In the infancy of our loss, there were very few people who were comfortable coming around to check on us. And truthfully, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to or not knowing how to.
Honestly, I’d put myself in their shoes and I’d immediately realize that for some people, dealing with such a huge loss and supporting someone going through it is sometimes just too much.
I also didn’t know how to be, what to say, or what my role was at that time.
In my former life, I was always the host, always the one to easily come up with something lighthearted and funny to say, but I suddenly felt like an infant, unable to communicate the way I used to.
I fought against it within myself initially because I desperately wanted to get back to the business of being me. Of being our great family, raising my good kids, sharing our open house, and showing people that we wanted to be who we always had been in the past. A little worse for wear, a little broken but stronger than expected.
Along with mourning my husband came mourning our old life. Things have to change because our pillar was suddenly gone and our foundation was unstable.
I’d be asked on the daily what I’d need, and I never had the answers, because I simply didn’t know what that would be. Or I knew what it was but also knew that the only one who could bring that back was G-d, and He wasn’t in the business of performing tchiyas hameisim generally.
There were people I’d respond to in different ways, because not everyone can joke about something as serious as death, but sometimes I just needed to say something that sounded like the me I was used to being.
So, sometimes if a friend would message me asking me if I needed anything, I’d answer: “I need Moshe. Can you arrange for him to return?”
That could be met with a few different responses and usually ended with the person asking the innocent question completely speechless.
But they had asked what I needed (probably hoping it was something more like a quick errand) and in fact, what I needed at that moment was someone to indulge my need to be my quirky self “from before” even if it made for an uncomfortable moment.
I have a friend who is a therapist. She would show up at my door and instead of trying to help me focus on the good or distract me, would bring lunch and simply let me cry.
I’d be eating between the crying and sniffling and from time to time, she’d shake her head and in disbelief, say 3 words that can’t be repeated in a family-friendly publication, but those 3 words encompassed the gravity of what I was dealing with and about to embark on.
Let’s just say the PG-13 version was “This just stinks” (but honestly, the adult version packed a much better punch).
Sometimes when she’d say the words, I’d laugh and repeat her words. Sometimes, when she’d say the words, I’d cry and shake my head, mimicking her and wanting desperately to be able to leave my life and be someone else that wouldn’t have to deal with this.
Her words became a sort of mantra and more importantly, it was her way of telling me that although there was nothing she could do to make things better at the present moment, she could sit with me in my pain and just be there with me. And ironically, that might have been one of the most helpful things anyone could do: just show up with real empathy. And food, of course — I mean, we’re Jewish.
The heartbreaking messiness of my life and the inability to fix my loss weren’t going to scare her away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I so badly needed to know that my pain wasn’t going to drive people away.
She’d show up every week or so, and we’d cover the ways I was reacclimatizing to the new life I had. She’d ask practical questions and give me advice on my kids and ask about them as well.
She gave me both support and space and at times was there at a moment’s notice. I know that it’s not an easy thing to do. But she’s one of the reasons I was able to lean into the discomfort and face it head on. Empathetic friendship is a very powerful thing.
With her, I never needed to tiptoe around important issues that needed to be addressed and she gave me a combination of tough love and the type of care I needed. She gave me permission to be ok not being ok. Of not feeling obligated to reply to “How are you?” with “I’ll be ok…” because I didn’t know when that would be and I didn’t want to be strong.
I wanted to be honest with myself and other people. I wanted to accept that sometimes not being ok is fine too, even when it makes others uncomfortable.
People want their happy endings. I did too — I still do. But when things don’t go the way they’re “supposed to,” that’s when you get to see the strength behind the company you keep.
I’ve heard people say: “I don’t like to pay shivah calls — I never know what to say or do, or if they even want me there.” The thing is: almost no one likes them. The aveilim themselves don’t want to be there either. No one goes because it’s enjoyable; we go because the only thing worse than mourning a loved one is mourning a loved one alone.
People often instinctively shrink away from tzaros. It’s understandable; it’s uncomfortable to face the fragility of someone’s gaping wounds when there’s so little we can do to help. Some people seem to shy away as if misfortune were contagious in some way. “Don’t wanna get too close to that, wouldn’t want it to be me next.”
It’s so much more fun to bake for someone’s simcha than to mop up their river of tears. Yet, that’s when you actually feel that true loyalty, love from friends who are like family you get to choose. You get to see what genuine courage looks like. The resolve and commitment of those who keep coming when there’s no clear protocol of what to say or do, but they just want you to know you’re not alone. When the feelings other people have for you override their fear of observing a scary and unpredictable life change up close. And they’re able to tell you that you’ll never be alone, even through the moodiness, the hour-long phone calls that mostly consist of me crying and of holding the type of pain very few people my age deal with. They say this with words but even more with actions. Proving repeatedly that I’ll never say something that will send them away for good.
When you’ve lost the most significant person in your life, the trauma of abandonment in the wake of it is a beast. So the response of others still being there, holding space for the agony without the impulse to sanitize away the grief is incredibly comforting. And ironically, promotes healing. Never underestimate the therapeutic power of genuine friendship.
Malkie’s husband, Moshe, a’h, passed away at the age of 40. She has been sharing her thoughts and emotions with readers on her Instagram page @Kissthekoshercook. We are privileged to share her writings and reflections with our readership. May Moshe’s memory be a blessing for Malkie and her beautiful family.