Share the lasagna: A useful lesson for co-grievers about grief

Good grief. Photo by mrlerone, flickr

Last month, in the span of 10 days, two of my close friends each lost their father to cancer in a far-away state. They quickly melted away into a haze of preparations, family, and grieving. I disappeared into a Cheezit box.

Yes, it's true: When major life events like a parent's death happen to people I love, I resort to eating my feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. I'm never sure my actions are enough. Should I call? Send flowers? Donate? Fly out to the funeral? Give them space? Bake eight lasagnas, put six in their freezers, and eat two myself?

My touchpoint on such matters is my experience with my best friend, who first lost her father and then, two years later, her mother. I was with my friend in the days immediately following her mother's death as she planned for the funeral, made arrangements, and welcomed visitors to the house. We looked at a lot of photo albums together and shared memories at the dinner table. We cried at innocuous triggers and wallowed in occasional gallows humor. There was a lot of hugging. A lot of listening. A lot of wordlessness, not because we ran out of things to say, but because what we wanted to discuss was beyond conversation.

In the midst of that long weekend, a package arrived for my friend via FedEx. Another friend in a different state, afraid that my friend hadn't been able to pack enough clothes for her now-extended stay, bought and mailed several casual outfits to her "just in case." My friend cried when she opened the package. I did, too -- because I feared that I would never be so insightful or proactive for someone I loved.

These past couple weeks, as I struggled to keep tabs on my friends in their far-off states, that selfish fear resurfaced. I didn't know their parents' mailing addresses. I didn't know the final funeral plans. I felt remote and disconnected -- an unsettling, foreign feeling in an age of instant status updates. But this wasn't the sort of thing I wanted to see shared on Facebook or through texts anyway. I wanted to see my friends right in front of me. I wanted to hug them. If I was going to feel inadequate and helpless, I might as well do it with them in my sights.

Comfort. Photo by williamhartz, flickr

Add to all this my grief-by-association, my own fearful sorrows bubbling up through empathy. Part of me can't accept that I've now had several friends lose their parents. It forces me to confront my own mortality, the passage of time, the randomness of illness and suffering, and the fact that, yes Julia, you are almost 30 years old and losing the generation right in front of you is no longer as unusual or untimely as it once was.

Extend, then, these feelings to my own parents, who at the moment are healthy and fine and God willing will stay that way for a thousand years to come. Nonetheless, my friends' losses make me want to be with my mom and dad. They make me afraid I'm not doing/loving/hugging/visiting/calling enough, that I'm not making the most of the time we have. (The rational part of me knows that living with these hyper-aware emotions always at the surface would lead to head explosion, and not to worry because we make a practice of living in love, but still, I want lasagna.)

It all boils down to this, my big question as a co-griever: Is doing nothing better than doing the wrong thing? Or does "the wrong thing" not even exist in such extraordinary circumstances?

Stone faces. Photo by Eva the Weaver, flickr

Then one friend came home to DC again. And the other friend returned my phone call. And they answered my question without knowing my heart was screaming it.

Hearing their voices, listening to their stories, making them laugh, finally hugging them ... I grasped all at once that I was not doing the wrong thing at all. I was doing the right things that derived from our unique friendships. I was being present. And there are as many ways to be present as there are relationships on this earth.

I will probably never think to send clothes to a friend. But the ways to be present that reflect who I am and what I'm feeling for my loved ones -- in my case, cards, listening, and food -- are perfectly acceptable and all the more sincere because they're true to what I can offer.

The best part is, all their other friends and family are doing the same thing, each in their own way. At any given moment, someone will know what to do and step up for their loved one. Our collective force, these intricate and emotional human webs, are catching and bearing up the people who need it. It doesn't relieve us of our individual responsibility, but it does relieve us of the pressure to be everything.

So that's what I'm taking forward as my friends continue to grieve, celebrate, and love their parents: Be present. Act in thoughtful love. Share the lasagna.

Prayer #242: To the Griever, From Your Co-Griever

I called because I missed you and wanted to hear your voice.

I hugged you in the hallway because I couldn't for weeks and wanted to be sure you were really back.

I joked with you because I have the brain space to see right now that life is still funny and wanted you to see it too.

I cried with you because I ran out of words.

I am selfish and nosy and pushy, probably full of fixes you don't want and solutions you can't have. But if I do manage to hit on what you need -- the exact right thing at the exact right moment -- then grab it with both hands and don't let go. Be selfish, nosy, and pushy right back. That's where we'll meet in the middle, and that's how we'll push through this, together.