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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Using humor to chase away the tears

[A guest post by Zahava]

Despite the fact that my mother (z"l) passed away more than 15 years ago, I still find it difficult to gracefully inform people I've just met (or with whom I'm first becoming friendly) of this aspect of my life....

To wit, a snippet of a recent conversation:

New Acquaintance: "Do your folks visit often?"

Me: "Ummmm.... no, not really. My father teaches, and his schedule makes it difficult for him to come on a regular basis."

New Acquaintance: "Oh. How about your Mom? Or does she not like to travel without your Dad?"

Me: "Ummmm.... there are no flights from where my mother is."

New Acquaintance: "Really? Where the heck does your Mother live that there are no flights?!"

Me: "Ummmm.... she doesn't.... ummmm...."

New Acquaintance(who is, incidentally, showing signs of becoming truly frustrated): "HUH?! What?!... Ummmm.... I don't understand you...."

Me: "She doesn't LIVE anywhere.... My mother passed away more than 15 years ago -- six weeks after my oldest was born...."

New Acquaintance: "Ooohhhhhh. [blushes profusely]. OH! Oh! Oh!... I'm so sorry.... I had no idea...."

Me: "It's okay. Don't be sorry. You didn't know."

I don't quite know what the heck is wrong with me that after nearly 16 years I haven't worked out a less goofy way of dealing with this...

...but the truth is, even after 16 years, the question still is like a swift kick in the gut... and if I can't break the awkwardness with a little humor, I still might just cry....

Posted by David Bogner on July 23, 2009 | Permalink


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When one of the creators of your personal universe isn't anymore, reality is forever altered. I still find myself looking at my Mama's photo and shaking my head in wonder. "How is it possible for the world to keep spinning on its axis without her in it?" I am glad for them that they did such a good job that their daughters still love and miss them.

When someone asks about her who didn't know, I try to assuage his embarrassement by speaking fondly of Mama for a few moments -- and thanking my listener for bringing her into my mind again. It surely must give her neshama a boost to be spoken of kindly.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jul 23, 2009 1:57:58 PM

What I don't understand is why people don't have less tact. fine to ask after parents, then if you only mention one of the parents, they should assume not to ask about the other one. But I guess this is something one only comes to understand after having the unfortunate experience of having a parent die.

Posted by: Katherine | Jul 23, 2009 2:03:08 PM

There is no "right" or "wrong" way to grieve...
Nor is there any timeline.
You just do what you have to do....

Posted by: G6 | Jul 23, 2009 2:35:59 PM

...I try to assuage his embarrassment... and thanking my listener for bringing her into my mind again.

Ruti, my friend, this is only one of a long list of proofs that you are -- by far -- a more gracious and kind person than I! Your Mama must have been a special lady!

The truth is, my Mother had a wicked sense of (very sarcastic) humor -- to the point where I think she'd get quite the kick out of my response. I just always feel badly that in trying to allay my own discomfort I usually sink someone else deep into their own...

[of course, not badly enough to actually change my behavior.... psychologists can feel free to show their work....]

Katherine: I think you probably meant more tact... And, YES! I know what you mean! Referring to only my father is my attempt at subtlety (a skill which clearly does not! come naturally to me!).... [sigh]

Posted by: zahava | Jul 23, 2009 2:40:53 PM

I've struggled with this, too....

I admit that I've also been a bit snarky a couple times when someone I've told previously that Mum is no longer alive (or who has ignored the fact that I've gone on and one about my father and not mentioned my mother -- or even mentioned that Dad is alone.....) asks how she is. My answer is simple. Inquirer: "how's your mother?" Me: "Dead"

Yup, I've said that.....

However, to people who aren't being annoying, I generally respond to inquiries about my parents by emphasizing my dad, and mention that he still struggles with being alone 4.5 years after Mum died. That usually gets the hint across. When it hasn't, see previous part of my comment ;-)

Like Zahava says her mother had, my mother had an interesting ;-) sense of humor. She put a heavy emphasis on politeness but I think she'd still appreciate my blunt answer in some circumstances, forthright Yankee that she was. Visual evidence: what we use for the 'gravestone' where her ashes are buried: http://www.flickr.com/photos/killearnan/1154092814/in/set-72157606073978117/ She chose it ;-) Already had it (that Yankee thriftiness manifesting itself) and she liked it, so why not use it?

