Thirty years ago, while completing my doctoral work in preparation for the career I have today, I was reminded of the difference that one good friend can make to anyone who is grieving. I was in my hometown visiting my oldest sister when a couple dropped in to visit her and my brother-in-law. I was introduced to them both before my brother-in-law and the male member of the couple went outside to tinker with a car engine problem in the garage.
I was somewhat caught off guard when my sister’s friend I’ll call Judy said to me, “Your sister has told me all about you and what you do.” Unemployed and still not sure yet what I would be doing after graduation, I was tempted to ask what she meant. But I did not interrupt Judy as I knew that this lead-in was not about me, much less my career goals. And besides I knew that my sister, like most of my siblings knew that my work involved supporting survivors who were grieving—and that was likely, at least in part, what Judy might have been told.
While my sister served coffee, I added the cream and sugar to my cup and prepared to do what I would like to think I do well. I gave Judy my undivided attention and listened to what she had to say.
“Twenty-three years ago, “she began, “I lost my young son in a car accident.”
“I am so sorry to hear that,” I said, I then leaned forward and prepared to hear Judy’s story.
“Back then we did not have people like you.”
I nodded. Still silent, I felt slightly more comfortable, for at least now I thought I might know what she meant by “people like you (me).”
“All I had was a really good friend.” She took a sip of her coffee and continued.
“And every Sunday my husband and I went to her house. The boys, my husband and hers spent their time outside, doing whatever men do together, and I talked to my friend. I told her everything. I mean how much I missed my son and how angry I was about how he died in a senseless accident at such a young age.”
Judy paused for a moment, looking off into the distance. Her eyes darted around like she was remembering her past in pictures. Neither my sister nor I said anything. We knew that Judy did not wish to be distracted with small talk while sharing something so personal and deeply significant about her life.
“Every Sunday for the better part of 3 years I did that. My friend never said two words. Oh, I mean she cried a lot with me when I cried—but she did not try to interrupt me or give me advice. We drank coffee together and she offered me tissue when my mascara streamed down my face with my tears. And she just listened.”
“We did not have people like you back then. All I had was her. And she had no formal education or any training on how to help me. She just listened and always had time for me. She never once refused to have my husband and me over on those Sundays.”
With the last sentence, Judy looked at me intently and I sensed it was time for me to speak. “Judy,” I began, “You did not need someone like me. You had something better than a stranger with some training and the best of intentions. You had a true friend who instinctively knew what you needed from her. I can only say that I wish more of us had a friend like her when we are grieving. I think you were fortunate and I am glad that you had such a wise friend.”
Over the years of interviewing family members who have described their grief process, I have been struck by the similarity between Judy’s and others’ stories. When I ask people, what helped them during the first years following their loss, repeatedly the theme of having one person to share their innermost feelings continues to be dominant. Counseling may or may not be part of their healing process, but counseling is not what most people are describing. This one person is someone who has no formal role in their grieving process but rather is a friend who has no agenda other than to support the one who is grieving.
As grief educator one of the most important questions that I ask anyone who is working through the grief process pertains to this. Who are you sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings with? Or who is your primary or ‘go to person’ who listens to you? Integration of the loss of a loved one involves fleshing out every thought and every feeling that comes into our minds and preferably with some who cares about us.
Having someone who will take our call, no matter how late or early or frequent when we are grieving is a gift that has no price tag because it is priceless. Friends do not keep office hours or watch the clock when we are crying about our pain. I advise all my clients to seek whatever resources they believe will help them, including counseling, discussions with physicians, ministers, trying various grief support groups and engaging in bibliotherapy (reading articles, books and the like.) But most importantly, I advise all who are grieving to look for a friend they can spend time with who allows them to be their true self.
And if you can be that person for someone else who is grieving, remember as in the case of Judy’s story, you may become the single most important factor in their recovery process. And who would not want to be that for someone we truly care about?