Friendship isn’t about whom you have known the longest … It’s about who came, and never left your side. —Anonymous
Tragedy Reveals Our Real Selves
Anyone can be a “fair-weather” friend, right? Yet when tragedy strikes, in their life or yours, all the good times fall away and you’re left with just the core of who you are.
Nothing illuminates people’s strengths and weaknesses like death–especially sudden, unexpected death, the death of a young person, or a death by choice.
Who Shows Up
When my son Jacob disappeared, a group of our family members and his high-school friends magnetized to our house by the beach to look for him.
All of us took turns falling apart in one another’s arms. I channeled my motherlove into plying them with water and snacks for their shifts searching for Jacob, and I quickly learned to ask for help from those who showed up.
And Who Hides
Meanwhile, others hid. I imagine they were horrified at the fliers we posted on this missing young man … Perhaps they conjured reasons–abuse, depression, drugs–all of which played a role, although Jacob’s death stemmed from a far more complex combination of causes. And I sensed something else: a sinister sort of aversion to me, as though what plagued my family might come after them, too.
One friend suddenly pretended not to see me at the gym, where I continued sporadically to show up and work off anxiety, when someone else could watch our house for me in case Jacob somehow returned.
Others watched furtively from behind blinds and curtains that would flutter as I passed by for a walk or to post more fliers.
One True Friend
And then, on the horrific day when my son’s decomposed body washed ashore, my friend Kathryn, a psychologist who’d endured enough pain with her own three children not to be afraid of mine, happened to be on a beach walk when it happened. She stood there with a small group who observed, in what she later called a “reverent” silence, as the coroners lifted his body bag incredibly tenderly out of the softly lapping waves at the shore.
Kathryn wept, and prayed, and when she realized whose body it was, she raced to my side. We cried together and I thanked her for, as she put it, “standing in for me as a mother” in that moment. She showed me what it means to be a true friend.
Our relationship over many years had been strained at times, when I thought I was “right” about something and she was “wrong”–but that didn’t prevent Kathryn from grasping the enormity of that moment on the beach and turning it into a gift of closure for me.
“I don’t want to discuss my loss in the grocery store.” –Martha, suicide-loss support group
Maybe it happens for others through natural disasters, war, divorce, or other types of trauma; for me, the death of my son shifted everything.
I felt completely stripped of whom I’d been before.
My close circle (not just Kathryn but lucky for me, a few others who also stood by) commented later that I was “not in there” for about one year: that I would sob uncontrollably, speak incoherently, and walk about in a daze. They waited for me, and they loved me until I came back in bits and pieces, able again to taste food, take walks, and rejoin the world.
Others had to go. I needed to cull the chaff away from my own core; if you had shied away from me in that most critical moment of my life, then I had no time for you now.
Admittedly, I shed others, too. Most of the parents of Jacob’s friends, former neighbors, and acquaintances, triggered me just by appearing in the grocery store or in line for takeout. Those who knew about my son’s death but didn’t know what to say, people who made clumsy comments about how well their own children were doing, and others who tried to pin me down and play amateur therapist with me–poof! Gone. Not “just like that;” not that simple.
But above all else, I needed to protect my inner wellbeing. I needed to feel safe out there when I summoned the courage to leave my home. And that become the bottom line: I kept only the friends who felt safe.
And then one day–a day you’d never wish on anyone–suicide happened to a friend of one of my ex-friends, and the ex-friend called me for advice.
Suddenly, all else fell away, and there were just two human beings experiencing one of the most tragic kinds of loss. We took off our armor and dared to be vulnerable with each other, marveling on the common reactions of others to both suicide deaths, ticking off the symptoms of shock and guilt and the stages of denial and grief.
This friend, Yu Yan (I wrote about her just last week, right here), turned her own loss into a bridge back together with me. She thanked me for providing tangible resources–such as books and counselors; see more on our Resources page–and asked to get together for lunch. Suddenly, she felt safe. And all I could do was to receive her kind friendship and give thanks for the grace that brought Yu Yan back into my life.
Cover photograph courtesy of Greg Rosenke for UnSplash.