John, a far-from-emotional weight room enthusiast, replied “Not very well” to the usual scripted pleasantries. His mother was dying; life was pretty damn crappy. John tried to mention how greatly his mother’s deterioration was impacting his entire family, how hard the stress level and grief had been on him lately. Behind the tough iron-pumping exterior, he was broken and hurting.
John’s friends—who he has known for several years—suddenly became awkward at the mention of his mother; they were completely tongue-tied. The room became very awkward as all of them squirmed around in their chairs, franticly glancing about as if they were scanning the room for the nearest “exit” sign.
I’m also losing a parent right now, my dad has a fatal degenerative brain disorder, and I am slowly watching him slip away piece by piece—out of sight, gone forever. I know the heartache, but I don’t have answers, no magic cure for the pain. In fact, I hardly even knew John, just the friend of a friend. But I asked questions about John’s mom, how his family was holding up and, perhaps most importantly, how he was doing.
John’s friends continued looking around uncomfortably and, when there was a break in our conversation, one of them jumped in and changed the subject to something more upbeat. Then, in order to avoid further discomfort, they dominated the entire conversation—a regular “one man band.” I was horrified. Their friend wanted to share about the hardest thing in his life, and they responded by changing the subject and dominating the conversation because it made them uncomfortable. But I’m sure it doesn’t make John feel exactly comfy living with the reality that his mother is dying.
A lack of comfort seems to greatly impair people when it comes to discussing grief and death. Some people never ask me how my dad is doing or how I’m coping, even though they know what is happening and see me regularly. Maybe they think it would remind me of the pain and they don’t want to “bring it up,” but it’s not exactly like I’ve forgotten my dad is dying. Even if the thought isn’t living in the forefronts of my mind, the knowledge and reality of it is always there like a shadow over my life. Maybe they don’t want to remind me, but since they don’t bother to ask I assume they forgot. And sometimes—”Oh, yeah, you’re dad’s sick. Forgotten ‘bout that. How are things anyway?”— they actually have.
No one can change the situation, no one can make it “all better,” but the bereaved know that even better than anyone else. John knew his friends couldn’t magically fix everything, but he wasn’t asking them to. Sometimes, people just need to talk, and they need to know that those around them care and haven’t forgotten.