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Relationships Societal 4 minute read

“What Happened”: The Wrong, yet Understandable Question After Someone Dies

I don’t remember how many days had passed since she died; but I remember that I was in my childhood bedroom, sitting cross-legged on my lavender comforter when the phone rang. There was no caller ID yet, so I looked at the phone and debated if I should pick up or not. My brain was weary; my heart was being held together by prayer, friends and family; so that ring felt almost threatening.

“Hello,” I answered holding the tan receiver detached from my ear as if that small distance would help to protect me some.

A cracking, soprano voice that spoke of a long life questioned, “Randi, it’s Bea. I heard about your mother. What happened?”

“Thank you for your condolences,” I responded. Then I quickly and rudely hung up, suddenly energized by indignation.

Why does it matter how she died, you gossipy woman, I thought? My mother is dead! That’s all that matters, SHE is no longer here. Don’t call me inquiring about how she died so you can report it to the church hens. I know that one answer would have led to more questions.

Cancer?

Where?

When did she get it?

Did she get treatment? And so on, and so on.

And I didn’t want to share, to rehash, to relive, or to talk about it. I didn’t have it in me. But, I was rude to an elderly woman who had been kind to me since I was 8 years old – not for those reasons as much as because her question angered me — immediately and hard.

But life has a way of fertilizing empathy, putting you in situations that, if you are open to self-awareness and growth, make you look at past decisions differently.

One of my friends from college died this week. Joy wasn’t a friend whom I talked to on the phone or anything; but we started at Tuskegee University at the same time and had the same major. Those years at college create forever kinships that Facebook and Homecomings continue to cement.

It was from Facebook that I learned of Joy’s passing. I was again lounging in my bed with my laptop on my lap (fittingly) when I logged onto FB — and there it was — the first post on my feed referencing Joy’s passing. First, I closed Facebook. I wasn’t ready to hear this news. Second, I silently questioned, “how.” Third, I texted a friend, “what happened?”

I can honestly say that my question didn’t come from curiosity; but for a real need for it to make sense. It didn’t make sense. I just “saw” her (on FB) preparing to go sing, announcing food bank hours. She was smiling. She was vibrant. She was very much alive. So, I NEEDED someone to help this news sit right in my head (because I know it never will in my heart).

It’s a selfish question — to be sure. But, I understand now why Bea wanted to know what happened to my mother — a woman who was decades her junior, who was a power-house, who died suddenly. She needed to make sense of it. None of us wants to believe in the reckless randomness of life. No one wants to believe that one day you or a loved one can be here and the next day — be gone. That concept is too scary. So, we comfort ourselves by saying things like:

​Well, you know he smoked.

​She had been ill for a long time.

​He was morbidly obese.

Drugs.

And if that doesn’t work:

​It was her time.

​God needed another angel.

She was tired.

We need something — anything — to make it digestible. If not, the hurt curls up in a fetal position and takes permanent residence in our throats. We ask, “what happened” because when a loved one dies, regardless of age, it feels as if it should not have happened.

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