The other night, I was taking a cab home with a couple of friends. Our driver was young and friendly, and we started talking to him about his life. He was upset that he had planned a fun weekend trip for his girlfriend and she had been ignoring his texts and calls all day. “Maybe she’s just busy,” someone offered.
“Maybe,” he said, “but I think she’s mad.”
We chatted more about their relationship and the many plans they had for their immediate future. I smiled at my friends. I knew they were also thinking how adorably innocent this guy was. “Do you think I should call her?” he asked us.
“Definitely,” we all said. Immediately, he started to dial her number. We all looked at each other with horrified expressions – we hadn’t meant he should call her while we were in the car!
“Hello,” she said to him over speakerphone.
I swear, I didn’t even breathe. What if she knew that we were listening? I was sure we were just about to witness a huge fight over something that 23-year-olds fight about.
“Hey. Uh…you never answered my calls or my texts,” he said with an edge in his voice.
There was a pause. “I’m at the hospital,” the girl said.
“Oh,” he said back. “Are you okay?”
“My aunt,” the girl said, and paused again. “She was doing bad, you know, but then they pronounced her dead an hour ago.”
My friend sitting next to me grabbed my leg. Oh my God, what were we listening to?
The poor driver stumbled through his response. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. “Is there anything I can do?”
She didn’t say much at all.
He was young and he couldn’t figure out what else to say, so after a while he tried to make her feel better by talking about their upcoming trip. His girlfriend definitely did not want to talk about that.
“Should I come to the hospital?” he asked her. There was a pause, and clearly he was just trying to fill the space. “I mean,” he said, “it’s kinda far away.”
“Well I don’t want you to come after that response!” she said back, clearly annoyed.
From the front seat, my friend texted me, “he’s not doing well…”
They talked for a bit longer, and then hung up. No one really said anything and we pulled up to our neighborhood just then.
We all offered our condolences. He looked pretty shocked. “What should I do?” he asked us.
He was just a kid. He knew he’d already screwed up the conversation and he knew his reaction wasn’t appropriate. He saw us, in all of our middle-aged glory, and thought that maybe we would know exactly what he should do.
But does anyone? Is there a secret recipe for what you should do when someone is hurting? I didn’t really know our driver and I definitely didn’t know his girlfriend. And to be honest, there have been times when I wanted people to wrap their arms around me, and other times when those hugs got to be too much for me to handle. Even with all I’ve written about the importance of reaching out, there were times when I just wanted to be left alone.
So no matter what decision he made, I knew it might not be the right one. I knew he might say the wrong thing (clearly he already bungled most of that conversation we witnessed) and I knew he might say “everything is going to be okay,” when his girlfriend didn’t want to hear that.
But when he asked us what he should do, we all had the same response: “Go to the hospital.”
“Really?” he asked. “I mean, it seemed like she didn’t need me.”
“Go to the hospital,” we told him. “It’s the right thing to do. She needs you.”
“Okay,” he said, and as far as I know, that’s where he drove that night.
Maybe his girlfriend didn’t want him there, and maybe she ended up sending him away. But even if that was the case, I felt good about our answer. Because when she looks back at that moment, she will know one thing for sure: her boyfriend showed up for her. He was scared, that was clear, but he was there.
Or at least I hope he was there. Maybe he was too nervous to see her entire grieving family or maybe he thought he wouldn’t know what to say. Maybe it really was too far. Maybe he didn’t go.
If I had more time, I would have said this: “Showing up for anyone is never easy. And showing up for someone who is grieving can be one of the hardest things of all.”
“But,” I would have said to him, “you do it for the people you love.”