My friend died last month. These are the words came out in the days following her passing. Much of this is what I said at her memorial service. I’m sharing it here because the experience walking alongside her through her battle with cancer changed me forever.
She was young and funny and fierce. She was too young to die. It feels unfair and pointless. It’s really too big for me to understand. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand it.
This journey has validated one thing that I already believed. We are responsible for one another. The most authentic interaction that you can have with another human is to sit in silence, facing the unimaginable knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do, and just be there. To bear witness to another person’s sorrow, holding space for all of the words that will not be spoken, the dreams that will not be realized, the connections not forged - is a gift that we are so often not able to give to one another. Death, pain, and sickness (physical and emotional) makes people uncomfortable. We are ill prepared in American culture to deal with discomfort in almost every form. I’ve woken up to this reality and begun to address my own choices more critically in an effort to make real change in myself and within our community. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is the only way to change the world.
My friend knew this innately. She was a special education teacher. She was beloved. She was tough. She saw light and possibility in young people who others had written off. She pushed kids (and parents), she asked tough questions, she didn’t take shit from anyone. Over and over I have heard people say how she changed their lives, helped them to see themselves in a different way, helped them to know that giving up wasn’t an option. I’m sorry that she won’t be able to share that vision of hope with other kids and I pray that another teacher with her passion will make it so future youth get a fighting chance.
You see I know that death happens all the time. Her death isn’t special. Her life, however, was remarkable, and also regular. She didn’t live in a castle, she wasn’t famous, she ate tuna fish and drank slurpees.
Regular people have so much power because, what I realized, is that the real work happens 1:1, building connections, relationships, showing up for one another. I spend so much of my time talking and talking and writing and telling but the times when I feel most powerful are times when I can help another person see something in themselves that they didn’t know was there. She knew that too. That is what the world will miss.
She is at peace and no longer suffering. But there is a hole in this world left by her departure. There are lessons she taught that will now go unlearned, there are ideas that she had that will go unbirthed, there is love that she gave that will go unshared.
In seeing how people have shown up for her it’s clearer to me than ever that the people who have experienced the most pain are often the ones who:
1. Are able to be the most compassionate and have the most to give in times of need.
2. Those individuals are frequently overlooked, undervalued and it is often assumed that “broken” people have nothing to give.
People are good and bad and everything in between. People are complicated. We hurt one another, we let each other down and often we are surprised by the people who show-up that we didn’t expect.
To have compassion – true, genuine, unselfish, nonjudgmental compassion may be the hardest thing for humans to achieve. We think we need to be doing, always doing. When really our responsibility is just to see one another’s pain, to sit with discomfort, and to make peace with knowing that sometimes there is just nothing you can say but “I see you and you are not alone.”
We need to be better at taking care of each other. Not in big ways that cost a lot of money but in the smallest of ways that allow us to remember we are all made of stars and dust and in the end the only thing that matters is love.