What To Say & Do When Life Is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love
I was fifteen the first time I answered a dreaded phone call. You know the kind I mean. The one where an incoherent, sobbing friend or family member is on the other end of the line. The one where your stomach drops and your gut tightens before they even manage to choke out their words because you already know what's coming. Someone has crashed into a power pole or their girlfriend has miscarried or they've been diagnosed with a terminal illness or their mum has been rushed to hospital in the middle of the night after suffering a serious brain aneurysm. The first dreaded phone call I received, was regarding the latter. And I still remember it like it was yesterday.
My phone rang in the early hours of the morning, which is undoubtedly never a good sign, and my best friend's name, Kalum, lit up the screen. I held my breath, hit 'accept call' and lifted to my ear a voice that sounded nothing like my friend, who I would usually describe as a can of carbonated Coca-Cola in human form. Effervescent and full of sugar-rush like joy was his norm. But that was not the Kalum I spoke to that night. He was in shock, panicked and inconsolable. His mum had just been whisked away in an ambulance and he was unsure if she would even live, let alone recover. From memory, I think I said something along the lines of 'Oh my God', followed by a long pause of silence before bursting into tears along with him. Having never been faced with something of that magnitude before, at that moment all I instinctively knew to do was repeatedly reassure him I would be there every step of the way, no matter what.
Thankfully and miraculously, his mum did survive the aneurysm although unfortunately both she and her family are still trying to ride out the after-effects even today. It's been six years since that night. I am now twenty-one years old and sad to say I have received a number of dreaded calls since Kalum's. The past year, in particular, has been an absolute b*tch to my loved ones. And I've had to watch as some of the most treasured people in my life have lost some of the most treasured people in their lives. Twice in 2016, I heard news that someone dear to me had lost a family member to cancer. As a natural empath (the kinda person that absorbs other people’s emotions and feels everything to an extreme), seeing these tragedies unfold shakes me to the core and utterly breaks my heart every time. And although I consider myself unbelievably blessed to have never personally experienced loss and grief to the extent that some of my friends have, I have sometimes driven myself to insanity, desperately wanting to help but not knowing what I should do or say to someone whose life has essentially just fallen to pieces.
I'm positive I'm not the only one who has felt this way. As humans, most of us are self-conscious about our capacity to connect with others, especially in situations that seem 'over our head' and difficult to relate to; sometimes even opting for saying nothing at all out of fear of saying the wrong thing or God forbid somehow making things worse. But after witnessing some of my closest friends riding waves of grief and dealing with the most difficult of situations, more than anything I wanted to learn how to be a better friend in the midst of their suffering. The best resource I've come across is a book called There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. It's a beautiful balance of social science research, actionable advice and illustration and I really wanted to mention it in this post because it's such a great guide to active compassion. To be honest, I think it should be mandatory reading for every human, regardless of whether they know someone who's grieving or not. But if you do know someone, then definitely, please do read it.
However, the most important thing I've ever learned about grief didn't actually come from a book at all. It came from my own mum...
My mum lost her dad when she was 4 years old. I don't know too much about him, mainly that he was a very tall, kind soul who worked as a policeman, did lots of volunteer work and rode a motorbike. But she tells my brother and I the story sometimes. Of that little 4-year-old girl who sat at home waiting patiently at the window every evening, for her dad to come zooming up the driveway on his bike. And how one day, he did not come zooming up the driveway on his bike... instead, he just never came home. On that day, her dad suffered a pulmonary embolism that took his life at a mere thirty-five years old. Far, far too soon.
My mum is fifty-three years old now. Making it forty-nine years since her dad died. Which is over twice as many years as I've been here on this planet and sounds like a heck of a lot of time to me. Maybe you'd think because it's been so long she would've 'got over it' by now, especially considering she was only four when he passed away. But she hasn't. And she won't. Because the most important thing I've ever learned from my mum's grief is that it will never be okay. It will never be okay that her dad died at 35, or that he even died at all. It will never be okay that he was not there to walk her down the aisle or hold her first baby, or her second. It will never be okay that her dad wasn't there to celebrate forty-nine of her birthdays and all the others yet to come.
In the same way, it will never be okay that my ex-boyfriend lost his auntie too soon and it will never be okay that two of my dearest friends both lost their mums to cancer. It will never be okay because grief has no expiration date. Nobody 'gets over' loss, they just learn to live with it. We cannot expect grieving people to just 'give it time', believing that eventually, they will 'go back to normal'. When the reality is that their entire life has changed, meaning there is really no 'normal' to go back to. This is not to say those who have suffered loss will not go on to live full, happy, wonderful lives and once again be their usual bubbly, Coca-Cola like selves. But it does mean that to an extent, they will always see the world through their own, individual lens of grief.
Perhaps then, the kindest, most compassionate thing we can do for our grieving friends, is bear witness to that. To acknowledge what may be invisible and incomprehensible to us, but so very real for them. To muster the bravery and humility it takes to accept the colossal reality of the not okayness and accept it the same way they have to. I think where we go wrong is when we try to immediately dive into rescue mode. And understandably, "how can I make this better?" is a totally natural reaction when sh*t has hit the fan and a friend is in pain. Unfortunately, if that friend has just lost their parent to a terminal illness or their baby to a miscarriage, there is nobody in the world that can make everything okay. Not even you. It's a hard pill to swallow for those of us who find purpose in giving advice and helping others *raising my hand here*. But the fact of the matter is that when someone is grieving, sometimes even the best of advice cannot help. Before opening our mouths, we should realise that listening speaks volumes and saying something as simple as "I'm sorry" covers more ground than we might think, as long as those words are said with compassion, rather than pity.
We may fear saying something as straightforward as that will make us sound lame and inadequate. Lame because we all like to believe we have the ability to 'fix' things. And inadequate because we know those words cannot change the horrible truth. But we must let go of our need to be the hero in these situations. There are no heroes. At least, not in the typical sense. To be heroic in the midst of grief is simply to be a master of compassion. And compassion is not about solutions. It's about pouring out every drop of love that you've got and pouring it in the ways you know how to pour it best. Maybe you make a lasagne that could out-pasta the best restaurants in Rome. Maybe you're amazing with words and can pen a beautifully moving letter full of memories. Maybe you're just a bloody good leaf-raker. Or give the world's best hugs. However you show you care, don't be afraid to show it. We must believe in our individual capabilities, trust in our innate ability to love and repeatedly remind our loved ones that we will truly yet simply be there.
Every step of the way.
No matter what.