Well, That's Uncomfortable...
It was both coincidental and providential that the day I officially launched my counseling practice was also the anniversary of an event that helped shape my decision to become a counselor. On that February day 18 years ago, my husband and I woke to the news that our best couple friends had died.
Their deaths, of course, were unexpected. Their deaths were the kind most find difficult to talk about. Traumatic deaths. The official police investigation ruled it a murder-suicide; while an investigator believed it was likely an accidental death-suicide, there was not enough evidence to file it as such. I don't know whether this really matters now, but it surely did to me in the days, weeks, and months of the aftermath. My confusion and heartache remain today, though time and internal work (a lot of both) brought me to a place of acceptance and a healthy level of peace.
After all this time, it’s still not easy to talk about my friends and how they died. Often, any mention of their names begs the questions, “Where are they now?”, followed by, “Oh. How did they die?”. I’ve learned to discern when and where it feels safe to tell the story and where I know it’s easier to answer vaguely and move forward. I’ve also learned that other people’s reactions don’t get to change my truth about my friends and who they were to me.
I discovered shortly following their deaths that talking about death, especially traumatic death, evoked awkward and sometimes hurtful reactions from others. I understand where the faces of horror, the silence, and the comments came from. Yet, it made my already screaming and disoriented heart hurt even more.
“Obviously something was really wrong with them.”
“Did you know that things were this bad?”
“How come she never left him?”
"Well, that's uncomfortable to talk about."
"Was there abuse?"
“You think you know somebody.” "This happened to YOUR best friends?"
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Does this make you think about your own mortality and the state of your soul?”
“God has a plan.”
I knew most of these responses were because people were caught off guard. And don't worry if you said anything similar...I know I have. Most of us get uncomfortable with the messy reality of tragedy and the brokenness of humanity. Our brains naturally try to make sense out of reality, so our default is to try to find a reason that will let our minds rest on a plausible cause and effect. Sometimes, we try to make the person's hurt go away and we search for the magic words to fix it. I’ve come to believe some things just don’t make sense and bad things happen. That’s it. There’s nothing else to justify or explain to fix it or make it better.
Megan Devine, a therapist and widow, writes, “We all want to feel loved and supported in our times of grief, and we all want to help those we love. The problem is that we’ve been taught the wrong way to do it…Our culture sees grief as a kind of malady; a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible. As a result, we have outdated beliefs around how long grief should last and what it should look like. We see it as something to overcome, something to fix, rather than something to tend or support.” (2017, p. xvii).
Just as clearly, though, I can remember the words and actions that brought me comfort in those early days.
Sitting by me.
Touching my hand or holding my shoulder.
Out loud, simple prayers. “Help us, Lord.” “Oh, Jesus, come.”
Being present in silence.
Bringing dinner and watching TV.
"If you want to talk about any of it, I'm here to listen."
“I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t know what to say. There are no words.”
“I know how much you loved them.”
“I wish there was something to say to make it better.”
Little gifts and notes that said things like “we love you” and “thinking of you.”
There is nothing particularly special or skilled here. These words and actions conveyed love, comfort, and acknowledged the pain and the horror of reality. Nobody tried to make it better or explain what happened. I felt seen and less alone, and that is all I needed.
My friends’ deaths turned my world upside down and forever changed me. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I see how it furthered my desire to work with people dealing with loss in all forms. It’s one of the reasons my heart says, if I have a special interest in counseling, it’s this work: journeying with people in the painful and difficult.
There’s a song by a lesser-known country artist, David Nail, who wrote what’s become my personal anthem for my friends. I still intentionally listen to it when they cross my mind, or I turn it up loud and sing when it comes on shuffle. It’s a song about memories and roots and the people and places that shape us. They live mostly in my heart and my memory now, and I welcome the little reminders that they lived and they mattered.
“And I don't know no friends
Like the old friends
I never seem to laugh now
Like I did with them
But deep inside me
A piece of my history
Yeah, I hear their voices even though they're gone
And it keeps me turning home”
Of course, there’s much more to this story. This is a starting point. Whether you find words that connect to your own experience, or you gain new information and perspective for yourself or for someone you care about…thank you for meeting me here.
Devine, Megan (2017). It’s ok that you’re not ok: Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing.
Nail, David (2009). Turning home [Official Music Video by Vevo]. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/IPmjri35cBM