I had nine bridesmaids. Sure, one was my future sister in law and my maid of honor was my sister, so that makes them technically family. But I would say they are also my best friends, family ties or not. And this wasn’t a situation where I was roping in distant cousins to fill out the bridal party. I have nine best friends.
I have been so extremely lucky to have collected into my inner circle some of the most amazing women along my path through life. They represent the very best of the different stages of my growth into who I am today. One dates back to kindergarten. A couple from growing up in Hyde Park. Another is my best friend from high school. My best friend from college. A couple I met later in life through work close to a decade ago.
And those are just the ones I consider my besties. That doesn’t even take into account the rest of my HP girls, college girls, countless work friends, my future sisters in law on Chris’ side, cousins, we do care warrior sisters. Or my guy friends.
If Taylor Swift took a look at my life she would be like “#squadgoals”. But this isn’t a post about how popular I am, I have a point. I’m just extremely long winded.
The point is, when you wake up one morning to unexpectedly find yourself widowed at 34 years old, whether you are lucky to have a whole network of people or even if it is just a few close individuals or family…. there are people who love you, who loved him, who want to help however they can. And they have no clue where to start.
I’ve had girlfriends come right out and tell me they don’t know how to be a supportive friend through what I am going through. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know if they should call every single day and check in on me or if they need to give me space.
My friend the other night, in reflection of the upcoming one year mark, mentioned that this past year didn’t look like what she thought it would. She expected me to be calling hysterically crying at 3am and she was anxious that she wouldn’t have known what to say in those moments.
For some, that might be how they do lean on their friends. For me, while I have cried this year more in front of people than I ever have in my life, 90% of my tears come in private. When I’m in my car, when I’m in the shower, when I am lying in bed trying to fall asleep at night. And it isn’t because I am ashamed of them, or because I don’t want people to know, but rather that sometimes you just need to cry. And I know there are no words that anyone could say to bring him back. There’s no magic advice that a friend could give in the middle of my crying to make me miss him any less.
But there are things that friends can do to help. I figured I’d pull together what I could think of as a start. Again, this is based on my needs and the way I grieve which is so different person to person. The best thing I can suggest is to ask someone going through grief “what can I do to help?”. Chances are, they will tell you.
1. Talk about it.
I’ve heard people say they don’t know whether to “bring it up” because they don’t want to remind the person of their loss.
Unless I’ve just been introduced to Justin Timberlake, Channing Tatum, or Tom Brady, I’m pretty sure there is nothing that could distract me from reality enough that I would forget that my husband is dead. Actually, I take it back, I’m pretty sure if I met Tom Brady I would instantly wish Chris was there with me to shake his hand.
You aren’t reminding us that they are gone by bringing it up. We haven’t forgotten. If anything, we like to know that other people are thinking of our loved one too. That they miss him too. That he is not forgotten.
2. When you ask us how we are doing, do not tilt your head.
There are two ways that people ask how I’m doing. One is the straightforward, “how are you doing today?” – where I know they genuinely want to know the answer and they are prepared for whatever I have to tell them. The other, is when people try to “soften” the awkwardness of the question somehow. There is a look of pity that comes over the face, the words seem to dance as if to a melody of some sort off their lips, eyes squint up and inevitably… the head tilts. I’m not saying the person is not genuinely concerned. I’m sure they are. I’m saying they are not genuinely comfortable with the conversation, and that leads me to give my standard answer of “hanging in there”.
If you can’t master the rest of it, at the very least – stop tilting the head. I can’t take you seriously when you look like a confused dog. There seems to be a direct correlation between the degree to which the head tilts sideways and the level of discomfort of the person asking the question.
3. Fight every urge you have to offer some cliche.
The best reaction I received when I went back to work was a coworker who just looked at me in shock and went “Yo. WTF. I don’t even have anything to say.” That’s honest. Last week when I was discussing with my girlfriends the week in February that will contain Valentine’s Day, his one year anniversary, and his birthday – my girlfriend looked at me and laughed and was like “Wow that is really going to suck”. And that was the perfect response.
Because the time old sayings we use around death are only comforting to those who lost their 100 year old grandmother who had been in pain and suffering for the past few years. For anyone else, they suck. This did not happen to make me stronger, in no universe is it acceptable that my husband had to die to teach me a lesson. Time does not heal all wounds – it will get better and easier in time but I will never be the same person and it will never go away completely. God did not need another angel, he’s got plenty and my husband made fun of Helen Keller far too often for him to be God’s first choice in a pinch. Yes, I know I am young, and thank you for saying I am pretty, but that does not mean I need to move on ever, let alone right now, and it is in no way a consolation for losing the love of my life. And what are you saying… if I were ugly it would be tragic but since I’m cute it’s not that bad? The time may come where some day I will put myself out there again or it may not, but either way a good friend will support whatever feels right.
4. Talk about yourself.
I am still me. I am still your friend just as much as you are mine. And I get that I need some extra TLC right now, but sometimes it is also nice to get out of my own head. I want to know how my friends are doing. Friendship is a two way street, and I want to be a friend as much as I need mine to be there for me as well.
A huge part of this is not comparing what you are going through to what I am going through. I can’t tell you how many times a friend has had an issue and then apologized for complaining because in comparison it is nothing compared to what I am dealing with. I appreciate that sense of perspective, I do. But I just told someone today that I do not have a monopoly on emotions because my husband died.
Your shitty day isn’t going to get any better because you think about my shitty year in comparison. However, your shitty day could get better if you want to talk about it and hash it out and find ways to laugh. I’m not a wife anymore. Let me still be a good friend.
5. Laugh with me and help me make memories.
Trust that I know what I need. Sometimes I will need to be alone and I will need to cry it out. Sometime I will try to make plans, and think I am up for something, and bail because I’m having a rough day and putting a bra on is simply outside my capabilities. Be understanding of those moments, but still invite me to do stuff, because sometimes crying is exhausting and I just want to have fun or laugh.
I made my girlfriends go with me to the movies to see “How To Be Single” the weekend after Chris’ services. They thought I was nuts. Completely nuts. And some of them look at me like I am insane when I make really dark jokes. And those that have been touched by close personal loss, however, make the same really dark jokes and get it.
And just know that in the middle of making amazing memories and laughing and having a great time I could completely break down and cry. Out of the blue. Unexpectedly. Grief is messed up like that – you can be happy and sad at the same time. A couple months after Chris died I traveled to Louisville KY and spent the weekend with friends for my 35th birthday. We went to see Garth Brooks on my birthday and it was amazing. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. It was like a bucket list item to see him live. I had so much fun. And yet when he sang If Tomorrow Never Comes I ugly cried on a friend’s shoulder through the entire song, and I wasn’t much better through The Dance. And my friends were there. To rock out with me through the fun songs, and to rub my back and let me lean on them through the tough ones.
It is crazy how sometimes the best times make me miss him the most. Those “you should be here” moments like when my friends rallied to do a charity pub crawl with me that he always took part in. The most surreal thing is a house filled with laughter without his voice mixed in. I can be overwhelmed with joy and yet painstakingly aware of his absence simultaneously.
Just as there is no road map for grief, there’s no road map for being a friend to someone going through tragedy. I wish there was. But it makes all the difference just to know there are people who have my back when I need it. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong, and nobody knows what they are actually doing. But knowing that you are figuring it out together, with your squad by your side makes all the difference. I may not pick up the phone and call at 3am – but just knowing I COULD and there would be someone there to answer and listen if I wanted to – makes me know I”m not going through this alone.