Today, (as Em’s blog posts always start) I got to Emily Rapp’s house, 31 hours after I left my own in South London, England.
Emily asked if I would ‘guestblog’, a verb that in my view does not yet merit a mention in the Oxford English Dictionary but I think may pass the Little Seal moderator. I don’t have the same writing credentials as Em. My only claim to legitimacy on this site is that I’ve known her for 14 years and I’m staying with Emily and family for the next 10 days. This blog post is for all the people who watch someone they love dearly, suffering something terrible.
Emily Rapp collects Emilies like some kids collect snow globes or (like 10-year-old L who we had dinner with tonight), information about superheroes. When we introduce ourselves, she often mentions the mid 1970‘s rash of enthusiasm for our name and we smile indulgently at our parents’ following of fashion from two sides of the Atlantic. In Emily and Rick’s house, I am known as ‘Otherem’, or as Rick likes to put it, ‘Other’.
Emily and I met in 1997, in Geneva, where we both lived for a year. It was one of those intense friendships where you speak two or three times a day, you meet up several nights a week, you share all your relationship and second-job angst, and you regularly tumble drunk in to your friend’s spare bed, less than bothered about the 20 minute bus ride home. In the year after I left Geneva, I slowly split up from my boyfriend, and Emily was the recipient of long emails detailing the latest perplexingly fierce emotion that I was experiencing.
Nowadays, we see each other once every one or two years, crossing the Atlantic for a several-day reprise of these intense conversations, though our families and work distract us much more in the meantime. We’ve seen each other through falling in love, three weddings, one divorce, three pregnancies and three births, several house and job moves, first book being published (Emily), two jobs for Cabinet Ministers in the British government (me), terrorist attacks on cities where both of us had lived, and Clinton, Bush and Obama. As yet, though, few personal experiences of the intense, inescapable anguish of grief.
Four weeks ago, I got an out of the blue phone call from Emily. She could barely speak she was crying so much. “I don’t know how to tell you this. But I have to tell you.”
“What? Hon, what is it?”
More crying on the end of the phone, from 5,000 miles away. I was starting to get scared.
I listened, sitting on my bed, 10 minutes until I needed to head out to pick up my two kids from school. I hurt for her. And I felt completely out of my depth.
My internal monologue was, ‘What do I do, what do I do, what do I say, oh f**k (yes we do swear in Britain), how awful, what about Rick, why Em, how can this be, how could all her fears come true, she’s suffered too much…What do I do, what do I say?’
“I want to die”, she sobbed at me. And I could hear she meant it. “Everything is black. I have nothing to live for.”
I started to cry too. Then I got fierce. “You have to live, for Ronan. He needs you. You and Rick…”
“What do I do?”, she asked, through the sobs. “How am I going to go to work next week? Oh God…”
I didn’t know what to say. In the end, I said, “Today, your only job is to grieve. You have to cry, and be sad.”
That was the last time I spoke to Emily, before this morning, when I knocked on her door in the morning sunshine, clutching my purse, as if I’d just popped in from round the corner.
I’ve spent the last four weeks wondering how best to support Em. I would read her blog posts and marvel at the griever-philosopher-writer-literary critic-mum person who had apparently dumped her brain on to the page and it had come out eloquent and erudite and anguished. I inspected my own bereavements: a grandparent in 1995, a friend of my husband’s in 2004, my aunt a couple of weeks ago… Each of these losses caused deep, unbearable anguish for someone close to the person who died. But for me, they caused sadness, occasionally a sense of injustice, and sorrow for those who were in pain who lived on. My experience of loss did not come anywhere close. So what were my credentials for being a friend to Emily at this time? It felt like, bugger all.
I’ve groped towards what to say. Often, with Em, I do this ‘wise friend’ thing. ‘Of course you felt angry. That’s usual.’ ‘That’s great, Em, letting the emotion out’. ‘You need to grieve for your former life’, that sort of thing. How can I be wise about something I know nothing about?
