Throughout the past few years, there have been occasional moments when I stopped to think to myself, “Wow, so I’m really an adult now.” When I no longer needed a parent signature to get a piercing, and instead pulled out my driver’s license for proof of age. Watching my friends format their resumes, and dress business casual for job interviews for full-time positions. This morning, I had another one of those moments.
I was on Skype with a close friend, and we were discussing how the behavior of a guy she knows could be partially explained by the recent loss of one of his parents. Then I paused for a moment and said to her, “Remember when we were little, losing a parent or getting cancer was something that only ever happened to the friend of a sibling of someone you kind of knew? It always seemed like a distant tragedy – something you knew was bad and caused people sadness. But now, if it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to someone close to you.”
Growing up means experiencing, or witnessing firsthand, moments when you, or someone close to you, are not OK. And it means learning that someone who has had their trust betrayed, or has lost a loved one, or has otherwise had their world turned upside-down is not necessarily broken. They’re not frigid if they don’t cry or don’t want to talk about it, and they’re not emotionally unstable if they do. You come to understand that it’s never that straightforward.
It’s unarguably painful to experience (or even to witness in close proximity) loss and hardship, but these experiences also cultivate an ability to empathize – to empathize truly, beyond recognizing when someone deserves sympathy. It’s an ability to recognize when and how to help, but also when to give space. It’s knowing that sometimes people need love the most when they deserve it least. It’s being able to give advice without being condescending, and reassure someone that they’re understood and not alone.
And that’s something.