Last weekend, I was sipping the best tea in the world in a rose garden, somewhere in Oregon. The sky had stopped raining precisely long enough for my friend and me to meet and share our hearts as I drove through the city where she lives.
The last eight months have been the hardest of her life. When describing them, she uses the word "nightmare" more than once, and when I look into her eyes and feel the weight inside my own chest, I know that she does not even have the names to describe the nightmare. A very sick grandbaby and all the pieces that go with that. Big pieces, small pieces, so many pieces. Each sharp as glass shards with a multitude of surfaces onto which to cut one's heart.
As we drink the tea that only she can make, I listen. As I dunk the cookie that only she can bake, I listen. Until there are no more words to use - until she is empty and yet still full of something that has become part of her.
Then she asks me to tell her about my life.
A few months ago, at the end of a long heart-emptying phone conversation, she had asked me the same thing. I had just returned from a trip to Italy, and having caught me up on the latest heartbreak of her family's pain, she wanted to hear about my travel. But I had run out of time, and I needed to get back to work. I told her that I would call her soon and tell her all about it. The days passed, and I didn't. I justified it by knowing that our phone call surely had been helpful, as I had listened to every word she wanted to give me, any update.
I was wrong.
Last weekend, after spilling out her pain, she wanted to hear about my life. She needed to hear about my life. The good part, and the hard parts, too.
This time, I heard her request. And so I told her about the madness of late, my own heartbreak, the beautiful sunsets, the doubts, the certainty, my puppy, my vision, my gratitude. I told her about me, in no particular order - and she took it all in.
Several times, as I shared with her pieces of my own life, I wanted to stop and say: "hey, I know that this is nothing compared to what you are going through" - but I didn't. Because she had asked about my life and this time, I was going to tell her about it.
During our time together, I learned three critical points about being a good friend to someone who is going through a terribly difficult time. Not a time of grief, exactly, but a time of profound uncertainty, exhaustion, and as she explained to me, isolation.
Today, I want to share these three points with you because I know that just like me, you may love someone deeply, and yet miss the mark on how to love them best through these moments, moments that can last months and months.
Stay connected. My friend explained to me that most of the people in her life have vanished over the last eight months. Too much pain, too much darkness, not knowing what to do, what to say. It is easier to step away than to feel helpless and awkward. Also, she tells me that as much as she needs space to process, rest, and just plain be with the difficult demands that every day brings, she also yearns to feel connected. So yes, it's a tough dance. "Texts," she says. Just little words that show up through her day, asking nothing in return and just letting her know that she is not entirely alone nor forgotten. "Thinking about you." "Good morning." "Love you." She tells me that these mean so much to her, even when she does not have the time or energy to respond.
Sharing bits of your own life. She says that hearing about other people's lives makes her feel connected to another place and time, and gives her some energy, like taking a breath of air for a moment. Also, don't apologize, compare, or minimize your own stuff.
Ask your friend out for a short walk or a cup of tea somewhere. Make it easy. Maybe just sit on his or her front porch or go for a trip around the block. Listen. Tiny moments. Tiny resets, tiny windows out of "the island," that place where things are now so familiar and so heavy. Again, tiny breaths of fresh air. Even ten minutes. Last July, I drove down to where she lives, about 5 hours away, to have breakfast with her. Of all the things I have not done very right for her, I am so glad I did that. I want to do more of it.
I'm sure there's more, and I know that I am still learning. But the main thing I learned is that when things are SO difficult for someone we love, we tend to have the feeling that there is nothing we can do. We can't heal the tiny bodies hurting, we can't take away the dread, and we can't make the nightmare go away. But we can, as we French like to say, "put butter in the spinach." And that's still a huge deal.
So today, I invite you to remember that you do have that Super Power. I invite you to remember that comparison does not serve, that we CAN push past the awkwardness and the modesty, the fear, too. And that when we don't do it quite right, we can learn and get better.