image credit: Ben White via Unsplash
People die. Sometimes, the people that die are children.
Two weeks ago, the child who died was one I know: Rory — the 19-month-old son of a dear friend I’ve never actually touched. Mandy, his mom, lives in my phone — in the space between, in radio waves and wifi signals, over text and Twitter — but she is my friend, a real friend in real pain.
Two weeks ago, I found out that when your friend’s child dies, there are no things to say that make sense — especially not via the blue text bubbles of an iPhone. I type and delete and type and delete and ultimately end up saying the same thing over and over. “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m here."
"I’m sorry. I love you. I’m here.”
I want to reach out and love her. I want to reach across the country and wrap her in the embrace of a friend, even one she’s never seen. I want to give her a space to feel safe, to feel held in her pain. I want, so desperately, to ease the agony that I can’t even fathom.
I haven’t asked her how she’s doing because I know the answer is probably something along the lines of, “Really shitty! Thanks for asking Captain Obvious!” And I know she’d probably just say, “OK,” or feel obliged to.
“OK” is the thing we often say when things are epically shitty, but we just don’t want to be a burden, even though things are epically shitty. Things are epically shitty for a lot of people, a lot of the time. What makes any epic shit pile more notable than any other?
I don’t have a lot of in-real-life closeby friends. I have a lot of friends, but the majority of them live in my pocket: on Instagram and Facebook, in the stories they write, and the photos they share of their kids' birthday parties, their new puppy, their garden. These friends are real, as real as any friend, but as far away as a stranger, which changes the dynamic of a relationship built on shared joy and sadness, on confessions and aspirations.
When I ask how you are, I want to know how you are.
I text them.
"How are you?"
They say, “Tired,” or “Busy.” Sometimes they just say “OK.” Sometimes “OK” is just a coded way of saying “Tired” or “Busy.”
They text me.
"How are you?"
I say “Tired,” or “Busy.” Sometimes I just say “OK.” Sometimes “OK” is just a coded way of saying “Tired” or “Busy.”
The truth is, I am not tired or busy or OK. I am epically shitty. Not every day, some days I am really, truly OK. Other days, I am decidedly not OK.
Carrie is a pocket friend who texts often to ask me how I am. Often, her messages will arrive at a time that I am decidedly not “OK." Often they will arrive when I am a wreck.
Carrie is an empath — whether you are woo enough to believe in that isn’t the point. The point is, Carrie intuitively knows when I am not “OK.” This thing she has? It’s a gift for me — but maybe not so much for her.
She texts, “Hey babe. How are you?” And I pause.
I type, “OK.”
I stare at the white of my phone screen, watching notifications drop down in rapid-fire succession — Slack chat from work, a Facebook message from a writer, a text from one of my kids, another Slack notification from work. Another person is mad about another article that has offended their delicate sensibilities. Someone can't get their article in on time. I have an essay to write that is going to make everyone angry. Payroll is due. I have PMDD. Ella refuses to get dressed for school. I spilled coffee on my clean pants. Twice.
I am not “OK.”
I delete “OK,” and type, “I am really shitty.”
She answers immediately, “What can I do to support you?”
“I don’t know,” I answer.
I say “I don’t know” because I immediately regret telling her that I’m not ok. I don’t want to be not ok. I don’t want to ask for her support. I don’t want to need her support — but I do. I really need her support. The fact that she lives mostly in my pocket doesn’t matter. I am a real mess. I am in real need of her support.
On a day when I am not doing really shitty, I might text Carrie and say, “Hey, lovebug. How’s it going?”
She might also reply “OK,” or another code word for “I’m just not going to emotionally vomit my dumptruck of issues on you right now! THX!”
I don’t want her to lie, because I love her. She doesn’t want to tell the truth, because she loves me.
What are we even doing?
If we aren’t going to be honest about how we really are, why are we asking?
The world is so cold and so hard, so often. I spend 8, 10, 12, sometimes 16 hours of my workday trying, sometimes failing, to make people feel less alone. And then, when I finally sit and see the world through the lense of a participant in pain, rather than the one trying to diffuse it, I am sad.
I watch people sabotage themselves by bearing the weight of their pain without relief or outlet. I see them incapable of understanding others' pain. I see all of this pain giving rise to futile anger. Hurt people hurt. So many are hurting. So many are hurting others.
And so on.
There is a promise I can make. A solemn vow that in an attempt to ease your suffering, I will care. When you feel uncared for, I will care.
When I ask how you are, I want to know how you are. I want to know if you spilled coffee on your pants and burned your thigh. I want to know if your kids are being impossible. I want to know if you don’t know how you’re going to pay your mortgage or feed your kids.
Tell me if you and your partner are in a painful, confused place. Tell me if you’ve been trying to get pregnant for five years and are sure you’ll never be a mother. Tell me about your depression, your elation, your anxiety. Tell me if you wake up and just can’t imagine living another day in this world in the body you’ve been given.
Please, tell me.
I am asking you because life is hard and amazing and miserable and full of joy.
I am asking you because I want to support you and hold you.
I am asking you because I love you.
I’m asking you because when you lean upon me, I am validated too.
I’m asking you because your willingness to share your sorrow reminds me that I am not alone in mine.
Please, tell me.