The last time I saw Dylan he was dancing on my front porch steps. He had come with his mom—my closest friend from college—and brought me a half-melted root beer float. I can’t remember if he flashed me or if he was just wiggling his butt a lot while dancing. But I know there was butt involved. He was nine years old.
Helplessness overwhelmed me a few months later when I went to be with Dylan’s mom the morning after he died. I tried something familiar first , visiting her favorite bakery, buying two of every pastry they had. In retrospect, thinking baked goods could possibly be a balm when faced with the sudden, unexpected loss of a young child seems tremendously naive. And it was. I was.
As I drove to their house with biscuits, croissants, and morning buns in tow I kept thinking: I don’t know what to do; I don’t know how to do it; I am not equipped. When I arrived my friend’s husband said: She wants to see you. She’s in Dylan‘s room. I walked toward his room, unsure and unsteady. My friend was crying, not just with her eyes but with her whole body, as if something was shaking her, relentlessly, from the inside. I had never seen anyone cry like that. I got into Dylan’s bed with her. I held her hand. I reminded her to drink water. I got more tissues. I cried too.
Grief is like being ushered behind a red velvet rope into a club no one wants membership in—but that we’ll all enter sooner or later. Accompanying my friend and her family through it has taught me a lot about what helps and what doesn’t, what grievers need and what they don’t. Some of what I learned is common wisdom about grieving, but I felt freed from helplessness by an unlikely source: my work.
Five years ago, I began leading diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts at my company. In that time, I have assembled guides on allyship and talked to many people about what it means to be an ally, particularly to a member of a community that you yourself are not a part of. When I found myself in the community of devastating loss, what I know and what I’ve taught about that role came to the fore.
Education is almost always the first step to being an effective ally. Educating myself on grief in order to support Dylan’s mom better gave me a place to channel my energy and desire to understand what was happening. Being proximate to grief is not the same as being a griever, or experiencing grief. I talked with many people who had experienced grief firsthand, read books and poetry about grief, listened to podcasts, and watched videos created by grievers.
Patricia McKernon Runkle’s poem When You Meet Someone in Deep Grief served as a guide and reminder in those early days without Dylan. Dr. Joanne Cacciatore’s When someone’s beloved child dies… What can you do to help? offered the kind of practical advice for supporting grievers that’s so hard to come by. Rob Delaney’s memoir A Heart That Works moved me in its witty frankness about the searing pain of losing a very young child.
I have watched my friend work to build a life she never wanted—one without Dylan— and some of the things that have made it much harder on her are things that I see as preventable. These things include people’s lack of empathy, an awareness that platitudes are hurtful and an understanding of how to treat people in deep grief. Often there’s a general unwillingness of people to look great sadness in the eyes, or at the very least acknowledge it.
Every milestone or holiday takes on a new meaning when a person you love deeply can’t be there. From a long Labor Day weekend to the first day of school to anything that marks how old Dylan should be but isn’t. Grieving people need us to remember that their person isn’t here to celebrate a graduation, put lights up on the tree, get an ice cream cone.
Many people—friends, family, colleagues, classmates—stopped talking about Dylan after he died. Though their intentions may have been to spare my friend pain, it had the opposite impact. It isolated her and made her fearful that the world was forgetting her precious son.
This year, on what should’ve been Dylan’s 11th birthday, we gathered at a park. His mom addressed everyone in a clear voice. Don’t avoid us, she pleaded. We need you.
Grieving people need us. They need us to show up, to be okay not talking. They need us not to fix but to be present. They need us to sit beside them in their grief and say the names of the people they’ve lost. They need us not to be afraid, to be allies. And we all need the practice because even if we’ve been lucky enough to escape grief so far in this life, we won’t make it out without becoming grievers ourselves.