What I wish I knew when my high school friend died

“This isn’t real life. This isn’t supposed to happen.” That was the thought I had when I was sixteen and at the memorial service for a teenage friend. I watched her mother, somehow elegant and calm standing next to the casket of her only daughter, accepting condolences from a line of people paying their respects. I felt my palms sweating as I got closer. A panicky feeling was erupting in my stomach.

How can I look at the body of a person I used to hang out with? Someone who taught me how to play pool? Screamed “let’s go Danielle” during track meets when I was nearing the finish line and felt like my legs couldn’t make it one step further? What should I say to her mother? She’d only met me twice. Maybe she’d think I didn’t belong here. That this was only for really close friends and family. The only funerals I had been to before were for people who had passed away much older, from cancer or a heart attack. Not my high school friend Veronica who just didn’t wake up one morning in her college dorm room from an aneurism. As I reached the pinnacle of the line walking up to the casket, I stared at her face. Familiar, yet not. Was I supposed to pray? Would it be considered rude to cry?

“Love you V,” I whispered quietly before shuffling forward to her mother. I swallowed hard and shook her hand. “You might not remember, but we ran track together, she was my captain,” was all I could manage to get out before my voice cracked. Her mom nodded and smiled at me and I walked away feeling like I should have said more or maybe nothing at all besides “I’m sorry.” I just didn’t know.

Sadly, over the next several years I would attend a few more memorial services for friends who were gone far too young. It’s always hard, and it’s always awful. But I learned how to process the situation better, and to learn what things are helpful.

It is OK to cry in public and private

I know it might sound silly, but for some reason back then I felt that it was wrong to cry in front of the family of the deceased. In my head I reasoned that they had enough to deal with, and they were the ones who deserved to be comforted not me. So I did my best to fight back tears until I was alone or not around the immediate family because it felt selfish to me. As I got older, it seemed obvious that this was silly. Why would the family scorn me for feeling emotional about the loss of their-and my-loved one? They wouldn’t. Pain is pain. Just because we loved the same person via a different relationship doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to feel the hurt of the loss. However if you feel on the verge of hysterics? I still think that’s when it is time to subtly excuse yourself. Crying to the point of disrupting the memorial is not the best thing for the family.

Don’t feel gulty

I had moments of incredible guilt remembering the last interaction I had with a very close friend who passed away. Our families had gotten together one afternoon and he and I were having a rapid fire Gilmore Girls-style conversation because we both had to get on our way to evening plans with our respective significant others. He called out some of his usual teasing remarks as I drove off that day laughing and yelling good-bye out my car window. We had agreed on tentative plans to get together again in a few weeks after I returned from a business trip. But within those couple of weeks he passed away and I was left devastated, wondering why I didn’t just yell “love you so much” that last day I saw him. Or hugged him a little tighter. Why couldn’t I remember exactly what color shirt he had been wearing that day? Or whether I yelled “bye” or “see ya later” as I left. But in life we never know how long we get to keep those who we love, and I didn’t need to feel guilty about how unexpectedly he was gone. No one can predict the future and I know that I will always keep him in my heart. That’s what really matters.

People don’t always know what to say, and you should forgive them for that

When I was younger, I was pretty confident adults usually knew the appropriate things to say in these kinds of difficult circumstances, and was startled when at wakes, people would say things that sounded, to me, callous and unfeeling. The day one of my best friends passed away, someone remarked that I should “cheer up.” I was speechless and angry.

Now I know that people are just trying their best in a really difficult time. The way to hear things is “I know you are baffled and upset and deeply sad and I want you to know I’m right there with you.” If you’re the one looking for something to say, just keep it simple: “I’m so sorry for your loss and I’m here for you if or when you need me to be.” It matters.

People need condolences way after the memorial service is over

There’s an important closure aspect for me when it comes to making sure I can be present for a memorial service or funeral for a friend. But these are the public events that the majority of family and friends of the deceased make the time to attend. Once all of that is over, the reality of that person officially being gone sets in and there aren’t massive amounts of people around to keep you distracted. When I was younger, I initially believed it was best to give people their space and let them grieve alone and basically tiptoe around them. Everyone grieves differently, but radio silence doesn’t work for everyone. My mom and I would extend lunch and dinner invitations to the father of my friend who passed away and sometimes he would say he wasn’t up for it and other times he’d gratefully accept. I wish I knew then to allow the people grieving to make their own decisions about what they are ready or not ready to be doing. Don’t assume what they want and need, just let it be known that you’re aware that they’re struggling and will be for some time, but you’re not going to disappear.

Sharing stories is a big part of the healing process

After the funeral for my close childhood friend, a group of my friends showed up at my house with cookies and patiently listened to me tearfully recount dozens of stories about him. “You should tell his dad some of these,” one of my friends suggested. I was worried about overstepping and also felt too emotional, but I decided to write a list of all the ways I believed my life was better from having known my friend and gave that to his father. He told me once that he still reads it from time to time and I promise him that to this day every word of it holds true.

The world seems infinite when we’re teenagers and even in our twenties. The possibility that one day a friend can be sitting right next to us and the next day be gone is unfathomable. At 16,I wasn’t in full command of my emotions or what constituted the most appropriate behavior in these unexpected scenarios. With time comes understanding, learning and growing. But even now, there is always some measure of hurting. And that’s OK too. It just represents the love you had, and still have, for that person. That never goes away.

[Image via Shutterstock]