Extradimensional Cephalopod was kind enough to post this wise and evocative reflection prompted by my recent post following the sudden, but really not so sudden, death of an old friend over the weekend. His thoughts helped me a great deal, and I am grateful: here, without further comment, is EC’s Comment of the Day on the post, “’Bang The Drum Slowly,’ My Old Friend, and Me”:
First of all, please accept my condolences. It takes great courage to celebrate a life reaching its end, as you and your friend did, but grief is also a noble feeling that I have no intention of dismissing.
In the spirit of attempting to answer your questions regarding the difficulty of seeing dying friends, I offer food for thought. I offer it in earnest, as I believe you ask in earnest. This is my own meager tribute, and though it may seem inappropriately clinical at this juncture, I am far from dry eyes as I write this. If it troubles anyone, please ignore it as the ponderous musings of a tone-deaf mollusk.
The procrastination you describe is likely caused by the same feeling that would deter me from commenting here but for an unexpected feeling of belonging, and would deter this analysis but for the duty to address a serious question. There is a social principle that applies to personal tragedy called “comfort in, dump out” which establishes a hierarchy of people based on how closely related they are to the person experiencing the hardship; one must comfort those more closely related to the person at the center and can complain to more distantly related people.
The entire situation is emotionally straining for all involved, but it is even more straining to be comforting when one wants to vent one’s own grief. Furthermore, if one is talking to a dying friend, does one attempt to be upbeat to improve their mood, or be somber to show respect? One must know the person to know which approach is better, but people can be unpredictable when faced with their own mortality. Not only is it difficult to be genuine if one is trying to predict and avoid missteps, but it can also be hard to think of conversation topics when one’s mind is drawn to the situation at hand. It is hard to decide if broaching the subject is for the best or a mistake, and either way the ensuing discussion is guaranteed to be even more emotionally draining.
Interacting with people who are experiencing any form of hardship is often awkward and emotionally tiring, which is why homeless people are frequently overlooked. People have an instinct to avoid awkwardness, even when a tragedy happens to a close friend. It takes a strong bond to be there for someone when they are in pain and you are in pain by proxy.
Based on these thoughts, I would guess that the best ways to not forget to mail the metaphorical World Series program are to build strong friendships in the present, learn to be at peace with your emotions without being detached from them, practice genuine listening and other comforting behaviors, and practice having enjoyable visits even when a shadow looms over them. Each of these goals is an ongoing endeavor but should be well worth the effort. It is easier to make time for someone when you know for a fact neither of you will be sorry you did. It sounds like you succeeded in these goals admirably with your friend.
On a final note, the instinct to avoid mental pain also applies to visiting a person in memories. By no means allow guilt or regret to deter you from your friend’s memory any more than you allowed pain or awkwardness to stay you from his living presence that day. I hope reading this helps you even half as much as you helped me by inspiring me to write it.