For the past few months, I’ve been on a different end of grief… in the ranks of those who are supporting another. Back in December, one of my closest girlfriends found out that her mom has throat cancer (never smokes a day in her life, mind you). Their holiday season was complicated by chemo treatments and all the sickness that comes along with it. And then, smack in the middle of her mom’s treatment – the unthinkable happened. They found a large mass in her dad’s chest. It’s been several months now of waiting, tests, biopsies, and scans. It seems his was trickier to diagnose… but inevitably she got the news.
Early last month, she and our other best friend got on a video call together. On that call, came the words from her mouth about her dad’s condition that still have me in shock. Words like “untreatable” and “rare and aggressive cancer” and “can’t do surgery” and “six months to a year”. I couldn’t stop myself from crying. Hell, just writing this now, the tears are flowing. My heart is crumbling to know the kind of pain she is going through. To know that just last fall, she imagined her dad living well into his 80’s or 90’s. He is active, after all. They go snowboarding in Colorado every year. They go hiking and backpacking on a pretty regular basis too – one of their most recent trips being on the Appalachian Trail. He is kind and loving and giving. He simply should get to be around for much, much longer.
She is an only child as well, and so losing one person from her family is losing an entire third of their little unit. So for the past few months, myself and our other best friend have been by her side as much as we can from far away. We’ve been having weekly skype calls every weekend to cry, drink, curse, and eventually laugh. I am constantly at the ready if she calls me – which has made for a few humorous moments when she butt-dialed me and I was panicked that she needed me and I missed the call.
A few days ago though, she called me while I was working at the coffee shop. And this one wasn’t a butt-dial. I pick up the phone, and she is already in tears on the other line, asking in that fragile voice “Can you talk?”
God how well I know that voice. How well I remember being that voice. In that moment, somehow all the things that everyone did for me suddenly seem to flow into me and give me instincts for being on the other side of it all. Not that there is any “right” thing to say. There isn’t. But there are sure wrong things to say, and fortunately I have my own library of the wrong things that people said to me, so i can avoid them. So suddenly, there I am, on the other end of the line, and I know just what to do somehow. It’s intuitive and it’s automatic. I say “this is total shit” many times. And I cry with her.
We sit in the total wordlessness together, because sometimes silence and tears are better than any words of comfort. I don’t want to comfort her – because I remember how people comforting me with platitudes just felt like they wanted it to be better. I remember comforting words feeling more like they wanted to stop the pain so we could all just go about our business. I didn’t want to do any of that. So no, I didn’t want to comfort her. I wanted to give her a place to bleed. I wanted her to know that I can be there while she bleeds, and that she always has someone she can let it out to who isn’t going to try and fix something unfixable.
Not a day goes by that I am not thinking about her and what she is going through. An only child, both parents have cancer. This is her story right now. And this was not supposed to be her story. It was not – as all of us end up saying – part of the plan.
I think it’s opened my eyes again, this whole thing. I think it’s bringing back some important perspectives that death and dying inevitably teaches us all. Most of all – it’s reminding me of how amazing so many people were in my life when Drew died. It’s reminding me of the ones who let me bleed and who didn’t try to comfort me or fix my pain. The ones who loved me in my brokenness. My best friends, who kept me laughing and who cried with me at random. My sister, who flew across the country to stay with me and who made sure in those first weeks that I ate a little bit each day. My brother, who I had never gone to for anything before, but turned out to be my solid ground, my place to bleed, and the one to always get my laughing again. My guy friends, who took care of anything and everything that needed doing for many months. My new friends – other widows – who helped me feel sane and “normal”. And of course, my fiance’s family, who literally took me into their home and took care of me as part of their family.
I hate to think of what lies ahead for my girlfriend. Not only having lost my fiance, but having neither of my parents alive any longer either… I know full well, that this experience is going to change her. It already is. And I hate that. She is a few years younger than me, and I’ve always thought of her a bit like a little sister. She’s never been through any of this awful stuff yet, and she is still so blissfully unaware. I wish she could stay that way forever. But losing either of her parents is going to change her whole identity and her whole world, and there is simply no way to keep all of your innocence intact after death touches your life.
All I can do is be here to fiercely love whoever she is becoming through all of this. To use this time as the catalyst for loving deeper and more fully. If there’s one thing that others have taught me about times of grief, it’s that there is a very clear window of time where it rips open hearts, and in that time, we can either move closer to one another or move apart. We can honor her dad and this difficult time by creating a deeper bond together during the midst of it. And so that is what we will do. I can’t change what’s happening, but I can honor it.