How Will I Survive This?

Soon after our son’s funeral, Carey and I were invited to a birthday party. As “cool” as I like to think we are, it is a rare occurrence to be invited to a party for a 25-year-old friend. Allison, the birthday girl, took a risk—knowing we were raw in our grief—and included us. Feeling conflicted between the honour of being invited and the fear of small talk with strangers, we chose to attend. Because our world had stopped due to life-altering grief, it was difficult to enter the happiness of others. But we tried.

Arriving to social events late and leaving early was becoming our default due to grief exhaustion. Hands down, the biggest surprise has been how emotionally and physically exhausting grief is—a common complaint among the bereaved.

Shortly after arriving at Allison’s party, I was overwhelmed by the noise of laughter and chatter which comes with a houseful of party guests. “How will I survive this?” I thought. In the quietest corner, I started chatting with a young single guy. We had never met before. Joal had kind eyes and a headful of shoulder-length curly hair. I discovered he was musical. My goal was to ask him so many questions about his life that I could avoid talking about mine.

A Social Experiment

Months earlier, my friend Bob told me about an entertaining social experiment he conducts on occasion. The goal is to simply keep a new acquaintance taking about himself/herself for as long as possible before he/she reciprocates with questions. On a recent bus trip, Bob was able to keep his seatmate talking only about himself for the entire 2.5-hour trip. Other than his name, Bob wasn’t invited to share more. Crazy! Recalling this story gave me an idea to survive the party.

My attempt to try this social experiment with Joal failed very quickly. It turned out Joal was a thoughtful gentleman. After sharing a little about himself, he turned the conversation to me, asking about my family. At first, I hesitated to give more than just the basics, but his sincerity and interest was disarming. Soon I was sharing about the major life events of the past few months: Jordan’s university graduation, new career job, his wedding day and his funeral.

Anytime I share with an unsuspecting listener that I’ve experienced the loss of a child, I see the look of shock in their eyes. This was the case with Joal. But, instead of changing the subject or finding an excuse to fill up his plate with more food, Joal expressed his empathy and gently asked more questions. As more of my story spilled out, tears welled up in Joal’s eyes. I was surprised but grateful for Joal’s willingness to simply sit with me—a stranger—and share in my pain.

I left that party with my heart feeling a bit lighter. This young man had not tried to fix my pain, but he had helped to carry it… even for a few minutes. What a comfort to know there are truly empathetic people in the world.

Coping Strategy

Joal’s empathy gave me an idea. Over the next year, my coping strategy for attending any social event, work event or church event was the same: find another “Joal” through a natural encounter. I developed a scoring system for each event based on the number of empathetic souls I could find. This survival strategy may sound juvenile to some. Honestly, it kept me treading water when the waves of grief threatened to suck me under.

Nearly 5 Years Later

Several times over the years, I’d meant to find Joal to thank him for his kindness. Being the queen of procrastination, it didn’t happen and it pains me to admit this.

But on July 1, 2017, I was volunteering at the Hope150 event for Canada’s birthday in Calgary. At the “Stories of Hope” tent where I was hosting, a young man with short straight hair came in and started reading the stories posted. With his back to me, I sensed God whispering, “That’s Joal.” I hesitated for a moment and then softly called out “Joal???”

Immediately he turned around. I knew it was the same guy I had met nearly 5 years earlier… but without the curls.

As I shared with him the impact he had on me almost 5 years before and expressed my gratitude, his eyes became teary. Yup! He’s still the same big-hearted, empathetic soul I remember. What a gift!

3 Tips

  1. Continue to include your grieving friends in social events. Don’t say their “no” for them. Extend the freedom to arrive late and leave early IF they choose to attend.
  2. Show grace to your grieving friends who choose coping strategies that seem odd or even juvenile. They are in survival mode.
  3. Keep in mind that grief is exhausting. Be the one who encourages the bereaved to move forward at their own pace.

Cheering you on!


Picture of Shirley Thiessen

Shirley Thiessen

Author and speaker helping you bring hope to broken, grieving hearts.