What I learned when my best friend got sick

Hannah, summer 2013

One of the greatest trials of my life has been to watch my best friend pause her life, at the time when the rest of us were experiencing extreme growth, to recover from a vaccine injury. Before you click away for fear of an anti-vaccine rant, don’t. Because that’s not what I’m here to do. I just want to talk about the grief that happens when no one has died.

1. “True friendship comes when silence between two people is comfortable.”

I always loved this quote by Dave Tyson Gentry, and this summer I learned the true meaning of the sentiment. Over a year and a half ago, Hannah woke up with the feeling that she couldn’t breathe. Since then, she hasn’t been able to find the breath to speak. She communicates via written language. This summer I had the chance to see her for the first time in months, and when I went in her room, I knelt by her bed, she held my hands, and we just looked into each others’ eyes for a long time. Of course the conversation wasn’t completely wordless because I still talked, but I walked away feeling the weight of these words by Mr. Gentry.

2. Laughter is the most beautiful sound that humans are capable of hearing.

Shortly after that first visit, I got to spend a few hours with Hannah for multiple days throughout the rest of the summer. On the first such occasion, we watched a movie together. And this was the first time I had heard Hannah laugh in almost two years. I almost cried right there in the middle of the animated film we were watching because I realized how much I had missed that sound. It wasn’t her real laugh, the one that comes from the belly, that I had heard 1000 times since we were children, but it was close. It was a laugh that came from the pure joy of hearing a funny joke and spending time with your best friend. And it was the most beautiful sound.

Hannah and Maggie
3. Tears are sometimes a means of communicating to others and to ourselves.

The day I first heard words come from Hannah’s mouth was the day she cried in front of me. She, of course, is embarrassed to cry in front of people, but it’s the only time her breath has enough force to allow her to form words. And as I had seen her text and write so many times “I just want to get better”, “I just want to go home”, or “I don’t want you to go back to college”, those feelings weren’t real until I heard them come from her mouth. I can’t tell you how painfully therapeutic it was to hear her voice. And that’s when I realized that our emotions are nothing to be ashamed of, and they allow us to see ourselves and express ourselves in a way that we weren’t able to before.

4. It’s possible to grieve moments, events, and relationships in the absence of death. And that’s ok.

I’ve experienced so many feelings throughout the process of the illness. And of course this situation isn’t about me, but I can only write and speak for myself. When Hannah started feeling sick two years ago, we didn’t know what was wrong. We thought, hoped, and prayed she would get better in a few months’ time, maybe miss one semester of school, and get on with her life. But as we soon discovered from reading other women’s similar battles with the same injury, Hannah’s healing journey was just beginning, and things would probably get worse before they got better. As I experienced the best semester of college, I felt guilty for my good fortune, and lonely despite the fact that I had some of the best community I had ever had in my life. I soon began to realize that I was grieving without giving myself the space to do so. I was grieving, but she wasn’t gone, she was right here, I texted her, I wrote to her, she sent us updates via GroupMe. But there was still so much that was lost. We didn’t lose a person. Hannah is still here, and I believe one day she will fully return into our community as the strong, courageous leader that she is. But we did lose the moments. The thousands of pictures that she’ll never be a part of, the celebrations she couldn’t participate in, the places she didn’t go, the dances we didn’t dance, the conversations we didn’t have, the advice I never heard.

Hannah and Katie in Romania


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

ONE DAY we will welcome the time to dance, and laugh, and embrace, and speak, and heal. And while every day is a gift, that day is the one I wait for.

The four of us are best friends, and have been since birth