“My friend just died. I don’t know what to do.”
It was a simple Reddit post — a mere 10 words — synopsizing an experience we will all have to go through at some point in our lives. The death of a loved one is an inevitable part of the human experience and also one of the hardest things to handle.
Most people struggle with what to say to someone who has lost a friend or family member. There are no words that will guarantee comfort for a grieving person. However, a wise elder posted a response that might be as close to perfect as one can get:
“Alright, here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents.”
He goes on to say that even though he has had a lot of experience with death, he never got used to it — nor does he want to.
“It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances,” he wrote. “But I don’t want it to ‘not matter.’ I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.” Wow, talk about a gut punch.
He uses a metaphor of a shipwreck to then describe the way grief affects a person’s life. “As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.”
In other words, just hang on.
“In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy,” he continued. “They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything, and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.”
Grief is tricky that way, he admits, but he also offers readers hope that things will get better — maybe just a little bit, but they will get better.
“Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.”
And now we’re sobbing.
“Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.”
It’s hard to follow that up with any kind of eloquence. This old man described the mourning process in a way that I think would resonate with anyone who has been through the death of a loved one.
A few years ago, my husband’s mom got a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and passed away eight weeks later. She had always been a healthy and vibrant woman, and her death was a shock and a blow to our family. We loved her deeply and felt her loss to our core.
But the pain of loss is the price we pay for loving. When it comes down to it, grief is really nothing but love. It’s love that makes our relationships with friends and family so meaningful, yet it’s also what makes saying goodbye to them so difficult.
And grief does come in waves. Some you can predict, and some you can’t. We always know Thanksgiving will be hard because it was my mother-in-law’s holiday. We feel her absence more intensely then, as the memories wash over us. It hits at random times, too, when we hear certain songs or see something that would have made her smile, but it’s gotten easier to manage those moments over time.
Waves. Scars. Shipwrecks. There is a deep beauty in all of it. We wouldn’t wish for the pain, but at the same time, we wouldn’t want to live in a way that avoided having to endure it either. It’s all part of the beautiful, brutal reality of loving our way through this life.
Thank goodness the wisdom of someone farther down that road can help us see it.