In Britain, there seems to only be one acceptable response to someone asking you how you are. Whether your day has been amazing or terrible, the answer is always the same: I’m fine, thanks. It satisfies the enquirer that they can move on with the conversation.
My mum died when I was 20. I was technically an adult, with adult friends, but losing mum made me feel like a child again. I felt lost and helpless, and my closest family and friends had no idea how to treat me, as they too battled their own grief. Plenty of people wanted desperately to help me, but many had absolutely no idea what to say or how to approach me. So they asked me how I was. And I answered: I’m fine, thanks.
I’m now 23 and run a support network for bereaved young people aged 16 to 30. From the outside, I look like the worst of my grief is over and I’m coping well. Perhaps it is, but I’ve learnt the hard way that you can’t predict grief – anyone who has lost someone will know that it can flare up and get worse at the most random times. So I’m still not fine, and I’ve learnt to stop saying I am. In fact, I’ve waged a war against the word “fine” and all its horrible connotations.
The support network I run, Let’s Talk About Loss,encourages young people to talk honestly and openly about their grief, in the hope that sharing our stories will encourage a change in the way loss and death are spoken about in this country. Don’t misunderstand me here – I love how polite we Brits are, and I don’t always want to be completely truthful with everyone, but I would love to see those struggling with their mental health be able to articulate exactly how they feel. We don’t have to tell the cashier in the supermarket, but we should be telling our friends, family, even colleagues, when we’re not ok.
When we lost mum, the family received nearly 500 sympathy cards. They ranged from “Sorry for your loss. Love, Bob” to long essays about how much mum had been loved and respected by everyone around her. At the time, I barely took any of them in, but now I find them interesting and helpful, as they show me how varied our responses to loss are.
If you have a friend or family member who has recently been bereaved, consider carefully what you write in the sympathy card you send them. I call the months after mum died the “black hole” – my whole life had been shattered; I’d been hit by a train that I didn’t see coming. Someone I didn’t know comparing my loss to the death of their hamster ten years ago was really not helpful.
Consider that someone who is grieving might not be fine. They are unlikely to be ok. They probably want to scream “I’m not coping” or “life is horrible”. They might need to sob, shout or swear, and if you’re close to them, you need to let them do that. By allowing them to answer honestly and confide in you how they are feeling, you are letting them know that their response is normal and acceptable, which is really important for their mental health.
Also, let them talk about their loved one. People often don’t want to talk about my mum. If I bring her up, they look awkward and change the topic, and they never talk about their own mothers. Yet what they are missing is the fact that I love talking about my mum. She was my best friend, the woman I owe everything to, the one who shaped me into the woman I am today. She was an incredible source of joy, light and love, and I am desperate not to forget her or lose her from my life. So just because she is not here in person does not mean we must all eradicate her from our present.
Date: 14th December 2018