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How to Offer Comfort to a Friend Who Lost a Parent

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My smart, funny, beautiful mother died in July of heart failure, an unexpected and unheralded long-term consequence of polio 20 years before.

After a slow month of goodbyes — funeral meats and platters, house parties, family visits, red roses delivered and exclaimed over — our family left for the woods to lead our usual summer business of camping trips. Except this time, my father disappeared into his tent each night after dinner, leaving me and friends to carry the evening’s campfire activities and plan for the next day. It was my first taste of the instant adulthood that was expected of me, just one month before my 15th birthday.

In the fall, the neighborly concerns slowly faded away. My sister packed for her first college year to take up residence in an apartment five hours away. It had a finality that outweighed the usual temporary sense of that passage. None of us believed she would return as she loaded up the car. I was alone with my father and grandmother.

“Time to get on with life,” they said. Except I couldn’t.

Our house became a grey, shrinking place. Each night I imagined rats rustling in the walls in the eaves of my attic bedroom. I dreamed of being tortured and stabbed, of being abandoned forever in a closet. With shaking hands I pounded on the walls, turned on lights, covered my ears, and then moved to sleep on the living room couch, or on my father’s floor. A full night’s sleep eluded me.

I spent that cold winter wrapped in small, jangling fears, as if my nerves were replaced with fine piano wire that tightened with every move towards others. Back pain, migraine and stomach flu – my father pleaded with me to go to school but often gave up and left me home, where I read fiction. The deep depression and anxiety of abandonment would not pause. In those days, big strong girls like me were told to buck up and carry on.

That winter, I was invited to a Girl Scout ski trip to Sugar Bush. It seemed like a good distraction. The bus ride was noisy, and I wondered if I could make it through the weekend without crying in front of anyone.

The hotel had an indoor pool, and the smell of chlorine, comforting from my swimmer’s childhood, touched everything. Our room was a large loft, filled with double and single beds.

One beckoned – a huge heated waterbed. I sat down, then lay down carefully, intrigued by the movement. It flowed gently like a smooth lake and warmed my bones. The pool smells and hotel noises made me feel I was never really alone.

After dinner, I lay down and slept till morning. I awoke in the night to murmuring girls and flashes of light, the safety of community, warmth and love. I slept all the next day, too, and most of Sunday.

Healing began for me then, as unexpectedly as the death before. The wrap of comfort, warmth and safety stays with me to this day. I was granted the gift of a “safe space” memory I still turn to for comfort. When I close my eyes, I can return to the warmth, to the quiet and loving voices of that day of rest. I believe it was manna from Heaven, the reminder that God would send new life, that I would survive.

My suggestions for those who see a friend grieving the loss of a parent:

1. Keep talking.

Your friend might not feel safe again for some time. For me, there was no such thing as “talking too much or too long” about the death of my mom.

2. Keep your friend near.

Being alone can be fertile ground for fear. Your friend may not want to go to movies or activities, but it can be enough just to be nearby or include your friend in a Sunday afternoon of family time.

3. Keep asking questions.

Mental illness, hallucinations and physical complaints can be worsened by lack of sleep. A thorough check-out from a physician or psychiatrist can’t hurt.

I remember that cold winter when I felt the safety of community, warmth and love. I vowed then to reach out to others in need. I still do.

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Thinkstock image by LagunaticPhoto

Originally published: February 22, 2017
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