(Story shared by Shanti, 25, abroad)
I vividly remember receiving notification of the deaths of three friends’ dads, as if each of these events happened yesterday. I remember where I was, whom I was with and the similar feelings that filled my entire body each time. It is hard to describe these subsequent feelings. At the center of it all was the sadness at close friends experiencing such major loss in their lives, and anger at the fact that this injustice happens to people. As someone who has never experienced this type of pain before, the energy I felt manifested itself by actively trying to relieve my friends of the great pain that they were experiencing. While this was a natural, instinctual reaction at the time, it was not necessarily rational and it created a burden of immense pressure. At points this pressure was soothing, as I also felt a sense of guilt; why did this happen to them and not me? Furthermore, why do they have to experience such pain? This pressure was felt during most in-person interactions, making phone calls, writing emails and leaving voice messages. Did I say enough? Did I say too much? Did I convey my love and thought and support and the sadness I was feeling? Do they now know that I’m unconditionally there for them whenever they need it, and to help with whatever they need?
These three people are very different people and thus their grieving experiences and needs were different. Katherine expressed her hurt and her anger about the situation openly through unfiltered honesty, as well as her expectations of her friends. Andrew held everything inside, as did Margaret with the exception of sporadic outbursts during which she needed to be left alone. It would be a lot easier if everyone reacted in the same way to death and friends could reference a number of papers and studies to learn how to best support them. This is certainly not the case, and I think that recognizing that everyone handles loss differently and thus adapting one’s behavior as a friend and supporter is really important. One aspect of this is something that I felt often. As a friend it was easy to interpret some of their behaviors as though they were angry and upset with me, but this was not the case. One particular circumstance that illustrates this happened a day when Katherine and I were talking together about eight months after her dad’s passing:
“One day I’m going to write a book about this!” She exclaimed.
That’s a really good idea, I thought to myself.
“And I’m going to call it ‘I Was Surrounded by Incompetent People’!”
I understand now that the death of a loved one is a difficult thing and can lead people to say things that they don’t mean as a coping mechanism. As a friend, I could not get angry about this, but rather see if there was an underlying issue that Katherine needed to talk about.
There are many things that I recognize now looking back on these experiences. I now realize how important it is as a friend to surrender to the depth and complexity of the situation, and surrender any attachment to “making things all better” and happy. Through Katherine, Andrew and Margaret I learned that grieving takes time and it is incredibly necessary. There is no way around it, nor should such a way be the aim of a grieving process. It was equally important to surrender attachment to the expectation that I personally could magically do something to make the pain go away.
Certainly, as a friend it is not possible to make the pain go away immediately, but I think it is possible to help lessen the pain over time. I found that being around to listen, just sit, go running, bake was the most important part of helping, as was not being when I was not wanted or needed as it was possible to make things worse. I saw this happen in my reactions and reactions of some other friends. We were made so uncomfortable and startled by the situation that we neglected to ask specifically what each person wanted and needed from us at the time, and to pick up on signals both blatant and hidden. This neglect was not at all intentional but that was not discussed at the time.
Even though I have not experienced the same sadness that Katherine, Andrew and Margaret I could and can do my best to empathize with them and I think this is the key. Through sitting and listening, being available and being absent, I was able to understand even just little pieces of their struggles and respond with this knowledge. This is still relevant now, as grieving really is a lifelong process.