And as a PS: soon-to-be-former husband hasn't see his still-living father since 1991 (for very, very good reasons, I might add....). People miss the hints on his responses every time, as well!

Posted by: BJ | Jul 23, 2009 4:54:25 PM

G6: <3 -- thank you for the kind support!

BJ: ROTFLMAO! I'm guessing we would get on very well in person, and that I would have very much appreciated your Mum's sense of humor!

Posted by: zahava | Jul 23, 2009 4:59:34 PM

Zahava - I know what you mean. At this point both my parents have died and it is a bit awkward when I meet new people. It must be very hard for you that she didn't know your kids (my mom passed away when my oldest was four, but she died before the other two were born - so I know how this feels). Reading this is kind of wierd for me too, since today was my mother's birthday....I guess it is appropriate for the 9 days...

Posted by: westbankmama | Jul 23, 2009 6:27:57 PM

You're doing great, it's the questioner who isn't. Maybe because I grew up with one grandparent, I don't take for granted that kids have a full set. Also, quite a number of my aunts and uncles died young. Bli eyin haraa my parents are both alive and elderly.
I know it's rare and try to use vague terms like "family."
"Will any of your family come in for the wedding?"

"Do you have family in Israel?"

Really good post. Made me think...

Posted by: Batya from Shiloh | Jul 23, 2009 7:24:36 PM

My late Dad was a maven of early blues and his collection of original recordings was famous. He passed away 5 years ago. Two years after his death, a friend called me up and said:

"It's been too long since we've been in contact, and I do want to catch up with you sometime soon, but I'm really calling to get your Dad's number. I have a few "blues" questions, and no one knows the blues like him -"

I kept trying to tell him that my dad wasn't around for consultation anymore, but he wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise. When he finally ran out of breath, I said, "I appreciate all of this, Joe, but my Dad died two years ago."

Silence. Then: "I'm so dreadfully sorry."

I think of Dad every day, and some days missing him brings fresh tears. But I think it's OK for folks to be tactless. Most of the time it's simple ignorance. G-d knows I put my foot in my own mouth often enough. Delivering the information in a matter-of-fact way works best for me.

Posted by: Mimi | Jul 23, 2009 9:35:25 PM

Zahava, your post made me think of a young lady's post about why, even though informing a questioner that her mother is deceased would get the annoying and clueless questioner to shut right up, she doesn't like to do that. She explains that her mother being dead belongs to her, and she doesn't have to talk about it just because someone else asks.


I learned a lot from what she explained. I see a lot of what she explained in what you share here.

Posted by: b. | Jul 23, 2009 9:37:41 PM

WBM: My mother's 69th birthday would have been this coming Shabbat.... It is very hard that my kids never had the opportunity to know my mother... She would have enjoyed the kids immensely (and, it goes without saying, the other way too!)..... I remember your mother quite well -- I am certain she would have shepped much nachat from yours too!

BFS: I also ask after family. Your comment, btw, made me think.... I realized after reading it that none of my native Israeli friends has ever come close to this type of social miscue -- too many of them have had tragedy touch their lives (family members killed in the army and/or terror attacks) to take a whole family for granted too....

Posted by: zahava | Jul 23, 2009 9:53:14 PM

Mimi: But I think it's OK for folks to be tactless. Most of the time it's simple ignorance. I agree. And... I think I might be just the tiniest bit jealous of the ability to be ignorant of such things.... Okay -- a lot jealous...

G-d knows I put my foot in my own mouth often enough. You and me both! :-) Tact is not instinctive for me.... by a long shot....

b.: WOW. Just. WOW! Thanks for sharing the link. TG, I think that the intensity of emotion of that post (for me) is safely in my past, but I have so been there...

Posted by: zahava | Jul 23, 2009 10:10:57 PM

I still have both my parents but I lost a brother five years ago and talking about him outside the family circle still isn't an easy thing. Even when I use the past tense about him, people aasume I refer to a past situation not that he is dead. For instance if I say talking about wine) "I know this because my brother was a winemaker" people usually say "Ah! What does he do now?". Writing seems less painful.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jul 23, 2009 10:59:28 PM

I tend to forget how your Mom passed so soon after Ari was born...

I'm glad to have known her.

15 years. wow.

Posted by: val | Jul 24, 2009 8:44:18 PM

Just tell me.
Just say "she passed away years ago".

