The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for. Bob Marley
Two days after we heard the shocking news about Jimmy’s brain tumor and twelve hours after the surgery to remove it, I sent an email to my friends, letting them know what had happened. And, just as I expected, they rushed in, sending notes of love and support, dropping off meals, offering to take Molly wherever she needed to go.
Although the road in front of us was hard and scary – six weeks of cranio-spinal radiation followed by nine rounds of chemotherapy, Jimmy’s prognosis was good. A single tumor removed with margins. No metastases in the spine. No cancer cells in the spinal fluid. An 80% chance of being cancer free at the end of the year-long treatment protocol and able to put everything oncology behind him and go on with his life as a high schooler.
Two years later during his sophomore year, Jimmy’s cancer recurred, and the path became more arduous. Multiple rounds of high doses of chemotherapy, week-long hospitalizations for infections, a two-month quarantine at home, hearing loss, balance issues, a decrease in cognitive processing speed.
My close friends leaned in harder. More cards and meals. Gifts for Molly. Trips to see us. Frequent check-ins. Prayer chains and pagan blessings.
Despite the medical team’s best efforts, Jimmy’s cancer spread aggressively throughout his brain and spine. “Living with cancer” became “containing the cancer” became “keeping him comfortable.”
It was at this point that a few of my friends disappeared. A couple of others couldn’t seem to make space for my pain or wanted to talk only about their own. I hung on, tried to be supportive, even though their kids’ academic struggles and the stresses of entertaining felt like luxuries to worry about.
I remember everyone who attended Jimmy’s celebration of life, and everyone who didn’t. Not the friends who weren’t able to be there because they had other commitments or weren’t able to travel to Portland, but the ones who never responded to the invitation or sent regrets without explanation or condolences.
Where are they, I wondered. Why won’t they stand by me?
Like so many things grief-related, there are lots of theories on why friendships drift after a devastating loss. Some say it’s because people feel helpless in the face of such terrible pain. Others say it’s because the death of a child is proof that the worst can happen and therefore could happen to them, too.
It is no small thing to support someone who’s deep in grief. We often don’t know what we need. We hunger for comfort, but can rarely articulate what we want someone else to say or do or even what we want for dinner. We take offense quickly and cry easily and without warning. We don’t want to leave the house, but still want to be invited out. We want to be alone, but we don’t want to feel alone.
If we’re young when our child dies, we may have no experience with out-of-order death, but neither will our peer group. Until you have lost one of your essential people, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who has. It’s why people said things to me like “I know just how you feel. When my grandmother died last year, I had a hard time going back to work.” They didn’t mean to diminish my loss; they were just trying to connect with it using the limited experience they had.
I cut a couple of close friends out of my life in the years after Jimmy died. The disconnect between what we valued and viewed as important was too great. They had shown me years ago who they were, but back then, I didn’t need them the way I did when Jimmy was dying or after he died. Maybe I thought they’d step up and put me first. Or perhaps I just didn’t think about it at all.
When others pulled away, I let them go. They were decent, loving people, and it wasn’t their fault that I was living in the land of “Your Child Is Dead.” In some ways, I was glad they couldn’t imagine what life in the aftermath was like, and I hope they never have to join me here.
We ascribe a lot of intentionality to a friend’s disappearance. They couldn’t handle it when life got hard. They didn’t want to sit with our pain. They were too busy with their own lives to make time for us. They’re selfish, shallow or lack empathy. Maybe. But maybe they’re scared. Maybe they don’t know what to do or say, and they’re afraid they’ll make something worse in an already horrific situation. Maybe a day or two of silence becomes a week becomes a month, and now they’re at a loss for how to reach back out. Maybe they were showing up in the best ways they could – making food, offering to run errands – and we judged them because they couldn’t sit by us on the couch while we sobbed uncontrollably.
I used to feel betrayed, cast off, dismissed by the friends who vaporized. It’s taken me a long time to realize that we came together at a point when our differences mattered less. When I didn’t need to come first for an extended period of time. The fact that we are no longer close doesn’t negate the sweet, fun-filled days when our lives were tightly braided together.
Friends come into our lives for a season, reason or lifetime, as the bathroom wall saying goes. I don’t have sole discretion in determining which category they fall into or what part they’ll play in my life. Maybe it’s not worth wondering or worrying about whether a friendship will last a lifetime. After all, a devastating loss can upend it all anyway. Perhaps what matters is savoring the time we have together when the laughter comes easily, and we’re getting exactly what we need from one another Feeling seen and heard. Finding joy in the ordinary. Letting that be enough.