#1315: How do I tell acquaintances about a death in the family without sounding dramatic?

Hey Captain Awkward,

My dad passed away two months ago from COVID complications. We’re doing pretty okay in our grief. Some of us have started grief counseling and are encouraging the others to do so as well. I’ve done all of the formal notifications to work, and close friends and family members. What I don’t know how to do is how to mention it to a casual friend group, or if I even should?

I play a game online with a group who I’ve never met in person. We’re friendly acquaintances who share life events like job changes, pet photos, and over the last year a little of our individual COVID experiences and struggles. I took a several month hiatus when my dad fell sick and am about to rejoin. I’m looking forward to it, though a part of me is a little unsure if anything will be, like, grief triggering, if that makes sense. How do I mention that hey, my dad died without sounding dramatic and attention-seeking, or (conversely) weirdly blasé? It feels weird to not mention a major life-altering event but is mentioning it to a casual gaming group emotional hijacking? I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding it somehow but telling acquaintances that your dad died feels manipulative somehow.

Awkward in Grief

Dear Awkward-In-Grief,

I’m so sorry about your dad. 

You can absolutely tell your gaming group about his death. It is not “attention-seeking,” “manipulative,” or “emotional hijacking.” You were gone, now you are back, there was a reason, it is okay to tell people what’s up with you. 

Also, “dramatic” was your wording in your email subject, but death is actually very dramatic. You. Lost. Your. Dad. Forever. I’m going to suggest scripts for talking about it matter-of-factly within your online gaming group, so that you can maintain your hard-won equilibrium and choose how much you engage about it, but it would be entirely understandable if you metaphorically pushed both double-doors open, sashayed into the group chat clad in head-to-toe black velvet and leather, smashed a jeweled goblet or elaborate candelabra onto the floor, announced, “I am devastated because my dad died, I’m basically held together with this excellent goth villain fetish gear and poor coping mechanisms, who wants to play a game?” and then swooned theatrically onto a nearby throne or dais to weep behind the lace veil that spiders wove for you. I don’t know where your internal “Oh, let’s not be dramatic about it” admonishments are coming from, and I get that being able to control when you fall apart and when you hold it together is part of coping with grief, but please don’t pre-judge yourself for being insufficiently breezy about something that is a very big deal. 

Consider also that you are probably far from alone in losing somebody this year. If someone else in the group mentioned a death in their family, would you think they were “hijacking” the discussion? Probably not, or at least I hope not? You know the culture of your own group better than I, of course, but in general, if people get mad at you for being a human being with a family and a life cycle, you are not the problem. You are not obligated to tell, if it’s important for you that the group be a totally separate sphere of your life, but you certainly can. 

For a glimpse of how this might go: I play a distractingly fun, low-intensity phone game where I’m part of an “Alliance” of total strangers, we aren’t even to the closeness point of “pet chitchat,” never mind photos, and it’s still very routine for someone to say in the general stranger-chat, “Hey, sorry I haven’t been around to [do game stuff], I’ve been dealing with [life stuff]” (divorce, death in family, illness, job loss, work deadlines). Usually other players say some variation of “I’m so sorry” and “How are you?” and “Take whatever time you need!” or “I’m so sorry, but very glad you are back!” — in other words, people only say nice things, and nobody presses for details — and then we all get back to whaling on monsters together. The most detailed or personal it’s ever gotten since I joined was a stressed new dad, killing monsters while awake on the night-feeding shift with the baby, and the other dads in the group being like “Oh, it’s brutal, do you need diaper-changing instruction vids, though? Because new moms are like babies: If they’re sleeping, LET THEM.” Wholesome content! 

If you decide to disclose, you can keep it very simple. 

“Hi everyone, sorry I haven’t been around, I had a death in the family and didn’t have much brain for gaming. But’s very good to see all of you.” 

You can be a little more specific to fend off the potential “what happened?” questions. 

“Hi everyone, it’s so nice to see you. I took some time off after my dad died (COVID, sadly), but I’m ready to start playing again. What’s new with you?” 

Comment on something you can see in the chat – “Good to see Mr. StinkyPaws is still a handsome dog-sweater model” – and you’ll be back in the swing in no time. 

One thing I always recommend when there is big news of some kind but you don’t want to fend off a million “what happened” questions: Use direct messaging to ask the moderator and/or the most social, active, connected member  or members of the group to spread the news for you. 

“Hello, [specific person], I hope you are doing well and I’m sorry we haven’t talked in a while. I took some time off from the game after my dad died of COVID, but I want to start playing again. I’m not sure how to bring it up in our group chat, is there any way you can spread the news for me so I don’t have to field a bunch of ‘what happened?’ questions all at once?” 

If there is something specific you want that person to share like, “I appreciate well-wishes but I’d rather not talk about it, I just wanted people to know” tell them that, too. 

You will still get some condolences, but it will hopefully be less visceral after someone else has spread the news, and there’s no reason you can’t acknowledge that when you do rejoin- “Thanks ______ for getting everyone up to date about my family stuff. I’m so glad to see all of you.” 

As you predicted, you might feel renewed grief when you tell new people, and you should plan for people telling you that they are sorry and asking you if you are okay, the same way they did when you ran the co-worker and wider social group grief-gauntlet. You know these likely call-and-response scripts already, but I will make a list of the things people tend to say when someone dies, in order of nicest, to least-weird, to actually offensive, along with some expected replies. Use any of them that are useful, otherwise tailor them to what you actually need to say, and when in doubt, let the truth be your default setting. 