Yes, after 15 years you should be able to say the little sentence above - instead of engaging in emotional entrapment of an innocent conversation partner.

Zahava, I would have caught on a bit earlier - but I would still feel manipulated by an exchange such as you describe. Especially if I got this treatment FIFTEEN YEARS after your loved one's death.

If you said to me "my mom passed away a few years ago" - you would not even get an "I'm sorry" from me. That's for people in their actual mourning year, or shortly after.

After 15 years you'd get an "oh" and a sympathetic pause-and-head-waggle before I returned to the conversation at hand.

And no, just talking about your father tells me nothing in this age of divorce - not without dropping in some key words and phrases.

Posted by: Ben-David | Jul 25, 2009 10:12:30 PM

Oh Zahava...

I hear the little girl in this post.

Lots of food for thought, from the post and all the comments.

Personally, I tend towards Ben-David's "just tell me" approach (though you would get an "I'm sorry" from me). That said, I appreciate your humor, and laughed at the line "there are no flights from where my mother is." I'd like to think I would "get it" at that point, but sometimes I can be pretty clueless. So, go know...

You do what works for you, and this might just be it. After all, this is what you've been doing for the last 15 years.

I don't know if we ever get over the loss of our parents. (that thought makes me so worried about my kids.....)

Anyway, my final thought, as someone who often does ask questions is that anyone can ask anything they like; no one is obligated to answer. It is legitimate to say "I would prefer not to talk about that." You don't owe anyone any explanations.

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Jul 26, 2009 1:22:22 AM

Ilana-Davita: I am so sorry! It is not out-of-the-order of the universe for a child to lose a parent (we just hope it is well after our parents have enjoyed their grandchildren!), but losing a sibling.... I don't think much could prepare one for that....

Val: I'm really glad you got to know her too! She was such a vibrant person and when I share my memories with the kids, it feels like such a shallow substitute (which it is)....

Ben David: I am completely underwhelmed by the compassion you've shown me.

RivkA: Please understand that this post was NOT a lament about people "not getting it." I am genuinely thrilled that people are able to "not get it" -- as it usually indicates that they haven't yet "joined the kaddish club" (something I don't wish on anyone).... It really was just a post about an actual event (or series of actual events) and a public airing of some of my thoughts....

With regards to getting over the loss of a parent... I can only say that I truly consider myself lucky. I had a good relationship with a woman I loved and admired tremendously. And I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who loved her, and loved and supported me -- not just through the "traditional" mourning period, but even now, today, whenever I need their love and support....

My sorrow is not fresh, needy or weepy. Rather, the sorrow is sort of like a five year old who didn't get what she wants, but did get what she needs: my sorrow is the disappointed and (sometimes) angry ! זה לו פייר/Zeh lo fair!/It's not fair!. I'd love to be able to watch my mother enjoy my kids; to ask her advice; to have more time with her. I know she loves us all, is proud of us, and is enjoying her legacy. I just sometimes wish I had the physical version of her with which to share these blessings....

As our friend Ruti said, I am glad for them that they did such a good job that their daughters still love and miss them. Me too.

Posted by: zahava | Jul 26, 2009 12:28:24 PM

Ben David: You know, your words caused so much pain that I went back and reread my post several times trying to find what I could have possibly said that could have pissed you off so much that you had to paint me as a manipulative person guilty of emotional entrapment.

At no point did I blame the other party. In fact, I made it quite clear that the issue was mine.

For the record, while some things -- most things -- get much easier with time, others actually get harder. For instance, it is hard to know that you can't simply dial a phone and speak with one of the few people whose opinion actually matters to you. It is hard to share the qualities you'd most like your children to emulate with a person whom they've never met.

I refuse to speculate on what stick you sat on that led you to give me a public spanking for something which clearly still hurts me.

I will only justify my decision to write what I did on behalf of others out there who might not realize that grief and mourning don't always fit into the neatly outlined Kubler-Ross 5-stages.....

In fact, among my friends, very few of us is lucky enough to have both sets of parents. And most of us haven't even hit the age of 45. We are, however, lucky to have each others mutual support. I wrote what I did hoping that if my words (and clearly unsuccessful attempt at humor as a means of deflecting pain) could possibly help someone else realize that they are not alone....

.... but thanks for your considerate input....

Posted by: zahava | Jul 26, 2009 3:28:16 PM

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