In the wake of #1318 (friends didn’t keep in touch) and #1315 (dealing with grieving) I’m getting a lot of feedback by email and on social media along the lines of “I want to be in touch with friends/people I know who are grieving, but I don’t have anything to talk about/I don’t know what to say.”
A variation: “It’s been so long that I’m ashamed about losing touch and I’m worried that people will be angry with me like LW #1318 if I get in touch now.”
If these are people you care about, if these are relationships you want to re-establish and cultivate, then I think it’s time to trust that saying something is better than waiting until you can find some perfect thing that will somehow erase pain, loss, shame, isolation, and the habit of silence.
You know the people in your life better than I do, so you’ll have the best idea of what’s likely to work. I vote for direct 1:1 contact vs. public social media posts or contacting members of a group all at once. It’s easy for the algorithm to lose things, and it’s easy for calls for “anyone” to respond to float by unanswered.
I also vote for keeping it brief, friendly, and not making the other person do a ton of work or put them in a position of reassuring you. If you find you’re using the word “I” a lot, stop, and refocus. Aim for more “I was so happy to see you get vaccinated, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?” and less “I’m the worst friend ever, I’m terrible, I know, I suck, how can you even be friends with me.“ If you feel like you’ve let your friends down with your absence maybe don’t make asking for their reassurance or reading through excuses Step 1 of reforging your bonds.
“Hello, friend, I miss you, and I hope you are having a good day.”
“I am trying remember how to People, and you are one of the best People. Do you have time this weekend for a phone call?”
“I was so sorry to hear about ______. Call or text anytime if you need to talk, okay?”
“Can we catch up by phone or IM soon? It’s been too long.”
“I just read this book that made me think of you, do you know it?”
“I was going through old photos and I found this one of you and me. That was the best day.”
“Are you still at [mailing address]?” and follow up with a card or postcard. “My kid drew you this picture. I thought it was a house but she insists it is a duck.” Sympathy cards. Actual birthday cards, maybe with cute stickers in them.
Asking “Is there anything I can do?” is nice, but offering a specific thing (a ride, running an errand, dropping something off) can often be easier to process, and accept. If the person can’t use whatever you offer, they can at least be certain that it is a real offer and maybe ask you for something they do need. Gift cards to local-to-the-person grocery chain can be welcome and useful in the aftermath of a death, especially when it’s still not safe to get together.
If there’s help you need that nobody’s offering, I recommend asking for concrete favors, one person at a time. If somebody can’t do the thing for whatever reason, you can mutually figure out what they can do, if anything, and/or say “thanks” and ask someone else until you find what you need. “”Next time you’re out, can you grab my prescriptions from the pharmacy for me?” “I’m climbing the walls lately, any chance we could talk this week?”
But they should already know!” “But they should offer!” “But I shouldn’t have to ask!” Probably so, beloved, but do you still need whatever it is? People are juggling so much, and the pandemic is diminishing executive function even for those of us who aren’t neurologically afflicted. If these were good friends who would help you out in precedented times, if what you’re asking for is most likely within their budget and capacity as far as you know, maybe trust in the bond you have. Trust that if they knew there was some small way they could make your life easier, they would do their best, and if they really can’t, they’ll tell you so you can make another plan. It’s not fair, it feels vulnerable, and people might let you down. But when you’re the one who needs something to be different, you’re probably going to have to make the first move.
Newton’s First Law can be an apt lens for looking at relationships as well as the physical world. We all get into grooves and habits, based on our energy levels, based on what we think we know. In times of stress, it’s normal to get focused on self-preservation first and everything else second, and sometimes it takes an outside force to shake us out of it. That force can be a few words that indicate, hey, I still love you, you are still important to me, I remember you, will I see you on the other side of this? I want to. I hope so. So many of us who should be here aren’t here, and if I think about it too much I’ll sink so deep I might never come back up, but as long as I’m still here and you’re still here, I’m dedicating this song to you on the radio station in my heart, and here’s the poem I wish I could write you.
“Catch a Body” by Oliver Baez Bendorf.
Salinger, I’m sorry, but “Don’t ever tell
anybody anything” is a string of words
I would like to wrap up in canvas and sink
to the bottom of the Hudson, or extract
by laser from the ribcage of all of us
who ever believed it, who felt afraid
to miss someone, to be the last one
standing. “Tell everyone everything” is
not exactly right, but I do believe that if
your mother looks radiant in violet
you should tell her, or when a juvenile
sparrow thrashes its wings in dustpiles
and reminds you of a lover’s eyelashes,
you should say so. We are islands all of us,
but we are also boats, our secrets flares,
pyrotechnic devices by which we signal
there’s someone in here we’re still alive!
So maybe it’s, “don’t be afraid.” We can
rewrite Icarus, flame-resistant feathers,
wax that won’t melt, I mean it, I’ll draw up
a prototype right now, that burning ball
of orange won’t stop us, it’ll be everything
we dream the morning after, even if we fall
into the sea—we are boats, remember?
We are pirates. We move in nautical miles.
Each other’s anchors, each other’s buoys,
the rocket’s red, already the world entire.
Whatever you say to the people you love, it doesn’t have to be perfect or profound. It can be awkward, uncertain, shaky, and messy. Is it worth doing, even if that means possibly getting it wrong? Only you can decide. But it’s got to begin somewhere, sometime, so maybe let it begin with you.