My dear Sweatpants & Coffee tribe,
In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, the short answer would be Hawaii. The more honest answer would be the Pit of Despair, not unlike the one in The Princess Bride. I wasn’t literally attached to a machine that inflicted unbearable pain and sucked away years of my life, but you get the idea. (What, me? Melodramatic? How dare you.)
So. My mom died.
And to be quite honest, there were some beautiful moments. It was profoundly life-changing to stand witness, along with my sister, and to do for her the way she did for us all her life.
But also, it was fucking horrible, and I’m really sad and messed up, still.
I’m pretty sure that’s the appropriate reaction when your remaining parent dies and you’re left with the shattering realization that you are, in fact, an actual adult-adult. You were already an adult but now you are even adultier. Like, there’s no higher family authority, no elder repository of wisdom, no one left who remembers the way your hair smelled when you were a baby. You are it. And there has to be some kind of mistake because you are in no way qualified.
When I got home, re-entry was tough. I went through what they’d probably call in the olden days a “nervous breakdown.” I didn’t have a fainting couch or anything, but it was bad. For a while, I was unable to leave the house or interact with people who were not my husband and kids, and I had absolutely zero ability to care about inane bullshit, which is 99.99% of everyday life. So that was fun.
But the hardest part, besides finding myself an adult orphan, was enduring the kindness of others. I know. BOO HOO, right? Poor you. People love you too much? What a privileged asshole. We don’t get to pick our struggles, folks. Otherwise, I’d choose something much less douche-y, trust me. And when you are inside-out exhausted, still lugging around your matched set of Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD baggage, and listening to a soundtrack of Guilt’s Greatest Hits in your head all day, genuine concern for your worthless little self from nice people can feel like lemon juice on a paper cut. Especially if that concern comes in the form of advice, spiritual homework assignments, or clichéd expressions. I know I’m not alone in this particular boat, so in the interest of public service, I’ve compiled a list of things I would have wanted people to say to me when I was in the deepest part of the pit.
How are you right now?
These days, we throw around “How are you” like a greeting. It’s perfunctory at best. In normal social interaction, we’re not expecting a REAL answer. We’re on our way to the dentist or passing on the street. No one wants to hear, “Well, Sharon, I’m having difficulty sleeping at night, and I suspect that this ache in my shoulder is probably a tumor. I can’t focus properly during the day – I’m definitely degenerating, mentally. I’m also deathly afraid that I’ll just start spontaneously sobbing. Like right now, even. And you?”
But when you add the words “right now” to the end of that innocuous question, you’re grounding the other person in time and space. You’re telling them you are checking in on their present status. They don’t need to go through their entire user history. Just right now. In this moment. What’s going on? Even the walking wounded like me can respond to that. It’s low-pressure and it makes me feel loved and seen.
I made this food and I’m going to drop it off. You don’t have to answer the door. And you don’t have to eat it, but I made it and I’m bringing it.
If you want to bring someone a casserole or whatever, just do it. Don’t worry about what their favorite might be or if you’re bothering them. Don’t ask them to tell you what they’d like. The grieving person has probably had to make about a zillion micro-decisions and their brain is vibrating with fatigue. YOU figure it out. Tell them it’s okay if it goes straight into the trash, but if it relieves them of even a tiny burden, it’s worth it. You’re doing this as an act of love and service, not for a five-star Yelp review.
Wow, this is shitty. I hate that this is so shitty for you.
One, this is totally validating. You might think it’s silly to state the obvious about a shitty situation by calling it the poopfest that it is, but for those of us in the slog, it’s SO GOOD to hear that someone else agrees that it sucks. Two, you are letting that person know you are on their side. You would kick the Bad Thing right in the nuts for hurting your friend if you could. (Am I the only one who is deeply grateful for friends who express love by hating the shit out of whatever is causing you pain? Maybe that’s my Scorpio nature. I don’t know.)
I’m just calling/writing/texting to say I love you. No need to respond, but I’m thinking about you, and I wanted you to know. I’m going to keep checking on you.
Low.Pressure. That’s what it’s all about, people. You reach out, let the other person know they are in your heart, and then you’re out like a ninja. No mess, no fuss. I cannot tell you how much these kinds of messages mean to me, especially because they demand nothing in return.
I love you, but I don’t know what to say or do. I’m here, though. And I’m not leaving.
This is a really vulnerable and sweet thing to say. We’re all flawed and helpless, and sitting with someone else’s pain can be squirmy. But when you’re tempted to point out the bright side or provide a different perspective (that was not requested) or offer a solution, just admit that you don’t know what to do. Say it. And then give love. You might think your compassion is not enough, but it is. It really is.
I’m going to keep inviting you to things. You don’t have to say yes. I just want you to know that you’re always welcome.
Maybe not everyone turns into a blanket burrito in times of trouble (this is like a couch potato, except you’re rolled up in a blanket), but I do. It meant the world to me when people let me know that my presence at events was welcome but that it was totally cool if I could not make it. It was also a huge relief to know that even if I was going to have to say no while my insides healed, I would still be asked. That they would keep asking. That I was still connected to people, even in my state of incapacitation.
I’m going to be sad for a long, long time. Probably always. But I’m okay with that.