Stories from Friends: It’s like trying to save someone from drowning when you have no idea how to swim

(Thomas, 25, Nebraska)

My name is Thomas and my friend Katherine Conway’s father was killed in an avalanche in May 2005 while skiing in Colorado. This is my best effort to describe the situation that I experienced at the periphery of this tragedy. David’s death, like a boulder hurled into a pond, rocked my little boat like a rowboat in a gale. I can best characterize the feeling of being around Katherine, to continue the water analogy, like trying to save someone from drowning when you have no idea how to swim yourself, and you reach and reach for something to hold onto, yet the weight of the drowning person keeps pulling you further and further under.

I remember when I met Katherine. I was getting ready to play in a high school band concert when I was blindsided by one of her characteristic full embraces. I have never been greeted by such joy and cheer, and I enjoy that greeting every time Katherine and I meet. I have met many gregarious, outgoing and friendly people, and I compare them all to Katherine who knows no strangers.

I can’t analyze why the friendship works so well. We were both Boulder kids. I enjoyed barbecues at her house on weekends in high school, parties, dances, and an idyllic upbringing in such a beautiful place, the strangeness of which we were completely unaware. We are two wildly different people; yet somehow I have always been able to read and relate to Katherine. Looking back on those first few weeks of May, I am still astonished that those moments, returning to very best friends after a second year of college, ever existed at all. This was a safe, familiar and happy return after the trivial dramas and tribulations of a difficult sophomore year.

I was with Katherine when she received the news, carried by a police officer. I continue to fear that my being there, and my association with the worst moment of her life has changed our friendship. I could only watch, disconnected to the situation. I did only what I could, I called John, the third member of our high school triumvirate, who was still in Missouri at school and wasn’t in much of a rush to get home. I yelled at his voice mail and told him to get himself home because I didn’t think Katherine’s boyfriend at the time and I could handle Katherine and her mom alone. That is the first thought that I remember.
I ended up back at her house that night, I didn’t feel needed but I stayed anyway. I went to the store and bought food and brought it back to the house for people to snack on. Katherine didn’t want to be touched or comforted. My initial reaction to simply hang out – even though I didn’t realize it until nearly four years later – had been right. I tried to do things for Katherine and her mom that night. They were not in a state of mind to acknowledge me, and at the time I resented it against all common sense out of pure selfishness. I wanted to be a hero. I felt a strange feeling of resentment toward them. I wanted to help. I wanted to do the dishes, sweep the floor, make dinner and help out. I was 20. I resented her boyfriend because he had only known Katherine for a few months and yet he got to stay over night the house and take care of her. That had always been my job to watch out for Katherine. Eventually I became relieved that he was there, because as it turned out, he was much more equipped to deal with the following days than I.

In the days between the accident and the funeral, I came by the house for a few evenings after work, and just took up space. When the family flood came in, I was taking up too much of that precious space so I went home. I wanted to do more, but there wasn’t much to be done. After about a week, I went back to my life, I had my own problems so I kind of turned my back to the situation for a while.

David died doing something that he loved, but the funeral was still sad. I did not cry. I was displeased at how people were acting. I don’t know why. I tried to have a light mood. I helped drive flowers from the church to the house. I tried to help with out of town guests. Katherine’s mom and her friends seemed to have it under control.

Not long after, I moved to Denver with an uncle because of my internship in Boulder. I was away from my family despite being home for the first time, and I felt that I should have been in Boulder with Katherine, but also to help my mom, dad, and sisters in Colorado Springs adjust to a new home. I was poorly equipped to fight this battle without a home base because my footing had been kicked out from under me when my family moved south. I was unable to be there for Katherine. But after all, it didn’t seem like she wanted me anyway. So I continued to do my own thing and didn’t see her much that summer. I still came to Boulder a few times, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why I should or shouldn’t be there. Sometimes I thought she wanted to be alone.
This did not seem to make her happy. I consulted a college friend, who had earlier that year been thrust into the angst of a similar situation. A friend of his from high school had recently lost her father in a snowmobile accident. It took him a long time to get back to me, and finally when he did, he told me that it was because he didn’t know how to advise because, he said, overall, there wasn’t anything he could do besides just sit around at her house. And it felt insufficient.

I, along with anyone reading this, can commiserate with this feeling of powerlessness. I really kicked myself around about it and felt terrible for being a bad friend.
In August 2009, four years after David’s death, I can offer only a few thoughts for someone else in my situation.:
I like control. I like predictability. I will soon complete medical school and be a physician. I would like to think that when I complete my training, I will be able to take control of all of life’s challenging situations. I realize this is a romantic notion, and I also know that I couldn’t be further from the truth.

I would like to think that there is a textbook chapter for when your best friend from high school’s dad dies, along with charts and graphs of what to do and when. In medical school, we learn about evidence based medicine, the study of variations in treatment and procedures to attempt on patients that have been normalized and screened to be statistically likely to react the same way to the same treatments. We like to think, that when going by the numbers and basing decisions based upon what has been successful in the past, that we will put our knowledge toward a positive outcome.

