Thursday night a good friend of mine experienced what I imagine is one of the most profoundly painful and tragic moments in her life. Her 30-year-old son murdered her husband at their home. Their tragedy played across the local news with photos of police officers entering the lobby of their condo, their son pinned to the floor, hands behind his back, an officer’s knee holding him in place, and finally his mug shot. One article tried to paint this in Middle Eastern tones: “the family of Middle-Eastern male descent.” (Last I checked, Algeria was in Africa, but hey we’re ‘Merica, we don’t do geography; we do sensationalism, and we do it well. I mean, let’s just ignore the bit that his mother is American; it’s not as interesting that way.) The truth of the story is it’s not about nationality; it’s a tragic story about mental illness.
For reference: This is the friend with whom I recently spent the evening painting a tilted Eiffel Tower while sipping wine a couple of weeks ago; she’s the reason you all got a blog entry and a photo of a terrible painting. She’s the person I’ve floated in a lake with laughing, stayed up with until all hours of the night watching movies, enjoyed countless meals and countless glasses of wine. (There was the time I got completely tipsy with her sister, giggling madly in her kitchen.) We’ve shared a million stories, a few hardships, and we’ve laughed. (I mention this again, because it’s such a key component of who she is as a person.) Her laugh is the kind that lights up a room. Everything about her is open, welcoming, kind, and thoughtful. She’s exactly the person I would like to be when I grow up, and it’s why she has been my mentor for years.
She’s also the person who came over after Jay passed away to take care of our beagle, Sam, which allowed me to celebrate Jay’s mom’s 80th birthday. Jay, who was rarely one to say he enjoyed someone, really liked both her and her husband.
When I heard the news I was standing in our crowded cafeteria. My face crumpled, and I ended up in a ball in our lobby. I knew her husband; he was a beautiful person, the kind that exuded warmth, kindness, and genuine calm. He was brilliant, but quiet and self-assured. They had been together since college, had traveled the world together, and had been true partners who’d built an incredible life for themselves and their family.
That’s a small glimpse into my beautiful friend.
I hurt for her. Her life fractured into a million pieces Thursday night. I worry about who will be left behind as some lightness left my friend.
People say this a lot, and it always rings hollow, but realize I am sincere when I say: I wish I could take some of her burden. Because of Jay, I know what I can handle, and I can take on more and continue to move forward. I wish she could hand some of her pain over to me; I can shoulder it.
I’m going to switch gears here to talk about communication etiquette, because it has weighed on my mind the last couple of days, and I’m doubtlessly going to get a bit preachy. (Aside to my editor, David: David, you have my permission to slash/burn/fix/re-state what is about to come out, because I feel a wall of ranty little words are on their way, and they all want to explode out of my face and from my fingers simultaneously. My fear is they won’t make sense. So, would you kindly help me make sense?)
There have been some great/significant improvements in communication since the day Alexander Graham Bell first spoke the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” We’ve gone from a reliance on messengers, to telegraph lines, to the point where now I have an English professor in Japan who, after waking up in several hours, will declare, “Oh crap, why doesn’t she warn me before she’s about to post?” And all of it is arguably great, especially since it’s a rare day that I want to have a full-blown conversation on the phone. The way I work, like many of you, is I have a thought bubble, I send it out, and in minutes I may or may not have a lunch date tomorrow. That’s what instant communication does well – the short, unimportant, day-to-day stuff. It tells my boss I’m going to be late, my friends I’m sitting in the back booth of a restaurant, links to an article I might find interesting, shares a playlist, or shows a photo of some place I wish I were standing and enjoying with you.
What it doesn’t do well? Important things like communicating a great tragedy has occurred that may deeply affect the recipient.
When I learned of the recent tragedy that befell my friend and her family, I sent out three text messages that basically read: “I need to talk to you, please let me know when you have some availability. I am ok.” (Long ago, a friend of mine and I agreed that any bad news should involve a statement of how you are so no one is unduly alarmed. Fun fact: If I don’t include the words, “I am ok,” then please feel free to worry.)
I needed to talk to these folks in person, because I was not about to do a disservice to the severity of this event by glibbly linking an article with a few words of, “Oh hey, FYI just letting you know my friend’s life fell apart.” <insert sad face emoji so you know I’m sad>
Pick up the phone. If you can type a text that is that important, you can pick up a phone. If you can’t, if you don’t want to deal with the reaction, it’s ok – call someone who can. You know your friends, you know their strengths, so find that person who is better at delivering news than you.
Where I Make This a Bit About Me
Most of you know how Jay died – maybe not the details, but you can probably imagine it was bad. (It was in fact bad.) You can imagine, or you have seen, the abject pain it inflicted and still inflicts. With that in mind, when you hear that someone I care deeply about suffered a traumatic/violent loss, take a few beats to think about what you’re going to say to me and how you’re going to deliver that news. Really think about whether sending a mugshot and a short text is the best way you can think to let me know. Think about your motive. Why is it important that you tell me, and that you tell me in this way? Are you truly affected or are you swept up in the excitement of the story where a person’s life not only fell apart, but it fell apart in such a big way that all of our big city news outlets are reporting on it? Are you telling me because you’re worried about me and how I’m handing it, or are you trying to suck a little more marrow from my own personal tragedy? Also, be thankful that beating up messengers has gone out of fashion (though probably not in Florida).
I received approximately five text messages that day, along the lines of “Hey, did you see what happened to Rita? It’s in the news. <story link><tear face>” And I received exactly one call outside of the three people I asked to speak with that day.
If you have bad news to deliver, pick up the phone. Don’t send me a text. If you must text, then please purchase two tickets – one for me, and one for you – to Florida. Let’s talk about it there. Once we’re done, you can Snap Chat, Tweet, FB, Instagram it all… if you’re able.
To this day, I regret having to use Facebook to inform our league (approx 75 people) that our friend and teammate had killed herself. I wanted everyone to know ASAP, and was crying so hard I couldn’t have made a phone call. It was all I could think to do. I regret that so much, because people got that news where ever they were – about to start a class, sitting in the doctor’s office, at work, at home alone. Yes, pick up the phone, if it’s possible.
And the truth is that sometimes it’s not possible to call, and it’s not possible to completely avoid social media, like the situation you mentioned above.
A friend of mine lost a high school classmate to suicide. Not only did one of her classmates want to post it to social media, she also wanted a photo of the police tape around the house. To me, that’s more about the drama than trying to constructively pass along that information.
Me personally, I need a call; however, I recognize I’m not everyone. I’m old-fashioned.
If you can’t knock on the door, yes, pick up the phone.
Be human about it.
There are times, texting, FB, all of that instant communication is cruel. The sender may feel Ok having spread the word, but device messages are cold – and easy – easy to step away from real human interaction, real emotion and real caring.
Better to arrange a phone chain or call one person and ask them to call one or a list of people for you. After that, maybe a week or so later, maybe a thoughtful tribute on FB and note for people to call you so you both can remember the person together ( and then share what is appropriate)
May peace and comfort find your friend.
This is so beautifully stated; I could not agree more, and this is how you communicate a tragedy (or really any major event).
I also hope she finds peace and comfort, and I’m saddened by the knowledge that she is so overwhelmed by everything that has happened.
Thank you for always being so kind and thoughtful; it’s so greatly appreciated.