I started to feel like I was living two different lives: One as the committed mom and one as the jet-setting photographer, all the while seriously doubting I was doing either well.
“It’s going to be okay.”
These are the first words I uttered to my best friend Hepburn, after coming home one ordinary Tuesday and finding her crumpled on my couch.
Between the sobs and snot, she quickly told me what had happened on her first day of work: The only man she had ever loved in a long, cross-continental, on-and-off relationship, had died.
No warning, no cause. He had gone to work that day with a slight headache, and dropped dead of a brain aneurism within hours. It was a month before his 24th birthday.
“It’s going to be OK,” I muttered, as I awkwardly tried to kneel and hug her at the same time, which somehow felt more like a creepy assault than anything else.
I’m super talented at throwing a pint of Ben & J her way when she’s PMSing, but… this? I was already failing.
Within an instant, I realized how ridiculous this sentence seemed and quickly added: “No, it’s not. It’s not going to be OK. It will never be OK. This completely sucks.” Hepburn started laughing.
Watching my friend grieve over the last few weeks has led me to realize that no one knows what the hell they are doing when it comes to death.
Not to quote from my own pretentious novella The Details of How We Lived (which is exactly what I’m about to do), but not being able to handle mourning well “is much like criticizing lack of sight in the blind.” It’s oxymoronic.
So, how in the heck did I write those words nearly a year ago, but still don’t understand them today, when my best friend in the entire world is demolished by loss?
And let me clarify before we get started: I don’t have many best friends. I love lots of people, but none seem to love me up close and personal for very long.
So perhaps the first step in helping someone you love through loss is realizing it is going to hurt you, as well.
If I could describe the amount of times I escaped to the bathroom to sob, I’d be really good at math. Since I’m a dancer and the highest I get is “5,6,7,8”… let’s just assume it was a lot.
You have to be able to stomach your own pain and discomfort, in order to fight for your friend, or partner, or parent. Don’t run from them just to make yourself feel better. Everyone is going to feel shitty: Accept it and move on.
Also, try to remember the following…
1) Drugs Are OK
If there is one thing I’m good at, it is pedaling drugs (see also, chronic illness and so on). If someone you know is struggling with irrepressible grief, they are not going to sleep, they are not going to eat, they are not going to breathe… unless you remind them that is their only job for the day.
In order to get Hepburn through those first few days, I kidnapped her, made a bed upstairs, and bought cookie dough.
Every night, I offered some harmless Tylenol PM — keeping the bottle far out of reach, obviously — to force her poor body to shut down for at least a few hours at a time.
2) Food Is Even Better
In the same way that my body hates to eat when it’s sick, most people hate to eat when they’re sad.
In my case, I knew how much she had been loved, and felt a deep, crushing responsibility to honor this adoration. I literally felt as if his handsome ghost was looking down on me — while I idly sat by allowing his love to waste away — and was plotting a plague of locusts or something.
Make food and bring it to them. Guilt them, lovingly. Grieving burns calories, guys… and making yourself sick on top of the unending internal misery doesn’t help anyone.
3) It’s Never Going To End
If you expect someone you love to “get over” loss in a certain time period, think again. If you send a polite inquiry of concern within the first couple of weeks but then drop off for ensuing months, also think again.
Mourning is like herpes: even when it is not visible, it is always lurking under the surface. I knew that Hepburn would never be exactly the same again… and that’s OK.
Because when someone dies, the least we can do for them is evolve.
4) Avoid All Music
Ever since our friendship started, I love channeling High Fidelity and making a ton of insipid playlists for any and all occasions. After this loss, I quickly realized that literally all music and pop culture is a mind field for mourners.
All songs are about love or loss, or some combination thereof. (Side note: Top cliché tracks for my You’ll Be Miserable Forever anthem: “Only The Good Die Young,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “I Don’t Want To Love Somebody Else,” respectively.)
In this sense, avoid statements like “How about a Romantic Comedy?” when scrolling through Amazon Prime in an effort to distract, as I did later that evening.
Just don’t say those words.
5) Become an Organ Donor
One of the only things helping us survive this ordeal is the knowing that this tragic loss literally saved six other lives — one of whom received two organs — due to the beautiful process of organ donation.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again but if you can’t respect your body in this lifetime, at least respect it for the lifetimes thereafter.
Every time you reach for a cigarette, or bash yourself in the mirror, or dislike the flesh you've been given… try to honor it for someone else instead. Don’t waste your organs on shitty choices when you could save someone else. His liver saved TWO children in one night… How many of us can say we’ve ever saved two children?
A day after we heard the news, I gathered up what remained of my best friend, and took her on a field trip to their favorite places around town.
Facing the pain head on and letting her cry loudly in public seemed far better than repressing the feels down deep. Let them feel it… let them face it… And don’t turn away, even when you want to.
In the same way that he had left a scavenger hunt of love notes years ago, I wrote notes she’d need to read forever: “You showed him how to love”… “He didn’t suffer”… “You made him happy.”
It may take her days, months or years to stop having to think about sleeping, eating and breathing everyday, but eventually, these notes will become fact, and time will continue onward. Should it continue onward without the people we love? No. Should we make the most of the time and organs we have anyway? Yes.
There is no right way to grieve and there is no perfect way to help… But as long as you listen more than you talk, you’re doing all right.
For all of you reading this who haven’t heard these words yet, just remember:
You showed them love.
You made them happy.
You don’t have to be OK.