I was walking out of the gym when I noticed one of the fitness instructor’s dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a tissue. I gave her a half smile bowing my head ever so slightly to acknowledge something might be amiss. As our eyes met she took my wrist and said,
“Can I tell you something?”
“I just found out a dear friend of mine passed away. I knew it was coming and she was old but I’m still so sad.”
“Oh, my goodness I’m sorry and of course you’re sad,” I said.
“I know but I guess I wasn’t really ready for it.”
“I get it Janie I just lost my brother a couple months ago. There’s no such thing as ready.”
“So, you understand,” she said.
She went on to tell me some of the circumstances of her friend’s passing and just how much this friend meant to her. When she was finished she said,
“Thank you for listening to me. I just had to tell someone. I think grief needs a witness.”
My eyes got wide.
“I’ve never heard anyone say that but that’s so true.”
“I don’t know where I got that idea I just know we need to acknowledge our grieving.”
I hugged her and when I got to my car found a penny next to it. Reaching for it I heard the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear—remember that.
“I know how you feel now. I really didn’t get it before but now I do.”
When she said this, I thought back to all the ways she supported me after my brother died. She fed me and my Mom, called around to funeral homes, and took care of details that were miserably hard. I can still feel the hand she placed on my shoulder before I stood up to speak at his memorial service. Not once in that season of my life did I ever think she couldn’t relate to how I felt. To hear her say this was so surprising and yet I took comfort in it.
“It’s messy business isn’t it?”
Four months later on the first anniversary of my brother’s death a huge bouquet of flowers arrived at my doorstep. They were from her. I called to thank her and she asked what I was doing.
“Yeah that doesn’t work. I’m coming to get you and we’re doing something.”
From that day on we agreed that we would always make a plan for “anniversary days”. We took it one step further and gave each other permission to say at any time, “I miss my brother,” without having to say why. Janie had spoken a truth to me and living it out with one of my closest friends felt absolutely holy.
A few weeks ago, I gave that same permission to a young friend of mine when her brother died. I explained that she never had to worry it would make me sad about losing mine. “His life is woven into the fabric of mine. You won’t be reminding me of what I lost you’ll be reminding me how special what I lost was,” I told her.
“This is why I love you so much,” she said.
Grief is a universal experience and yet we all experience it so differently. This is part of why society subconsciously avoids it. We sidestep it, or as I like to say side-hug it, because when you really wrap your arms around it’s too close for comfort. Someone else’s loss can easily resurface your own. I get this and yet if I’ve learned anything worth sharing since my brother died, it’s that bearing witness to anyone’s sorrows helps you navigate your own that much more graciously.
Today, my brother would have turned 57. I’m setting a place for him at the dinner table. It will be awkward for a minute because honesty always is. But the truth has an amazing ability to set us free and I need that. Life is fragile and it takes more strength than I have to pretend otherwise.