Just Be There

When I was a child, my best friend’s pet rabbit got sick, and my friend was very worried about her.  So when I stopped by my friend’s house on my way to school one bright sunny morning, the first thing I asked was, “How’s Jessica doing?”

“She’s dead,” my friend answered, looking away. “But at least it’s a nice day for a funeral.”  Then she reached out and took my hand, and together we ran the whole way to school.  I made sure I sat next to her at lunch, and afterward, stood with her in the corner of the playground while the other children ran around, playing games and shouting.  Neither of us said a word about her rabbit.

Sometimes I wonder exactly when it was that I forgot how to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with a major personal catastrophe.  I wonder when I decided that my job in those instances is to offer the perfect words of comfort, to try to smooth away the rough edges, or to explain the tragedy.  In other words, I wonder when I got the idea that I had both the duty and the ability to make things right for people who are going through major emotional loss.

As a child, I seemed to know intuitively that what people need most when they are suffering is for someone to simply be there with them.  There are no perfect words that are going to take away the pain, but there are a lot of imperfect words that can make things so much worse, such as: “Remember, everything happens for a reason.”  And someone coping with an overwhelming problem, like a loved one’s terminal illness or a life-changing tragedy, doesn’t need my advice or instructions on exactly how they ought to deal with it all.  They just need my caring support as they make their own choices.

Years ago, when my son was just about two years old, the father of a good friend died rather suddenly.  The funeral was on a weekday afternoon, smack in the middle of my son’s normal nap time, and my son didn’t handle missing naps well.  But I couldn’t find a sitter, and I wanted to support my friend.  So I went anyway, armed with a bag of quiet toys, and sat in the back of the church in case my son became too loud and we needed to make a hasty exit, hoping I was doing the right thing.  When the family was walking out at the end of the service, my friend looked over and saw us sitting there.  We locked eyes for a few seconds, and she smiled, ever so faintly and briefly.  And in that moment I was very glad I had come, even with a toddler in tow.

IMG_4471Being me, I’m sure I said a lot of things to my friend about her father’s death, but I don’t remember them and I doubt that they provided her with any comfort.  What gave her comfort was seeing my son and me in that church, supporting her in her loss.  Because what people who are overwhelmed or grieving really need is simply the assurance that you are there with them in their time of trouble, right beside them as they walk that difficult path.  Just like my childhood friend and I, running hand-in-hand to school all those years ago.


Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

I sometimes think the hardest part of being middle aged is coping with too much loss.  I’m not talking about the long and depressing list of the things we have learned to do without at this point of our lives:  good eyesight, a slim waistline, a dependable memory, the ability to eat rich foods right before bedtime and still sleep like a baby, etc.  I’m talking about the almost devastating sense of loss that comes from knowing far too many people who are no longer with us.

As a child, I was lucky enough not to lose any member of my family I was truly close to, and I was almost eighteen when my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, died. I can still remember how long it took before I could accept that I would never see her again, and how for a while after her death, it was almost physically painful to be in her house.  But that was just the beginning.  By my early thirties, all my relatives of my grandmother’s generation were gone, or at least the ones I actually knew.  And the year I turned fifty was the same year that my father died.

Easter at Jones'

I have reached the age where I have known too many people who are gone, whether they were family, friends, coworkers or even just casual acquaintances.  I know people my age who have lost both parents, who have lost their spouses, who have lost siblings, and worst of all, sometimes even their children.  I suppose I was naive about death, thinking that the pain of losing too many people who are important to you was something that didn’t happen until you were well and truly old, unless you lived in a war-torn country.  I didn’t realize that the process of loss begins much earlier for most people, even for those of us who have been fortunate to live relatively peaceful lives.

Sadly, losing people we love is just a natural part of life and we really have no choice in the matter.  But what I can choose is how I react to the loss.  I can choose to be sad and angry, and honestly, in the days, weeks or even months after someone I care about dies, sad and angry is exactly what I am, and it doesn’t particularly feel like a choice.  But after the initial grief passes, I can choose to be thankful for the time I had with the people I loved, and I can use my grief as a reminder of just how fragile and fleeting life really is.

I think the best response to the long and growing list we middle-agers have of loved ones who have died is to remember to treasure the time we have with the people who are still with us.  These days, I rarely have a phone call with my mother (who just turned 85) that doesn’t end with “love you.”  Several good friends and I routinely say the same thing, sometimes in person, sometimes in emails or texts, and they aren’t empty words.  We have been around long enough to know that we need to tell people how much we care about them.  We have figured out that we need to make time for each other, even when it’s not convenient, and to put aside the petty differences that seemed so important when we were young and thought we had all the time in the world.

I know I can’t change the fact that too many people I want in my life are now gone. But what I can do is make sure I appreciate all the people I care about who are still here, and to never forget just how fragile and precious life really is.