Just Show Up

Empty chairs awaiting actors for a reading of my friend Abby Koenig's new play. Houston, Texas. January 25, 2016.

Empty chairs awaiting actors for a reading of my friend Abby Koenig's new play. Houston, Texas. January 25, 2016.

You don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do.

So you don’t say anything. Worse—you don’t do anything.

Even worse? You say and do nothing and then you either disappear entirely from the person’s life or you let an unconscionable period of time go by and then, upon seeing them again, intentionally fail to acknowledge what happened and your subsequent silence and absence.

I get it. I’ve done it.

And I was wrong.

In fact, the entire premise for my paralysis was misguided. You don’t have to say anything. You can erase the question mark around what to do.

The next time something happens to someone, however big or small the troubles, show up.

Even just to bear witness. Even just to show them that someone cares. Even just to sit, talk about it, not talk about it, talk about something else, stay quiet. As my Indiana family would say, “Visit.”

While an acquaintance sat at the bedside during her mother’s final days, one of her mother’s longstanding friends showed up and stayed for an hour, perched on the edge of the mattress, rubbing lotion into her mother’s arms and hands and talking softly. Over a decade later, the daughter still speaks of the kindness. And you know what? I’d bet the mother, even unresponsive, felt gratitude, too.

Shortly after I got the news about Ramona and grief racked me, a friend came by, met my pup for the first time, and sat with us on the couch over tea. She stayed only a couple hours. We talked about a lot of nothing in particular.

I still feel the love.

I’ve heard people grumble about going to funerals because a dead person doesn’t know you went. Even still: Show up. Let the people left behind know that the man, woman, or child who died mattered. Share a story. If you didn’t know the deceased person, let your grieving friends or family know you care about them and their grief. Pay respect for a life lived. Provide comfort.

When people go through rough moments or patches, they need community. Community means other people—even people who don’t know what to say or do.

And if you feel like showing up doesn’t mean enough (even though it does), just pick a doing, any doing:

  • Bring food to share in the moment with the person or people in need or food that can easily get reheated in a short time without much trouble.

  • Clean their home or a portion of their home or hire someone else to clean it.

  • Take their kids for an afternoon.

  • Get your friend out of the house and his or her head—plan an activity you know your friend enjoys and go do it with him or her, even if you don’t typically like that type of thing.

Most importantly, do not ask people in distress what they want or need. They likely don’t know and, if they do know, they probably don’t want to bear the guilt or shame of feeling needy and making requests. Telling them to think about what they need and pressing them to ask for something from you adds burden when they need relief. Get it?

And don’t forget: All you really need to do is show up.

When has someone just shown up for you?