There was no journal article with statistical means, placebos, dosing schedules or standards of care for my situation.
I know that I have no idea what Katherine’s new life was. I never pretended to know. One thing that I couldn’t stop doing was talk about my dad around her. I just did it. It’s like the board game, with the list of words that you aren’t supposed to say and by trying to not use those words, you can’t help but use them anyway. I have a great relationship with my father and I don’t think that I could live in a world that didn’t have him in it. And that was the exact world my friend was waking up to every morning. The man that drove her to school, made her lunch, was around the house a lot because of her working mother was cremated and put into a jar. I know that they talked every day while she was away at college. I knew that there was a void inside her, and I knew I couldn’t help. So why try?

I continue to this day to think that I was a bad friend and there was more that I could have done. There probably is. I am not content with how I dealt with the situation. If it was a graded project, I failed. I was caught completely unprepared. I didn’t have the tools to deal with Katherine. I don’t think I do even all these years later. I don’t talk to Katherine about her dad at all anymore. What do you say other than he is missed and he left far too soon?

Every year there is a golf tournament to honor David and his brother, who also died young. All of Katherine’s friends and family go. I have never been. I can’t bring myself to associate myself with that terrible day. It was so difficult to be around that I would rather not re-live the emotions of that summer. Katherine and I still don’t talk about it. This is the first time I have dwelled on this time in my life since a few years ago when I attempted to write on the subject for a med school admissions essay. I said a lot of the same things as I have said here, but I look at the essay and I am glad that it was not submitted because it is incomplete. Every story needs a resolution.

Resolution…I fixate on the good things exist today in Katherine’s life and the things that she has done for others in this situation. I know that if I lost a loved one she would be the first person I called. I also know that she would be on the first flight to wherever I was. I tell others experiencing what I have with her that the first time is the worst and that you will feel powerless and incompetent no matter what.

I have been to a few funerals since David’s, and as strange as it is, it seems to get easier. Life goes on for everyone eventually, no matter how devastating the loss, no matter how much weight we carry. Time unites us in so many strange ways, and this is the most ominous of them all. It marches on. Finding numbness in the process of grief seems to help.
Since David’s passing, I consider the religious traditions that I have experienced since that summer. As a theology minor, I reflect on some of the grieving processes that have been developed through thousands of years of losing loved ones. During a wonderful Jewish studies course, I came to understand Shiva and its customs and rituals. Shiva emphasizes the importance of simply stopping by the house to visit a mourning family to let them know that even though they have lost, they are not alone.

I like the practice of Shiva because it seems pragmatic. My simple observation is that in the wisest of traditions, Jews seem to accept their limits when it comes to assuaging grief. Sometimes the best you can do is simply drop off a meal or some goodies. In some ways, fulfilling the mitzvah of visiting a grieving family is satiable for the visitor because they feel that they have completed their obligation to the grieving family and that there is nothing else expected of them unless asked. It decreases the terrible feeling of wanting to do more and the inability to do so.

In my own tradition of Irish-Catholic cultural descent, I happen to believe that there is a lot to be said about a good old fashioned Irish wake. My grandfather is old and Irish, and tells stories of the wakes of his childhood. He has gone so far as to ask that when he passes have a good wake for him with plenty of scotch and stories about him. I even think that it might be OK to have him present for the wake, so we can sit around and accept that his overwhelming presence has been completely removed. Families do what they will, and Katherine’s family is not my own. But the unifying element here is simple, single and solitary. All I can ask of my friends when Grandpa Jim goes, or a parent or a loved one for that matter, is that they give me a few minutes of their day and let me talk about the person I’ve lost. And maybe have a four-finger scotch with me at the wake.

If I did anything right during those weeks, it was being present. Katherine didn’t want me to stop what I was doing for the entire summer. Neither would David, I’m sure. Being present didn’t seem to help at the time, and I’m sure I got in the way occasionally. Maybe I should have pitched a tent in the back yard like Katherine and I had a few nights before David died. But I don’t think camping on the lawn was the answer, even though it may have provided some much needed levity to the situation. But I don’t think laughter is what was needed either. I think that if I could have it to do over, I would like the opportunity to sit with Katherine in her dad’s old 1970 Toyota land cruiser and have a good cry. Just her and me. So that we could finally sit and dream of the care free days together spent riding in that car in high school, acknowledge what that car meant to him, and how in so many ways that car was an emblem of him to her. I intensely valued our friendship, and having the chance to sit with her and cry with her would have meant that the friendship was going to be fine, and that we just needed to sit, quietly with few words, and be profoundly sad together.

That moment was never a reality because the situation was not about me, nor was it about what I could do for her. I still fight my own selfishness.

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