My friend’s dad died last weekend. He had cancer. She and I were texting back and forth a few days after, about how to cope with it, about how to tell people. I found myself imparting the same advice that others gave to me when mom died, almost two years ago now. Enough time has passed that I can see with clarity the relationships and words of wisdom that helped me, and the ones that didn’t. It felt so healing and sacred to be able to offer that to someone else after all of the love and wisdom I have received. So I thought I’d share some of it with you today in honor of my friend who is burying her father today, and just beginning this journey of grief.
First of all, ask for what you need. It sounds simple, but it’s often the hardest part of grieving, or at least it was for me. I had been seeing my therapist for about three years before mom died, and she gave me this advice fairly early on. It took me a long time, even with my very best friends, to articulate what I needed, in part because I didn’t know what I needed, and in part because I was terrified of uttering those needs aloud. I think I was scared that by talking about it and asking for help, it meant somehow that I was giving up on mom, and giving up on myself. I would be admitting that we were not going to be okay, at least in the everyone’s healthy/no one’s dead or heartbroken kind of way. But there came a point, between all the hospital visits and emotional meltdowns, when I couldn’t hide the not-okayness anymore.
Usually, these conversations happened after we had just finished watching a really sad movie and were already crying, and then I’d be like “umm, yeah, so … things are really bad right now and I’m not just crying over the movie … I think my mom is dying, and umm, can you like, make sure I get out of bed and live my life after she dies, please? Can you make sure that I go places and do things and eat good food? Can you tell all of our friends for me that my mom died?”
I am profoundly blessed to have the kind of friends that wrapped me in their arms, cried with me, gave of themselves in ways beyond what I could even ask.
So remember that grief is the time to lean into your friendships, because the good ones can take it.
You will have friends that get squirmy when you start to talk about the hospital visits and test results or hospice care and funeral arrangements and grief. You will have friends that don’t call or write or show up for the wake. You will have friends that promise to be there and then just aren’t. You will have friends that want to be there to offer you comfort and support, but for some reason, it always seems that you wind up comforting them instead. No matter how hard I tried to be honest and gracious and patient and forgiving with those friends, some of them just couldn’t handle it. It was one of my worst fears, and it came true. And you know what I realized? It’s okay to let go of those relationships, or at least hold them much more loosely. Because there will be friends that never leave your side, friends that surprise you with their nearness, friendships that are forged through your loss, and those are the ones that will help you survive.
The morning that my mom died I called my husband and texted my three closest friends. I didn’t have to take on the daunting task of telling everyone I knew; they did it for me.
A couple of days later, my best friend called me on her way to the shopping mall. She was going to buy something to wear to the funeral service.
“Do you need anything? A dress to wear tomorrow? Tights? Waterproof mascara? Anything?” she asked me.
I didn’t need any of that stuff, I told her. But that gesture, small and practical as it was, filled another ineffable need : to know that I was thought of and cared for and loved.
And I didn’t wind up needing my husband and friends to drag me out of my bed or make me eat or make me live my life, but they did something equally important : they reminded me that it was okay not to be okay.
Instead of not being able to get out of bed in the morning or turning into a catatonic vegetable, I kicked into hyperdrive. After being so close to death’s presence, I suddenly had a tremendous energy for life. I poured myself into my art and my writing and my work, and for a while that was good. But what goes up must come down, and my friends were there to help me slow my pace and admit that I wasn’t okay.
“Do the thing you feel strong enough to do, and we’ll help you with the rest,” they told me.
Almost two years later, I’m still learning to practice that profound vulnerability of asking for help, of admitting when I’m not strong or okay enough to handle things. Sometimes, all I feel strong enough to do is watch Harry Potter and eat my weight in ice cream. I feel way less pathetic when my husband and bffs are sitting there with me.
Grief comes in waves, usually prompted by the ebb and flow of life experiences. All of those firsts without the one you love. All of those moments when someone unwittingly makes a comment about cancer or death. Ride it out. Let it take you deep, and let it pull you to the surface again. Don’t fight it. Someday, you’ll find yourself on the shore. Someday, you’ll find yourself reaching in to help someone else out of the water.