Five of my friends lost a parent in the past year. This was terrifying, tragic and unspeakably unfair: They’re all younger than 35 and did not expect to have to deal with this for at least 20 years.
“Stop asking if I’m okay!” 33-year-old Anna Goldman said, two weeks after her mother died of a slow cancer that leeched energy and color from her body. “Of course I’m not!” Goldman knew how ill her mother was; she had attended most doctor appointments with her, asking questions she researched online and filling small notebooks with scrawls about treatments and home care. She requested second opinions and paid for extra scans. She spent hours Googling “dealing with loss” and “coping with losing a parent.” She knew what was happening, but that didn’t make it any easier.
As her friend, I existed in a no man’s land. I wanted to help her, to show support and love and that I cared, but I didn’t know how. Like many millennials who move for school or career choices, I was in a different time zone, thousands of miles from Goldman.
I called once, twice — she didn't pick up. I worried that I was disturbing her mourning process. I sent a card. I texted, I called again, a week later.
Eventually, she answered.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m so sorry. How are you doing?” Pause. Silence.
At some point she asked how I was. I paused. Do I mention my latest work assignment, my holiday plans, my boyfriend woes? It’s what I’d normally talk about, but that seemed horribly insensitive at the moment. I deflected.
Later, I called again.We had a conversation nearly identical to the first. If I was physically there, I could hug, laugh, touch her skin. Over the phone, it’s so removed, so remote. Sometimes she’d snap back quickly, with “normal” jokes and conversation. Other times, she would not stop crying.
Goldman has every right to deal with her grief in her own way, to have whatever time and space she needs. Space is totally understandable, and I didn’t want to pressure her. But I didn't want her to feel alone. And I know what happens next. It’s a familiar pattern, and I’ve seen it from both sides.
I haven't experienced loss like this, but I’ve had major health issues and seen people distance themselves from me — some because they were never “real friends” and some because they didn’t know how to handle or help me in my condition.
This is how it goes.
You stop calling as much. Then great things happen in your life. You think of them . . . and your fingers freeze on their name. That would be rubbing it in, right? Then you have a lousy day — but calling them seems crass; your stupid drama compared with their real, palpable grief and stress? So the accidental ghosting — a term that refers to distancing or cutting off contact — begins, and it often continues for so long that you don’t know how to end it.
Before you know it, you’re minus a friend, they’re minus a support system, and everyone is unhappy.
When you break this down, it’s not crazy that this happens: Everyone has issues with death, and no one understands how to address real, awful pain. People err on the side of being thoughtful (a.k.a. not disturbing the person suffering), which sounds good, but in reality it means someone's feeling miserable and alone, and their friends react by making them more alone.
For most of my friends, their parent’s death was a while coming; a slow, debilitating illness, followed by a strong but ineffective fight that morphed inevitably into a permanent goodbye. For some, it was quicker — a dry cough that turned fatal within days.
Death is something we live with every day, the understanding that our time is finite and that our loved ones won’t be around forever. But we generally understand this in the abstract; the process of adjusting and dealing with a reality seems far away. We may be able to handle the fact that at some point we’ll cease, but we fight against that happening to a loved one. All common sense goes out the window, and we Google experimental cures and fill our aging relatives with enzyme-boosting pills with spurious health benefits.
The first experience of death for most people is when they lose their grandparents. It’s tough to deal with, but kids are resilient and often don’t really understand the gravity of the situation. We know the “big one” is when our parents pass, but with the average American life span of 78 years, we assume we won’t need to address living without our parents till we hit our 50s. But that’s the mean number, and the reality is that many people will experience a loss way before that, and it’s becoming increasingly common to lose a parent while in your teens and 20s. This has a real effect on your life. Studies show that children who lose parents early are more likely to die earlier — and 11 percent of people lose a parent before they’re 20.
For many, there are a number of support systems in place: groups, counseling, positive therapy. But the 20-something mourner exists in a weird vacuum. Most services are tailored to the very young (such as Comfort Zone Camp and Too Damn Young) or the old. There’s not too much help for people in my friends’ positions. Add to that the fact that they’re all single — and most of them live alone — and you have a recipe for disaster. They’re not an anomaly: A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of single young adults live alone, and many of them have moved far from their friends and family support network.
“There was so much paperwork,” my New York friend Charlotte Turner said. “The funeral home asked me all these things, really aggressively, and I didn’t know what to do.” The 34-year-old had just lost her father to a surprise throat infection, and most of her family was traveling at the time. Turner had to pack up her father’s belongings from his care home, choose a burial plot, write a eulogy — all the things she’d normally have turned to her 72-year-old dad for help with.
She cried on the phone to me. I was at a loss about what to say. I’d Googled “what to say when a friend loses a parent,” and most of the advice consisted of what not to say. Don’t tell them it will be okay, that he’s in a better place, wrote the American Hospice Foundation. That group says that you should ask what you can do, and just be there for your friend. That’s advice that’s not really helpful when you live so far away.
I wanted to help, and I was aware that I’ve occasionally ghosted grievers because of my feeling helpless in the face of their pain.
Mental-health therapist Megan Devine has a good way of putting this. On her blog, Refuge in Grief, she wrote: “My job is not to make this better. My job is to tolerate my own helplessness in the face of her pain, without trying to relieve that helplessness by offering platitudes or false comfort. My job is to know that showing up, being present, acknowledging the truth that this hurts, this hurts, this hurts is the best way I can love my friend.”
She’s right. There’s nothing I can say or do that will help my friends. I shouldn’t be vain enough to think my presence in their life will have any real bearing on their recovery; in fact, in some ways the fact that I want to be a part of it is selfish, and I need to get over myself.
“People who ‘ghost’ are primarily focused on avoiding their own emotional discomfort, and they aren’t thinking about how it makes the other person feel,” Jennice Vilhauer, director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, wrote on the Psychology Today website. Ghosting is ultimately a selfish act, a deflection of responsibility and a way of transitioning from conversations that are uncomfortable. A YouGov survey found that 11 percent of people said they’d ghosted someone, and this wasn’t just about a relationship ending.
My friends’ losses take me closer to my own fears, my worries of being alone, of losing people I’m close to, and the throat-clenching panic that should this happen (or when it happens, as this is an inevitability of life), I won’t have people who will keep calling, even if I’m unresponsive. There is no right or wrong thing to say (though, obviously, some things are more stupid than others), but the act of showing up, of texting and calling — even if it’s into a void — is still important.