The Things Nobody Tells You About Grief

The Things Nobody Tells You About Grief

I’m on countdown mode. It’s been almost a year without my mum. In my head, this breaks down into hundreds of phone calls, cups of tea, and hugs and kisses that haven’t been exchanged, and a landmark birthday of mine — all missing from my 2013 memory log.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Illustration by Nick Criscuolo.

For a while I’ve wanted to write about my experiences of the last year, particularly what a winding road grief is and continues to be. You may think this is too sobering a subject to enjoy reading, and you might be right. However, I also think it could be one of the most important things you read.

Death, and everything that surrounds it, is full of clichés.

“They wouldn’t have known anything about it. It would have been quick.”

“Anything I can do, just call.”

“They’re in a better place.”

“They’re not suffering anymore.”

“They’re with Grandma and Fido now.”

Good intentions and well-meant words dissipate into thin air and after a few weeks, you’re left with a lot of empty promises — no doubt a byproduct of everyone’s ever-increasing busy lives. You start to rank your friends by those who pick up the phone and those who “like” a Facebook status to show they’ve read a post that hints at you being sad.

I always thought I would be able to recognise unhealthy behaviour or changes of the mind. I always thought I was acutely aware of my own mental health as well as those around me. I wasn’t. Looking back, I spent a lot of time in the denial phase. I’d been taught that if I worked hard enough for anything, I could achieve it. I struggled with the notion that I could work myself into the ground, but not inch myself a step closer to my goal of having my mum back. It took me a long time to deal with that.

I also didn’t cope very well with change; certain that change would be unfamiliar to her should she return and make it uneasy for her to slip back into life as she knew it. I even convinced myself I was part of the most cruel reality TV program ever. I had visions of a camera crew arriving at my doorstep and me running back into my mum’s arms, vowing to spend more time with her and undo all my wrong doings I’d stupidly convinced myself I’d made. The brutal sights of what happened the day I lost her snap me back to reality, and I am back at square one.

I was unprepared for the sleepless nights and the feeling of wanting to walk around in a protective bubble. For someone who’s spent an entire life proud of the strong facade I could switch on should I need to, I wanted people to know what had happened to me, so it would excuse my quietness at times. I didn’t want them to make a fuss, just hold the knowledge. The biggest security blanket I’ve craved for is for people to not expect too much of me.

I yearned to spend time with people I could be myself with; always having valued a smaller group of close friends than a large group of friends paid off. Airs and graces were not an option. New friendships or friendships that always bordered on your outer circle of friends became a struggle, and unless I feel instant warmth from someone, I held them at arms length and rarely let them into my bubble.

I’ve seen the way [my home country] England deals with grief. Our stiff upper lip culture simply sends the grieving person underground. I found myself wondering how I’d never heard of some truly terribly things you have to go through, logistically, when I knew so many people who had lost loved ones. I promised to write about them so no one, especially at my age (then, 29), would be in the dark surrounding some of the tougher questions death puts to you, and often within hours of losing a loved one. These may be tough to read, but I’ve always thought being well-informed is better than having something emotional sprung on me, especially in difficult circumstances — when the consequences of each, will haunt you for life and can’t be reversed.

What to Expect

1. If the circumstances are right, you’ll be asked if you wish to see the deceased. I’m glad I did in the hospital (as disturbing as it was) but I didn’t want to see her in the funeral home, for reasons I’ll document later. They also rarely look like they’re sleeping. I’d always assumed they would look nothing but peaceful and twice now, have been caught out by the Hollywood mirage.

2. When you register the death in the UK, you’re required to take their driving licence and passport to the registry office. They will cut it up in front of you, with a degree of empathy council officials have when they do this day in day out. But all the same, scissors through your loved one’s face a few days after their death, isn’t something I was prepared for. Nor the hundreds of questions they had to ask.

3. If you’re asked if you want to see them in the funeral home, there’s a level of preparation that has to be done in order to make it safe and pleasant for you to do this. Read up on what this preparation entails. As graphic as it was, I’m glad I did. I made an informed choice and chose not to. Individual situations and beliefs prevail here, naturally.

4. If the loved one has to go for a post-mortem due to unexpected death. This can take weeks and delay the funeral. Expect to be dealt with in cold, callous language throughout your exchange — “there’s a backlog at the moment due to the cold weather” was my favourite.

Sobering? Yes. Horrible to read? Probably. Something everyone has to go through and no one talks about? Without a doubt.

