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In Grief, You Need a Friend Like Joe

Someone who drops off coffee or a gallon of ice cream or a bottle of wine unannounced and most of all knows how to show up, shut up, and just listen.

My wish for you is that you find a friend or two like Joe as you travel your grief journey.

Someone who can show up in the following ways:

  • They don’t need anything from you, and they don’t need you to need them.
  • They are just steady, present, and frequently checking-in.
  • They make themselves available for the middle of the night panic texts or phone calls, where all you need is reassurance that someone is there.
  • They don’t get offended when you cancel plans last minute.
  • They drop off coffee or a gallon of ice cream or a bottle of wine unannounced.
  • They send you cards in the mail full of swear words to show you how much they understand that this whole situation is fucking bullshit and it sucks so much.
  • I hope you find someone who doesn’t try to fix you, cheer you up, or ask you to look on the bright side.
  • What I wish for you most of all is that you find someone who knows how to show up, shut up, and just listen.

I was extremely fortunate to have so many incredible friends and family members nearby when my husband Eric died, at the age of 44, only 2 1/2 weeks after being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011. A big group of my girlfriends and colleagues started a meal delivery system that involved a cooler on my porch that seemed to last for months. Thank goodness they did. Food was the last thing on my mind, but I had a 7-year-old daughter to care for. Some of those same friends created a “take Lisa out so she’s not lonely calendar”. I loved them so much for it, but it basically involved me sitting at one restaurant or another in town with 2 or 3 different friends. We made small talk, drank wine, sometimes I smiled, and inevitably I would break down into deep sobbing fits and worry that I was making everyone around me uncomfortable. In truth, I did make everyone uncomfortable. My friends, the wait staff, the other patrons. Still, others showed up regularly, without me asking, and invited my daughter to join their kids in the day’s activities. I want to be clear. All of that was so helpful. I am grateful for every single gesture.

One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two peoplee when those moments inevitably ended in tears.

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Yet, one of the most important people in my early grief journey was my friend Joe. He didn’t live in my town. He didn’t have kids or much family at all. But he had long been an honorary member of our extended family. He did know Eric and I’m sure he was grieving for him too. Still, somehow he managed to be there in a way no one else was. He checked in regularly but never with an “I’m worried you’re going crazy — are you okay?” kind of vibe. He stayed up talking (or not talking) to me on the phone countless nights in those early months when I just couldn’t sleep (which was kind of an issue as I went back to work as the Clinical Director of a family services agency just 2 weeks after Eric died). He wasn’t afraid to crack jokes or swear or just sit in silence with me on the other end of the line. He sent me stupid videos and favorite playlists out of the blue. He never made me feel bad for having happy moments or question me when those moments inevitably ended in tears.

There has never been anyone like Joe. He loved Star Wars, kittens, tattoos, Billy Joel, key lime pie, El Caminos, giving people shit, and loving them anyway.

I was recently interviewed by a fellow podcaster about my experiences being present when someone dies. I shared openly and honestly about what it was like to lay next to my husband Eric for the last 9 hours of his life until he died in my arms. How I studied every freckle on his body and memorized every feature of his face. How I talked to him, reliving all of the memories we made over the 12 years we were together. How through the tears, I begged him not to go. How I was the only one doing the talking because by that point he had been in a coma for a week.

I also explored the surprising and beautiful gift Joe gave me right before he died as I sat by his side and held his hand. Joe was a shell of his former self, weighing probably 85 pounds. As I sat by his side in the hospital, along with my friend and my brother, Joe spoke to me. He said, “it’s time for me to go, Lisa”. My heart started racing, as it is now as I write. I said, “I know Joe. It’s okay. I’ll be here”. He said, “no, you don’t understand, it’s time for me to go.” I reassured him again, “I know Joe. It’s okay. I’ll be here for you. I love you, Joe.” Joe closed his eyes and died quietly with his honorary family members by his side. Joe was able to tell me what Eric couldn’t, that it was time for him to go. Joe was able to hear what Eric couldn’t, that I was here to love him and accompany him to the end.

My husband Eric (pictured second from right) and friend Joe (middle with hands raised) both of whom died in their 40’s.

I truly hope that each of you finds a friend like Joe when you are traveling your grief journey. And perhaps, you can be a friend like Joe when someone in your life is traveling it too.

Written with love and gratitude, by Lisa Keefauver, MSW — Eric’s widow, Joe’s Friend, founder of Reimagining Grief, and the host of the podcast Grief is a Sneaky B!tch,

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