(Story shared by Sarah, 25, Boston)
In every instance, my first reaction to hearing about a loss has always been shock – even when the person who died had been sick for a while. It’s just really scary and horrible to realize that a close friend has suffered this loss because you feel completely out of control, like there’s nothing you can do. After this happened to a few of my friends I began to get really anxious about my own parents after hearing this news, even though they are both in good health (thank goodness). When my friend, Margaret, lost her dad, I had to fly to Nicaragua the next morning and I was completely out of touch with my parents because there was no phone. I kind of panicked, couldn’t sleep, and threw up all my food for a day because I was so sad for Margaret and her family and also because I was terrified to be out of contact with my own family.
I think it helps to just show up and be there in the short term. I wasn’t able to travel to funerals for Katherine’s dad or Margaret’s dad, but I was able to attend my friend Andrew’s dad’s funeral and wake/shiva for two other friends’ mothers. I’m not sure how distracting it really can be to have friends there, but I know at least in terms of sitting shiva, it can be a nice change of pace since it’s not the same people who are there all the time. I’m less certain about how to support someone in the long term. I think asking questions about the lost parent/loved one can be helpful but I’m always afraid to upset someone. I want to make sure my friends understand that their loved ones are not forgotten but I don’t want to trigger a huge wave of sadness either.
Long Term: I think avoiding the topic entirely is a bad idea.
It is difficult in these situations, not to lose your shit yourself! It’s so upsetting to have a friend go through something like this, it’s all I can do not to cry myself. Which I’m afraid can seem melodramatic or even unsympathetic because in many cases, I’d only met the parent/loved one a few times if at all. It’s also been hard for me not to worry about my own parents after seeing so many of my friends lose their own.
I think the entire experience of supporting a friend in this case is an exercise of supporting them without always making it obvious, like “I’m taking you out for ice cream because I think you’re sad about your Dad today.” I remember my boyfriend and I took Margaret out for brunch on the anniversary of her dad’s death, but I didn’t actually SAY that, I just invited her out ahead of time and we had fun. When we were leaving I asked what she was doing and she said, “Well, it’s the anniversary of my dad’s death…” and I was kind of like, “I know, I wanted to see you today, but I wasn’t sure if you wanted to talk about it…” and she didn’t really so I think it’s good I wasn’t upfront about it from the start, or she might have just stayed in by herself (she did the rest of the day). I think the entire experience is just an exercise in slightly-more-aware and slightly-more-attention friendship.
Dealing with this can bring up a lot of your own personal anxieties and fears. It is important to understand that it’s okay to be sad about it even if you’ve never met the person who died. Share the burden with other friends.