When someone you love becomes terminally ill, a lot of people respond by talking about it all the time. They can’t stop sharing details about their loved one, their illness, the experience of death, and grief. Others turn inward and process their emotions by thinking about and talking about anything else. They share small moments here and there of their private grief, but for the most part, they keep their experience walled off from their relationships with other people.
When my dad became sick with lung cancer and died several months later, I closed myself off from most people. What I was experiencing was too big, too intense, to share with strangers, or even casual colleagues, those with whom I could not trust my heart. I couldn’t risk talking about this with anyone whose trust was not as certain and as solid as rock.
But for my closest friends and those whom I trusted most, I clung to them like a drowning swimmer clutching onto to a life raft. I needed their words of comfort and reassurance more than I needed air, sleep, water, or food. In normal times I craved solitude outside of my normal routines of work, exercise, and friendships. Now I craved constant companionship and conversation. I thought that if I talked about it enough – my dad’s sickness, my own grief, death and mortality – that I would suddenly understand its finality and its implications for my life and for my mom, sister, and brother. My closest friends listened – God, they listened — sat with me, took my phone calls at all hours. But there were truly no words that could mitigate the pain or that could make any rational sense of watching someone so young get so sick.
And then I started talking to Christina.
Another friend told me that she had a close friend, a former colleague that I had never met, who was going through what sounded like the same experience that I was. She was the same age, had a dad in his early fifties (like my dad) who was in the end stages of cancer, and she was also a teacher. My friend mentioned Christina several times and said that I should contact her, but I couldn’t imagine calling up a stranger out of the blue and saying, “Hey, my dad has cancer too!”
However, after my dad passed away a few weeks later and I returned to Boston, I kept thinking of this girl. It turns out that her dad had died a couple weeks before mine. And then our mutual friend mentioned that Christina was going through a breakup with her boyfriend, just as I was, at the same time as dealing with her dad’s death. (I was living with a boyfriend at the time, who had chosen to move out and announce the end of our relationship at the same time as my dad’s death.) Who was this person who was living my parallel life? Was she dealing with it better? Maybe she had the answers that could ease my pain, comfort me more than those who could not possibly understand.
So I called her. And it was like a window into my own soul. We talked for hours, everything about our dads, cancer, stupid men who break our hearts, worries about our mothers and siblings. I knew nothing else about her. All the other reasons for forming a friendship – having common interests, a similar personality, shared background – had no bearing. All that mattered was this huge impossible task of learning how to mourn. We didn’t talk about television shows, hobbies, clothes, our work days. Her friendship felt like having a terrible, rare disease and then finding a medical specialist who knew everything about your condition.
And then as months passed, I spent more time with my old friends and alone. I dated again. The mundane aspects of friendship – seeing a movie, dissecting an old friend’s stupid career move – mattered again. Christina and I called each other less and less until we didn’t speak at all.
But sometimes I wonder about this girl, my twin in grief. I don’t know where she is and honestly can’t remember her last name. But I hope she is well and has found joy and meaning from her life and knows that her friendship helped me to survive the hardest moment of my life.
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