When one of my best friends died in her late twenties, it was different. I had been deeply upset when my grandparents died, but my mind had been able to process it somehow – it was their turn, a wounding rite of passage that was inescapable, natural. Death out of turn, against the rules, felt torturously unfair. Mourning my friend, helping to carry her coffin at the funeral, failing to manage the choking wretchedness of it. These defining moments of pain made everything different.
For most of my life, death was something that happened in films and on TV. It affected other people. I appreciate – now more than ever – what incredible good fortune I had had, never having lost someone before it was their time until I was in my late twenties. It did, however, perhaps mean that I had settled very deeply into my complacency. The revelation was jolting. Death is an act of theft, a violent robbery, a ransacking. Every moment of life is terrifyingly precious, but also paralysingly sad.
My friend was taken by cancer. It came and went and came back again at increasingly regular intervals. That I was almost never with her during her illness is a lasting source of a boiling kind of shame to me. I can taste it, it makes my ribs turn to concrete. She was one of my oldest friends from our school close to Manchester in the UK. I had moved to Germany in my early twenties: I saw her often when visiting, but whenever my visits coincided with her illness, I failed to go and see her. I was very selfish and very afraid.
When I received the call that she was going to die, I booked a flight back to the UK immediately. Many of her friends were at her house the next day, people I hadn’t seen in years. It felt like a reunion. When she came downstairs, I don’t think she had expected us to be there. I don’t think she was comfortable with so much attention and special effort. Her body was so frail. We all sat together, caught up, made jokes, laughed. When I left later that day, together with a couple of other friends who had returned home, tears streamed down my face. There was no sobbing, no loss of breath. Salt water poured from my eyes, down my face, into my shirt collar. We got very drunk.
I returned home the next day, and a week or so later received the news that she had passed away. Her husband asked me to help carry her coffin into the chapel. It was an honour, of course, and unexpected. But it was also an enormous emotional strain. The funeral was attended by far more people than could fit into the chapel, a crowd was sheltering from the rain under a covered area in front of the entrance, there were people standing in the lobby and cramped together at the back of the room. From the hearse to the altar I could hear her husband, who was directly behind me, raging against an impossible grief. He showed incredible strength that day. Six of us were carrying, three on each side. After we had placed the coffin on the stand, we each embraced. My friend’s husband went to join their daughter, a toddler.
My reaction in the weeks that followed was the exact opposite of what I had expected. Instead of viewing my office job as a pointless waste of an exquisite resource, I began to work more. I was grateful for the security, for a regular income and the opportunities that it presented me with. I felt guilty for complaining or criticising: Futile meetings, hierarchical creeping and crawling, stifling bureaucracy. These were no hardships in the face of what I had now seen. I began to feel guilty for negativity, but also for enjoyment. I fell into an emptiness, began trying to get my days out of the way. To do nothing felt like an insult to her memory. To carry on felt the same.
As I write, making this experience about me and hoping for other people to engage with what I’ve written… I am aware that it is a self-serving and silly act of show. But I have to act, and I have to share that action with others. That appalling robbery: Stealing so much from my friend when she had done nothing to provoke it and everything to deserve mercy, brought with it a pain so enormous that it dwarfs all else. No shame can stand up to it, no embarrassment can face it down. In seeking to avenge that crime, that she was robbed of so much of herself, I must be myself in a way that is perfectly true and proudly humble. I must reach out to others, as my friend did, in a spirit of honesty and with a bold openness. Nothing has ever been the same since then, but nothing could ever have been the same. Everything is different, everything is new. A balance must be found between the terror of doing nothing and the humiliation of doing something. A perfect equilibrium at tipping point. A weakness that requires vast, eternal courage.