Trying To Comfort My Friends Makes Me Even More Awkward Than Usual

Terminal illness requires a level of seriousness that I’m not naturally capable of.
Publish date:
October 9, 2012
friendship, grief, awkward

I’m a goofball. No, seriously. I’m a total weirdo. I’m talking fart jokes, bursting out in song, doing the choreography from the "Thriller" video in my underwear. And all this while I’m by myself.

I usually joke about how I’m really a 14-year-old white boy trapped inside the body of a buxom black woman. I’d like to think of him as running amok, setting fires or crashing shopping carts inside me or some shit.

But I’m not alone in my lunacy. Most of my friends are just as obnoxious as I am, if not more so. It’s the reason why we enjoy each other so much. We’re grown-ass men and women on the cusp of our thirties, whose sense of humor failed to venture past the fifth grade. It’s juvenile, it’s immature and it’s sanity restoring.

That is until I get a phone call like the one I got this weekend, one that sends the world crashing down.

“My mom is in the hospital.”

Fuck. I can tell by the uneasiness in my friend’s voice that this isn’t a routine visit. His mother has cancer and this is really, really bad.

Now, usually when a friend is depressed, I grab my court jester costume and a bottle of wine. There are breakups, layoffs, and cheating boyfriends whose effects can easily be offset with some great laughs and good company. But I can’t fall back into the safety net of inappropriate jokes for this one. Terminal illness requires a level of seriousness that I’m not naturally capable of.

What do I do? What do I say?

I’ve been in this situation a time or two before. A few years ago, a close friend called me early in the morning to tell me her mother had passed away unexpectedly a few hours before. My response slipped out of my face before my brain had the time to think of an appropriate one, “WHAT?! Dude, I am so fucking sorry.”

Or when my best friend’s boyfriend of seven years passed away in the middle of an afternoon nap. There was absolutely nothing I could say to her to make her not feel like the world was ending. So I settled on just showing up -- being with her every day for weeks with the hope that my presence would help a little.

There was even a night when we walked around our neighborhood polishing off of a bottle of Jose Cuervo. She dropped to her knees in the middle of the street, right over the double lines and decided she couldn’t go one step further. I panicked, not having a clue of what I should do. Then I remembered my promise to stay by her side.

So, I laid down next to her, hugged her while she cried, and prayed that I’d see a car’s headlights in time to push us both out of the way.

Was binge drinking and midnight jaywalking the most ideal way to help my friend cope with that type of sudden death? Probably not. But what the hell was?

Because to me, there’s just no perfect way to help a loved one through immense loss. I see my job as a friend as helping to make my loved ones feel good when they're feeling bad. But grief makes that task impracticable. It’s just too great of an opponent.

My friend whose mother is in the hospital is hurting unbearably and there's nothing I can do to stop it. It’s like I’ve failed in my duty as friend before I can even make an attempt at it. And the gravity of that powerlessness leaves me at a loss for words.

Eventually, after several seconds of painful silence, I settled on, “I’m really sorry.” It’s a cliche, but it’s honest.

And then I followed up with, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Why? I’m not exactly sure. I guess when it comes to the worst of the worst, support is all we have to give. I couldn’t think of one thing I could do to make his situation better, and I knew he couldn’t either. But offering my support felt right, even if it didn’t yield hysterical laughter.