“Sometimes, I need you to show up and hear me without me saying a word.”
- My Cousin Christal
“I’m sorry I didn’t come around or check on you but I just didn’t know what to say.”
Among the many reasons people gave me for not checking on me after my mother died, this one was the most consistent. Folks would have been there but they didn’t have any/the right words to give me. Given some of the foolishness others said to me, I appreciated that these folks didn’t try to offer unnecessary words and make meaning out of my mother’s death. Still, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that their staying away from me had more to do with them than with me. Grief is a monster and makes us uncomfortable. More often than we realize or are willing to admit, grief experienced by others causes us to confront our own stuff- something we’re not always interesting in doing. If we’re not offering people words of hope, we sometimes don’t know what to do with ourselves. We’re always readily and hastily trying to meet some accomplished end and, consequently, we don’t know what it means to just sit with people and allow them to experience whatever emotions that come.
My friends did that for me when they held me while I cried through the live production of The Wiz on NBC.
They did that for me when they brought pasta and we binged Frankie and Grace on Netflix.
They did that for me when we ate popcorn and drank wine until daybreak discussing everything from men to martians.
The brightest moments in the depths of grief for me are of being cared for in ways that I didn’t know I needed. There were times when friends came just so I wouldn’t be alone in the house. Other times, they made me go rest while they cooked and cleaned. Sometimes, it was just a FaceTime conversation or call about randomness that made me laugh and took my mind off pain for a while. I didn’t want to always talk about losing my mother nor did I want to have to entertain people saying, “I know what you’re going through” or “today must be so hard for you”. I wanted to experience some sense of normalcy in a new life where nothing was the same. It is for this reason that we must understand the importance of being present for people. It doesn’t always mean coming with a scripture or a word of comfort; more times than not, it means being silent first then discerning practical needs or asking what needs to be done. When my friends made me rest while they cooked and cleaned, it was because they saw that I and my house looked a hot mess. When my friends made me open the blinds to let sunlight in the house, it was because they saw that I had been sitting in a dark house for days. When my friends make midweek lunch plans or visits, it is because they know that I probably haven’t had human interaction in days. You cannot know what people need if you are not around them or trying to place yourself in the space to care. We come with our already set plans of what we will do and who we will be for folks but grief doesn’t work like that. And we can’t be committed to scripts when the narrative constantly changes.
Before they decided to offer their own opinions, Job’s friends show us what to do for our loved ones who are experiencing grief and trauma. They came and were silent. They sat with their friend. They loved him enough to simply be present. People seemed to be surprised when I replied “I never asked you to say anything” to their apologies and explanations. It’s the truth, though. I didn’t ask them to say anything; what could they say? My mother was gone and no soft, soothing words were going to bring her back. I was never looking for words. I was looking for people who would help me carry this grief. Whether it was for an hour or a day, I didn’t want to be alone in it. People aren’t as much interested in what you have to say as much as they are interested in your ability to care. It’s not a grieving person’s responsibility to understand that you don’t know what to say and then give you the benefit of the doubt. As I said in Part One, that’s giving them extra work and that will always be unfair. If you care for and are in community with people who are hurting, you show up and provide the care that they deem necessary. It’s as simple as that. Because, what is also true is that you don’t get to be absent for the dark times in someone’s life and come back when you feel like it. Though sad to say and admit, there are some relationships that will never be the same because, when I needed them, they were not there and they only returned when it was convenient for them. That’s not love and that is not friendship. If you can’t offer to carry someone through the depths of sorrow, then you do not deserve to stand beside them at the height of their joy.
Initially, this piece was supposed to be published on July 8, 2015. However, given the week we’d had, I decided to wait. Perhaps, as we go through this week, we should make a commitment to check on our loved ones and be present for them as we are all grieving our own losses, as well as traversing through the weight of persistent anti-Black violence. Pain is coming from every direction and we need each other. We have always needed each other. Not to say flowery words or stumble through prescriptive analyses. But we have always needed each other to make it through life.
You may not know what to say.
You don’t need to.
Just be present.
The words will come.
Or they won’t.
It won’t matter either way.
Because you are there.
And that will mean more than you will ever know.