It’s all right now, except when it isn’t.
The invitation to create a page for the 35th Reunion Class Book sat in my inbox for weeks. In past years, I had highlighted the arrival of children, travels with family, a cross-border move, and even my firstborn’s acceptance to Stanford. But it is less clear what to do if the big event since we last gathered isn’t something to celebrate—if the biggest milestone is a headstone.
“What would you like your classmates to know about your life today?” the email queried.
Thirty-five years ago, I was single, no kids, and my career path was ambiguous. In the five years since our last reunion, my husband, Steve, died; my three adult kids have launched; and my career path has gotten murky. Just like being 22 again, but not in that fun, exciting, ready-for-an-adventure kind of way.
I wrote that entry in my head, then in my journal, and finally I submitted it for the Class Book. It’s not what I’d like my classmates to know about my life today, but it is what’s true, and I’d prefer to tell of my bereavement virtually than wait for the reunion to share in person. Although I know the dance well, I will never master it: I tell you my shocking news; you step back, then right yourself, lean toward me with brow furrowed, and ask a tender question or offer condolences; meanwhile, I work to steady you. Let’s avoid this interaction if possible. So, click! I broadcast my loss to give classmates a chance to prepackage their responses. I feel both generous and relieved for doing so. Yet I am ambivalent about actually going to the reunion.
Grief brought on by the death of a loved one is as common as death itself, but bereaved people often feel alone in their loss. Perhaps this is because we often avoid the subject and live as if death comes for others, not for us—until it does. In our success-driven culture, death raises a kind of shame, giving the lie to our pursuit of ever higher achievements. Or perhaps I feel alone because despite there being 11.8 million widows in the United States and 2,800 more each day, I am the only widow of my husband. My experience, like everyone’s, is unique. And it is disorienting.
Grief changes the way one shows up in the world. Something core to who I am has shifted—it would seem dishonest to pretend otherwise. Death is shocking, and people are awkward in the face of grief; it’s easy to choose avoidance over presence. This is the dilemma behind the ambivalence I feel about going to my reunion. It’s one thing to put it all out on the page, where classmates can react to my news, buffered by the privacy of their own screens; it’s another thing to attend in person, bearing the weight of loss. Wouldn’t I be doing everyone a favor if I were to stay home? And dare I go to my reunion without the safe harbor of my husband’s companionship, into which I could retreat and where I could enjoy all the quirky and wonderful reunion moments, and more significantly, where I could recover or hide from the painful and awkward ones?
As the weekend unfolded, I realized that my friends were more interested in the real me than in a performance of the old me.
On the other hand, my husband’s death has left a profound hole in my world—it’s not a loneliness precisely, but an aloneness in which my own thoughts echo. Sometimes I get tired of the ringing in my ears. Perhaps the company of old friends would mute the reverberations. So, I buy reunion tickets, book flights, and begin searching for accommodations, all the while wondering who else will show up. I feel some of the same nerves as when I first made plans to move to campus in the fall of 1983, stepping out of my comfort zone with guarded confidence that the risk would be worth taking.
Back then, Stanford did a lot of the work, assigning me a roommate and a frosh dorm; throwing a wacky, event-filled orientation; creating the expectation of friendliness and bonding. Maybe Stanford would do the work again. I emailed the Stanford Alumni Association and explained the dilemma a reunion poses for those of us who carry grief. I proposed an event for us to find one another, a sort of safe space for the sad and brokenhearted. My proposal was met with Stanford’s characteristic enthusiasm for innovation: “We’ve never done that before! Let’s try it!” Back in 1983, I chose to go to Stanford because it seemed friendly, welcoming. One reason I chose to return was that I knew it would be again. And it was.
Class of ’87 Reunion co-chair Jeffrey Rainey threw himself into the planning, and SAA class manager Javier Heinz lent support. Soon we were off and running, via Zoom. Planning the Gathering for Classmates in Grief was reminiscent of those frosh dorm high jinks, when we organized trips to the City, Secret Santa stunts, and pranks on Branner. Should planning a grief event be fun? The gathering wouldn’t be fun, exactly, but it could be a means of fostering connection. Finding people who share a soul-level understanding of loss and who don’t find it awkward to acknowledge grief could be an oasis amid our reunion festivities.
The event would follow the Class Panel, when folks might be in a reflective mood, and it would be before the Class Party; those attending solo might benefit from having made a few new friends. There was just one question remaining: Would anyone show up?
Robert Gregg, emeritus professor of religious studies and former dean of the chapel, had graciously agreed to join the gathering. Around 30 people attended, including classmates who had experienced the death of a spouse, child, or close friend since the last reunion, and others with less recent losses. One person was in mourning for her dog. A younger man asked to join us: “My class isn’t doing this, but my mother died, and I need to be here.” Maybe we all did.
Once I’d begun planning the event, I realized I had inadvertently committed to attend the reunion, so I emailed my old friends from Rinconada. One by one, they arranged to be in the area regardless of whether they would attend reunion events. We dined together at the home of one who lives locally; we enjoyed a sleepover, talking into the wee hours, just as we once had; we wandered campus recalling bike accidents, exams, bats in study carrels, and fro yo at Tresidder; we made Hobee’s-style French toast using an improvised recipe. We re-created a photo from our first year and convinced ourselves we hadn’t changed a bit.
Yet of course we have changed—marriages, children, death, divorce, graduate school, jobs, and job changes have marked us. To celebrate with one another is a joy, but to carry one another’s pain is necessary for survival. Amid the festivities, most profound were the quiet moments of connection. Maybe that had always been true.
By the 35th reunion, almost everyone has sorrow to bear. Mine feels acute and present in a particular way, as my loss is recent. Anticipating the reunion, I feared my sorrow’s visibility, but I feared its invisibility more. I didn’t want to feel fake or act fake, but I wondered whether it would be OK to be real. As the weekend unfolded, I realized that my friends were more interested in the real me than in a performance of the old me. And surprisingly, the old me is still there to be found.
During the gathering, Dean Gregg drew on his own experience and encouraged us to choose love each day as a means of coping with sorrow. Since my husband’s death, I have been committed to doing just that. Sometimes choosing love feels risky; showing up at the reunion certainly did. Sometimes choosing love means choosing to go where you will be loved—and known. It still isn’t all right now. But it is a little bit better being in it with good friends.
How to Show Up for a Grieving Friend
Realize that your friend will be happy to see you.
Acknowledge their loss. You will probably feel awkward. You might even say the wrong thing. But naming the loss allows your friend to decide how
or whether to talk about it. Follow their lead.
Share memories about the person who died. Many bereaved people experience compounded sorrow when not only is their loved one gone but others act as if they’d never existed.
Engage. It’s tempting to avoid someone who is grieving. We give ourselves excuses to avoid them, saying we don’t want to add to their pain. Here’s a secret: You cannot add to their pain. Their pain is too great and might be too complicated for anything you say to make it significantly worse. Avoiding a grieving friend only adds to their loss.
Don’t assume you know how a bereaved person feels.
Ask better questions. “How are you?” saddles the bereaved with the burden of evaluating their own well-being. Think of something specific to ask.
Be OK with tears. If they happen during your conversation, that simply means you have joined your friend in this new reality. Welcome.
Accept that you might feel uncomfortable. Don’t let that keep you from accompanying and supporting your friend.
Susie Colby, ’87, lives and writes in Vancouver, British Columbia. Email her at email@example.com.