When the Tragedy is Not Yours

This weekend was a truly tragic one for so many people in Orlando and around the country. The pain around the country for the victims of the shooting at Pulse was real. It was real to the victims, it was real to their families, it was real to their friends, it was real to strangers around the world who identified with them. This weekend was a happy one for me before the news. My friend from Pennsylvania came to visit me. I haven’t seen her in 14 years, since I moved to Knoxville. We always remained friends thanks to social media. It really is one of the best ways to keep in contact and to keep up with what’s going on in people’s lives that you care about. As this weekend turned in to one about loss, it was not lost on her. My friend lost her only son 2 years ago on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t a violent crime. It was a tragic accident. He was 19. My oldest son started Kindergarten with him. That’s how long I’ve known her.

When I first heard the news that something happened to Keith two years ago, it was from another friend who had a son his age. They were acquaintances and as news swept through that he was missing, I learned of it. I immediately sent her a message, because that’s what we’ve turned into. Digital communication. No more picking up the phone. But I was relieved for that because I didn’t know what I would have said if I would have called. What do you say to your friend whose only son is missing? And what do say after you find out that they have located his body and he is not alive?  I was not probably not a very good friend, but I said all I could think to say and that was, “I’m so sorry. If you need anything I’m here. I love you.” But I felt like a horrible friend. I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t even make the trip up there, but I hoped she would understand. And I hoped that she had people there for her. As the time passed, I saw her ups and downs through social media. I saw memories shared on Facebook. Pictures of Keith. Pictures that were the last memories of him. There would be no more new memories.  I saw her masking her pain by trying to make happy memories. I sent random messages telling her I love her. I didn’t know what else to do.

As she sat on the couch with me this weekend, we talked about it. We talked about what happened. We talked about how she felt. The first time I heard her say the word dead, it was almost surreal. I wasn’t ready to hear the words, “when Keith died.” I didn’t know how she was able to mutter those words, but she’s strong. Stronger than I think I could ever be. We talked about how friends reacted and I learned a few things. I learned when your friend loses a child, there really is nothing you can say. You can say, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” but your friend knows that already. You can say, “I can only imagine what you’re going through,” but your friend knows there is no way in hell you can even begin to try to imagine what they are going through and why would you? Why would you want to imagine what it is like to lose a child? Why would you want to imagine what is like not knowing for days if your child is alive or dead? You wouldn’t want to imagine it and your friend doesn’t have to imagine it, because it’s happening right now. I also learned that the natural response for humans is to retreat. We find ourselves in a situation that makes us uncomfortable and we become scared and scarce. I learned don’t do that. The worse thing you can do to your friend is to disappear because you can’t handle the situation. At that moment, this friendship is not about you at all. Your friend needs you. Your friend needs your presence even if the only thing you can do is hug them. Your friend needs your presence even if it is just to cry with them. Your friend needs your presence even if it is just for the sole purpose of your presence. I learned it’s ok to just show up. It’s ok to not know what to say. It’s ok to plop down on the couch next to them and stare blankly at the television. Your friend just needs you to be there. Your friend needs you today because it’s going to be hard for them. And on important dates it’s going to be hard for them. It’s going to be hard on birthdays. It’s going to be hard on mother’s days. It’s going to be hard on father’s days, graduation days, the first day of school, Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day. It’s going to be hard this year and next year. And when you think enough time has passed and that your friend should be “over it,” think again, because that’s not how grief works. You don’t get over loss. I learned you have one of two choices. You can submit to that dark place and lose yourself or you can make yourself so busy that you can’t find the time to grieve. Or maybe your friend falls somewhere in the middle. Maybe your friend is busy as can be, but there are moments of quiet and stillness that creep in to all of our lives. And when they creep in to your friend’s life just know that they are having to make a decision of how to not go to that dark place that they can so easily fall into.

So be a friend. If your friend has suffered loss. Any loss whether it was in Orlando this weekend or if it was last week or last year or two years ago, don’t run from them. Be there. Be there more than you think is necessary. Call them. Your friend will tell you that they are ok. And maybe they will be at that moment, but that moment may pass and they may need you. Be there. Hold your friend. Hug your friend. Let your friend cry. Don’t pretend to know what your friend is going through. Ask your friend what you can do to help them and then do it. Just be there. And don’t stop being there even when you think enough time has passed. You don’t get to make that choice. Just continue to be there and just be a friend.


  1. It’s odd, being on the outside, looking in, isn’t it. Some childhood friends of my other half lost their young son a few years ago – at the funeral everybody was in pieces except the direct family, who had been through his illness with him – who had spent the nights caring for him – watching him disappear in front of their eyes. It has stuck with me – the direct family dealt with it far better than the rest of us. I wonder if I’ll be like that if I ever have to deal with anything like that…


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