When Your Friend is Grieving

Grief is so complicated. It rarely shows up announced and even if it does, it never behaves in the way you think it should. It’s too loud or it’s too quiet or you think it’s gone and it’s not. It treats you differently than it treats anyone else. And if you are lucky to have a community of people who love and care for you, it’s affecting them, too. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of having a kinship.

This coming October will be sixteen years since my dad passed away. At the time—and for years since then, I couldn’t imagine that this experience could have been of any benefit to my life at all. But then something started happening—people started coming to me and asking one of the most beautiful questions I’ve ever been asked, “how do I help my close friend who recently lost a parent/ partner/ friend?” It’s a strange and sacred feeling to be seen as the expert on this type of thing. It’s a type of skill you never would have asked for but as long as you qualify—might as well make good use of it.

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Your friend is lucky to have people who want to love them well at a crushing time. A lot of times when the concept of death enters into a relationship, some people vanish. It’s loaded. If your friend’s loved one died, that means that your loved ones can die, too and you’re not at a place where you can deal with that. Or, you know, there can be a thousand other reasons that you don’t even understand to explain your instinct to run. That’s okay. The most important thing that I can tell you above all else is to remember that your friend’s loss and grief has nothing to do with you. I hope that’s freeing to you. I hope you’re able to swallow your fear and discomfort in order to be the kind of friend that you want to be. Not only will this deepen your relationship, but your friend will have a living example of love and consistency in hard times. She’ll be more ready to step up when you need a shoulder.

So what are some practical ways for you to be there for your friend?

If you are near by: step in—with consent. Right away after the passing of a loved one, there can be a lot that needs to be done and your friend can’t do it all. While she’s dealing with incoming family members and plans, take care of the things you know you can do. Does she need a babysitter? Is her laundry piling up? Get in there and do what you can. Ask permission but be specific. “How can I help” isn’t as helpful as it seems. Instead, try something like, “I’m available tomorrow and I’d love to help with the house/ take the kids for the afternoon/ hang out while you pack—if that’s something you’re interested in.” In that case, your friend only has to come up with “thanks” or “no thanks”. Don’t take it personally if you get a “no thanks”. Your friend doesn’t owe you anything and this is a prime time to remember it’s not about you, anyway.
Also, it’s an oldie but a goodie: consider food. Especially the extra delicious, comforting kind. Carbs, cheese, sugar. Some people eat their feelings and others lose their appetite—in either case they need a cherry cheesecake to entice them to ingest some calories.

If you are far away: never underestimate the power of a sympathy card. Cards are excellent for two reasons, it feels so good to have a physical memento of the way your friends were there for you in a dark time. Cards also don’t require an immediate response the way that a text or email might. There’s no pressure to reply and at such a time as this, your friend doesn’t need pressure.  If you do send texts, leave them open ended in a way that doesn’t necessarily require a response. “Hey, I just wanted you to know that you’ve been on my mind.” can go really far.
Another thing for far away friends (and nearby friends, too) is to remember milestones. The first holidays, birthdays, celebrations of any kind after the passing of a beloved someone are some of the hardest. Don’t feel weird about acknowledging about how this first might be a hard time for them.

In the initial years after my father’s death, I was often curious about whether or not people even remembered. I wanted to actually ask people, “do you remember that my dad died and it’s a really messed up situation?” Sometimes it felt like everyone was trying to pretend like everything was fine when, to me, things were not fine at all. It felt weird because it made me wonder if people thought I should be over it by now the way they were.
Not just initially—but months and even years afterward, all I ever wanted was for someone to ask me about my dad—sometimes (though not nearly as often) I still crave it. I want everyone that I love to know him and to know this piece of me. His death is an enormous part of who I am. It’s been sixteen years but I’m not done grieving and I don’t think I ever will. I share this part of my story with you to remind you that your friend will never be done or over it. This is a part of her, now. There will be times when she wants to talk about it but feels weird saying anything about it. If you can find a low pressure way or you sense an opening, don’t be afraid to let your friend know that you’re happy to hear all about the person that they lost.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without and your heart will be badly broken and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” –Anne Lamott

Thank you for being a friend.

Do you remember something thoughtful that a friend did for you during a grief period or hard time? Leave it in the comments so that we can reach out to our friends in different ways.

XOXO, Lib

Feeling Known

The first time I encountered Anne Lamott, I was in college. I was living on campus during the summer but there were no classes so I was able to finally read for the joy of it all. I’d decided to pick up a copy of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz because that’s what everyone was reading on Christian College Campuses in 2005. I was entering a phase where I had no more patience for Sunday School answers and stories that turned out to be analogies about God’s love for us. I wanted a story for the sake of the story. I wanted to hear about people’s real life without it turning into a lesson. In that way, Blue Like Jazz did not deliver for me. But I did like Miller’s writing style, so I kept with it. And I’m glad that I did because he introduced me to Annie. He quoted her within that book somewhere and I’m sorry to say this, Donald Miller, but it was the most true thing within those pages. I can’t remember the quote—just that I put the book down and went straight to the internet to look and see if she had any books for me to read.

