By the time we’ve survived adolescence and are well into our journey through adulthood, we have developed ideas and philosophies about, well, everything. We typically have a system of beliefs in place. A set of standards and guidelines that help us navigate through life with some ideas of what to expect of people, and more importantly, what we expect of ourselves. Some people have this system more fleshed out than others. Some peoples systems are more rigid than others, but we all have these systems.
The sort of crazy thing about life, is that you can have systems that don’t get tested for awhile. Like any sort of emergency protocol, you might not know how effective it is until it is put to the test. The ones whose systems are frail, can be easily rattled by the curveballs that life throws. The ones whose systems are ineffective, can be easily shocked by the failed outcomes.
One such system is: How to lose someone. It’s a system that needs to be in place, because we all WILL lose someone. Even if we manage through all our relationships completely unscathed, and never have to end a relationship, we WILL lose someone to that tricky little inevitability…. death. I had a loosely defined system in place for such a thing, but a lot of that system hinged on the naïve ideology of wishful thinking, and avoidance. Until life threw me a curveball.
I had a friend commit suicide. It’s taken me a while to even call it that. For quite a while I’d say he “checked out early”. My system wasn’t really equipped to handle it. But handling it, getting through it, forced me to build a new, much stronger, much more practical system.
I’d lost grandparents when I was young, and in many ways have been plagued by the fear of losing anyone close to me. His death, in that manner, was a curveball. In my mind my first real loss would be some expected death of someone very old and frail. I’d be able to attend their funeral, and mourn the way people mourn.
Everything about this friendship, and the end of his life, was not normal. It’s a story for another day. But I had no funeral to attend, and since we didn’t share the same social or familial circles, I mourned alone. And this is where my system starts to form.
I think mourning a loss is like swimming the English Channel. I saw a story about the first woman who took on the task and saw footage of the feat. She swam it alone… In the sense that no one else moved her body. No one else propelled her through the water. No one made her body move, or her mind stay focused. But she was surrounded. There were people in boats watching her every move. There to swoop down should her body give out. It was her race to win, her mountain to climb, no one could do it for her, no one could complete the task for her…. But no one would let her drown.
In the almost 3 years since my friend died, I have many times felt like I was swimming that Channel. There have been many times that I couldn’t see any boats around me, making sure I wouldn’t drown. This experience, has set my system. Which is a pretty good (albeit painful) way to set your systems…. experience something you aren’t prepared for, then determine how you could have been prepared, and how you might prepare others.
Anytime someone I know experiences a loss, I see it differently. I ache in a different way. And I now believe that the role of the outsiders is to be like the people on the boats…. keeping watch… knowing you can’t swim it for them, but ready, to swoop down. This can be done in a variety of ways. The simplest are pretty obvious. Tell them you’re sorry for their loss. Send a card. Let them know you are there, even if you don’t know what that means. Let them know that someone is keeping an eye on them as they go through something that is so terribly painful, difficult, and lonely. Go to funerals. Not just to pay respect to the dead… but to support the living… the ones who lost someone dear to them. Reach out… in anyway you can. Check in on people… even months later… when life is back to normal, but they are quietly and secretly still swimming towards the shore. Be in the boat. Keep an eye out. Let them know that even though they swim it alone… They aren’t alone. We’re in it together.