Monday, June 20, 2011

Losing a Parent: Comforting a Complete Stranger

When I go to the store and I'm having an interaction with my cashier, I don't know how you do it but I generally stick to "how are you doing, today?" and I go from there. They're doing their job and I don't really want to distract them too terribly, lest I get over-charged for the romaine that shouldn't cost nearly $3.00 anyway, if you're asking me. I know that's not the only way to interact with someone who's helping you but I like to think it's a pretty reasonable, average way to go about paying for produce.

I do work in the business of servicing customers, though, and I learned early on that customers like to get personal. I think there are a lot of things that allow them to feel free enough to get more personal with me than with, say, the lady who's ringing up your light bulbs. There aren't a whole lot of people in my section of the store and there's almost never a line waiting behind you. On top of that, it's my business to get personal with them, as well. Though on my end it's a little more from a medical standpoint than a personally invasive one.

Sometimes in life, you have to work on holidays. That's no big deal. I don't mind being the one to work holidays because I'm pretty much the only one at work who doesn't have a family or something like that.
When you work on Memorial Day people say, "What are you doing for Memorial Day??" And I say, "I'm working!" And then we have a mutual chuckle.
When you work the day before Easter (because we're never open on Easter) almost everyone says, "Will you get to see your family tomorrow??" And I... answer accordingly or something.
I learned, yesterday, that when you work on Father's Day, almost everyone says, "Did you call your dad today?"

I'll interrupt here to address my initial, blanket feelings about the fact that my father passed away. It should be noted that there are millions of complex and confusing and terrible and yes, even happy feelings that go along with losing a parent and I'll address those at other times, I'm sure. But by and large, on the whole, it's just a fact of my life. Over the course of these ten years, I've learned to live with it and accept it. When I was in college I was having a very hard time dealing with the fact that my life was progressing without my dad. I didn't know if I was grieving properly because I wasn't sad all of the time. I didn't commemorate him at every little milestone. And despite the fact that he crossed my mind (and still does) on average, every few hours, I didn't even talk about him with most people. I saw a counselor about it a few times who talked to me about walking beside my father. He said that I could hold my dad out in front of me and introduce this fact of my life to everyone that I met and let this loss define me. Another option was that I could push him so far behind me that I try to forget about him completely--and that might work for a little bit until, you know, his birthday or Father's Day comes up and then I'll be spooked by a ghost and find myself crumpled on the floor. And that would happen. Or, I could just accept the fact that he's not going anywhere--but I am, and I could bring him alongside me so that he doesn't define me or scare the crap out of me. And I think that's what I've done. That's what makes it easy to go through Father's Day like it's just another Sunday.

So, yeah, that's how I feel about it. So when people say, "did you call your dad, today?" I find ways around it by saying, "Well, I've been at work all day so far." Or they say, "How are you spending Father's Day?" And I say, "Working!" Oh, hahahaha, doy. And they take that to mean that I'll call him when I get home. That makes everyone feel better.

But then someone else came up, yesterday, who said "What did you do for your dad today?" Something overcame me, maybe it was the frustration with the fact that almost everyone that I had encountered so far just assumed that we're all the same and we all have happy, functional, alive relationships with our fathers. Maybe it was the fact that I just couldn't figure a way to weasel out of an answer but I just said it, "Well, actually, my father has passed away."

People usually respond one of two ways when they hear this news:
A. A deep, respectful nod and usually, "I'm very sorry to hear that." To which (I've learned) the appropriate response is, "thank you." And that's the end of that conversation.
B. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry!!" But they're not sorry that I've had to live my life without my dad, what they're sorry about is the fact that they've reminded me of it--as though it's something that I've ever forgotten. They're also embarrassed that they just assumed that I'm just like them. They got caught being a little, innocently ego-centric. These are people who have never really lost anyone aside from maybe a pet or a grandma when they were 8. Which is fine, and it's still a hurtful loss but it's just not the same. I would prefer that no one ever really have to go through that feeling. I wouldn't mind being the last one.

To lose someone from your everyday life is life-altering to say the very, very least. They say, "I'm so sorry" and you can pretty much watch the seven stages of grief wash over their face all in succession. I've known this fact for ten years but they're just hearing it for the first time. Over time I've accepted the fact that some people just respond that way and that's when you have to encounter the most backwards part of grieving: comforting a complete stranger. In public. You have to find a way to make them feel better.

Generally, it is my instinct to make it into a joke. Through experience I've learned that responding to "I'm so sorry" with "did you do it?!" is not funny to anyone but yourself. Don't do it. Don't ever do it. I generally try to smile to let them know that I'm not going to lose my shit or anything and I'll explain that it happened a long time ago. Then they go about the rest of their day and go out into the parking lot and text all their friends, "OMFG u'll nvr guess what s2pid thing i just sed." They'll probably tell that story for the next few weeks.


Adam Parker said...

I'm so glad I don't do customer service. It's amazing to me that people can just ASSUME that everyone they talk to has a living father. I mean, the death rate is 100%. Everybody's dad goes at some point - doesn't this cross your minds, people!?

Anonymous said...

my daughter is 7 and she sends cards to heaven she has done it for 2 years now. Her teacher told her that if she didn't have a exact address that he wouldn't get the card and it took her forever to explain to her teacher that she didn't need a address that she knew he'd get them anyway. I'm sorry for the loss of your dad but he is always with you watching you and seeing who you have become he is beside you in life guiding you in the after life as he did in this one.. keep that in mind.

The Foreigners said...

Libby...thank you for always being so honest. I want you to know, though, if I ever put my foot in my mouth about your dad (which I probably did, because I do things like that o_O) I GENUINELY meant that I was sorry for saying that AND for the fact that your dad passed.

In the spirit of honesty, what is the best way to react after having assumed such a thing? Is it better to nod, or is it better to handle it a different way?

I love you, and I love your words, and I love that you chose to be real in that moment. I know it must be hard having to field all of the assumptions.

Libby Marie said...

Well, Jamie, you're a very close and personal friend of mine and therefore I'm positively certain that there's nothing that you could say or ask about my father that would be even remotely offensive or considered foot-in-mouth-worthy.

The offense and irritation occurs when strangers assume to have any idea how I feel about it. Even (and sometimes especially) with people who have been a similar situation. Whether they think I'm very sensitive to the fact or when they say something so over the top and I-hope-this-makes-you-feel-better-y. Like, "Oh, he's in a better place" or "He's smiling down on you and very proud of the woman you've become" (Someone at work actually said that to me once and I wanted to punch him because he was using me and my feelings to soothe his own discomfort. But then I felt bad for wanting to punch him because he really was just trying to fix an unfixable scenario.)

To answer your question, the ideal situation would be to never just assume that everyone you come in contact with has the same sort of life as you. Not everyone's dads are dead. Some people are in much worse situations than I am. Some children were abused by their fathers. Some were abandoned. So I would suggest not asking about family matters from someone that you'll probably never see again.
BUT sometimes things slip out and I prefer it the most when people say, with sincerity, "I'm sorry to hear that." Or, really, ANYTHING if it's truly delivered with sincerity.

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