“I’m so sorry.”

  • “Thank you, he was very loved.”* (If you or someone reading was estranged, you don’t have to say this – pick another reply!) 
  • “Thank you, nobody in our family was ready to say goodbye.” 
  • “Thank you, it’s been a rough couple of months.”
  • “Thank you, it’s been a lot to deal with.” 

“How are you?”

  • “I miss him a lot, but I’m hanging in there, thanks for asking.” 
  • “I was hoping to never learn about Zoom funerals, but it was not to be. I’m feeling more like myself now, though, and I missed all of you. What level are we on?” 
  • “I’ve been really sad and stressed out from managing all the details, thanks for asking. How are you?” 
  • “Sad, but ready to come out of the Grief Cocoon and do stuff with all of you again, thanks for asking. What’s the latest with you?” 

“Is there anything I/we can do for you?” 

  • “Thanks, you are so kind. Get me up to speed on the game and feed some pet photos directly into my eyes?” 
  • “Thanks, you are so kind to offer. This place has always been great for a sense of normalcy, I’m just ready to get back into it.” 
  • “Thanks, you are so kind. There is no need to do anything, but my dad’s favorite charity was ______, that’s where we sent everyone who wanted to do something after the funeral.” (This is for people who ask you more than once or insist that they want to do something. The _______ can be your favorite charity, btw, if your dad didn’t have one.) 
  • With friends (not necessarily these casual gaming buds, but friends asking what they can do), if there is something you do actually need or want, assume that anyone who asks this means it, and tell them. People are better at wanting to help than at guessing at exactly how to deliver it. Tell them. 

“I lost someone, too.”

  • A reality for so many people right now! 
  • “Then you know. I’m so sorry.”
  • “Oh, how awful. How are you holding up?” 

“Were you close?” “How did he die?” 

  • You don’t have to answer any question you don’t want to.
  • Oh, thanks for asking, but I don’t want to get into the details. I just wanted people to know where I’d been before jumping back into the game.”
  • “Oh, thanks for asking, but it’s still really hard for me to talk about it.” 
  • If you say this, and follow up by asking the person an anodyne question about themselves, most people will take your lead. Anyone who doesn’t is the one making it weird, not you, and you do not have to turn mental cartwheels to figure out what to say to them about it. 
  • You can tell the bald truth, even if it uncomfortable or you sense that it is not what the person wants to hear. Even if it is messy, scary, or sad. That is not” emotional hijacking.” If they didn’t want to know, they wouldn’t have asked. 

“Well, he’s in a better place.” “It’s God’s will.” “Well, at least he’s at peace now.” “I’ll pray for him.” 

  • I don’t know about you, or the crowd you game with, but I do not find this kind of thing comforting. Clearly others do, so it’s good to be prepared. (There are theoretically “5 stages” of grief, I tend to lean hard into anger.)
  • When somebody has said this stuff to me at actual funerals, I’ve tried to remind myself that it’s really about them — This is what they believe, this is what they would want to hear in the same circumstances, this is what they were taught to say — and I try to respond to the kind intentions more than the words themselves.
  • Especially if the dead person was very religious and did believe in an afterlife, I try to keep whatever this is between the praying person and the formerly prayerful deceased: “He believed in a better place, so he would be pleased to hear you say that.” “He would be pleased to know you’re thinking of him.” “He’d probably thank you for praying and tell you he needs all the help he can get!”  😉
  • That said, the sooner I move away from someone who wants to tell me how “it’s God’s will” that someone I love be dead, the better for everyone, and whatever I say next will have the sole goal of making this conversation be over as soon as possible. “Thanks for the kind wishes, please excuse me.” 
  • If you share something and any group member makes it weird for you, and you need to nope out temporarily, do it. It was likely a very passing thing that was more about the person speaking than it was about you, it doesn’t mean the chat will always be like that, but take care of yourself first and other people’s feelings about you later. 

“COVID is a hoax anyway ” “Did he wear a mask?” 

  • Like the ghouls who ask “Did they smoke” about people who die of lung cancer or who use natural disasters where people are dying to score “fun” political points by blaming them for their feckless leaders instead of helping, comments like this are signs that your chat has been infiltrated by assholes. Say “goodbye,” “fuck you,” delete, and block, in whatever order that works for you, and know that you did not cause this to happen by mentioning your dad’s death. 

It probably will not go like that, and I do think that once you do tell the news, most people will follow your lead. If you seem like you want to talk about it more, they may ask you follow-up questions, assume anyone who does truly wants to know and is open to talking about it more. Edited: When I say that people will take cues from you, that goes both ways and includes cues about sharing stories about your dad or more information about how you are doing. If you want to talk about your dad more, you’re the one who might have to take the lead, since avoidance of death as a topic and cultural pressure against “making someone talk about death or grief” are strong. If you seem like you don’t want to talk about it, most people will gratefully follow your subject changes back to game details and everyone’s day-to-day. If they reply with platitudes, that’s probably okay. Platitudes can be useful, they give us a guide for what to say when we know we must say something but can’t think of what, and they don’t demand detailed responses. If somebody won’t drop it or let it go, that’s most likely about their weirdness, not because of you. 

Once again, I’m sorry about your dad, and I’m sorry that in addition to your grief you’re feeling a compulsive bright-siding cultural pressure to never admit that you are sad or that death exists, especially when grief is all around us. I hope returning to this fun group gives you a much-needed lift in coming days. ❤