retrospect and attainable only in an ideal world none of us inhabit. I was also fortunate for my mom’s insight into her children’s respective natures. Thanks to her combination of intuition, foresight and communication, I was freed from bonds of guilt by the only person not myself whose opinion mattered.

Time helped ease not only guilt but sorrow. Time wasn’t magic, as if time itself sprinkled fairy dust on my wounds and healed them. Time gave me perspective enough to see those wounds were small compared to the ongoing gifts of motherhood, friendship and health in my life. It enabled me to see my mom would be saddened to be remembered only for the traumas she suffered instead of the humor with which she strove to endure them.

darkness & light

Time healed.

Words did not.

In the days, weeks and months after my mom died, I met two kinds of responses to news of my mom’s death.

The first was “I’m sorry.” I appreciated those who simply said this. Sometimes they used more words, but the core was the same: I’m sorry.

The second began, “At least . . .” The moment I heard those words or ones like them, I gritted my teeth and willed myself to be polite to their speakers. After enough iterations, I began tuning out the actual words and running the interchangeable one-sentence statements through my own personal grief translator:

  • At least she didn’t die alone. Translation: Your grief is inconvenient to me. Let’s talk about something else.
  • At least she had four lovely kids. Translation: Your grief is inconvenient to me. Let’s talk about something else.
  • At least she had a good chunk of life under her belt when she passed! Translation: Your grief is inconvenient to me. Let’s talk about something else.
  • At least she’s no longer suffering now. Translation: Your grief is inconvenient to me. Let’s talk about something else.

This is not a judgment against anyone–like me–who has made such statements in an effort to comfort, but an illumination of how those statements actually felt to one griever in the throes of grief. That grief felt insignificant in a sea of silver-lining responses.

I used to make my own “at least” statements in the face of others’ great sorrow, as if I could magically transform grief outside its natural timelines by pointing out facts already known to their hearer. Until my mom died, it never once occurred to me that these statements might have the impact of minimizing someone’s profound loss. They turned conversation from allowing someone to express their natural, understandable response to loss to then preferable-to-me reflection on objective facts made sparkly.

Hearing these same words from my own place of grief, I understood that a grieving person is not suddenly made stupid by grief. I was capable of spotting my own silver linings–no more mental illness, no more ostracism from those who misunderstand mental illness, no more poverty, no more abuse, no more pain–without a single person pointing one out to me. My grief persisted regardless, because grief is a function of emotion, not logic. It moves as slowly as it needs to, without regard for facts or others’ preferred timelines for moving on.

Those who turned conversation from feeling to fact as if fact is a mighty, instantaneous crusher of inconvenient feelings inadvertently added compounded grief to initial grief by informing me, subtly, that my feelings and reactions were not OK. I should, I could hear them saying beneath their spoken words, focus on happy things and thus strangle out inconvenient grief.

That’s how grief works, of course: You deprive it of oxygen and it’s gone for good. If it’s true for human life, why not also for human emotions?

The words “I’m sorry” built bridges between me and their speakers. If no other words were spoken, I felt my grief had been witnessed and my sorrow acknowledged. I felt community, not just of two, but of all those who understood the depth of loss and didn’t try to fix with words what cannot possibly be fixed by words.

The words “at least . . .” drove wedges between me and their speakers. Although I tried to keep conversation polite, I thought then, I will not willingly share my heart with you again, when a computer might show as much understanding. I will not waste my time.

I now see and appreciate the good intentions behind those awkwardly offered words, but this post is not about my feelings or understandings now. It’s about how expressing now my feelings from deep within grief then might guide the way someone reading this relates to a grieving loved one in the future.

As I have written here before, “What is done cannot be undone, but what is undone can be avoided.”

I didn’t mean to write any more posts on the anniversary of my mom’s death. As I reflected on our last shared birthday, I now think of my mom with 99 parts joyful remembrance to one part grief. I want to celebrate her light with my words the way I now celebrate it with my heart.

mom on mantel

A short conversation with my sister Silver Star made me think that writing once more on the anniversary of my mom’s death could be a celebration of life. It could be a call to stop those well meant but hurtful “at leasts,” and a reminder that our loved ones fill our lives with light and warmth, so that it’s only natural that the extinguishing of their living glory should fill us with the sorrow of immense loss. It could be a reminder that time is what it takes for any individual to find new sources of light in life continued, and to find new ways to let old ones shine on.

