It’s been a very difficult summer for many of my family members and friends. I have watched as they experienced health problems, deaths, emotional and financial struggles, and even the loss of trust. It’s always difficult to know what to say or do in such situations. I find myself searching for wisdom and feeling uncomfortable in my feeble efforts to make them feel better when I truthfully know that they need time to heal in either body or mind. All I can offer is a hug, a shoulder to cry on, perhaps a card or some flowers. All of these gestures help to demonstrate that someone cares, but the journey needed to heal the scars is often far longer than we might hope. Because of that those of us who truly care must be willing to stay with the wounded for the long haul.
I know a man who lost his adult son several years ago. It was a devastating blow to him from which he has yet to recover. Somehow I was foolishly believing that there should be a kind of time limit on his grief after which he should be able to proclaim to all of us that he is fine and ready to move forward. I mentioned this to a childhood friend with whom I was reuniting after more than fifty years. She smiled patiently at me and then explained that she too had lost a son, a tragedy that still left a hole in her heart that has never quite healed. She told me just to accept that the man about whom I was worried is reacting in the most normal of ways.
I don’t know why I expected more of the grief stricken father than I do of myself. In truth I still have moments when I cry for my father who died over sixty years ago. So many things remind me of him and I feel a deep longing in my heart just to see and hear and touch him one more time. On Friday evenings I think of my mother and how we used to spend the launch of the weekend laughing and enjoying good food and adventure together. Even things that used to mildly annoy me about her now seem so wonderful. I’d love to have her come to my house unannounced honking her horn to tell me that she has come to tempt me to accompany her on some silly adventure. So it is with countless people who were once so important in my life but are now gone.
Our humanity is grounded in our emotions. When we open our hearts to truly love someone it is painful beyond measure to lose them. We push ourselves to carry on as we must, but in the deep recesses of our minds it feels as though a little piece of us has been stolen. We never again feel quite the same.
So too it is when we have to face a devastating illness. I remember one of my neighbors speaking of his loss of confidence when he had to live from day to day with the specter of being incapacitated. He said that his pain and his fears sometimes dominated his every thought. He sometimes felt as though people were avoiding him because they felt uncomfortable seeing him as a shell of his former self. The best of his friends were those able to just accept his new reality and still enjoy his company.
People who are in the depths of depression are quite possibly the most difficult to console. Their darkness of mind is frightening both to them and to anyone who loves them. It is tempting to just shake them and insist that they snap out of their melancholy, but in truth such tactics never work. Instead we can remind them of their worth and of how much we love them while also urging them to get professional help to still the terrors that threaten to destroy their minds, but we can’t ask them to just will themselves to get better.
I have an aunt who is one hundred years old. She called my mom every single day and lovingly modeled the kind of comfort that anyone in a crisis needs. When my father died she was the first to come to our house just to be with my mother. She gave no advice, but simply was there with her loving heart. Over the years as my mom had episode after episode of depression and mania it was my aunt who listened to her paranoid ravings in the middle of the night, sometimes for hours. She was my mother’s crisis hotline, open twenty four hours a day offering love and comfort.
We might all take a cue from my aunt. Just being that one person that someone can take for granted is the greatest form of solace that we might ever offer. Heartbreaks and grief that last a lifetime are a normal part of our humanity. We can’t really fix those things, but we can be a refuge whenever the pain becomes too intense.
Think of someone you know who is struggling in one way or another. Give them a call. Drop them a note. Send them some flowers. Each tiny gesture tells them that someone understands.