How to help a grieving friend
On November 1st, 2017, I lost my father. He was one of my best friends. And now, instead of my best friend, all I have left is memories and emotions.
My father died of an unexpected heart attack in my hometown of Izmir, Turkey at the age of 57. The two weeks that followed were the hardest of my life. From a 14.003 lecture in building E52, I traversed the Atlantic, buried my father, dealt with the bureaucracy of inheritance, and once again found myself back in E52 for lectures that, for the rest of the semester, served as a reminder.
On the plane from Izmir to Boston, and every day since then, I have grieved my father in silence. I carried grief with me in row 23G of the plane, while walking home from campus, through the Infinite, while writing, while cooking, while swimming, and everywhere in between. During lectures, when overwhelmed, I would silently step out and break down in the restroom. At nights, in the privacy of my bedroom. One way I cope with grief is to write. It serves as a medium to store memories as well as emotions.
“It is January 5th, 2018. More than two months have passed. And the emotional clusterfuck I have experienced has made me tired. I just want everything to go back to normal, wishing I will wake up from this nightmare.”
For those of you who recognize the title of this post, it is an ode to the book Option B. If you don’t know who the author Sheryl Sandberg is, you can soon watch her give the 2018 commencement speech at MIT. In this book, she discusses the social dynamics of grieving, a topic I have just begun to understand.
Many of my friends, family, and professors have reached out to me since my father died. They have supported me in the ways they felt were best and I appreciate all of it. Unfortunately, our society never teaches individuals how to deal with grief or how to support a grieving person. The one inevitable aspect of our mortal nature is death and yet seldom do we acknowledge it or discuss how to process the subsequent grief. Consequently, supporting loved ones through traumatic experiences is something we must learn through experience.
One of the sentences I hear most often (and would say myself before my father passed) is, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do”. I appreciate the gesture, but the truth is that it is an empty gesture. Nothing else comes from it. The intention is there, but you are putting the responsibility of communicating to the person grieving. The chances of communication are slim, no matter how assertively you say “no really” when the person thanks you politely yet dismissively for the offer.
Painful in nature as it is, grief has many different aspects. One that has been particularly present for me is the feeling of being in a dark abyss. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my father. I had spoken to him on October 29th about how my research was going – it was a casual, everyday-type of conversation that didn’t mean much – and then on November 1st he was gone. Trying to fill in the hole left by the absence is impossible, causing confusion and destruction in almost every aspect to one’s self.
Everyone grieves in their own way, but while reading Option B, I realized how common it is to feel lonely while being social. People try to distract you in different ways, thinking that it will help. For a lot of people, it does not. On the contrary, it feels even more isolating. It feels as if people are trying to reach normalcy by avoiding what happened. For me, to distract from reality is to avoid reality is to try to forget my father. And I never want to forget him.
“Today has been hard. I have been alone, something people have warned me against. I have also not been doing anything, another thing people warned me against. I feel scared of being ‘okay’ again. Scared of the idea that I will not mourn my father, that I can keep living a normal life without him. Shameful may be a better word. Once I start to go on with life, how can I keep honoring my father? How can I make sure he is still with me?”
One memory I revisit often is the last time I saw him. He was dropping me off at the airport before I left for my first semester at MIT last August. It was a warm morning in Izmir and he had cooked me my favorite breakfast. Potato eggs. A dish that I have never been able to perfectly replicate.
The road to the airport was empty. A path we took countless times together. The thought that these were the last moments never entered my mind. I would have hugged him the whole way. I would have missed my flight. I wouldn’t have left for Boston. I wouldn’t have started MIT. We would have driven back, stopping at the fish market, and maybe the bazaar, to plan dinner.
And yet, when we pulled up to the gate, I got out with my luggage. We briefly hugged and he made a couple goofy dad-jokes. I strolled into the airport still giggling from his jokes. Looked back to see him back in the car. We parted ways for the last time. I went on to start graduate school and research. He went on to work. I received a call 10 weeks and 3 days later in 14.003 lecture.
My advice to anyone trying to help a friend through grief, loneliness, or trauma is to talk about it. Option B does a good job of describing this: “Get rid of the elephant in the room”. If your friend doesn’t want to discuss it, they will tell you. The times I have felt least lonely are the times when I talk about my father and share my memories of him. And while I may shed a tear or two, it is okay. I will be doing it with or without you.
At least this way I am not alone.
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