Grieving From Afar
Last week, someone I knew died.
I’d known her for six years, but we were never close. Our one connection was a mutual friend who introduced us for business reasons.
After we completed our brief professional relationship, I saw this woman only once again. In fact, I only knew about her health struggles because the aforementioned friend told me a year ago, when I randomly asked about her. I wouldn’t even have known about her passing had my friend not told me.
I’m really not sure how to refer to this woman. She wasn’t a friend, but then again, “professional acquaintance” seems so… distant. The difference she made in my life was immense, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for her.
And maybe that’s why the whole experience has been… weird. I haven’t shed any tears for this woman, and to claim that I’m distraught would be disingenuous. Yet, I am saddened by her passing. I want to say this to her family. I want to hug her husband and kids and offer my sympathies, to let them know how she touched my life, even so briefly.
Still, it’s not my place to do so.
Her family has been very private about all this, and I’m pretty sure I’m not “supposed” to know what she went through. I’m glad our mutual friend told me, but I want to respect the family’s privacy. And I certainly don’t want to “out” my friend.
But more than that, I feel so inept when it comes to doling out sympathy to people who aren’t particularly close to me. If a close friend needs my shoulder, I’m there. I know what to do, I know how to feel.
But when it’s someone I had only a tenuous connection to, I never know where that line between sympathy and respect for privacy lies. I never know how much support is appropriate to offer, or even how to offer it. I suck at distant sympathy. I suck at grieving from afar. When it comes to grief, I’m either all-in or all-out. And that bothers me a little.
Over the past week, I go about my daily life as usual, and she pops into my mind maybe once or twice a day. I wonder what she experienced over the past year. I wonder how she lived out the last few months of her life, knowing how little time she had left. I wonder how she felt during her final moments. I wonder how her family is holding up.
But, they’re barely more than passing thoughts. I never met her family, after all. I don’t even have faces to picture in my mind when I think about her kids.
Minutes later, I’m back at my usual tasks. And my mind returns to my own life. It’s just life as usual — or unusual — for me.
Hours pass, and she pops into my mind again. And I feel a slight tinge of frustration for not being more sad.
I even set aside my usual agnostic tendencies and start wondering where she might be now, or if she might possibly be feeling better.
I start wishing there’s some way for me to pay my respects to her. Humans grieve socially, but I’m on my own on this one. And no, that’s not a complaint. I’m grieving on my own because, truthfully, my grief is infinitesimal compared to the grief her family and her “real” friends must feel. My solitary grief is not worthy of theirs.
That’s why I’m writing this, I guess. Maybe this is how I pay my respect. Maybe this is how we can offer sympathy from a distance — by taking a few moments out of the self-imposed hecticness of our daily lives and offering even the most trivial of tributes.
Only one person out there will understand who this is about, but maybe that’s all that matters.
And who knows? Maybe she is out there somewhere….
And she’s reading this….
And she knows how grateful I am to have known her.
This was really beautiful – thank you for sharing. You put very eloquently into words what is often too difficult to capture.
Thank you. I’m glad my words resonated with you.
the fact that you’re thinking about her is often enough. she has family that will no doubt grieve for her. i wouldn’t really know what to do in this situation either, other than exactly what you did.
Thanks, Ken. Yeah, I always find these situations kind of awkward.
Dennis. You are a writer. Write a letter and mail it to her family. “She wasn’t a friend, but then again, “professional acquaintance” seems so… distant. The difference she made in my life was immense, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for her.” <– That right there? That's what grieving families need. It doesn't really matter who you are or what your exact experience was with their loved one, but just knowing the fact that she made a difference, and hearing it, will likely make all the difference to them.
Grieving is not a process we suffer to help the person who passed. It's supposed to help the living. So while it would be incredible if the person who affected you enough to inspire this piece is out there somewhere reading it, it would make the biggest impact on the people who survived her. The people who saw her struggle and need to hear her struggle was worth it.
Thanks, Katie. I guess I wasn’t thinking of the “grieving” as helping the living, but as more of paying respects to the one who passed. But yeah, that makes sense.
I will definitely write them something.
I agree with Katie. Write a note to the family about how this woman touched your life.
Thanks. Yeah, that’s what I decided to do. It felt like a good way to offer my sympathies, but also keep the distance that the family may want.
When my brother died our family really appreciated it when people would pass on their honest and meaningful memories of him. I remember a card our ex-neighbour sent where she just talked about seeing him walking around the neighbourhood on his way to school and so on with his odd, heads-down, determined way of walking. Even though she didn’t know him well, this memory was worth far more to us than a generic ‘I’m so sorry for your loss, thinking of you’ kind of condolence card. It reminded us of something unique about him, but it also showed that she was really seeing him and had taken the time to think about him when she heard that he had died.
I know that it can seem really awkward when you are talking to a family who has just experienced a huge loss, but remember that it is not awkward to them. They have so much other stuff going on that their is no room for little feelings like awkwardness!
Thanks for sharing that. It’s nice to get a perspective from the other side. 🙂
When I was four years old my dad died of leukemia. Since then my grandma died, uncle died, a brother, friend (his death was rather brutal), another friend who was tortured before being killed, my 15 year cousin died of cancer. And a boy, whom while I know briefly, I bonded with him, died of leukemia as well.
I can explain in detail all their deaths if necessary.
I’m only 20 years old, I shouldn’t know personally these many dead people. Sometimes, when I’m alone I cry for a bit. I mostly cry because situations like those really make miss my dad and have no one talk to about these things. What do you do when one day someone is a part of your life and next they’re gone forever? How are you suppose to cope with that?
You just gotta give it time. Showing that you care even just a little bit goes a long way.
Thanks for sharing Dr Hong. You’re fantastic at writing as usual.
PS: You where right about the hug thing. I saw it being done unwarranted from the outside, and you’re right, it can make the other person feel uncomfortable if they don’t want one. I take everything I said back. You where 100% right. I was being a total idiot, I’m sorry. I’m just happy I learned that lesson while I’m still young.