a how-to guide

I am a strong person, I believe that. I’ve been trying to be honest here (and in the rest of my life) about what it’s like to be going through the devastation of the past two and a half months. I think a few people mistake that honesty, misinterpret it, to mean something else—weakness, even—but that’s their deal, not mine. To me, a big part of being strong is being able and willing to feel whatever there is to feel, not to pretend it’s not there, not to hide from it, not to ignore it, but instead to stand there, with as much strength as possible, and face it.  When I was in college, and had three young kids at home and no help, I had to get it while I was sitting in class; I didn’t have the luxury of time to let my mind wander during lecture and then get it later. I had to get it right then, be present, pay attention. And I think of this period of difficulty in a similar way; whatever is happening to me now, I want to go ahead and experience it and face it and deal with it while it’s happening so I don’t have to handle it showing up later, or over the next however long it might reappear.

So it’s terrifying at times, and I feel terrified. It’s so sad sometimes that I have to lie down and clutch the furniture to bear the sorrow, but I do that, and then it eases. It’s lonely, so I sit with the loneliness and try to understand it. It’s empty, and so I absorb the emptiness and try to feel that, and think carefully about how to fill it in the most meaningful way. The losses feel like a tsunami, and so I try to anchor my feet and absorb the wave and still be standing when it washes away. When happiness, or even joy, appears, I try to open my hands and arms and soak it up and get as much restoration from it as I can. When I feel the truth of there being no one here to take care of me, no one to pet me or give me a hug when I’m having a hard time, no one to rub my back, I try to face that feeling and then take good care of myself. It’s hard. It’s exhausting, on top of the exhaustion from grief.

Some people have been very good to/for/with me, good at helping, being there, doing what they can. And other people have pointedly not. I haven’t been surprised by who falls into which group, especially the not-helpful group, though some of the helpers have been a little surprising — not that they helped, but that they were particularly thoughtful in a specific way, usually born of having experienced hard times themselves.

I don’t know how useful this how-to guide will be, because it may be so idiosyncratic to me that it won’t apply to others. That’s probably true of a couple of items, but I’ll bet it’s generally good. If you have a friend or acquaintance who gets blasted by life, here is my advice:

What to do or say:

  • Just say you’re thinking about her! That’s helpful. If it occurs to you to drop a little note of some kind, even a text or an email, you might be surprised just how much it can help. You might send it at just the right time without knowing it (because for someone facing a lot of stuff, it’s actually always just the right time).
  • Listen. That’s always good.
  • Real mail! Man alive, I can’t tell you what that did for me, the several times someone went out of their way and sent me something in the mail. I got the boost when they asked for my address (a real boost that day), and then a surprise second boost the day the mail arrived. It can just be a small thing — you know how great it is to get real mail.
  • If you’re nearby, propose meeting for a drink, or coffee, or a walk, or a movie. Be specific! She’s probably glad to do something you suggest, and unable to suggest something herself. People in sorrow and trouble welcome distraction, even when they are trying so hard to be strong. You can let your friend set the pace of whether to talk about the trouble or not, and just follow her lead.
  • Periodic short encouraging notes. And really, brief is just fine, it does the trick.
  • Be patient.

What NOT to do or say:

  • Just for a while, handle your own little problems, or turn to other friends. Just for a while, don’t make demands on your overburdened friend. If you hear her say that she’s feeling fragile and her resources are low, take that information as a cue not to ask her to handle your life too.  (And p.s., it doesn’t count if you make a demand but say, “I probably shouldn’t be asking you.”) And then, especially, do not be critical of her for not helping you. Of course, if something big happens to you, good or bad, share it with your friend anyway.
  • Don’t comment on the “drama.” No one but an actress likes to be told that, in the first place, but in the second place who would ask to have a string of terrible things happen, who wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by it without it being labeled “drama!” There’s something kind of blaming in that, or at least it’s so often used that way that it carries the connotation, whether you mean it or not.
  • Even if you think her grief is dragging on too long, keep that thought to yourself. If you just have to talk about that, talk to other people, though who likes to be gossiped about behind their backs. (But if it’s really getting worrisome and you are scared for your friend and her well-being, you might eventually ask, in a loving way, how she feels she’s getting through the grief, to open a conversation.) If you’re feeling this way, instead take the opportunity to quit thinking about your own irritation or annoyance and think about helping her.
  • Don’t simply say, “If you need anything — anything at all — just call! I’m serious!” Or if you do, don’t sit by the phone waiting, because that call isn’t going to come. Really, you’re just saying that to make yourself feel better so you can believe you helped (and we all know that, because we’ve all said it, and we’ve all heard it). So don’t do that — there are very very easy things to do that really will help, and won’t demand too much of you. Like a quick email or a note.
  • Do not be impatient. If that’s too hard for you, then do what you have to do for yourself, of course, but don’t take it out on her. She’s got all she can do trying to be patient with herself, I’m pretty sure.

And one between here and there: If you are the primary support to someone who is in need, be sure to rely on your own support network! As my friend reminded me (and I know very well from the first 6 months of last year), it’s draining and exhausting being the primary support to a suffering person, and if you get plenty of your own support, it’ll help keep you from doing things on the “don’t do that” list. But more importantly, it’ll help you keep going, too. We’re all so connected to each other.

So that’s today’s how-to guide, born of a particularly hard day.

good thing of the day: thoughtful friends and family, blue skies, and inner strength.