Comfort Only Takes a Minute

"Elizabeth Costume," by  Tony Hisgett , via Flickr,  Creative Commons  (3/2018)

"Elizabeth Costume," by Tony Hisgett, via Flickr, Creative Commons (3/2018)

In 2002, one of my neighbors gave me a birthday card with a drawing of costumes in a wardrobe and the caption Masquerading as a normal person is exhausting. If I got that card today, I’d smile and toss it in the basket I keep for recyclable bits of ribbon, photos and small gift boxes. But at the time, the words struck a deep chord, and I framed it for my nightstand. I was two years into the grief of many losses. Smiling required a deliberate effort: when it was socially appropriate to smile, I smiled. Otherwise, I didn’t.

The faded card with its whimsical assortment of odd garments brings to mind a frigid night in Vancouver when my late husband and I had joined a group of people on a hotel balcony. I’ve forgotten why. I was wearing an evening dress meant for a venue in which the heat is cranked up, and men in suits are discretely mopping their brows with a cocktail napkin. Wayne took off his coat and draped it over my shoulders. I glanced sideways at him, standing stone-faced, his white dress shirt whipping in the biting wind like a rigged sail. He refused to catch my eye, knowing I couldn’t keep the coat if he made a show of his own discomfort.

Grief is like standing on a balcony in a winter gale, wearing thin clothing, and trying, among warmly dressed companions, not to shiver. If you run into a friend who is masquerading in such a way—one who has suffered a tragedy or profound loss in recent years and is pretending to be warm and happy—you can share an emotional “coat” just by asking in a genuine way How are you? as if to add I’m not just being polite; I care. No need to creep in close and feign a funereal demeanor, but do make meaningful eye contact. 

The years when I needed affirmation, however brief, of what I was going through are in the past. But I remember people who made that effort for me. One was a physician who’d worked closely with my husband. It was a sweltering day at an annual steeplechase, another occasion when a moment can make a huge difference, and this man was wearing a safari hat with a small battery-operated fan clipped to the brim. Without even saying “hello” he walked over and pulled me into his arms. The irony of his eyes, so concerned, and the little fan, whirring happily above his nose, is a memory that still makes me smile—I even smiled then and meant it.