My mom invited an old friend of mine to our Thanksgiving and I wondered who else I know around here who might not have their kids this weekend or who might otherwise be alone. We have a few people who fit that category join us each year. Another old friend, who I haven’t seen in almost 30 years, lives up here so I wrote to him. His partner of many years died a few months ago. I found out on facebook. I saw posts about Lee on Chris’s “wall” and gleaned that he was well-loved, funny and too young to die. The loss is huge. I assumed that Chris had a good and strong network of friends and would have had many offers but he didn’t. He said people don’t know what to do with his grief and most have slipped away, afraid of what to say. I want people to take care of him in his loss, not leave him alone with it. His sister is coming to town and they are going out for dinner but I am doing my best to get them to join us here. We know from grief.
I have a few other friends, the relationships also entirely facebook-based, who I rarely, if ever, see in real life. One couple who I went to college with teach me important things about loss on a regular basis. Their first child died from a very rare form of cancer when he was two. He died 14 years ago but they talk about him all the time. Karen posts darling pictures and she tells wonderful stories, all publicly, with rare insight and candor. Jeremy had a heartbreaking and powerful piece published in the NY Times last March: A High-Functioning Bereaved Parent.
There’s obviously deep sadness and loss but there’s also life, beauty, joy and love that they experienced with their son and he lives on in every day that passes. I’ve read articles they’ve linked to and the thing that has stuck with me above all is the message to say his name. Jacob.
When I saw Jeremy for the first time in many years at our teacher’s memorial service last January someone asked him how many children they have. I answered for him because he was in the middle of talking to someone else. “Two.” I said. “Three.” He corrected. Now I know.
I didn’t know what to do with people’s grief or loss either, until I did. I’d intend to send a card but would let too much time pass and never do it. I was afraid of being trite or saying the wrong thing but now I know it’s only wrong to say nothing. All you have to say is “I’m so sorry.” Say anything. Acknowledge the loss. The grief doesn’t go away when the person is buried, it just begins. Check on your friends who have lost loved ones. Call them. Write letters. Stick your neck out a little. If they don’t want to talk about it they will say so or if they don’t write back it’s because they can’t.
When my stepfather Quin died all the cards and letters from family and family friends were addressed to my sister Catherine, his daughter. No one thought to write to the rest of us. I considered him my dad too, though not biologically. My own friends, who realized the loss was also mine, sent me cards and it meant the world to me. They taught me the importance of the gesture. It is never trite to say you are sorry. When my beloved pup Francis was killed by a car, my desk was filled with cards and flowers from friends at work. A bouquet of daffodils from my manager Vicky’s garden and cards from suppliers I had forged relationships with entirely over the phone. Somewhere I have a polaroid picture I took of it all. When the baby I was carrying died I made it known that I didn’t want anyone to send cards or flowers or to bring it up unless I did. Vicky sent a small bouquet of white flowers and I will always remember the beauty and kindness in that perfect act performed against my wishes.
I get things wrong. Those of us who tend to feel isolated and alone can forget what all we have. Where’s that best friend? I don’t have one. But I have my kids. And I have my family in all their imperfection and I am surrounded by them today. I wish my mother’s breath hadn’t smelled like alcohol when she hugged me hello yesterday upon arrival. It was 2 pm. I wish I didn’t bristle at every slightly (or not so slightly) aggressive thing that comes out of my father’s mouth. I wish I felt more connected but I forget that I am. It’s my family’s house that is hosting Thanksgiving to many who are alone. I am part of that and I am trying to remember how lucky that is.