Healing takes time, not words. And yet, the right words can be powerful. Two simple words do mighty work toward affirming the shared, loving, aching humanity of loss:

I’m sorry.

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  1. nicciattfield
    March 4, 2014 at 1:21 am

    It’s a beautiful reflection. ‘At least’ does hurt, I know that. Events which shatter the world or disconnect past to present are sometimes just about the feeling, the pain or the loss. I used to want to try make it better in some way too, but now I know it was about saying “feel better so I can feel better.” Sorry for your loss.

    • March 5, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Thank you. It is such a hard thing to be helpless to ease someone else’s suffering, but the fact it’s hard doesn’t change the truth. Coming to terms with that hurts, but it’s also a part of showing support in a way that helps instead of hurting more.

      I have a couple of friends in a tough spot who live some distance from me right now. I want to lend some practical support, but most of the ways I know how require physical proximity. I want to look into ways to lend practical assistance from afar, because that practical assistance–as my hometown friends showed during my mom’s last weeks, and afterward–makes it easier to endure through hard times.

  2. March 4, 2014 at 1:49 am

    So beautifully written. It is often hard to know how to comfort the grieving in a truly meaningful way, if we haven’t first experienced grief ourselves. Before I had experienced grief I too thought the “at least” statements offered comfort. I now know that there is no consolation in grief. “I’m sorry” are the most powerful words when there are none. I’m glad for you that time has healed.

    • March 5, 2014 at 11:00 am

      Thank you so much for this beautiful, thoughtful comment. I still struggle with wanting to say more than “I’m sorry” sometimes, with wanting to find a way to ease a friend’s burden, but I try to temper that with the knowledge those additional words add another burden: the requirement that a grieving person look into their exhausted hearts and acknowledge the statement. It seems like such a small thing from outside of grieving, but from within, it’s a monumental effort to breathe, let alone try reassuring others you know grief is tempered by awareness of life outside grief. “I’m sorry” are words offered without strings, without expectation of reply, and are as important as they are hard to offer without more.

  3. March 4, 2014 at 3:40 am

    This is touching and beautiful. I too had a hard time with the words expressed by others when my dad died. I heard many of the same sentiments you mention here. I have now come to say to others in their time of grief, “There are no words to bring you comfort at this time. My heart hurts for you, and I’m here.” During my time of grief, I would have welcomed such expression. Your mom must be smiling at how you are using your beautiful words to celebrate her light.

    • March 6, 2014 at 5:27 am

      I was thankful for this thoughtful comment even before I got to its last sentence, but reading that? There is something in both my eyes. Thank you.

      I love your approach to folks in grieving now. Even reading the words is comforting. It makes me think, too, of a short video my sister sent me about empathy. I linked it above, but I want to link it here, too, just in case you haven’t seen it. It reflects so perfectly the heart of your comment:

      • March 6, 2014 at 5:32 am

        Excellent video! Thank you for sharing that with me.

  4. March 4, 2014 at 4:32 am

    Thanks for this. “I’m sorry” is enough and it says everything.
    To this day I still hear, “well, at least you had a good dad” I understand what they’re saying, that I should be appreciative I had him in my life such a short time. I get that some people didn’t have a great dad like I did. But in a way it does feel like they’re stripping me of my right to still miss him — to feel sad, angry and cheated that he’s not with me anymore and has missed out on so many things in my life, like his own grandkids.
    Huge hugs to you, Deb.

    • March 6, 2014 at 5:35 am

      it does feel like they’re stripping me of my right to still miss him — to feel sad, angry and cheated that he’s not with me anymore and has missed out on so many things in my life, like his own grandkids.
      That is exactly it. This is so beautifully expressed.

      Before I lost Mom, I really did feel like grief had to be a linear thing: a little more gone every day. What I didn’t understand, and why there will never be “100 parts joy to 0 parts sadness,” is that life will be filled with unexpected moments of joy followed immediately by the thought: I wish I could’ve shared this with Mom. I feel this way after four years, and know based on some great reads over the last few years that another four years or another forty won’t change the fact I’ll still wish I could’ve shared those moments.

