Caution: People Grieving

As I was checking out at Target, the cashier asked, “How are you?” Without thinking, I responded, “Well, my mom died, I started a new job, and I think I forgot to put the dog in his crate before I left the house. How are you?” She stared at me, then slowly started scanning my items. I realized I had answered her standard socially acceptable greeting in a not so standard, and potentially not socially acceptable, manner. As she was scanning the Tide and Diet Coke, I thought about apologizing, but figured that might make this scene even more awkward. I paid, picked up my plastic bags, (I had forgotten my monogrammed reusable bag, because well, see above) and wished her a good afternoon.

On my way to the car I remembered a recent enjoyable article, Let’s Bring Back Mourning Clothes. Had I been wearing mourning clothes to signal that I’m two months into new normal after my Mom’s death, the scene with the Target cashier wouldn’t have been so awkward. She would have known I was grieving and not to be phased by anything I said.

The thing about grief is that each day-sometimes even each hour-is different. I’m not always sad and I’m not always questioning everything. I’m fine some days and other days I feel like I got kicked in the stomach. Grief is odd. Grief is unpredictable. And perhaps instead of hoping other people have ESP and know the right (or wrong) things to say and do, we grievers should give public service announcements so folks know our emotional Richter scale at any given time. This may not prevent folks from saying absurd (yet entertaining) things, but may prevent awkward interactions with innocent Target employees.

For instance, a few days after Mom died, someone said, “I know how you feel because my dog had pancreatic cancer like your mom.” Actually, you don’t know how I feel. I don’t wish cancer of any kind on any creature of any kind, but my Mom and your dog are a little different. Also, so far as I know, Mom’s pancreas was just fine. I don’t think anything will prevent such comments, so I suggest we grievers see the humor in them and appreciate that the person cared enough to attempt offering sympathy.

Perhaps modern-day mourning clothes should be created old school days of the week underwear style. Each morning (or afternoon) the griever could choose an appropriate public service announcement shirt for that day’s emotional status. Here are a few of the Modern-Day Mourning/Days of the Grief shirts I’d include in my line:

  • Wanna go eat Macaroni & Cheese and pie?
  • Please leave gift cards and/or candy on my desk. No talking.
  • I’m actually really ok today. Please act normal around me.
  • Returning to my blanket fort ASAP.
  • I don’t know what day it is. Remind me where to go at 2pm.
  • Don’t take anything I say personally. And, I’m sorry in advance.
  • I just have a lot of feelings. (Why, yes. These are pajama pants.)
  • Did I return your voicemail/email/text? What did I say?

Even with the autonomy of Days of the Grief shirts, grief would still direct the unpredictable show of emotional whiplash. So it’s necessary for grievers-and those who journey with us-to be authentic, as grief is a sacred hot mess of art. Grief often doesn’t make sense because it’s uncharted territory. And being comfortable allowing grief to come as it may takes way less energy than pretending to have it all together in public. Nobody is really all together anyway. So let’s save energy. Be honest.


  1. oh yes, yes, yes. just marked a year and still find myself out of sorts and craving see’s candy 🙂

  2. “…genuine grief is a sacred hot mess of art.”

    Yes, friend. You say that so well. My heart is with you. ❤

  3. It’s been nearly 13 years since my mom passed away and 9 years for my dad, while I don’t have moments of intense grief like I used to – I still need this system. When I had my long season of funerals, this would have been awesome.

    Some things I learned is that: people need you later. There is this rush of activity and visits and help for the couple of weeks after and then it’s gone. By then, you may have had a chance to process and then there is no one to talk to. So I make it a point to check with people at the 3-4 week mark. “What’s going on? What do you need?”

  4. I’m so sorry for your loss, and grateful for your witness in the midst of pain. Grief is hard, hard work.

  5. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. My Mom, at the age of 58, died of cancer 7 months ago yesterday. This speaks to me in the clearest voice possible.

  6. Oh god, yes. My mom died suddenly just less than 4 months ago, and this morning, I thought I might be all right today, except that I got a notice in the mail that I am going to receive a Southern Living cookbook soon. My mom’s favorite cookbook was Southern Living… and the gift is, of course… from her.

    When I saw her name on that card from the publisher, it leveled me. Even now, I’m sitting in Starbucks with tears running down my face.

    There is nothing like losing your mom. Nothing.

    And I’m totally with you… I think mourning clothes should come back, and I totally want the t-shirts you’ve suggested here. Yep.

    (Incidentally, I’ve blogged about my mom’s passing, if you’re interested in crying some more.)

  7. I think the top marks or a well written piece is if it can make you roll the laughing and sad kind-of-tears at the same time. Excuse me, I need to get a tissue.

  8. You’re nicer than I am about the dog thing. I actually had someone tell me that losing my mom was basically the same as losing a job. Umm, no.

