It’s uncomfortable, standing on the periphery of tragedy.
Tragedy is, of course, tragedy; I’m not trying to suggest that experiencing a death close to you is easier than one from which you are further removed. I’m only commenting on the fact that there is a certain radius extending outwards from the epicenter of grief where roles are well-defined – family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances – and then there is a gap, followed by a void of negative space, populated by strangers, people for whom this particular death meant nothing to them, personally. For whom this particular sorrow was only a sorrow in the abstract, the way the death of any decent person is worthy of sorrow.
In the anxious shadows of that gap is me – the Empathic Friend-of-a-Friend. If the title sounds clunky, try donning it in the wake of a tragedy. It’s an awkward-as-hell mantle to wear.
My husband and I attended a memorial service on Sunday for someone whom I, personally, have only ever met three times. Each time we met, she was gracious, intelligent, and pleasant – by all accounts a good person – but someone for whom I feel no personal loss. It’s hard to feel that you’ve “lost” a person with whom you’ve spent, all told, maybe ten hours in your entire life, and even less so when those ten hours were spread over the course of three years. But she was the wife of a friend of my husband’s, and close to a number of mutual friends, so out of deference to them (and to support my anxious and vehemently anti-religious husband through the very religious ceremony), I attended.
The awkwardness I feel on a daily basis is exacerbated during events like these, not the least of which because even when I have only the slightest connection to the deceased, I am helpless in the wake of other peoples’ sorrow. Empathy is wonderful in times of celebrations; I can be buoyed along effortlessly in an atmospere of joy, sharing in the happiness of those I’m celebrating with, but it’s not something I can selectively turn off. When I see someone cry, I cry. It’s my body’s natural, reflexive response to seeing someone else suffering.
Compounding my natural empathy – feeding into it – was that she and I sound very similar on paper. A year and a half difference in our ages, married within two years of each other, children within three months of age, both teachers in neighboring towns. It made it very difficult to hear her husband speak of their life together and not be acutely aware of my own husband by my side, the thought of losing him – or the thought of leaving him in such a way – never far removed from my thoughts. It was worse when they spoke of her daughter, to think of my Bear waking up one morning looking for his mommy and not being there to greet him. To imagine him excited at the sound of every door, thinking that maybe this time, it’s mommy coming home.
See, for me, so much of why I feel awkward in these situations stems from a sense of guilt or selfishness regarding my own display of emotions. Of course I feel badly for the greiving family. I have been on hat side of it, and it is horrible. But when I don’t know the mourners that well – when the sorrow is more removed from me, emotionally – I can’t help but place myself in their shoes. I think of my family. My husband. My child.
I think of how the only thing seperating she and I was a dark mass on a routine ultrasound. One that they had thought – had said – was benign.
I think of how nine days before I attended her funeral, she was posting to Facebook asking for visitors. I think of how quickly the end comes. Of how no one ever says they had time enough.
I kept back when my husband went to offer his condolences. The widower was literally swarmed by friends and family, I was buzzing with anxiety, and he’d met me twice ever, all told, for probably a total of thirty minutes of interaction. He was my husband’s friend. I let them have their moment, embarrassed by my red eyes, feeling like an imposter among the mourners. I said goodbye to our mutual friends, hoping when we saw them next, it would be for happier reasons.
We left, my husband by my side.
I thought about Bear, safe at my mom’s house, his eyes lighting up when we’d return.