Greg (a peer support student) had been spending time with his peer, Michael, for several months. Michael was finally opening up about the death of a close friend who passed away two years ago, and how it was impacting him.
“It’s just really unfair. He had just graduated and was so excited about the future. I feel like he was the only person I could really be myself with.”
“That’s awful. But I’m sure you have other people in your life who understand you, too,” said Greg.
“Yeah, I guess,” replied Michael.
Greg realized that his comment was unhelpful. He noticed disconnection swelling up between him and Michael. He recognized his own discomfort around grief and loss, and his need to fix things and make them better.
“I’m sorry Michael. I shouldn’t have said that. You’ve lost someone very important in your life who you had a unique relationship with. I can’t imagine how hard that is. Do you want to talk about your friend for a while?”
Michael thanked him for his apology and continued to talk about his friend, and about how hard it was to lose him. Greg recognized that he kept wanting to bring the conversation to a lighter place, to move Michael out of his pain before he was ready. He worried that he should be doing something, saying something, to help Michael feel better. He took a breath and resisted the urge to provide platitudes. He reminded himself to simply listen and be a witness to Michael’s pain. “It’s been two years since he died. I should be over it.”
“You know, I still grieve the loss of my cousin, and he died over ten years ago. There’s no appropriate timeline for when you’re supposed to move on.”
“Yeah. I just can’t believe I’ve lost my best friend. I don’t know… things are really messed up. His birthday is tomorrow and I’ve started drinking a lot more just to like, be okay.”
Greg wanted to tell Michael that drinking wasn’t going to solve his problems, but he remembered how he reacted when family members told him to stop smoking. He felt defensive and it certainly didn’t inspire him to quit. Greg thought back to his training about the reasons why people use substances, and how they can be a helpful coping strategy when other things aren’t working.
“Yeah that makes sense. Anniversaries and special dates are really hard when it comes to loss.”
“Yeah. I haven’t been sleeping at night, and it helps me pass out.”
“That sounds hard. Is there something you’ve done in the past that helps when your drinking gets out of control?”
“Well when he died I went on a massive bender, and got some grief counselling which helped. But that’s run out, and I can’t afford a new counsellor. I mean I guess telling my friends has helped before, because then they know to suggest doing other things besides always going to bars.”
“That sounds like a great plan. I’m sorry to hear the grief counselling has run out. Finding affordable counselling is such a headache!” Greg had a lot of resources in his head, but he didn’t want to unload them on Michael all at once, especially not when he was feeling overwhelmed. “If you ever want, I can offer some suggestions for places that offer grief counselling.”
“Yeah, maybe sometime.”
Eventually, Michael shared how he felt guilty he hadn’t been there for his friend more before his death, and how lonely and isolated he felt now. A few times, Greg jumped in and tried to offer kind words or suggestions. He noticed that he had a hard time just sitting there and listening to Michael describe his extreme distress. He tried to focus on his breathing instead of rushing to find a solution or “the right thing” to say. Eventually, they brainstormed some coping strategies and came up with a plan for the day of his friend’s birthday, so he would feel okay to reach out for help if he felt like he was in a crisis. But they only discussed this when Michael was ready to go there. After their time together, Greg checked in with his supervisor, and debriefed.
When Greg went home, he noticed that he felt both exhausted and full of unsettled energy. He went for a run, cooked a nice meal with his roommate, and watched a funny movie.
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” ~ Henri Nouwen
Sometimes something happens and life explodes into a million tiny pieces.
Nothing feels the same after a big loss. It’s as though colours, smells, and tastes are different, and life will never be “normal” again. Eventually, though very slowly, we find ourselves healing. We put one foot in front of the other, and somehow, we find the strength to get up and live another day. Often, we are forever changed by a loss, but we can celebrate our resilience and our ability to create a new normal.
Most of us at some point in our life have experienced a loss that has felt like a kick in the gut, and we have found ourselves struggling to catch our breath for a little while after. Your amazing resiliency is one of the things that has brought you to this very training. Please celebrate it and appreciate your strength.