This summer I survived the two most devastating realities
I have experienced since my father's death in 1980. The first
was anguishing in its inevitability: my 31 year old brother's
death from the cancer that stalked him for seven years. The
second was worsened by its utter uselessness and avoidability:
the deliberate way virtually every friend and acquaintance,
save my very closest, has avoided and ignored me during this
time of grief.
I do not believe that those who knew about Al's death did
not worry about me and my family. It is likely that many
were concerned. But I know that most of my friends are young,
and have not yet had a close family member die. Death is
scary or unreal, and few can envision themselves in the position
I have been in twice. In a word, they are ignorant about
my feelings and how to react to them.
A few of the braver approached me with hearty, superficial
greetings that suggested my absence but not its cause: "Well
hello, nice to see you back" or "So school's about
to start, are you ready?" This was, for all its well
meaning, very painful for me. I felt these people were using
trivialities as a way of saying, "These things are more
important than his death, and I'm more concerned about today's
weather than how terrible you feel." With uneasy smiles
on their faces, these people made me feel like a fool.
To a few, I said, "Perhaps you didn't know my brother
died." The response was a muffled, "Oh, yes...
I'm sorry." I stopped volunteering this information:
it was awful to realize that these people, through all the
banality, knew about Albert, and said nothing. Some people
undoubtedly kept silent in the hopes that I would approach
them to talk and they could then be duly supportive. This
was a gross error of judgment. I needed to have friends voluntarily
open their hearts in sympathy, as I was feeling vulnerable
and afraid that those I turned to might turn me away. To
me, the silence said, "Leave me alone, I don't care."
Still others made efforts to engage me in conversation,
as long as I was able to be cheerful and not talk about Albert.
To these people, my casual comment like, "Oh, I remember
when Albert and I visited that person" was nervously
ignored and met by an embarrassed silence. I needed to be
able to remember my brother reflectively, without self- consciousness
or shame. And even close friends could not understand that
waves of grief, anger and depression affected me in ways
I myself could not understand. How I needed their patience
and support, their faith that I was angry at Death, and not
My grief is now settling into the long depression that is
a necessary step to healing. But every week, people on campus
- maybe your friend or roommate - also face the unthinkable
tragedy in a place where youth can lead people to feel immortal.
These people need your support, and it's not hard to give
it to them. If someone you know, whether closely or just
vaguely, is bereaved, please don't be shy or afraid. Take
the initiative, walk up, look into his or her eyes and say, "I
am so sorry to hear about the death." (Only one person
did this to me. Though I was not particularly close to him,
his generosity moved me to tears.)
You need not give your philosophy on tragedy in life or
your favorite remedy for depression. The bereaved person
does not expect or want this. And if you consider yourself
to be a close friend of the bereaved person, now is your
chance to prove it. Listening - not avoiding the bereaved's
sadness or being afraid to have the friend cry to you - is
essential. If your friend does cry, consider yourself lucky
that he or she is comfortable enough to share these deep
emotions with you.
And don't try to stop the tears - they are also a step to
healing and must flow freely. If you feel anger or hostility
directed at you, take comfort that anger and grief are interconnected.
The friend is not angry at you, it is simply his desperate
attempt to justify or focus the waves of anger and desolation
that surge uncontrollably through him. If the bereaved are
surrounded by people who care, the grieving process is made
less bitter and devastating. Yet caring and concern for your
friend is meaningless unless you directly tell her that you
I understand that Dad and Albert had no intention of abandoning
me, that they left me through no power of their own. The
intentions of my silent friends are much less clear. Remember
this: Just say, "I heard, and I'm sorry."
- Chicago, 1987