Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is only love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge. Kate Braestrup

For Bruce

During those long months when COVID was keeping us corralled at home, an old friend called out of the blue one afternoon. In his voicemail, he said he wanted to catch up. Then he paused before going on.

“I also wanted to .. I don’t even know exactly what to say .. I think about you and your son. The incredible loss. Not just to you but to society. Such a bright light snuffed out so early.”

His voice caught.

“I know there are no good words. I know when we found out about our son’s Down Syndrome, although that’s hardly as severe a situation as losing your child, that it didn’t make a difference what anybody said, as long as they said something.”

I still have his voicemail two years later. I listen to it every now and then and marvel anew at the courage it took to leave it. The vulnerability. And the sweet balm of having someone see and acknowledge the magnitude of my loss sweeps over me again.

As I write, I look up periodically to stare at the stack of five sympathy cards sitting on my desk. The envelopes neatly addressed and stamped, the cards still blank. A sister, a brother, a mother, a grandmother, a dog. Each death devastating in its own unique way. I feel guilty for not yet writing the notes, but I have been stuck in my head for days trying to craft the “right” message, as if such a thing even existed.

As long as they said something

I think back on the notes we got after Jimmy died and realize that I remember almost nothing of what people wrote, even I have saved every single one of them. What mattered was that the way the people we love most showed up to bear witness, acknowledge the unfairness, the devastation. The willingness to face our loss and share the ways they, too, would miss and remember Jimmy. Each message a reminder of how much effort and intent matter.

There are no words that will bring my son back. No words that will ever make his death okay. But I’m so grateful to all the people, like my friend, who are brave enough to say, “I see you and I’m here for you, even though I have no idea what to say or what to do.”

I used to think adversity was the best way to fire test a relationship. When life goes sideways, who’s willing to show up at 2:00 am? Visit you in the hospital? Bring you a meal as you recover from surgery?

But it’s death that proves to be the most effective, most brutal way to find out who will lean in, who will pull back, who will walk away. Not so much in the early weeks when there are concrete options on what to do – coming to the celebrate of life, bringing food, sending an encouraging text. But later, when the outreach gets harder and requires more work. Continuing to check in, spending time and making real offers of help instead of the breezy “Call me if you need anything!”

I’ve learned so much from this side of the fence. How hard the effort can be and just how much it means. How little it matters exactly what words you use. How differently you view someone who’s never suffered a life shattering loss (and doesn’t know what to do or say) and someone who ought to know better.

Some of the people we love will leave us when we need them the most. Some have too many of their own burdens to carry while others lack the capacity to help shoulder our grief. Others can’t stop thinking about themselves. Still others are scared of missteps and making everything worse. And a few never cared as much as we thought they did.

Remembering is a holy practice. I think again of my friend, saying Jimmy’s name like a prayer. The way he honors the enormity of my loss more than eight years after Jimmy’s departure. His willingness to name it. To stand awkwardly on sacred ground without worrying if he got all the words exactly right. And I grab the first condolence card in the stack, pick up my pen and begin to write.

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