Our Fumbling Friends

I feel like the world is divided into two types of people: people who know loss and people who don’t. Jennette McCurdy

After Jimmy died, I thought I knew what to say to other grieving parents. But it didn’t take long for me to realize how naïve I was. To discover the stark difference between losing a child to brain cancer where almost no one blames you for the death to losing a child to suicide or overdose where many people do. To have no response when a heartsick mom shames herself for missing the signs and not intervening sooner. To learn there was nothing I could say that would ease her guilt or lessen her pain. To recognize how much worse I could make everything by trying.

Nowhere is this gap between expectation and experience greater than grief and loss. Death is a part of life, as we are so often told, but how do we handle, much less face, those that are out of order, profoundly unfair or horrifying? Deaths so devastating that they’re hard to absorb, much less respond to. If a dear friend’s baby is stillborn or dies a few weeks after birth, you’re likely to be stymied by a blank card or scared to pick up the phone. But if you haven’t lost an infant yourself, how could you possibly know what to say or do? Even if you have experienced such a loss, you might still be terrified to reach out for fear it will reopen your own wound or be too hard to hold your friend’s pain along with your own.

It’s so easy to get it wrong. I look back now and cringe at all the mistakes I made before my first life-altering loss. The platitudes I offered. The way I filled silences instead of making space for what my grieving loved one needed to say. The misguided advice I dispensed. When a close friend was struggling to get pregnant after a miscarriage, I remember blithely suggesting that she and her husband go to Hawaii to “take some of the pressure off.” When I had my own miscarriage a few months later, part of me wondered if my baby’s death was in part a cosmic payback for saying something so insensitive and awful.

I am a nervous filler of silences, but those tongue-tied conversations taught me how little there was that I could say or do. Sitting quietly as the other person talked reminded me what a gift it is to have your grief acknowledged. To talk about how your child lived instead of being asked for details on how they died. What it means to sit with someone in terrible pain and not make it worse by trying to fix it. The blessed relief of learning there are no perfect words or acts. That being present and just listening was what would help me be the kind of friend I most wanted to be.

Most of all, what these conversations with grieving souls have taught me is the power of beginning with the not knowing. The way it shifts the focus from me – what do I say? what do I do? – to my brokenhearted friend. She’s the only expert in the room when it comes to her loss, her grief, her pain. Not only can she tell me what she needs, she can also teach me when I’m not the one to provide it. When my friend Reba’s daughter died of brain cancer, four years before Jimmy did, she turned to other moms whose children had also died for comfort. Despite how close we’d become, my son was still alive. As much as I wanted to provide comfort and support, I wasn’t the right person to do it. But when we let our friends and family know that Jimmy was dying, she was one of the first people to reach out.

Beginning with that baby girl I never got to meet, each of my subsequent losses has reinforced these lessons. How hard it is to understand the impact of a death on someone else’s life. How little we know about the history, relationship and circumstances of another’s loss. How complicated a death can be, mixed as it is with relief, remorse or regret.

It’s difficult to admit that we don’t know. It’s hard to tamp down our instinct to help. It’s easy to forget and start trying to fix. Just recently, a colleague began telling me about the death of her mother. Without waiting, I jumped into a pause and told her how sorry I was to hear her mom had died, only to be brought up short by the look on her face. An expression that conveyed how complicated and fraught the relationship had been and how widely my well-intended comment had missed the mark.

When I stop to think about those early days of blinding grief after Jimmy died, what I remember most were the friends who were brave enough to reach out. To mess up, to fail. To say something, even if they stammered. To drop off food and decide not to stay, realizing that I wasn’t yet ready to talk. To keep texting, even when they got no response. They didn’t know what to say, and I can’t recall what they said anyway. What I remember is that they were there.

Bless our fumbling friends who don’t know and show up anyway. May we see them, may we be them. May we stop worrying about whether we have all the answers or any – we probably don’t. May we stop looking for the “right” words – they don’t exist anyway. May we be brave, even when we’re scared, and show up to listen, instead of talk. May we find the fortitude to sit in silence even when we think we have so much to say. May we acknowledge how hard and unfair the world is and find ways to help our brokenhearted beloveds keep loving it anyway.

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