The Other Side of Things

by Laura

My mother’s birthday came and went. I bought an ice cream cake for the kids, one of those cheesy things from the grocery store with the icing that stains your teeth. I’d bought one for my mom a few years before, when her birthday coincided with one of our visits back east. It’s not always easy to arrange things when you’re from out of town. She seemed to enjoy it well enough, though, or maybe she just appreciated that someone made an effort. It didn’t go over so well this time. My son is the only one who really ate any of it, and we ended up throwing most of it in the trash. I asked my daughter if she wanted to share any good memories of my mom and she refused, started bawling, then ran to her room (which is what she does all the time anyway, so I can’t judge how much of that was genuine). So, you know, that was that.

I’ve been on the other side of grief a lot lately, having to be the one to offer condolences. Other special people’s special people keep dying. It’s so damn tricky, isn’t it? Trying to find the right words, the right gesture. It’s particularly tricky when they’re religious. I’ve had to learn about the various religious practices before even reaching out, just to make sure I didn’t insult anyone. Religious people tend to get more so during times of despair, and the last thing I want to do is draw attention to the fact that I’m a clueless heathen. I mean, they already know that about me. I don’t keep it a secret. But there’s a time and a place. When someone is grieving, I try to minimize the differences between us and speak from a place of heartfelt sympathy. I don’t want them thinking, “Oh, look. Here comes the atheist. She’s probably going to say something snarky.” I wouldn’t do that. I think it pretty hard, but I won’t say it.

So I do what I do. I keep things brief, honest, using spare language to address the main points which are, of course, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘that sucks.’ And I send food. And I fret over that plenty, too. Cookies are too playful. Cakes too festive. Fruit too prone to spoilage. Nothing too cheap or too showy. Nothing too obvious or obscure. I know it’s most likely going to be received with indifference or basic gratitude. That’s not the point. I really do try to get it as right as I can. We can’t control death. We can’t control emotion. We can control what kind of gift baskets to send to a sad person, so I do. Simple as that.

But still, I feel like I’m always putting my foot in my mouth. I guess we all do. It’s just a messy, awkward situation. The important thing, I guess, is to go ahead and say something and do something. Then, no matter what, at least you’re not the person who was too chickenshit to speak up. I have a lot of respect for the people who reached out to me after my mom died. Some had never spoken to me personally before. Those were good people, and I won’t ever forget it. It meant the world to me.

Still, not being able to contribute to the “better place,” “In God’s loving arms,” “you’ll see her again” conversation kind of sucks. Those are comforting words to some, and not being able to comfort others in that way makes me feel like my friendship is inferior, like I can only take my relationship with certain people so far.

I’m lucky that my parents share(d) my lack of faith. We didn’t see eye to eye on plenty of things (they’re significantly taller than me), but we agreed on religion and politics. When I talked to my mother in law after my father in law died, she was in that zone, you know. She was going to see him again one day and he was communicating with her (by sending a dragonfly to comfort her, good thing he didn’t die in January) and God had a plan… I’m not close to the woman, so it was easy to smile politely. I’ve never had religious differences with the people closest to me. My heart goes out to those who’ve had to struggle with that. Or any of those issues, really. Sexuality, political disagreements, ketchup versus mustard on hot dogs. *shudder*