It’s hard to know what someone needs when they’re grieving. Mostly because as a general rule, we humans are pretty bad at mind reading.
The earliest memory I have of being with someone I loved, who was losing someone they loved, was when one of my best friend’s dad was dying. We were college students and I was driving her to the VA hospital to visit her dad. On our first visit he was alert and cracking jokes. On our second visit just a few days later, he had slipped into a coma and was non-responsive.
After one hospital visit we were driving home and just as a side note, I am horrible with directions. This is substantiated by the fact that I still manage to get lost in the town we live in and I’ve lived here for six years. Add in if I’m having a conversation with someone while driving, either in person or on the phone– and I’m toast.
Sure enough, we missed our exit out of the cities. My friend spotted some lights in the distance and I suggested we drive towards them and maybe we’d find our way home. Did you know that Mystic Lake Casino shines spotlights into the sky at night? Neither did we.
We found ourselves at the casino, both under lifestyle agreements we had signed at different local christian colleges that forbid gambling. But when your friend’s dad is dying and you find yourself led to a casino from lights in the sky, is there any other option? We hit the nickel slots. Hey, we were cheap college students. And when we hadn’t played long enough to lose it all, we walked away with plastic cups full of nickels.
My friend’s dad died a few days later, in between Christmas and New Years.
It’s been years and I don’t remember much about my friend’s grief. I just have a few memories poking through about that time.
The rest of our friends drove up to Winnipeg to celebrate New Years Eve and we stayed home together. I remember we watched an entire season of Real World on tv that night. We each had our own couch. We barely moved. We entertained ourselves with our own commentary on the train wreck we were witnessing. Tivo and dvr hadn’t been invented yet which means we also watched hours of commercials. We wondered aloud if it was possible to get bed sores from our high level of inactivity.
I have a few memories about the funeral. My friend’s dad served in Vietnam and it was the first military service I remember attending. I remember they fired the shots and played taps. I really appreciate this tradition and think it is one of the most beautiful and honoring things to witness.
I also remember my friend and I, along with my brother, making jokes one night about her dad’s ashes being sealed in tupperware. Before this sounds callous let’s remember a couple things. First, we all had a sense of humor. Next, we didn’t know how to be sensitive about grief. So, being the age we were, we did our best Robin Williams impressions of the Genie from Aladdin saying, “Blurp, still good!” over and over again until my friend laughed so hard she nearly peed her pants.
When I was thinking back about this time in my friend’s life I wondered if I was supportive enough, or there for her enough. I hope so. It’s strange- because it would be ten more years before that co-worker would have to tell me it’s important to go to a funeral. But in my early twenties, I didn’t question it at all.
When my brother’s close friend died at 17, we all showed up. When my friend’s dad died, all of us were there. We went because these deaths affected the people we loved. It made me wonder what happened in the next ten years that I started to feel like attending a funeral was out of place, or in the way of family who was mourning. What changed?
Maybe there weren’t a lot of deaths around me during that time. Maybe the ones that did happen I was numb to. Or worse, maybe I didn’t notice them because I hadn’t lost someone that close to me yet. That last thought sickens me a bit, but it could very well be true. Maybe it’s like that thing where you get a car and suddenly you see your same car on the road everywhere. Your awareness for it has been heightened. It’s not that everyone suddenly went out and bought the same car as you, those cars were always there, you just couldn’t see them before.
Since my brother died, I swear I see others loss in extreme 3D. I cry when my friends lose someone they love. It’s entirely possible that I feel too much. Maybe that’s part of what got broken when my brother died.
I’ve heard that when someone you love has died, your heart gets ripped open and it’s raw and bleeding. And slowly it gets stitched back together, a little different than before. And that sounds about right to me. Maybe I have a little piece flapping around that isn’t stitched back yet, and it leaves me a bit more sensitive.
I don’t know what’s best for people when they’re grieving because every person grieves differently. But I still think it’s important to see them and show up.
Even if it’s just to lay around on the couch together and watch mtv.