When My Mom Was Dying, I Became a Bad Friend. And That Was OK
Deemed “the friend we all wish we had in times of need . . .” by Elaine Welteroth, Marisa Renee Lee’s book, Grief Is Love, helps us answer the question: what does it look like to live a joyful and full life after experiencing a life-changing loss?
Published under Hachette’s new imprint, Legacy Lit, Lee’s book combines her personal experiences with research-based advice and wisdom to help others navigate the complicated and dark emotions we face when experiencing loss. Offering unique insights for women and Black communities, it is truly the first of its kind to do a deep dive into the intersection of grief, healing, and racism.
In addition to her work in the grief space, Lee is a former appointee in the Obama White House and currently the CEO of Beacon Advisors, a mission-driven consulting firm primarily focused on racial equity.
In this excerpt from “Grief Is Love,” Lee talks about the importance of giving yourself permission to be “a sh*t friend” and what it means to ask for help during the darkest and messiest times of our lives.
One of the last things my mother said to me in the months before she died was, “Always answer the phone for your friends.” I never answer my phone, everyone close to me knows that, but what I interpreted her words to mean was, “Show your people you love them by showing up for them.” By being there for your people even when it may not be convenient for you, that is an expression of love. When you show up for your people, the core of your community, no matter what, you also have a right to expect the same from them.
When I was in college, my friend Hamzah once said, “If I never let you inconvenience me, then we aren’t really friends. We are just people who hang out and drink together.” That very simple statement redefined friendship for me. His statement became the lens through which I evaluated my relationships with those around me. Who was I willing to inconvenience myself for and vice versa? Those are your people – the people who are truly on your team and will show up when things get hard, or when you get hard to be around; the friends who are skilled at rattling off your strengths and weaknesses and love you despite them, or maybe even because of those weaknesses.
And you know what? No matter how much they love you and you love them, they will not fully understand what you’re going through, but if they are truly your people, they will want to find a way to help you. If there is something they can help with, tell them.
It took a conversation with my friend’s mother, a therapist, to help me identify one of the things I needed in the weeks leading up to my mom’s death: a pass. I needed permission to flake on my people. Separate from permission to grieve, which I still wasn’t letting myself do, I needed permission to be a sh*t friend. My moods were unpredictable, my mother’s needs were unpredictable as a result of her illnesses, everything in my life felt grey and uncertain, and I needed people to know that I would be largely absent and unreliable. I needed folks to know I was not in a position to be my normal, reliable self. It seemed so simple, but naming that unpredictability via email to some of my friends felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I started the letter like this:
If you’re on this list, by now you’ve probably heard that my mom is not doing so well. I suppose that is putting it lightly as the most recent update I got from her doctor was six months to a year, and he said “maybe a year” only because she’s so “resilient.” I am super grateful for all of your calls, emails, invitations to go places, birthday wishes, etc., and am very sorry for not having returned them, but my life has been fairly uneventful from a social perspective and super packed with hospital visits, calls to doctors, fights with doctors, and train rides upstate . . . Please do keep calling and hold on to those invitations that you have recently extended for dinner, drinks, etc. as I can’t really take advantage of them now, but am likely to really need them later.
It was an awkward email to send, but the act of hitting send was immediately met with support, kindness, and love. Although I needed their permission to flake, I asked them to keep reaching out, to set me up on dates, and I asked them to help me raise money for the breast cancer charity I started in my mom’s honour.
And I didn’t stop there, I kept asking for help.
I had a very specific vision for my mother’s funeral, and the funeral programs the church presented to me did not align with that. They were all hideous and so clichéd, with each option some version of “Christian Chic,” a sunset or a misty mountaintop or a soaring eagle. I honestly could not handle how ugly they were. I also had a list of brilliant, mostly type-A women who loved my mom, who loved me, and who were ready to do whatever was needed to help me once she died, so I asked my friend Jackie to design simple, elegant, custom funeral programs that didn’t suck. I never thought about how they would be printed until I walked into a hotel room where a bunch of my girls were staying and found a full-on print shop. It turns out they had “borrowed” a colour printer from Staples with plans to return it the next day. I felt so grateful to have people in my life willing to return a used printer to an office supply store if that was what was required to achieve my vision for my mother’s funeral.
And I realised that the help was already there, sometimes without asking; I just needed to accept it.
Excerpted from “Grief Is Love” by Marisa Renee Lee. Copyright © 2022 by Marisa Renee Lee. Reprinted with permission of Legacy Lit. All rights reserved.