    Thank you for this. I think mourning clothes are a great idea…though after 7 and a half years I still have a few days here and there where I’m basically incapable of polite company, and some evenings where something brings a whole new wave of grief, so I kind of wish I could still wear them sometimes!

    a hint from one motherless daughter to another–you may want to get someone else to read your email, and turn off the TV, about a month before mother’s day. The deluge of marketing would drown even the most stoic 20-year-old grief process. I mean really.

  9. Jo Anderson · · Reply

    The Stephen Ministry book, “Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart,” is a good resource for what not to say to those who grieve.

  10. Lindsay · · Reply

    Well said AAM. I hate the words, “I know how you feel”, but, I know how you feel about the dog comment because someone once compared my mom to their coconut allergy. It happened at Montreat, of all places. Funny the things we remember.

    When I was in high school, the “your mama” jokes were popular. (If they ever became unpopular, please let me know.) I hated them because it was a reminder that my mom was gone. So, being a completely normal teenager without a bit of angst, I would just reply, “Oh yeah? Well, my mom’s dead.” It shut people up pretty quick.

    Until someone replied back, “Really? Mine too.”

    It was Scott, an upperclassman who was friends with my sister and liked to pick on me. We swapped stories and found out we shared one special thing – greif – in common. Scott’s mother died on Mother’s Day, mine on Christmas Eve. He was nine and I was ten. We bonded over our hatred for these holidays, for teachers who said ‘Don’t make me call your mom’ and for friends who yelled, ‘I hate you!’ to their parents.

    We formed a little club – Parental Unitless Anonymous – and promised to contact each other every Mother’s Day to check in. Sometimes it’s a phone call or a facebook post or a text, but it gives me something to look forward to each year.

    Over twenty years later, I still say, “Oh yeah? Well, my mom’s dead.” It might make people uncomfortable, but losing a parent is more than uncomfortable. I like to think it makes things even.

  11. Mary Jo Edge · · Reply

    I actually have a very good friend that told me her divorce from her husband 9 who left her for his office girl) was far worse than losing my husband of 47 years to esophageal cancer; because she still has to run into him on occasion!! I agree some type of mourning clothes very appropriate, though like Teri, I’m not sure how long you stay in the attire.
    I have received a great deal of comfort & support from a local grief support group that one of our local funeral homes provides. We have bonded in ways unimaginable because of the one thing we all have in common, that’s losing someone we cared very deeply for. We tell people we belong to a club none of us wanted to join, but are glad we have each other to rely on now! We are family!
    My husband hasn’t been gone 2 years yet, & the time & memories of all the events of his illness & death are as fresh as yesterday. There are more good days now, but still many bad ones. When I go to a visitation now I have a different reply with the people directly involved in their loss, & always offer an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, & advice on how to ask for help.

  12. Yes! A thousand times, yes! Thank you for this.

  13. I read your post with coexisting tears and laughter. I can SO relate!!! As a person that struggles with a chemical imbalance that from what I understand developed as a genetic predisposition coupled with childhood trauma that as I have aged, with the inherent toll of stress, has caused my system to be unable to differentiate perceived from actual threat when activating the chemistry of “fight or flight”. The psychiatric world has labeled it “mood spectrum disorder”. The reality is that my life is much like you describe – “a perpetual whiplash of grief responses”. I suspect that were I to have grief shirts as you describe, I would have to be a quick change artist however! I especially appreciate your visual that “grief is a sacred hot mess of art”. I am thankful that Katy posted the link to this on FB so that I am privileged to see and read it. Thank You! I sincerely understand and feel sad for your loss of your beloved mother. I now have lost all of my parents and grandparents. Grace and Peace.

  14. Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 83. He died 6 1/2 years ago. I’ve been thinking about him all day. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately because of things happening in my life. It’s hard that he’s not here.

  15. Oh, my. My dad died in late November this past year, three weeks after the 4th anniversary of my mom’s death. They had been married 65 years before she died. As much as I know it was time, I still grieve their loss. Two months to the day after Dad died, I fell apart. Didn’t realize the timing until the end of that 24-hour collapse. Then it dawned on me. Oh yeah, that’s it. So very very strange how it hits at odd moments. Just when you least expect it.

  16. My Dad died 7 weeks ago, and the t-shirts are brilliant. Thank you so much for my first laugh in a while. And I totally did that at Target, too.

  17. Leah Fowler · · Reply

    You speak such a powerful word, Ashley-Anne. I also feel so much love and support by the people who wrote comments below your blog. It’s nice to know I’m not alone. I mean, I’m sorry all of you have also suffered loss, but it makes me feel less insane for what I’m feeling now. My mom died 6 weeks ago of a heart attack out of the blue. She had come to visit us for a week and we had a wonderful time together, especially Mom with her toddler granddaughter. She was so good at loving us. I miss her so much.

  18. Please make these shirts! My mother died at Christmas, and every December, I long to walk around in a “My mom died at Christmas so this is a season of grief THANKS” but yours are much catchier!

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