on grief, friendship, and learning to be silent…

“There are some things only artists can deal with, and it’s our job.” –Toni Morrison

Rev. David McDonald was my mother and step-dad’s pastor. He married them when I was six, and we would spend holiday weekends with their family. I remember sleepovers with his son Billy, who was a little older than me, when we’d stay up all night watching Technicolor pirate movies and building forts and writing songs, playing one note at a time on my Casio keyboard. I was 8 when David died of cancer.

At his wake with a great many friends and family, Billy and I were out in the front yard alone, skipping from one walking stone to another, talking.

“My dad would tuck me in every night,” he said, almost out of the blue, “and tell me he loved me. And now he’s not around to tell me he loves me anymore.” His blue eyes welled up with tears as he jumped to the next stone, one foot following the other, the only thing that still made sense. I stopped where I was, unsure of what to say or do. I did what any child might do: I walked inside and shut the door behind me without saying a word.

To this day, obeying the fear of that moment is one of my greatest regrets. But there’s no script for this sort of thing, outside of “I’m sorry for your loss,” which is a platitude unfit for true friendship. I don’t feel guilty about what I did, as much as I feel sad about missing an opportunity to care for my friend, who was in great need. But what I didn’t understand then, what I’m still working out now, is that words don’t really matter that much- people rarely remember the things you said. You can imagine how that’s especially difficult for a writer to admit. I’ve always taken the artist’s responsibility as my own, trying to bear the weight of the world on what feel like strong, capable shoulders. But the shoulders of that child who ran from his friend are still inside me, and every time someone I love suffers a loss, I remember him, and I renew a promise I made to that boy, to teach him how to stay outside, how to stand with his hurting friend. See words don’t matter as much as staying outside does. If showing up is 90% of life, you can say absolutely nothing and still get an A.

Surprisingly, sitting quietly in the grief is at once the most important, and the most difficult, gift you can a grieving friend. In our lives, we fill our every moment with some form of intake. We watch TV while we cook or clean or eat; we read while we travel; we listen to music or podcasts while we drive; we hang with friends and play darts and drink and tell jokes and gossip. Being silent is almost completely gone from our cultural behavioral vocabulary. We fill space with whatever we can get our hands on. In fact, there are arguments that religion itself was invented to deal with just this- to fill the empty chasms of grief with pretty stories about heaven, with a loving and purposeful God who has a plan. But despite being tailor made for it, religion comes up desperately short in moments like these. There’s no scripture verse that can heal the heart of a child who’s lost his father.

When my Grandma Jane died, I was in Los Angeles, 400 miles away from the rest of my family. I was 20 years old, and my friend Ben and I were working on music for a film-scoring contest that we wouldn’t win. My cell phone rang at 9pm, and it was my mother.

“Grandma died, honey.” Her voice was thicker than usual, but she said it gently, resigned. “I was with her, and she was very peaceful. She looked like she did in her baby pictures.” My mother’s voice caught on the last word and she was silent on the other end as she attempted to breathe evenly. Her bravery in that moment still brings me to tears.

“Aw mom,” I said, choking back my own tears. I couldn’t go on just then.

“It’s ok baby,” my mom said, forgiving my unsurprising lack of words. “You know she loved you very much.”

“I know, mom,” I responded after a moment. “I can be home on Monday?”

“That would be wonderful, but don’t rush,” she said. “There are lots of things to take care of here. I’ll let you know when the best time to come up will be ok?” There was something comforting in talking logistics, making plans, shifting our thoughts to things we could control. We said our goodbyes and I love yous and ended the call. I look up from the phone and across the piano to where Ben was sitting, watchful and patient. He had heard only my side of the conversation, but he wasn’t surprised when I told him.

“My grandma died.”

Ben Coria is as true a friend as ever lived. Despite an aggressively intelligent mind, capable of managing and sifting through vast sets of data, he engages in his relationships with effortless simplicity. He looked at me with an obvious compassion and said simply, “I’ll get the tequila.”

We headed downstairs in an unstrained silence, content with the menial task of walking. We got the bottle, two clay shot glasses from his father’s home state in Mexico, and headed back to the studio, falling slowly, but easily, into a conversation about our grandmothers- the things we learned from them, the times we embarrassed them, the ways they showed us love, the ways they showed their age.

“To Granny,” Ben said with raised glass, as we sat down in the chairs we had previously abandoned.

“To Granny,” I replied, and we drank.

Ben taught me so much that night, and helped me teach an important lesson to the little boy inside me who still wants to run inside when things get hard.

I encourage you, the reader, to find a way to be silent with your grieving friends. To let them speak, or not speak. To not search for answers when they ask, “Why?” To let the silence hang ugly and bare in the room like a mirror that forces you to see yourself as you are: completely incapable of dealing with the heavy things in life, and let that ineptitude remind you what it’s like to be human. Because grief is a liar- it tells you you’re alone, and that is the farthest thing from the truth. You are not alone. I grieve with you- listening silently to life’s ever-unanswered questions, afraid.