Casserole Not Required


He showed up mere hours after finding out what happened.

It was Easter Sunday. The sun had already set, sealing what had officially been the worst 24 hours of our lives. I saw his familiar truck pull into the drive, crackling slowly over the gravel. The headlights illuminated our ragged selves, huddled around a massive bonfire in the backyard. Our friend of over a decade walked towards us, enveloped my husband and I in a hug and quietly pulled up an old plastic chair. There were nothing to say, and so nothing was said. We just sat. Watching the flames dance and shoot embers into the night sky.

My father-in-law passed away suddenly the night before Easter Sunday. He was young and active and very much alive. Until he wasn’t. Our family—our boisterous, loud, solid unit of a family—was shattered in a way we never thought possible.

In the past, when tragedy befell a friend, I had always stuck to the same plan. First, I gave them space. Lots of space. After several days, I would send a text. A three-line text I agonized over for hours. Trying to find the right phrase, or at least not say something completely inappropriate. Then, after a week or so, I would sign up for the inevitable meal train, and deliver my face-to-face condolences alongside a butter-laden shepherd’s pie. Of course, I would always include a card with some sort of floral motif on the front, filled with more words I prayed to high heaven were not wrong.

Then I would give them more space.

My word, I had it so wrong.

I didn’t realize how wrong I had it until I was sitting around a fire 24 hours after my father-in-law was taken from us. And I watched one brave, tender-hearted soul after another show up. To sit with a broken family—devastated, raw and still in shock. They brought nothing. There had been no time to walk down the card aisle at the local market, searching for the perfect sympathy card. No opportunity to shop for groceries to make a meal. But they still came. With no words, no food. Just themselves.

It was more healing than I ever imagined it could be. Surrounded by friends who were also racked with grief, but who were willing to be the stronger ones. They listened to our rambling, refused to be frightened off by our sobs, and settled in to our pain-filled silences.

We sat around that fire for a long time. No one wanted to sleep, and pass easily into another day without him. But eventually we all had to disperse. Children needed to be put to bed, friends had to wake early for work. We were exhausted and devastated, but for those few hours, we felt held. It meant so much to be held.

Over the next several weeks, I had friends who followed the same pattern I had always adhered to when tragedy struck: they gave me space, texted, brought food, gave more space. I understood. But it still hurt. I didn’t want space or carefully-crafted cards. I wanted someone to come sit on my couch in their sweatpants for a day. I wanted someone to say nothing with. I wanted someone who wasn’t scared of my grief, someone who wasn’t waiting until I was over the worst of it.

We received a bounty of amazing food, and were truly grateful for all of it. But I couldn’t tell you who it came from. What I can tell you is who showed up that first night and sat around a fire with a bunch of broken people, with absolutely none of the right words.

Nothing about this story should stimulate guilt or regret. If anything, it should relieve our anxiety when it comes to walking alongside grieving friends. We do not need to wait. We do not need to write eloquently or be a gourmet chef. We just need to show up.

You will likely be uncomfortable. You’ll try to convince yourself you’re not wanted. Or that you’ll just be in the way. It will take effort to not run for the door.

Don’t run.

Take a deep breath. Make some tea. Settle into the couch. Or build a giant bonfire in the backyard. Hold space for tears and anger and silence over dancing flames.

You’re doing so much more than you know.