Today I ran into an old friend. Some years ago, she and I worked together at a residential facility for adults with disabilities, she trained me when I started and we formed a connection. I was drawn to her wonderful sense of humor, her compassion and the way she was constantly singing throughout her day.
When I saw her today, she seemed lost. Unraveled. Distant.
She is no longer the woman I used to know.
Years ago, when we were still coworkers, this woman’s son was killed in a car accident. She was crushed, ultimately shattered. I recall crying with the news at work that morning, I was on shift. I had gone to high school with her son, and we had been friends, keeping in touch from time to time when he would come home on holidays. This very weekend when he was killed, he was on his way home for thanksgiving. It was October 4th.
I visited her home often in the coming weeks, she seemed comforted by the presence of friends and family. I cried along with her and her children at the viewing, as his silent and still body lay before us, memories of his personality, so full of life, vibrant, so like his mother, rushed before all of our eyes. My heart ached at the funeral service as I watched her, his mother, nearly crumble to the floor at the prospect of walking down the aisle of the church. She could barely bring herself to approach his casket, this looming sense of finality weighing heavily upon the crowded room.
As time went by and visitors began to dwindle, I heard less and less from her. She didn’t return to work. I spoke with her from time to time through phone calls. She struggled to talk, she stumbled over her words, dissolving into high pitched tears and quickly retreating to her own world, hanging up the phone. I visited her at her home a few times, she admitted to me that she had a debilitating fear of answering the phone, terrified of bad news.
Eventually, she saw doctors, though the details of those visits I was never privy to. She would talk to me when we were together about the various medications she was on again off again, and I immediately wondered if her needs were less likely to be met with meds than therapy, with a voice and a comforting ear than with a bottle of capsules.
As time went by, even her children spent less time with her. All grown adults, they had their own lives, and certainly feeling grief of their own, were unable to give her the in-depth support she needed. When I would visit, she would make macabre comments about ‘still being here, although sometimes I don’t know why’. My heart hurt for her. I didn’t know what to do. I never could find words that felt right, that felt like anything more than tumbling letters in my mouth, garbled and hopeless.
When I saw her today, I could sense that she’s slipped again down that hill, that steep slope of grief. We hugged, chatted, smiled and laughed, she asked if I was going to have babies soon. I nearly flinched and told her with a plastered on smile that I’m working on it. Our conversation was tinged with sadness. I could see hurt still lingering behind her eyes, a fear behind her smile. Her words tangled up in anxiety and I felt like I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and tell her it is all going to be ok.
But now, six years after her son’s tragic death, I don’t know if it will be.
She told me, as we wiggled our carts repeatedly out of the way of other shoppers in the produce aisle, that she’s thought about going back to work, but she doesn’t think she can. “I just feel like I can’t get back on track. Not just with work,” she said, “with everything.”
I told her that it must be hard to try and feel the same after everything she’s been through. She’s changed a lot after all that has happened and all she’s lost. “You don’t have to be the same.” I said.
In her eyes, I saw myself a few months ago. Deep in grief, and lacking hope, feeling like I may never find my footing again. I don’t claim that my grief can rival hers, but I know so much more of grief than I ever have before, and in turn, I know more about trying to bounce back after grief. And yet, I still feel so ill equipped.
As it happens, when you are thrown into heavy conversations unawares in public places, I had to make an excuse and carry on, there truly just wasn’t space enough to discuss all that needed to be said, all that she must need to say aloud. In the course of our brief chat, four people I know from work came over to say hi to me. It was nearly impossible to give my old friend the time she clearly needed.
We parted ways with a hug and a smile, but I left feeling sad and guilty, worrying that she felt brushed off, that she felt like she had to bottle up the feelings she was so ready to pour out into the air.
Once home, I sent a message, telling her I was glad to see her today, that I’d like to see her again for a visit. I told her what I wish I’d said in person, that I know this time of year is hard for her, and it must hurt so much. ‘You’re strong,’ I said, ‘but you’re allowed to be in pain.’ I know I can’t expect her to call me, I will have to take that step and try to find a time when she’s willing to get together. I know if we do, she won’t hold back, she’ll cast her wounds out into the air and I’ll again feel like my responses are no more than a bandaid over a deep slash, pouring blood into my hands.
But maybe I can pour out my own, not to burden her with my problems, but to let her know I’ve been hurt too. It would never be the same, my pain is not her pain, and I could never imagine the utter heartbreak of what she’s gone through. But maybe I can tell her that she is allowed to hurt, as long as she needs to, and I see that now. She may need to hurt forever, but she doesn’t need to feel guilty for that. Maybe I can tell her that I know the world doesn’t understand how much she hurts, that she must feel so often alone in her grief, but there are many of us out here who love her.
Today, in the produce aisle, next to bruised peaches and early mandarin oranges, grief met grief head on. As wounded eyes slowly lifted themselves from the floor, gazes met, and a kindred spirit was spotted. An invisible hand reached out and took another, and a silent voice whispered, I’m here. I’m here too.