Dealing With Someone Who is Grieving

On the flip side, if you’re dealing with a friend experiencing grief, you can make their journey a little easier along the way.

1. Don’t say “Anything I can do, please shout/call” or similar. Offer to do something, anything. Real tangible things. “Can I come over for a coffee?” or Can I bring you anything from the supermarket?” — anything that’s an actual do. You learn to hear “anything I can do, please call” as “I have no idea what to say and have no intention of doing anything.” Don’t put yourself in that bracket.

2. Understand you’re now dealing with a muddled mind. The person grieving needs help making decisions, but gently. Clarity of whatever you’re offering is imperative. Simply just deciding a meeting place and time for that promised coffee was (and still is) enough for me and lessened the cognitive load just that bit more. Be a little more patient.

3. Everything and anything can set the griever off on an emotional downward spiral. But often, talking about the lost loved one is the thing that brings the most peace — yet it’s the one thing people skirt around.

4. Speak about any triggers. Often the griever has triggers associated with death. Mine is ambulances or sirens, amongst other things. This is not so you can tread on eggshells around the griever nor baby them, it’s so that you can understand a change of behaviour if in the presence of the trigger.

5. If the griever tries to tell you of a change in behaviour, or something they’ve noticed as being different about the way they cope, listen. Intently. Read between the lines, schedule a cup of tea and go and talk about it — they could be trying to tell you they’re going downhill and need a shoulder, without wanting to appear weak.

6. Understand they can function perfectly normally too. My job was the one thing I never struggled with, because my mum was never really part of my job. When it came to my job, I was able to focus, deliver great projects, and do good work. The minute 5pm hit, however, I’d be exhausted and often a bottle of emotions, but I’m proud to say my clients along the way would have been unaware of what had happened.

7. Tears. They make almost everyone uncomfortable don’t they? I’ve had one person shake me, physically, and tell me I had to get a grip and move on (it had been three weeks since my mum had died), while others have sat and quietly listened and passed tissues. Knowing how you deal with people who are crying before you enter yourself into a situation where it’s likely to happen will help.

To finish, the biggest fallacy statement that gets bounded around is “time heals.” You learn to live with it. One of the worst pressures was thinking that by a certain date, I should be healed. Time lessens the sting; but for the griever, it’s almost a prison sentence without parole. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to get up each morning and hope something gives you a glimmer that gets you through the day.

That glimmer for me has been in the shape of good friends, new friends, family, and the small things they’ve done along the way. One day, I’ll repay the huge favour of kindness they’re showing me, when sadly, their time comes to tread the same road.

Living with grief [Medium]

Sarah Parmenter is a UI designer and owner of You Know Who.


  • This is a purely lovely article. One that I wish I had read many years ago.

    My partners mother passed away 1.5 years ago after multiple cancers and fighting them off for 5 years. She was stoic to the “n”th degree, but eventually she passed away in palliative care.

    Trying to identify the triggers that used to upset the other half, and seeing what appeared to be random crying used to baffle me.

    The worst thing that drove me crazy were the hollow “I’m sorry for your loss”, “call me if you need anything”, “she’s in a better place” etc – they did nothing to help.

    Death is a very weird thing to deal with, and a very difficult thing.

    The best thing I’ve worked out from seeing this most painful of emotions is that a hug, a true and proper hug can ease an awful lot!

  • My SIL passed about a month ago. We travelled to the States for the funeral. There was a viewing and we had hundreds of people that came. Apparently the line wait was an hour and filled up most of the funeral home (they make them biiiig over there).

    So many people said “call/ask if you need anything”. These were people I had never seen before and never expect to see again. Like classmates from her college.

    Please do not say this unless you really mean it. It sounded so empty from these people.

  • I’d like to share my loss if I may, and the lessons, I have learned along the way of losing both parents. I lost my mother to cancer 18 years ago today,; my father almost 21 years ago; I have to say that the grief has not ended. How do you replace a person? You can’t.

    My brother, my cousin, my wife and I were with her at the time of her passing. While each person’s passing event is unique being there helped me put a full stop at the end of her life in a way that was meaningful to me. I have struggled for years as the stoic eldest son, and have only in the last few years really forgiven her for leaving us all so soon. She was only 59 when she died.

