How to comfort the heartbroken

     My father died in March and it was hard and sad. Last week I discovered a very dear and long time friend is incredibly ill. This is also very hard and sad. Here's the thing- if you ask me how I am doing and I tell you about something hard and sad, wait a beat before you tell me about your hard, sad thing, your dead friend, your dead parent, your sick hamster, your stubbed toe. Just say, " I'm sorry." A long time ago my sister was hit by a car and after a week she died leaving behind her three year old son, her husband, her parents, another sister and me. I was not in good shape. I didn't know what to do or say. If I told someone my sister had just died it tended to stop the conversation cold. In two cases the response helped. One was a friend who had briefly met my sister, in fact she had started to pack up the tea he had purchased for his mother because she had been living in my house and I had returned and this had made for some laughs and I told him how she was always stealing stuff. So when I called him in Ireland to tell him she had died, the only thing he said was, " And she was so lovely." It was perfect. It was enough. It was deeply comforting because he understood I was heartbroken and just needed a moment of grief.
     The other response was from a stranger and I never forgot. I was trying to be an actress when Catherine was killed and there were these answering services in New York that took messages for you from casting people and agents. I had one of these services and it cost me something monthly. After my sister died I knew I couldn't keep auditioning for " crazy, fun neighbor," or "happy mommy" I was a basket case and even though I had lost a huge amount of weight if you looked into my eyes they were empty. So, I went to this answering service place, children, this was before cell phones and my answering machine, and I told the man behind the cage I wanted to take my name off his list.
      "Did you get a job?" He said.
      "No, I said. I'm not acting anymore."
     "What happened?" He said.
     "My sister was hit by a drunk driver," I said. "And she died."
     He opened the door and came out. He put his arms out and he hugged me.
     "My brother stepped on a grenade in Nam," he said. " I'm still angry at him. Try to forgive her," he said. " she didn't want to die, did she?"
     I shook my head. "She has a three year old," I said.
     He hugged me again and whispered, "forgive her," into my ear.
     If you have something helpful, something that shows you have a clear understanding of someone's grief, you can do what this guy did. After I left him and walked down the street I realized I was grinding my teeth so hard my jaw hurt terribly and I was holding myself so tightly I could feel the strain on my muscles and I was so angry at my sister for not seeing that car I hated her, I hated her for leaving me, for leaving me to grow up forever waiting for her to come back.
     Otherwise, shut the fuck up. Or say you're sorry or ask if that person needs a ride to the airport or bacon which two of my brilliant girlfriends knew to do.


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