      Not having had a great dad myself, I would still never dream of saying, “At least you had a good dad.” Even typing that makes me ache. I don’t need to know the love of my own great dad (although now I do, thanks to by husband!) to know the feeling of love and loss, and to feel for others experiencing it. I know there is plenty of joy in the world even after loss, and that I was lucky for parts of the experience I had with my loved ones while they were still alive. It’s so healing to have it recognized that loss is loss, and that the ache of it never completely disappears.

      Also? Thank you. ♥

  5. cardamone5
    March 4, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Nice. I wrote something similar for my own mom, who passed almost twenty years ago. Here’s the link in case you want to read (sorry if you don’t and this comes across as trying to promote my blog, which I don’t mean to): http://cardamonefive.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=945&action=edit
    Best regards,

  6. March 4, 2014 at 7:17 am

    We lost my baby brother less than a year ago, and it really was fast – and I remember some of the statements that I’m sure were made out of love and support, but triggered such anger! Fortunately, the fog that accompanied that time has erased the names and faces of most of the people and I can encounter them without bad memories!

  7. March 4, 2014 at 9:38 am

    About a decade ago, my husband’s 18 year old cousin died in a car accident. He fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the center line, and hit someone head-on. We went to his mother’s house and spent the day with her when we found out. Well-wishers came in and out throughout the day and I started my list of things you never say to someone who has lost someone:

    God needed another angel.
    God needed him more than you did.
    At least he’s in heaven now.
    At least you got 18 years with him.
    God has a plan.
    God won’t give you more than you can handle.

    It was a terrible day. There was so very little redeeming to come out of it. She couldn’t even take comfort in his saving a life through organ donation, he had been so badly injured. I understand where people’s words came from: a desire to find SOMETHING positive or comforting to say. But while saying that God has a plan or needs someone’s child more than they do might provide comfort to the speaker, it rips a hole in the heart of the listener. After that day, I became much quieter when around someone grieving.

    Like you, I’ve said the “at least” lines before. But I’m learning not to. When the husband of a beloved couple at church died suddenly and unexpectedly recently, I limited myself to “I’m sorry”, “We love you”, and “We are here for you if you need anything.” And hugs. Lots of hugs.

    Thank you for writing this.

  8. March 4, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Thank you. Grief has her time, and needs to be respected. And there is nothing ‘at least’ about her.

  9. March 4, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Another beautiful post. Have you seen this PSA Short for Brene Brown’s work? It’s such a mirror of what you experienced. Her quote, “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least'” speaks such volumes. Peace to you and your family.


  10. March 4, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you for your loving thoughts. ♥ I’ll be replying to comments individually later, but wanted to say that and share my sisters’ posts now:

    * Rache’s: Remembering Her Light, Four Years Later
    * Madeline’s: I Wish…

    • March 4, 2014 at 9:21 pm

      Loved all three posts. I am always thwarted in my attempts to comment on Rachael’s blog (or any over there, for that matter, even though I have “belonged” and written there for many years) so please let her know. I’ll get a comment to her some other way.

  11. March 4, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    We all struggle how to reach out. Sometimes ‘I am sorry’ seems inadequate, especially in the face of grief. When we so very much want to wrap those with love against a harsh world, protect them from pain while they recover equilibrium. I think so many of us jump in with our own stories of pain and loss, we think I will just shift the focus and then it won’t feel so bad.
    You have as always, put your heart on the table reminding all of us of our shared humanity. I am so grateful for the reminder. I love you.

  12. March 4, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Beautiful, profound and true reflection. Thank you for sharing. I think we have all been givers of the “at least” but it’s not until we are on the receiving end that we can really understand the impact of these words. Grief is not something we can suppress, we have to let it love its course until eventually it becomes easier to breathe through.

  13. March 4, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    This: “time is what it takes for any individual to find new sources of light in life continued, and to find new ways to let old ones shine on.” That’s always been key for me, because time also helps one come to the realization that while our loved ones’ “living glory” may be extinguished, their light and warmth are not. They are liked banked embers in our soul just waiting for the right memory to come along to stir them back into flame so that our old source of light can indeed shine on in concert with new ones. Still with us, always. ❤

    • March 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      Oh, dear, you are thwarted from commenting on my blog? I am so sorry! I will edit/remove the controls. I want everyone to be able to comment and leave their thoughts!