    I never felt the hollowness that some of you have expressed when people offered me their grief and support. I understood that they could do nothing for me, but felt comforted that they had turned up for the funeral, and felt enough love for my mother to offer me something that they could never hope to truly give. I saw that as the true gift. Like saying if I had the power i would bring her back for you. I felt sad for them because they were hurting too, and there was nothing I could do to remove their hurt.

    I miss my mum her very much and will for the remainder of my life. She was my closest parent and I was devoted to her in a way that I can only repeat with my wife and children.

    Throughout my journey one thing has kept me going – hearing my mum’s advice in my head. This was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I hear mum’s voice, in the form of her wisdom, every now and then, I wish I could hear it each and every day.

    I hope that for those of you reading this there might be one similar light for you at the end of your own journey.

  • I’m an only child and lost both my parents in a car accident the week after my 18th birthday. At the time, I was living with my mum’s sister, and about 6 months afterwards, she basically told me I should be over it and getting on with life (this after I made the hard decision to go ahead with uni, get a job, and try to build myself a different life without them in it). In my case, this was particularly true: “One of the worst pressures was thinking that by a certain date, I should be healed.”

    I’m almost 25 now, and I still miss them every second of every day, though, almost 7 years down the track, I’ve stopped thinking, “Oh, I should tell Mum/Dad about that.” The worst thing, for me, is that even silly things can trigger my grief all over again. We moved house about a year ago, and all the boxes finally came out of storage. For a whole week, 8 hours a day, I unpacked hundreds of boxes, each one a painful reminder of my parents’ absence.

    I was at my cousin’s 18th last week, and my second-youngest cousin, who’s 3, was sitting next to me at dinner, and then asked me, “Did your Mummy die? How did she die?” I had to answer as best I could, so she would understand, and then get up from the table and escape into the bathroom. It was possibly the hardest conversation I’ve had since the funeral home.

    While this has fractured my mum’s family irreparably (they rarely speak to me, or each other), my dad’s family are closer than ever, and all live in the same country for the first time in 10 years, reasoning that life’s too short to be so far apart. I’ve become a lot closer to three of my younger cousins, my favourite uncle, and my two favourite aunts, and I’ve met a wonderful man whose family treat me like I’ve always been one of them. My only real regret is that my parents will never meet him, because I think they would have loved him as much as I do.

    It gets easier, but I don’t think you ever truly get over losing someone who is part of you, because you lose a little piece of yourself with them.

  • Well written from someone who ‘knows’… Very reasuring too because it is how I feel most of the time… Nice to know I’m not odd… just going through grief…. I wish everyone was aware that it isn’t something to ‘get over’.. It is something you learn to live with.. your new altered existence.. Platitudes don’t help.. being there and talking about a lost loved one HELPS..It doesn’t make you sad or upset just to hear their name mentioned .. It allows you to talk about someone you love very much , yes, still love even though they have died and it helps release some of the pain each time.. So to anyone reading the above story.. don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing.. just start a conversation without will be welcomed.. trust me.. And to the author.. May you find solace knowing you are helping educate others on grief and dispelling the misconceptions that surround it …Thank you

  • My best friend of 25 years died earlier this year, very suddenly while out with his family at a beach. Reading this article brought a lot of the pain back. I loved him and admired him dearly like an elder brother. He was witty, friendly, giving, and respectful. I grieve not only for my loss but also the loss to his parents, wife and two children who, upon seeing his lifeless body in the coffin were too young to understand what happened to daddy. His daughter, only 4 or 5 years old, kissed her daddy on the cheek and smilingly said “goodbye daddy” when his wife told her kids to say farewell. His son did the same, at the age of 10.

    Its been almost 10 months since his passing and I dont have the guts to contact them in fear of breaking down beyond control myself. The day I saw his body in the coffin I cried uncontrollably and told my wife on the drive to his place that day that I hope they dont have an open coffin as I wont be able to cope – something that came true very quickly once I arrived there.

    TIme doesnt heal. Time just forces you to move on and keep busy with new things. Keeping busy is one of the things that helps me move forward. When I stop being busy, I start remembering, and thats when the pain comes flooding back.

    • @trishool, I’m sorry for the loss of your friend and the pain you feel, but please . . . for both your own and their sake, contact his family. You need each other and they will be hurting and confused by your absence but will understand when you get in touch and tell them. There will be a time when it’s too late, and you will always regret it if you don’t do it. Contact with the people who knew and loved the one we have lost helps us enormously in their absence.

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