I’m So Sorry for My Loss

Courtesy of TheNewYorkTimes.com | By Mary Cella | Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht | Originally Published 05.12.2018 | Posted 06.09.2018

Ms. Cella is a comedian.

This is my ninth motherless Mother’s Day, and while I still feel a little that people who take their mom out to brunch to celebrate are bragging, I’d like to assure you all that I’m fine.

The worst part of losing my mom is the fact that she’s no longer alive, since she had so much living left to do. The second worst part is how much I and the rest of her loved ones miss her. About the 100th worst part is how uncomfortable most people get when I tell them my mother is dead.

Sometimes I wonder if the word “dead” is what upsets people, as I tend to use straightforward language when talking about my mother. Death, after all, is nothing if not blunt. However, I’ve tried every euphemism, from delicate terms like “my mother passed away” or “she’s deceased” to less common phrasings like “my mom sleeps with the fishes.” (My gynecologist really didn’t like that last one.) All expressions meant to soften, for strangers, this harsh reality, and yet no matter how I word it, I’m met with the same look of sadness and pity.

I avoid the subject of my mother with strangers and casual acquaintances. I don’t like to make someone feel noticeably guilty for having made me talk about my dead parent in the middle of a mutual friend’s birthday party. There have been times, particularly right after she died and I brought it up more readily, when seeing the shock and horror I was feeling reflected on another person’s face brought me some comfort. Now it just makes me feel like a jerk for having upset some poor person who was trying to make small talk over hummus.

I’m not criticizing people for expressing sympathy. If there’s one thing I learned from my mother’s death, it’s how kind and empathetic most people are. Trust me, even the man who cut you off in traffic this morning hopes you have a mother and would be sad if he found out you didn’t. He’d still change lanes without signaling, but he’d be upset to know you didn’t have a mom to call to complain about it.

The reality is, every time I tell someone my mother is dead, I’m delivering terrible news. Some new acquaintances handle it so poorly, I feel compelled to ask if they knew her. I find myself assuring them it’s been a very long time, nearly a decade, and they usually say it’s awful she died when I was a kid, then I have to explain I’m actually not that young, I just look great.

Even with friends, I have to be careful. Sometimes I’ll tell what I think is a funny story, for example about the time my mom went to France while on a diet and didn’t eat a single piece of bread. She figured she wasn’t missing out on much, that one day she’d go back to Paris and she’d be much thinner and able to eat every baguette in sight. She never made it back. I’ll laugh, insisting my mother was in hysterics when she told me that story. My stoic friend, listening to the story, holds back tears.

The problem, of course, is that humans (myself included) aren’t exactly comfortable with the idea of death. That’s why I often end up in the position of comforting a near stranger about the fact that my mother is no longer alive.

If someone is particularly upset to hear the news and I’m feeling especially bold, I’ll tell them how lucky I am to have had not just a mother, but a wonderful one, even if it wasn’t for as long as we both would have liked. I’ll tell them that my mom’s own mother died when my mother was only 4 years old and that I’m fortunate to have the one thing my mother never had: memories of my mom. I’ll tell them how grateful I am that my mother didn’t die when she received a cancer diagnosis a week after my 13th birthday, that she recovered from that first bout and we got 10 more years together.

The more I assure them how privileged I was to have shared so much of my life with such a great mother, however, the more they look as if they need a hug, which I, of course, am more than willing to give them, since it’s my fault they’re crying in the middle of the grocery store in the first place.

Mary Cella is a writer and comedian.

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