Coffee or a beer? It’s on me.

On Mother’s Day, I saw a casual friend in church. Her son died a couple of years ago, and I didn’t know what to say.

A few days later, a closer friend told me his father died a few weeks prior. I know he had a complicated relationship with him, and I didn’t know what to say.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with a really good friend. He told me his wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had fourteen months to live. I was caught completely off guard, and I didn’t know what to say.

I’m a therapist, right? I’m supposed to a professional listener and know just what to say to help people cope with their feelings, right? And I had no idea. And I felt stuck until I realized that feeling stuck is par for the course. There wasn’t any one “thing” I could have said to help them feel better. It isn’t the point. The people we care about want to talk (or not talk) about their grief in the way they want to. If we’re getting caught-up on the semantics, we’re missing out on what they need/want from us. If we let them know we’re willing to listen or help them in any way we can, we give the message that they can count on us to be the best support we can be.

So you’ve “suited-up” and feel ready to wade into this really uncomfortable, emotionally messy place, and you’re biting your nails, wanting to be a good friend and not say the wrong thing, right? My friend told me that people should keep in-mind that the discomfort they feel pales in comparison to what a person in grief is feeling. Being in a terrifying place can be very lonely, and having someone there with him, even if only for a moment, means so, so much. He added that, “any scrap of humanity can make a huge difference.” Ultimately, it isn’t necessarily what you say or do, beyond giving the message that you’re there.

When you finish taking a final exam, you probably heave a big sigh of relief, happy that the semester is over. You’ll never have to open a calculus book again. In a similar way, you can white-knuckle it and support your friend in a moment, pat yourself on the back, and continue on with your day, reticent to walk again through the discomfort of not knowing what to do or say. Challenging as it may be, try to remember that our friends are still living the life you visited for a moment and continue checking-in. Call/text/email/meet for coffee/whatever; just let them know you’re thinking about them and are available to be a support in the way they need and the best way you can.

This stuff isn’t pretty, and it’s normal to feel like you’re not up for it and, whether you’re aware of it or not, take some distance. People get the message pretty quickly when we aren’t able to listen. It’s ok if you can’t. It isn’t a commentary on you being a good friend or good person. Instead, it’s saying that, for whatever reason, you’re not able to show-up at that moment. Maybe later you will.

As I’ve turned toward rather than away, I’ve learned from my friends. Yes, my good friend’s wife is terminally ill, but there’s more to the story than that. Although it’s day-by-day, she has been responding well to treatment and has been in-communication and learned from people who have lived for years with what she’s facing. He and I are in-touch regularly, and I am touched by his optimism and message of hope. And he’s appreciative of my support.

My other friend and I see each other about once/month (which is how frequently it has always been). When I do, I check-in with him and let him know I’m thinking of him and am available to listen. He isn’t a particularly open guy, and he hasn’t said much. But that’s what he needs. If he needs more support, he knows I’m available.

Finally, with my friend from church, my wife made a simple suggestion. I could have wished her a “Happy Mother’s Day.” I guess simple would have been best.

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