Monday, April 15, 2019

In Grief: What's Age Got To Do With It?

[Reviewed and updated March 24, 2022]

If you were 12 years old, no one would believe it odd that you would grieve the loss of your mom, so why do we assume it is easier 50 years later?  Those 50 additional years carry even more shared memories.  ~ Kenneth Doka

A reader writes: I am writing because I had a negative interaction with a store clerk about the death of my mother and I am stunned at how sensitive I am to the insensitivity of strangers. I need some kind of reality check.

My mother loved cardinals, and one day I went to a rather snooty boutique (my first mistake) in search of a gift for my mother's friend. I asked the clerk if they sold cardinal figurines at their store. She said although it was "an obscure question," she thought there might be a cardinal figurine in one of the cases, and invited me to look with her. I shared with her that my mother died two weeks ago and cardinals were her favorite birds. I explained that she had died a month after open-heart surgery, and the clerk said she was sorry. Then she said "How old was your mother?" I said that didn't matter. She was my mother. The clerk responded with "Look, I was only asking. Don't get snippy. My parents died in less than a year of each other. I know all about grief." Taken aback, I answered, "Oh, so now we're into 'my pain is greater than your pain'?" "No," she said, "but that's what you're doing." With than remark, I walked out of the store.

Customer service aside, whenever I mention that my mother died, why is the first question always about her age? I have read that the most minimized grief in the US is the death of elderly parents. That somehow, because it is the natural order of things, it doesn’t hurt as much. Here’s a news flash for the clerk—age has nothing to do with sadness. Of course I am grateful she lived a long life. If anything, having a good relationship for so many years makes the bond harder to break. I wanted to scream at her, "For future reference, if someone tells you a loved one has died, please, please do not put a qualifier on it by first asking the age of the deceased."
The woman didn’t tell me about the death of her parents to empathize. She said it to cut me off, put me in my place, or shut me up. Call it what you will. Don’t get snippy? I'm not snippy, I'm raw. What a hurtful thing to say to someone new to grief. (And if she wants a body count, my father is dead, too.) I must have pushed some of her own hot buttons on issues of grief.
So, is it common to get this type of reaction from a stranger? All I know is that the interaction blew me away and I want to learn from it so it doesn't happen again. It hurts too much. Thank you for your time. Thank you for any insight you can share with me.

My response: First, based on your description of the interaction, I am appalled at the behavior of this store clerk, and I am sure I would have reacted exactly the same way you did, by leaving the store immediately ~ and if I were you, I probably would never patronize that same store again. I have encountered "snippy" sales clerks upon occasion, too, and I find them extremely irritating, whether I am in mourning or not! Like you, I expect a certain level of customer service from sales people who are there presumably to "serve" the public.

As for your reaction in this situation, I think we both know that, when we are in the freshest throes of grief, we are extremely raw and vulnerable, and super-sensitive to the remarks of others. I don't know why this sales clerk asked about your mother's age ~ perhaps it was just her clumsy way of seeking more information or of feigning interest in your story. In any event, it should have been obvious to her that, based on your reaction to her question, your mother's age has nothing to do with the fact that she died and you miss her terribly. A more sensitive soul would have picked up on that and agreed with you immediately, by saying something like "Of course, you're right, it doesn't matter at all ~ please forgive me ~ I didn't mean to be rude, etc." Instead, she reacted to your reaction, went on the offensive, and accused you of being "snippy." We can speculate all day long as to the "why" of this clerk's behavior, and of course we would only be guessing. For all we know, she could be in the freshest throes of grief, too. We don't know how long ago her parents died, how they died, how she felt about them or how effectively she is processing her own grief. I agree with you that, however unintentionally, you "must have pushed some of her own hot buttons on issues of grief," and certainly by asking about your mother's age, she pushed one of yours.

As you have observed, some people tend to minimize the death of elderly parents; they seem to think that the loss of an older parent is "easier." But as grief expert Kenneth Doka says, if you were a child, no one would find it strange that you would mourn the death of your mother, so why would someone assume it is easier when you are older and those additional years carry even more shared memories?

If you want to read what many others have to say about the pain and sorrow of losing their older parents, I invite you to spend some time in the Loss of a Parent forum that I moderate in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, and you will see that you're not alone. This forum happens to be one of our most active ones, which in itself is an indicator of how very difficult a loss this is for so many adult children, regardless of the age of the parent who has died. 

You ask if it is "common to get this type of reaction from a stranger," and all I can say is that, when you disclose your loss to any stranger, you run the risk of exposing yourself to the insensitivity of another, or to one who's never experienced loss, or in this case, to what may have been the raw emotions of another grieving person. If this store is one of your all-time favorites and you cannot bear to never shop there again, you can choose to deal with this woman by confronting her (or her manager) constructively with what happened and how you feel about it. On the other hand, since you have nothing invested in preserving a relationship with this sales clerk, you can arrange your life so that you don't have to deal with her or this store ever again, and take your business elsewhere.

Still, I don't think there is any way to immunize yourself against the insensitivity of others.  My hope for you is that eventually the rawness and vulnerability you're feeling now will ease, and the day will come when the thoughtless, trivializing comments of such insensitive others will not hurt as much. In the meantime, know that your deep sense of loss is a natural response to the death of your precious parents, whatever their age or however old you are. Your grief is a manifestation of your attachment and your love, and you don't have to explain that to anyone, stranger or otherwise.

Afterword: Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your skills as a grief counselor and your  compassion came shining through.
     I have taken the liberty of forwarding your helpful response to my sister because she was accosted in a store. Her situation is different because, while I have the anonymity of a large city, my sister lives in the small town where we grew up and everyone knew our mom. Because my sister was the elementary school principal for years, everyone knows her, too. She has told me several times that she wants to run away and hide because everyone knows her and she hurts too much to appease the curiosity of casual acquaintances. So, there are a few advantages to my anonymity after all.
     One woman came up to her in a store and said in one breath: "Someone close to you died right? It was your mother or something? Well, she was really old so it probably was a good thing. Anyway, being so old, aren't you glad it's over? At least she didn't have to suffer."
     My sister said she was so overwhelmed by this woman she burst into tears right there, but did manage to say, "You're wrong. She died 33 days after open heart surgery. She suffered. She suffered a lot." A small light of understanding flickered in the woman's brain and she walked away without further comment. But my sister has still not quite recovered from this unsolicited attack. That's why I think she will find great comfort in your message.
     Thank you, from the bottom of my grieving heart, for taking the time to write a wonderful response that helped me so much!

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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