“Deep breaths,” read the text message.
Like usual, Kim had responded quickly to my digital S.O.S., a satisfying trait in a friend I’d never met. Three more dots blinked on my phone. “You are on your way, lady,” read the next one. “Can you tell me to where?” I thumbed back, already feeling a bit better. “To redefine your life,” she wrote.
Kim and I were a few months deep into our electronic friendship at this point. A mutual friend, David, introduced us by text because he believed we should chat. He knew that my life was in a tailspin, and that about nine hundred miles north of my home, Kim was also flailing. He also knew we were both juggling things he couldn’t grasp ― single parenting while grieving. So, who better to understand than a total stranger, right?
Neither Kim nor I remember what was written in our maiden message. Details during that time blur like the view from a Tilt-a-Whirl. I do know we started with topics people normally hold tight to their chests. For us that meant death.
Kim quickly learned that my mom had terminal breast cancer. The most recent CAT scan showed lesions on her breasts, lungs, kidneys, liver and bones. The health of her brain was also in question since instead of flinging herself into treatment, my mom casually turned her back on the medical community by refusing interventions until the end.
“I’ve had a good life,” my mom would say. Since I couldn’t begin to mirror this nonchalance about her demise, my kids and I shuttled back and forth, back and forth, from our home in Georgia to hers in Colorado to catch as many last breaths as possible.
Oh, I had also just become a single mom.
“About to take off,” I texted from the runway in Atlanta perched between two toddlers incapable of grasping the moment’s gravity. “Wish me luck.”
“You’ve got this,” Kim replied.
Kim’s muscle for support is ironclad. It’s also hard-earned. About six months before we connected, she awoke to find her partner Adam in the eternal sleep. They had just returned from a romantic escapade in Vietnam. The trip marked a homecoming of sorts since Kim had been one of the roughly 3,000 babies packed like swaddled sardines into airplanes in South Vietnam and evacuated to the U.S. at the end of that country’s devastating war.
Leaving her birth mother and motherland were the first uninvited farewells. The next torrent came during her adult years. That’s when Kim buried both adopted parents and closed the door on a marriage. Adam’s love ― and death ― followed in the slipstream.
So, when the panic surged, as it did for us both, our new solution became grabbing the phone and jabbing the screen until feelings turned into raw, grammatically incorrect sentences for the other to catch. Chatting with someone steeped in grief felt different than speaking with friends. We related to each other’s inability for small talk. Our relative anonymity allowed us to be candid without worrying about putting on a brave face ― the way we probably would have had to do with our friends or family members.
Kim didn’t try to alleviate my sadness. She didn’t need to fix me. And vice versa. We took turns catching each other. It worked this way, an effortless ping pong of fragility and support.
“Can’t stop thinking about that morning,” Kim fired off on a day when the memory of Adam’s passing rose afresh. “I remember doing CPR until the police and EMTs came. The officer told me quietly that we weren’t going to the hospital.”
“Oh, my friend,” I wrote back. “My heart aches for you.”
No words can alleviate the pain of life’s heart-wrenching losses. That’s not why Kim and I kept texting. We wrote because sharing an ungilded reality became the most normal way of receiving and giving comfort during an abnormal time. What we discovered in our extended conversation about love, loss and life is that a tenderly written, “I’m so sorry,” “sending hugs”, or “you’ve survived harder moments,” was really a way of saying, you don’t have to go at this alone; I see your pain and it doesn’t scare me.
The not-so-funny thing about grief is that while your life fractures and screeches to a halt, the rest of the world continues spinning. Or as a favorite song of mine says, “The sun still rises even with the pain.” There’s no break. No pause. Bills, dirty laundry and kids continue screaming for attention. The necessity of keeping it all together usually outweighs the yearning to let it all go.
That’s why most mornings I still managed to get my boys to school on time. The fridge contained enough food for meals. I retained my job. I went to yoga and saw friends occasionally. And yet, each task was accomplished with a light-sucking black hole at my epicenter. My teeth chattered randomly no matter how warm the day. Clumps of hair fell out in the shower. My body threw off pounds I couldn’t spare. I smiled and told acquaintances I was good. Then, I’d text Kim. “I don’t want to do this today. Can’t stop crying.”
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Invisible threads are the strongest ties.” I couldn’t agree more. One of those threads is Kim’s partner who passed away. I knew Adam during college years. We attended the same parties, had a few mutual friends, including David who introduced Kim to me, and loosely knew each other’s names. It was a limited entwining of one life with another. Even so, that invisible strand of connection continued as he graduated from medical school, met Kim, fell in love and died too soon. I like to think it is Adam’s love that eventually stitched Kim’s and my life together.
“I’ve grown close to a woman I’ve never met face to face. The friendship is as surprising as it is wonderful... Strangely, I recommend it. The radio frequencies of our cell phones now form a fortified bridge of empathy from New York to Atlanta.”
One text message turned into thousands. Somewhere in there, Kim and I forged a friendship in reverse. The ongoing chats about death and divorce created space for more mundane details. Kim is a high school science teacher who speaks rapidly, barely sleeps, has a five-star sense of humor and never misses a Mets game. She’s a tomboy in three-inch heels. I’m a slow-speaking journalist who is as earnest as I am calm and would happily forego shoes for sand between my toes any day of the week.
Even so, these details were never of primary importance. They became tertiary facts surrounding the question that united us: How do we traverse deep loss while fighting to retain a semblance of normalcy? There’s no simple answer to this universal conundrum, of course. How can there be when grief is as personal as the love story behind it? The short answer in my case is I’ve navigated the path with a cell phone in hand and Kim’s quick, kind words guiding me slowly out from grief’s event horizon.
“Thinking of you,” she wrote during that last week of my mom’s life. “I know it’s hard. Glad you’re together.”
A bright bouquet of flowers arrived on my doorstep on the one-year anniversary of my mom’s passing, because Kim already knew what I would realize soon enough: grief lives in the body. The details of goodbye arise in one’s cells before the brain registers the date. “Thank you,” I wrote after placing the flowers on my dining room table. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Two words I’ve written countless times to Kim. Two words I’ve received in equal measure.
In this way, I’ve grown close to a woman I’ve never met face to face. The friendship is as surprising as it is wonderful. “This is weird,” we’ve acknowledged many times throughout our three years of oversharing, mostly through texts and phone calls. Strangely, I recommend it. The radio frequencies of our cell phones now form a fortified bridge of empathy from New York to Atlanta.
About one year into chatting, we realized we had happened upon something cathartic and wanted to offer the possibility to others. Together we launched an app called Goodgrief that enables people reeling from life’s big losses ― suicide, stillbirth, illness, accidents, miscarriage and divorce ― to find one another, chat and remember they’re not alone.
After all this, Kim and I still haven’t met. One day we will. At the right time. For now, it’s enough to relish that beauty can grow from pain, and connection from loss.
Robynne Boyd is a writer with a focus on environmental issues, though she has also been known to share more personal stories. She recently co-created Goodgrief, an app providing peer-to-peer support for people grappling with life’s hardest losses. She can be reached via her website, www.robynneboyd.com.