My dear friend’s sister just passed away, suddenly, in her early twenties. They have asked people to keep in touch, but I am wondering what to keep in touch with (i.e., pictures of cats, asking how they are doing, invitations to social stuff?). We are close but I haven’t known them very long (and never met their sister) and kind of have no idea what they need/want right now. Should I ask? I imagine that everyone is asking and it might be exhausting. Our main form of communication is online, usually messages with another friend, where we (lovingly) cuss each other and laugh at white people together. Should the other friend and I still write these messages to them or is this insensitive? Also is there anything I can send to their family home apart from flowers (allergies)? I love them and want to be supportive but don’t know how.
A very sorry friend
I’m sorry for your friend’s loss, and for yours. Death is a real twist of the knife because it reminds us that, despite our attempts to dance like no one’s watching, a great hand will at some point descend and pluck us out of the disco whether we are ready or not. And there’s very little apparent fairness to the order in which we are taken, we and our beloved dance partners, the ones who can brighten the room with a grin, who get us drinks before we even know we are thirsty, the ones we got dressed for in the first place and who we want to text as soon as we get home. That they are taken, will be taken, often without warning, is one of the cruelest tricks life plays on us. It is also, in this life, the only certainty we have. We have to appreciate them because one day they, and we, will be gone.
I lost my father in my twenties to a cancer he called his dybbuk, a demon chemo could do nothing to pry loose. As I’ve written, my father was fat and fatalistic; he died at 70, the year he predicted he would go, because 70 was the age at which his own father had died. In vain did I reason with him, explain to him about improvements in modern medicine, and fight with him, exhorting him to try for my sake, if not his own. No. He loved me, but he was done: he had survived the heart attack and two other cancers, not to mention gout and pre-diabetes and other indignities of affluent mid-life. He was 70. He let the dybbuk have him.
My uncle, by contrast, was skinny and serious and had every intention of living to see his centennial. He had only just completed the building of his mountaintop dream house with his wife when he began to have trouble swallowing. The tumor lodged in his throat killed him a mere two months after the tumor in his pancreas killed my father. The mountaintop dream house stood empty, unlived in, in shock, until it was finally sold to people for whom it mean something other than pain.
To cope with the manifest unfairness of this, some of us turn to religion or philosophy. Others sample adrenaline, nihilism, booze. I’m fairly certain Alexander the Great decided to conquer the world because Aristotle told him, “Valar Morghulis,” and Alexander was like, “F that S. If I die, I’m dying undefeated, and I’m going to make sure generations upon generations know my name.”
When the one-two punch of the loss of my father and my uncle made me realize all men must die, and not when they were ready, but when it was time, I was angry enough to take an army myself and run roughshod over Asia. I settled for going to the one gun range in Manhattan and learning to load real bullets into a rifle and shoot. I settled for running away to Montana, where I ate like a Flintstone and rode horses up mountains and hiked my way across glaciers, where the sky felt as limitless as grief.
It took years to stop being angry. And who had I lost, really? Members of the older generation; men who were too young by some standards but still old enough to leave grown children and merit obituaries. When our contemporaries lose siblings, or even, God forbid, their own kids, it is more horrifying still. We feel powerless because we are powerless. We want there to be rules we can follow, foods we can eat or abstain from eating, ways we can behave or words we can say to give us some semblance of control or, failing that, peace.
But there aren’t. Not really. There is nothing we can do to change, or fix, or even improve for a second the experience of a mourner looking into the void, let alone protect ourselves from falling into that void when the time comes.
What we can do – and what I’d argue we must do, as decent human beings and members of a community – is not make things worse. That means, unless explicitly told otherwise, we are encouraged to do one or both of the following two things:
It’s harder than it sounds. Because we feel so awkward around grief, because especially in secular, contemporary Western life there are no guidelines for how to act, a lot of people get tangled up in their own uncertainty. We don’t want to say the wrong thing, so we say nothing. Nothing is the wrong thing.
I don’t mean that you can’t fuck up. Don’t say, “Guess she shouldn’t have smoked!” or “Gee, sure am glad I’m vegan!” As long as you’re not a jerk, though, it doesn’t really matter what you say. All people who are grieving hear when you speak to them is, “I’m still here and you’re still here and we will make it through this together.” Your presence says life goes on and eventually that stops feeling like a threat and becomes something like a promise, like a small, flickering hope.
One person, an older lady and friend of my mom’s, said to me, “I’m so sorry. This really sucks.” I was so grateful to hear that, to look into someone’s face and feel like she understood. But everyone is different. Don’t aim to say the perfect thing. Just be there. Be good enough. Communicate. I promise, it helps.
More important than talking? Listening. Let them tell you about the person they’ve lost. Let them share stories, if or when they want to. Let them know that, though the person they’ve lost might not be Alexander the Great, still they won’t be forgotten.
And food, of course. Bring food, because food is digestible love.
Illustrator: Liana Finck’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, Tablet, and The Forward. Her first graphic novel is called A Bintel Brief. Her webcomic, Diary of a Shadow, can be read on her website.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.