After you’ve lost someone, when you go back out into society—among friends or colleagues—it can feel like you’re the subject of a science experiment. Everyone’s looking at you, prodding you with questions, trying to gauge your mood, wondering if you’re going to explode.
If you’re someone who has spent your life feeling relatively “normal” this new-found distinction as “the lady whose daughter died,” or “the guy whose wife just passed,” can bring quite a bit of attention whether you want it or not. People will have questions. They will expect answers.
Right about here we need a little self-care disclaimer. People will have questions and will expect answers, but you are under no obligation to give them. You are not a monkey in their lab. You are not a performer in a freak show. You are just a person who had something happen to you that was beyond your control. You have every right to say, “Thank you for your concern, but I’d rather not talk about it right now.” You also have the right to say you’re “fine” when some colleague you hardly know asks how you’re doing.
But it’s wise to be prepared for those situations. How will you respond when someone you barely know cocks their head to the side and sympathetically asks how you’re holding up? This is a good situation to have a canned answer at the ready. “It’s tough but we’re making it through,” could be a more sincere answer than “oh, fine.” It’s not a bad idea to come up with something you’re comfortable with in advance.
This is a good idea for any loss, but especially if the loss was particularly complicated by social stigma. Losses to traumatic accident, violence, suicide, overdose, miscarriage, et al often arouse acute (sometimes morbid) curiosity. Survivors must ask themselves what and how they are willing to discuss the way in which the person they loved died, because it’s going to come up.
An exercise for this would be to imagine four people you actually know. A work acquaintance, a friend you choose to spend time with occasionally, a friend of the family, and an aunt or cousin. Ideally these are people with whom you share varying levels of intimacy. Put a name and a face to this actual person then imagine each of them says to you “I’m so sorry for your loss, how are you doing?”
How would you respond to each of them? How comfortable are you being honest about your feelings with each? If they asked, what would you be willing to tell each of them about how your loved-one died? How would you phrase it? This exercise can help you be ready when you’re addressed by someone similarly familiar to you as each these people. You can also draw on interactions you’ve already had. How did you respond? How do you wish you would’ve responded?
You can’t plan for every situation and it’s unfortunately almost guaranteed that at least one person will ask you something unimaginably insensitive, but if you arm yourself with responses you can gain a small sense of control in these uncontrolled situations.