“I woke up full of hate and fear the day before the most recent peace march in San Francisco. This was disappointing: I’d hoped to wake up feeling somewhere between Virginia Woolf and Wavy Gravy.” Anne Lamott

Initially I was bummed to see that Anne Lamott was an older Christian lady because all the experience that I’d had with older Christian ladies at that point was… not exactly progressive. Combined with the fact that two of her books were available in the library at my conservative school, I wondered if this one quote (and I don’t even remember what it said) would be all she had to offer me. But I checked out Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith, and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith anyway. And it unlocked something deep inside of me. If I’m not being clear, Anne is so much more than “an older Christian lady”. I mean, she is one of those too. But the image that conjures up is useless in describing her–much in the same way that basically any label isn’t a thorough descriptor of a person.

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Anne Lamott

At this point in my life I was comparing myself to the people around me and compared to them, I felt like the ultimate mess. Everyone that I knew at my school seemed to have all of their shit together. They seemed to have a plan. They were content and uncomplicated and they always had the right answers at exactly the right time. I couldn’t relate to this. I felt like a complete raging, complicated, ball of worry and confusion. Once, in a class called The Novel, we were reading The Bell Jar and I felt like I’d finally happened upon someone like me. Esther Greenwood understood the way I felt about myself and my experience among my peers. I was so excited to get to class and talk about the way that I loved and appreciated this character but before I could say anything everyone else described her as “troubled”, “scary”, “completely unrelatable”, and “sick”.

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I’m not sure I ever said anything out loud in class about The Bell Jar after that but I remember writing a paper about how I had related to her. It was completely off topic but it was all I could get out at the time. I would take a zero or I would write the only thing that was willing to be written. I wrote that it worried me because none of my classmates understood Esther the way that I did and it made me wonder if I’d end up with my head in an oven at one point, the way that Sylvia Plath did. My professor wrote a note on the back of my paper telling me that my honest struggle will serve me better in the long run and to not worry about having it all together at 21. Also he gave me a 100% even though I didn’t even write about the proposed topic at all.

So, finding a decent collection of Anne Lamott’s essays was a breath of fresh air. Her perspective on her life changed everything about my own. It was good to feel so “me, too” about someone who hadn’t gone on to kill herself. It was refreshing to see there were options and one of the options is to live a life with a zillion questions and barely any answers but a pocket full of coping mechanisms.

“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.” Anne Lamott

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast featuring a conversation between Linda Siversten, Glennon Doyle Melton and Anne Lamott and I wanted to weep through the whole thing—not because they were saying anything particularly moving but just because I felt understood for the first time in a while. It’s a powerful, powerful thing when you can feel known without saying a word. It’s a feeling that “these people are my people”. Truth be told, Anne and Glennon are probably more Jesus-centric than I am but I still know that they would welcome me and love me and not ask me to explain myself. That’s really all anyone wants—to be accepted without explanation or expectation.

In that conversation, Anne said, “Left to my own devices I would be Steve Bannon: utterly paranoid and reckless with my hate. But thank sweet Jesus I’m not left to my own devices.” This is the kind of thing that makes me want to politely ask her to stop talking about me in ways that feature such identifying characteristics to a broad audience. But she’s right and I’m not left to my own devices. I’m in love and I’m in family and I’m in friendship with people who keep me grounded. I’m a citizen of this earth and my duty is to love and try not to be an asshole and this keeps me from grasping at all of my own straws.

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Anne Lamott

I don’t know how to end this but that’s okay because this really doesn’t end anyway.

XOXO, Lib

Page Sixteen: Graces This Week

“Sometimes grace works like waterwings when you feel like you are sinking.” -Anne Lamott

Grace was a relaxed day at work that affords you the opportunity to take a minute to yourself and run to grab a cup of coffee.

Grace was running into exactly the right friend and having a perfectly un-rushed, un-important conversation while you’re on that coffee run.

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Grace was a hug from behind at the kitchen sink.

Grace was a beer with the right friends at the end of a personally important day.

Grace was bearing witness to the fruits of the labor of the man that I love with my whole soul.

“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.” –Anne Lamott

Grace was a borrowed air mattress.

Grace was a surprise visit from family.

Grace was payday.

Grace was daytime rain.

Grace was plane tickets.

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” –Anne Lamott

Grace was helping others.

Grace was unexpected words of encouragement.

Grace was unavoidable optimism and a free schedule.

“I do not understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” –Anne Lamott