In June 2021, I lost my mother to COVID-19. She didn’t make it through the Delta phase. She wasn’t the only one. In terms of what came after—the grief, the heartache, the isolation—neither was I. At least that’s what I told myself.
During her time in the hospital, I found myself leaning on some friends. It’s not the easiest thing for me to do but I did. And contrary to past experiences, when my friends patiently listened to my anxious rants and updates, I felt lucky. To my surprise, my immediate family was okay too. But, predictable as it was, most of my extended family was a nightmare. I imagine I’m not the only one dealing with that either.
Two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, my mother died. I let my friends know. Then came the dreadful process of informing friends who knew her. Some called, and some texted. I didn’t have prior experience but I thought condolence calls, at least from good friends, might lighten the load just a smidge. Turns out, not quite.
Someone I hadn’t talked to in years and who didn’t particularly know my mother accused me of not telling him beforehand (like it was his birthright). I was too drained to give him a “befitting reply.” Another took a detour from death and grief to Indian politics (a common area of interest but not so much for me at that moment). I found myself sucked into a rant on the hopelessness of the times. Not ideal. A third friend dove deep, really deep, into an existential spiral about the futility of human life in these trying times. It fanned the spark of despair in me.
If you haven’t yet figured it out, misery of any kind is not what you bring to the table when someone is in what can be described as an emotional crisis of sorts. Losing a parent, especially for the first time, is, at its best, a strange and confusing experience and, at its worst, a nightmare you’ll never wake up from.
But believe it or not, these calls weren’t even the hardest part of the grief. It was my more “thoughtful” friends. About three days after she died, one of them texted saying they were giving me space. Two weeks later, another did the same. When I saw those texts, I really couldn’t help but wonder, “Umm, but when did I ask for it?”
I’m not big on familial relationships. My friends knew that. During my worst crises, I’d turned to friends for support, if at all. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. But I’d learned over time that you can’t expect help if you don’t at least ask for it. People aren’t mind readers. For decades, being the class clown was my social currency. Turns out, when I didn’t carry it like loose change in the pocket meant to be given away, people didn’t prefer sticking around.
It’s OK if people don’t know the right thing to say or do.
In fact, silence helps more than having to listen to the wrong comment. More often than not, the latter sends me into wild loops of overthinking for days—if not weeks. Even so, these “giving space” text messages sent me into a red-hot rage.
So, how to get it right?
It made me think of the right way to do this and here’s what I’ve come up with:
I’m not sure what you want or need right now. I’ll check in on you whenever I can. Don’t feel obligated to reply. But if you need space, just let me know. I won’t mind at all. I just don’t want you to feel alone.
It’s about them, not you.
If you want to give someone space, first ask them if that’s what they’re looking for. Tell them that you’ll check on them periodically unless you’re told otherwise. Follow it up with action. Let them know it’s OK to not engage with you if they’re not up for it. And if they want you to stop, they should just say so. No hard feelings.
Can I give you some free advice? I’ve been thinking of a couple of things that might help you. It’s totally cool if you’re not in the mood.
While you’re checking in, don’t offer unsolicited advice. If you want to, ask them if they’re up for it and let them know that “no” is a perfectly acceptable answer. There are many ways to check in on a person—from texting to sending memes or music or something to read, watch, and so on. But it’s best to understand their state of mind before dumping recommendations or media content on them.
When you don’t do any of this and vanish from the face of the planet, it can be interpreted in many ways.
- You forgot to check on them and this is a polite afterthought to justify your absence.
- You’re bad with unpleasant news and chose to run away instead of figuring it out. That might be OK but it’s not the same as giving space.
- You think you are showing empathy while it’s anything but.
Once again, it’s OK if you don’t know what to say or do. But the pretense of caring (or so it looked like) is so much more painful.
Giving space isn’t a line to use to get out of uncomfortable situations. Giving space isn’t about covering your tracks after leaving someone in the deep end. It’s a tool that is supposed to help those who are in a crisis to heal themselves, at their own time and pace.
People need other people. You are not weak for wanting or needing support. If you’re seeking professional help, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].