This was my friend Biz’s status last night. I met her through her fiance, Andy and he lost his two year battle to colon cancer at 8:20 pm. He was 34. In honor of his life, everyone did a shot of Wild Turkey. Unfortunately I missed the tribute to Andy, as we now live a few hours away, but I’ve been thinking of them constantly the last week or so since he entered hospice.
I’ve repeatedly found myself telling Biz and their friends, “If there’s anything I can do…” I cringe every time I say it. It’s one of my most hated phrases from my mother’s illness, but I get it now. I love them and want to support them, but I know nothing I can do will take away the terrible pain and sadness we all feel. “If there’s anything I can do..” is the easiest way to say I love you, I’m thinking of you, I wish I could make this better for you. Everyone on both sides knows it’s wholly inadequate and yet none of us can think of anything better to say.
This past Tuesday was the six year anniversary of my mom’s death to cancer, after a multi-year fight. All of this has got me thinking, what can we really do to help someone who is sick, or someone who is losing a loved one to a long term illness? If I’ve learned anything over the last six years, it’s that each of us handles these things differently. I tend to revert to a stoic, tough exterior and to pull into myself. I tell everyone, including myself, that I’m fine. Even when my husband asks me how I am, and looks at me with pure understanding, I can’t force my walls down long enough to let myself feel all of the emotions. They like to sneak up and catch me entirely off guard. I’ve learned to let go of the idea that there is a right way to grieve. What everyone wants or needs may be different, but there’s really only one rule: Don’t forget. If a loved one is diagnosed, don’t disappear. Don’t feel like you need to avoid the subject. Cancer treatment and the illness has become a part of their every day routine and identity. Give them the opportunity to talk about it when they need. Andy and I became closer when I ran into him after his diagnosis and asked him about his treatment. To my surprise he thanked me for asking and explained that good friends and people he’d known for years had begun avoiding him. He understood that they didn’t know the right thing to say, but their absence hurt more than any bumbling attempts to provide sympathy. He and I became closer because I wanted to hear how he was doing and didn’t cringe away from details. That one simple, “How are you?” led to a meaningful friendship with Andy and his fiance Biz, as well as a number of other friends we came to share. Knowing them was one of the best parts of my life in Lexington.
In the end, I think that’s the only solid piece of advice I have. Be present. Remember. Even six years after my mom’s death, I love when people stop to tell me a story or memory that involves her. It doesn’t bring back the pain and sadness, I’ve learned to live with those feelings and to incorporate them into my identity without crumbling. Rather, they help me feel less alone. I like to know that her legacy exists not only through me, but through others. I like to be reassured that my dad and brother and I are not the only ones who remember her every day.
For now, all I can say to Biz and Andy’s family is that I’m glad to have known him. I will always remember his loyalty, his infectious smile and his smartass sense of humor. I’m better for having had him as a friend and no matter where time takes me, I won’t forget him.