Finding the Right Words to Say When the Worst Day Comes
An original "Bonus Track" from Kaitlin Wernet, co-author of "The Book of Comforts"
I don’t think anyone dreams about how they want the worst day of their life to go. There is no time to stock up on bubble wrap or consider whether or not you’ll land on all fours, you just fall.
Actually, I wasn’t the one falling on my Worst Day, rather, I was caught in the devastating aftermath of someone else’s—my younger brother. One minute, he was 20 years old and headed home, and before any of us could even make it to the hospital, he was in his big-H Home.
But that Monday morning, I didn’t know exactly what happened, and I didn’t want to. I still don’t completely know the timeline of events that ended the one of my brother Kendall’s life. No matter how I rearrange the limited facts I have, the outcome remains the same: He is gone.
I hadn’t had any previous run-ins with the Worst Day of My Life, so I did the only thing I could think to do—I went to work. Rushing past the group gathered around the office coffee pot, I finally made it to Rebecca. And before I could even crumble into my usual chair, she already had a plan.
Rebecca had made up her mind. There were no direct flights to my hometown, and it would be quicker to drive, only she wouldn’t let me make the trek by myself. At three months pregnant and still solidly in her morning sickness stage, she was going to drive five hours in order to deliver me to my freshly injured, now three-legged family.
The Roots of Friendship
Rebecca and I had only known each other for about a month, but the first day we met, she invited me over to her house, where she made egg salad for lunch and a Great Dane named Bess stood at attention, waiting for dropped crumbs. The picture frames and bookshelves that covered the walls spoke of a life I wasn’t familiar with, one that began with a college romance, eventual marriage, an adoption trip to Africa, and four (then five and now headed toward six) children.
I, however, had moved to Tennessee after college to do work I loved, live in a small apartment across town, and chase a new beginning.
Four weeks in a 10-foot-by-10-foot shared office gifted Rebecca and me with the most unlikely of friendships. Over grocery store salad bars we’d discovered a mutual affection for playing the flute, Broadway musicals, and anything having to do with Europe. We found out that her husband, Caleb, had proposed to her on my tenth birthday, we’d begun brainstorming names for her baby, and she knew that the first person I wanted to visit my new Tennessee home was my brother Kendall.
The Faithfulness of Friendship
Even though she’d never met my brother, Rebecca understood the horrific significance of where she was driving me. In the passenger seat of my own car, my thoughts continued leading me to the edge of my own reality where I would fall off again and again.
“I thought God wasn’t supposed to give us more than we could handle,” I protested.
Rebecca’s response didn’t include a cliche to quiet my doubt or offer only an uncomfortable silence.
“Let’s call Caleb,” she said, dialing her husband’s number and asking him to locate their family Bible when he answered. When she put him on speakerphone, I could hear the flipping of pages.
The Sisterhood of Friendship
Five months crept past and Rebecca’s baby was born that March—a boy, Leo, with a head full of curls. “Our friendship baby!” we called him, because Rebecca had discovered she was pregnant the same month I’d moved to Tennessee, and from then on, his age would measure how long we’d known each other.
In the time between Kendall’s death and Leo’s birth, Rebecca and I had become close like sisters, and when she invited me to visit her in the hospital the day after he was born, I was beaming.
Because of the ways she’d outdone herself in taking care of me, I set out to do the same for her. When I found out she and Caleb were craving cheeseburgers, I was already in the drive-thru collecting fry-filled paper bags and asking for extra sauce. High on a determination to make this a celebration worthy of one’s first day of life, I stopped to pick up a helium balloon on the way.
Choosing the largest one they had—shaped like a onesie with a giant “Congratulations! It’s a boy!” on top—, I walked out, imagining the expressions of nurses and families I’d pass in the hallway as they wondered whose room I was going to.
The only other time I’d visited a newborn in the hospital was when my brother had been born 20 years prior. To be invited to this extremely intimate setting feels like belonging to a tier of trusted friends—at least those are the only people I’d allow into a room where I was wearing nothing but a gown.
I rounded the hospital parking garage until I found an empty spot, pulled into it, and began gathering everything for my celebratory entrance. As I balanced the burgers in one arm and looked for my keys in the other, I closed the car door with my foot, only to hear a loud “POP!”.
You know where this is headed: It was the balloon.
But with lukewarm burgers and a deflated balloon in hand, I walked into the maternity ward, and we laughed as much as Rebecca’s postpartum belly would allow.
There For Me, Here For You, For Each Other
On a day when I missed my brother more than usual, Rebecca wrote the following verse on an index card and left it on my desk:
“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”-Zephaniah 3:17
She had no idea it was the first verse I’d ever memorized as a child.
On a day when Rebecca was feeling torn between working a job she loved and being at home with the people she loved, I flipped the index card over and left it on her desk with this quote from Samuel Rutherford:
“Believe God's word and power more than you believe your own feelings and experiences. Your Rock is Christ, and it is not the Rock which ebbs and flows, but the sea.”
And yet another day, when our mutual exhaustion could be felt without acknowledgment, we spent our lunch break in the cosmetics aisle of Whole Foods, lining up all of the tester bottles of hand lotion and rating their scents.
I think we’d both agree that the odd combination of lavender and enchiladas, a scent that wafted from the hot bar, is strangely comforting.
How Long We’re In This Together
Now, baby Leo is no longer the youngest of the family, as they welcomed a little sister home this month.
But every time I see him, I’m still astounded by how tall he’s grown or the way he’s shifted from calling me “Kait-Win” to “Kaitlin,” and I’m reminded of how long it’s been since my very worst day. Sometimes, grief feels like an open wound that will not heal, and others, it’s my biggest accomplishment to have made it this far.
When people ask me how they can comfort a loved one who’s hurting or has experienced a sudden loss, I don’t have any how-to guides or step-by-step advice, but I do have stories. It’s not about the warmed casseroles or sympathy cards, the awkward silences or deflated plans, it’s how long we’re in this together.
And, if we’re measuring by the lifespan of a friendship baby, it looks like forever.