I would turn over my inadequate stock favourites, dating from before I heard about Ronan. “There’s a gift in everything”. That’s one of my usual frames for ‘normal life’ stumbles and trips. If I were to say that, I might as well take Emily and Rick’s tongues out of their mouths and tell them, “It’s great to know inner silence, you know. Enlightenment is just round the corner.” What about, “There’s a divine purpose in everything.” (What? Purpose only gets revealed retrospectively. To say there’s a purpose now is to suggest that the news about Ronan is A Good Thing. Patently bollix, as the Irish would say.) Nope. I was woefully under equipped for this.
Could I only be a good friend if I’d been through something similarly awful myself? I had to check myself from envying those who had, who could make that connection to Emily. How ridiculous…
So I asked people for help. I asked a very thoughtful friend who had lost her baby several years ago, what her experience was like, and she wrote back,
“I went off reading and writing for about 2 years after he died – I didn’t want to see my words written down as it just seemed too ‘black and white’ and I couldn’t cope with reading other words for fear of triggering emotions. I did talk and talk and talk a lot though.”
Not writing words down? That didn’t fit Emily Rapp. Here was one of my best friends, suffering something as grim, pouring out words in eloquent torrents. My thoughtful friend had other really concordant things to say (“I thought I’d be sad forever, I wanted to conceive again quickly so I could be a mother”), but I started to realise there was no guidebook.
I asked a counsellor friend about grief. As if by magic, he had a computer file (Grief.doc. Does what it says on the tin), where he had summaries of six articles on counselling and grief. It was like a potted guide of all the efforts to make grief follow waves, phases, and all the inadequacies of these frameworks. His cover email explained:
“Each grief is individual and trying to fit models to it is often felt as unhelpful by the grieving, who feel that their own grief is unique.
Counselling in the immediate aftermath… is unhelpful. It makes raw feelings more intense. Practical help and friendship are better.”
Definitely no guidebook, then.
In the end, the only thing I could think of, was to show up. I could listen. And I could be there.
Even on this, I had doubts. Was my ego at work somehow, wanting to ‘come to the rescue?’. Wouldn’t we all, us friends, rally round in these first few weeks, when the long haul would be where Emily and Rick would need us most? I saw my cousins last week, one week after my aunt died very suddenly. I asked how my uncle was doing. “He’s OK,’ said my cousin. “But could you ring him in a few weeks’ time. That’s when he’s going to need the support.”
Even worse, would my presence be unhelpful? Would it intrude on the time Emily and Rick needed to come to terms with all this? Would my health and delight in life, especially my kids, be gut-wrenchingly irritating? I prepared myself for all of that, knew that in her pain, I would still love her.
So, I walked in the door this morning, and there was Emily. She looked like herself. Pretty. Elegant and strong (she exercises like a demon. I tend to use my visits to her as a virtual detox as she whisks me off to yoga classes and spinning). Wide Irish smile, jokes a-cracking, solicitousness for my journey and my sleep patterns.
Within 15 minutes we’d headed off to buy groceries. We had one of our usual, eager, rambling, well informed, chats. Only this time it covered off the books we’d read, and the general state of our loved ones, the Tay-Sachs ‘moms’ (I imagine we’d even call them ‘moms’ in England where we usually say mums. ‘Moms’ as a collective noun sounds American and powerful and brassy), and all the different stories we knew of babies dying, and all the different kinds of grieving we’d heard of, and the choices that Em and Rick have to make about how Ronan will get treated as things progress. Oh and I got a swift lesson in genetics and the origins of Tay-Sachs.
She seemed ok. The same. And yet different. She said, at one point, she felt like her whole heart had been re-modelled to incorporate this experience. And in the afternoon, when Ronan got all dressed up in a cute suit saying ‘Captain’ across the front, she burst in to tears, reminded once again that she loved him and would have to lose him.
So I still don’t know what to “do”. But I guess I’m starting to realise that that don’t matter, and “being” might just be enough. Our friendship has plenty of foundation to it. Familiarity, history, affection, anecdotes, chat – maybe that is enough.
From this vantage point, I can also see that Em and Rick are completely surrounded by a solid wall of love. The dinners, blog comments, letters, presents for Ronan, funds raised, are all testament to that. We just need to keep the forcefield up.