We Say Stupid Things In The Freakout Tree

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So my mother-in-law died last night.
The death was, as we are wont to say around here, “Unwelcome but not unexpected.”  She’d gone off dialysis because she was in incredible pain, and her husband had died earlier in the year, and she was done with life.  Still, the doctors had told us Tuesday or Wednesday, and strangely enough we believed them when they said we had that much time.
So I spent much of last night holding my wife as she sobbed in only the way someone who’s lost their mother can, stroking her hair, muttering all the nonsense things you do when someone’s passed on.
And in the middle of all this, she stopped and said, “This must be hard for you.  Knowing there’s nothing you can say to comfort me.”
That was a pretty stupid thing to say, really.  She was, as we are also wont to say around here, up in the tree.
We here at La Casa McJuddMetz hew closely to the “tree theory” of relationships, which is to say that any couple lives on a small island with one tree.  When things get bad, one person – and only one person – climbs into the tree to have their freakout, while it’s the other person’s job to stay on the ground and talk them down.
Very Bad Things arise when both people need to be in the freakout tree at once.  So we have a strict tree protocol in that we may alternate positions in the tree *very rapidly*, but we never both shimmy up that trunk simultaneously.
And so when Gini said, “This must be hard for you,” that was stupid because if there’s any time when someone gets reserved VIP privileges in the tree for the rest of the week, it’s after their goddamned mother’s just died.
But it was sweet, her checking in on me.
And I think of my friend Kat, the mother of my now-deceased goddaughter Rebecca, when we went over to their house to help hand out Halloween candy for the first time since Rebecca had passed.  That was an alternately happy and painful event – there would be all the normal joys of handing out candy and seeing the kids in their costumes and handing out warmed spiked cider to the grownups as “grownup candy” –
– and then we’d remember that Rebecca wasn’t here, and wonder what costume she would have worn, and thought of all the candy that kid would have devoured, and then we’d each slip off alone to sneak a private bit of mourning.
And Kat came up to me and said, “I know your introvert batteries are drained.  I know all you wanted was to to curl up at home tonight.”
Stupid.  Of course I wouldn’t stay at home.  Of course I wouldn’t make it more apparent that things had changed this Halloween.  Of course I wouldn’t leave another absence for them to notice.
And I think one of the reasons that we function so well, my friends and my family and I, is because we make it pretty damn easy to do the things required of us.  It would be easy for us to use our deepest sorrow to climb high into the tree, so high we can’t even see the ground any more, so high we forget the rest of the world exists –
– and yet we take care of our caretakers.  We acknowledge the difficulty in being there for someone when there’s not much to say.  We thank each other for helping, even when we’d have a damned fine excuse to forget their existence.
We love each other.  We mark each other’s sacrifice.  And even in the middle of such overlapping sorrows that some days we feel like we will be borne away by cascading waves of tears, we appreciate those who try to hold us tight to shore.
There’s more sorrow coming.  More grief.  And there’s nothing I can do, and I am so very tired of condolences, and I am so very tired of holding people while they cry and muttering all the usual stupid things one says in the face of death.
But for one moment, in an hour so dark it struck us all blind, Gini reached a hand down from the freakout tree and asked if I needed to come up.
I didn’t.  But it lent me strength to know that I could.


  1. Ali M
    Nov 4, 2014

    That’s a great theory, thanks. I won’t offer too many condolences since it seems like you may have had your fill – but I will say thanks for offering up there something that is going to help me and my relationships in the future.

  2. Jean Lange
    Aug 20, 2020

    Hey, this is the article of yours that I read that I most frequently think of/come back to/try ineffectually to explain to other people. The tree analogy works really well for me. Thank you for it.

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