One of the curses of love is that if you love someone enough, their pain becomes your pain. Friends, family members, significant others: the more people you love, the more chances you have to get your heart broken. I’m speaking specifically of grief. In 2010, I had occasion to watch more than one person I love (as it happens, close friends) deal with a devastating loss. These weren’t my losses; I was a spectator, a participant in the grieving process rather than a grieving person myself.
The thing that always strikes me about watching a friend deal with a death is the feeling of helplessness. Words, which I can usually use to articulate and illuminate just about anything, flounder and fail. Sometimes you just have to say: I don’t know what to say. Hugs lose most of their restorative power, as often an attempt at a comforting hug leads to a release of tears. You find that your silent presence means more than any platitudes about love and loss.
One friend actually saw his partner dying, but didn’t know it at the time (he thought he was sleeping). The next morning, not only was he gone, but he was sitting in the exact same spot on the couch. As I sat with him later, listening and watching him pour out his feelings to me, watching each change in his face as he tried to grasp what had happened, what he felt he had done: I felt like I was watching someone drown. It was like a dream in which you’re frozen to the ground watching something horrible happen, and are unable to stop it. There was nothing I could do. No words, no hugs, no amount of hand holding could do anything to stem the flow of grief and guilt that consumed him.
In the months that followed, though, I watched as he eased back to life. He started smiling and laughing again. Once he had a therapist, our long talks about his partner became less frequent, which was a relief as much as anything. The grief remains, though. I can still see it. The most I can do at this point is to just be there. I’ve already showed him that I can’t be scared away.
In addition to loss and death, there was a lot of celebration in 2010. The same people that attended one friend’s father’s funeral had also been present at another friend’s wedding a few months earlier. Within friendships, between two people or among a group, is a microcosm of life. In one year you can celebrate love, welcome new life to the world, and lose someone you weren’t ready to lose. Every one of those occasions involves coming together, and loving.
That’s why we do it, I guess. It’s why we meet people, we love them, and we hold on through all the upheavals that life can bring. When everything else changes, love stays the same. When all your other words fail, there are some that always bring comfort: I’m here. And I love you.