by Kate Woodward
(a former HER intern who graduated from Westminster College and is now living in Washington D.C.)
I recently lost one of the most important people in my life to cancer. Since then, I’ve been painstakingly navigating the turbulent waters of grief while still attempting to lead a normal (whatever that even means) life as a college student and decent human being. One of the surprises of this journey has been the realization that, in the simplest terms, it is damn hard to relate to anybody anymore. After experiencing loss, being thrust into the cruel ups and downs that trauma forces upon you, and finding yourself changed in the most mysteriously inexplicable ways, how do you keep up with your friends who have no idea what the hell is even going on with you? Here’s an attempt to sort through the complexities of this dilemma and perhaps help steer the volatile mix of grief and friendship into more peaceful waters.
1) When your friend starts complaining about he-who-will-not-text-back, a heavy workload, having no clothes to wear out tonight, feeling guilty about the last calorie filled cupcake they ate, etc., resist the urge to dramatically and tearfully express to them how insignificant every one of their problems are in light of what you’ve been through. Instead, take in a deep breath that will send all that word vomit back down into your confused depths and, with all the strength you possess, understand that this is their reality. In fact, this was your reality until recently. You were the one decoding text messages from the guy you were dating at the time while your girlfriend sat across from you nodding in agreement and helping you decide what to send back in response. Once you remember this, it will release you from feeling an urgent need to preach to your friends about how their lives are ending with every single second that passes and how, therefore, there’s clearly no time for such silly nonsense. Once that impulse is adequately suppressed, it’s time to listen. Eventually, when they pause with that sudden realization and awkwardly mutter that they know they shouldn’t be bothering you with such trivial issues in light of what you’ve been through, you’ll be able to confidently shake your head, smile, and tell them to continue. Why? Because it’s nice to feel as though things haven’t changed – even if this feeling is all too fleeting. Try to be the friend you’ve always been because someday, sooner than you currently believe is possible, you’ll be back discussing the same types of things and fully expecting them to hang on your every word.
2) Don’t be dismayed by their responses to your sometimes erratic behavior. Be prepared for the concerned or downright confused looks you’ll get when you find yourself in yet another screaming match with an ignorant frat man-boy, are inexplicably inconsolable when you spill coffee all over yourself because it’s just the last damn thing you need right now, start drinking a significantly larger amount of alcohol than usual (even for you), or want to spend more time alone in your dorm room than you ever have before. When they don’t say the right thing or react the way you want/need them to, explain to yourself that the emotional weight you’re carrying on your shoulders is something they can’t quite comprehend or know how to deal with. They aren’t sure why or how minuscule things that never bothered you much before now have the power to send you into a fit of self – pity and frustration. Instead of throwing yourself into further anxiety worrying about how strange you must seem to them, tell yourself that those concerned faces are evidence that you are cared about so much by a group of people that they want to take the time to figure you out. They want to help. They just don’t know how and it isn’t their fault. Coming to this conclusion can help you avoid misunderstanding their reactions to your grief.
3) It’s inevitable that there will be at least one friend who will not or cannot weather the storm with you. This will be the most difficult and unfair part of it all – there really is no sugar coating this. Although the worst of it (hopefully) seems to be over – you’ve cut down on the drinking, no longer lose control of your emotions as often, and are all – around reaching a more stable state of being – there are some friends who still can’t handle it all. Their inability to wade through your river of emotional shit has finally exhausted them to the point where they feel it is simply a better option to give up and head back to the safe, carefree shore. Perhaps it’s because you’ve been angry at the world for so long that they somehow forget you’re still mourning and find it easier to label your behavior as “bitchy” or suggest that you simply aren’t that good of a friend anymore. Yes, you will feel shattered by this. It will hurt and all at once the pain of losing that loved one will again feel magnified and reflected in this disintegration of a friendship that has held a dear place in your heart. Despite this, it is in your best interest to resist the urge to retaliate with a harsh verbal attack that informs such a friend of how they would understand you and your behavior completely if only they had lost their Mother too. Why should you refrain from this? Because they haven’t experienced it. Their lives haven’t been turned upside down. And that, you must understand, is a wonderful thing. You should be happy that they, someone you have cared about, doesn’t have to know what it’s like to realize your Mom isn’t going to be at your college graduation, wedding, or any of those other events that we all seem to find so important and meaningful. Just let go. It’ll be incredibly difficult and frightening but in this vulnerable state you’re better off dedicating your efforts elsewhere and focusing on rebuilding your life one step at a time.
4) Finally, love all the more those who have the courage to weather that storm with you. Appreciate the friends who just want to wander with you through the darkness that is this stage of your life. Eventually, the roles in a partnership of this type could reverse and you may find yourself being the light in the midst of someone else’s dark period.