      • March 6, 2014 at 1:17 pm

        Okay, I have updated my settings so anyone can comment…

      • March 6, 2014 at 2:50 pm

        I don’t think that’s the problem, Rachael. I believe it has more to do with blogger/blogspot never recognizing any of the identities I could possibly sign in with. 😉 Alternatively, you could always move over here with the rest of us.

  14. March 4, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    As always, I love, love, love you and your words. And I love the links you posted (although, as we discussed, I will always have a special place in my heart for The Power of Empathy video). Grief isn’t something we can hurry along. And I know there were a lot of folks who ended up avoiding me for a few months, only to later come forward and tell me “I’m sorry. I just didn’t know what to say.” And I, after remembering what I had said to others before, had to say “It’s okay. There’s no right thing to say. But thank you for saying it now.” It’s uncomfortable, not knowing what to say, and we as humans often think we need to fill the silence, but when it comes to grief, we don’t. I will still remember the best experience grieving for me was when Nick just took me for a three hour walk, and everything boiled over and I sobbed on his shoulder while walking for the entire walk, until we passed a weeping willow and he pointed at it and said in such a sweet, silly voice, “Oh, it’s a sad tree, like my Rachael” that just made me laugh. Until that point, he didn’t say a single word. Not a “It’s okay” (because it wasn’t). He was just there. ❤ my hubby. Sorry, I am rambling! All this to say, I love you. ❤

  15. March 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I can hardly remember what was said to me after my mother’s death. I just know it was awkward. All of my friends were in their late teens or early 20s and I was the first one in my group to lose a parent, and am still the only one in that same group to be motherless.

    My mother died in March, too, but this year, 30 years after her death, I forgot her death day. Two days later, I looked back and realized that I’d spent the morning at the gym pool and the afternoon shopping. I’d done two of her favorite things that day and I knew that she’d be proud of me for simply living and going about my business for the first death anniversary in 30 years.

    “…I now think of my mom with 99 parts joyful remembrance to one part grief.” I celebrate this for you. I spent too many years in grief and too many years “what if-ing.” A loving mother wants to see her children live in happiness and not waste the path ahead in grief.

    I’m certainly thinking of you! Take care, my friend! 🙂

  16. November 9, 2014 at 3:03 am

    I am sorry too. For the pain of losing your precious mum. For the pain of hearing people saying stupid things. For the pain of having to live without your greatest supporter and cheerleader. I am sorry.xx

  17. Jstjeannie
    January 4, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I lost my mother on December 2nd. She had a massive stroke while in the care of my younger sister. The day my phone rang and I saw it was her, I knew something terrible had happened as my sister never called just to talk. My mom had called me right before that but I didn’t answer, she was always in a bad mood and could change the mood of my day with a short phone call and I thought I was having an okay day so I didn’t want her to ruin it, I would call her on Sunday.

    She had a stroke on Sunday morning and slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. I raced from NM to MT so I could say goodbye to her. Drove all night and into the next morning and made amazing time. I was 2 miles away when I got stuck behind a “wide load” vehicle and every one was driving 25 in the 40 MPH zone. I called my niece to let her know I was almost to the hospital and could she come down to take me up as I wasn’t sure where mom was.

    She came down and as the doors opened, she ran into my arms to tell me my mom had passed 15 minutes earlier, I missed her by 15 darn minutes. I wasn’t meant to be there, for whatever reason, I know that now. All the stars aligned for my wayward trip there and nothing went right once I arrived in town.

    I never felt loved or accepted by my mother, I was always a disappointment. I am not sure why, I just knew I was. Little spoken sentences, words written in my baby book, I put together the puzzle pieces and came to that conclusion. She treated me differently my whole life and I never understood and I never will now. I have come to realize that my mom loved me as best she could, it was nowhere near what I needed, but, it was the best she could do.

    I am still stinging from her loss, I do stupid things like pick up the phone to call her, see sugar free candy and think I should get her some. Her absence has left a huge hole in my heart and I don’t understand why, she abused me physically, emotionally and spiritually my entire childhood. Though I forgave her, I never forgot. And now I am left feeling like she left on purpose because she knew I was coming and she didn’t want to wait for me.

  1. March 26, 2016 at 9:18 pm
  2. August 18, 2017 at 1:46 pm

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