Cue Ingrid Michaelson (because I know half of you were humming this song already anyway).
This past week I was talking to my sister on the phone while driving to campus. I had initially called for a little moral support, as someone had broken into my car and stolen $500 worth of my personal belongings the night before, but by the end of our rather short conversation we weren’t talking about my car situation at all.
“I read your blog the other day,” she said.
“Oh, yeah?” I replied. I am always truly tickled to know that someone has taken the time to read my blog.
“And…I just wanted to say…I’m really worried about you.”
It wasn’t the response I expected, but it shouldn’t have surprised me. Not really. It’s not that different from the way that my mom or any number of my close friends might respond. Actually, it’s not that far from the way they have responded, which is not to belittle anything they’ve said or done. In fact, I’m really quite impressed with the patience, grace and gentleness I’ve been shown in the past four months, especially from the people who know me best and care for me most.
Grief, as arduous and wearisome as it is for the one suffering, is often equally painful for those watching you suffer, especially if and when they perceive you are making your own situation worse. It is uncomfortable to be in pain. It is sometimes equally uncomfortable to be around pain. In fact, I would submit that it is sometimes more uncomfortable to be an outside observer. At some point the griever becomes accustomed to experiencing grief. They adapt to the weight of despair, the absence of joy, the sense of helplessness. Like a passenger who is thrown from a crashing plane and plummets to the icy waters below, the griever suffers immense shock on impact. But as the shock wears off and they begin swimming to shore (or waiting for someone to come to their rescue), they adjust to the temperature of the water. It is still cold, make no mistake, but it is a cold that becomes tolerable, familiar. This is the griever dealing with grief.
For the outside observer, the shocking chill of grief–even if it is familiar–is not the norm. A good friend may shout to the griever from the shore, may offer words of encouragement and wave bright red flags while cuddling down-filled blankets, signaling that land is ahead and promising that someday the warmth of healing will come. A great friend will wade into the water, attempting to swim out to the griever and pull them to safety; but the chill will be too much, the water will be too cold, and the friend will end up hurting themselves and discouraging the griever in the process. The wise friend, though. The wise friend will jump into a boat, row out to the griever and then sit there beside her as the griever makes her way to shore. The wise friend will realize that he cannot pull the griever to safety, that this is something the griever must do, slogging through the sea of grief one stroke at a time. But even the wisest and best friend will flinch at the harsh cold droplets that splash from the feet of the struggling swimmer. Even the best friend may become frustrated when the swimmer stops to tread water for days on end, when the swimmer changes course, making the whole process longer than it needs to be for anyone.
What the good friend and the great friend want for the griever is for the pain to stop, for the memories to flee and for the griever to be ok. Sometimes this what the best friend wants too. But the best friend also wants for the griever to mourn and to mourn well. The best friend has learned (likely through his own struggle with grief) that the griever will never be ok until she wants it for herself, and that even after she does, there is still the matter of getting to shore.