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A year after her dad’s death, grief has completely taken over until friends took a major risk to help her

The year after my dad died was so bad I don’t remember 90% of it. I moved to a new apartment and was unable to unpack.

For MONTHS. I was ashamed I couldn’t unpack. How can you be UNABLE to unpack? Just open the g.d. boxes. That was the year I cried for 19 days. Straight.

My good friend David – whom I’ve known since high school – knew I was struggling and he felt helpless. He said “you are loved” “we need you”.

I was like, “Doesn’t matter, but thanks.” So he took a risk. It very well could have ended badly. I could have lashed out.

A visual representation for the story via unsplash photo.

photo via unsplash

I could have been really REALLY offended. But he took the risk. He sent out an email to a group of local friends (w/out my knowledge) and said, “Sheila is struggling. She needs our help. Let’s all go over there and unpack her apartment for her. Bring food. Let’s make it fun.”

David sent me an email saying “will you be home Thursday night? Can I stop by?” I said “Sure.” Sitting surrounded by 200 unpacked boxes.

At 6 pm on Thursday night the doorbell rang and 10 of my friends barged in, bearing platters of food, cleaning products, and complete unconcern for my ‘wait… you CAN’T COME IN HERE I HAVEN’T UNPACKED YET” protestations. They ignored me and got to work.

Friends photo via unsplash

photo via unsplash

They unpacked my boxes. They put away my 1,500 books. They hung pictures for me. They organized my closet and put away all my clothes. Meanwhile, someone set up a taco-making station in the kitchen. People brought beer. By the end of the night, my apartment was all set up.

I literally was unable to do THE SIMPLEST THINGS. And nobody judged me. They were like superheroes sweeping in. One friend arrived late, stood in the hallway, looked at me and said, “PUT ME TO WORK.”

One of my friends basically took over hanging all of my posters and pictures. “I’m really good at measuring stuff. Let me put all these up in your hallway.” I hovered, not wanting to give up control: “wait… put that one there maybe?” She said, “Go away.” I did.

And she was so much better at hanging stuff than I was! Here are my friends putting away my books.

Sheila's friends arranging her book shelf.

photo via Sheila O’Malley

Here’s a break for dinner. Please note that my friend Sheila’s dinner plate is resting on my DVD player.

I was overwhelmed at the sight of all of my crazy friends turning themselves into Santa’s workshop. On my behalf. W/out asking me.

They just showed up and barged in. I was embarrassed for like 10 minutes but they were all so practical and bossy I had no choice but to let that go.

At the end of the night, I looked at my friend’s husband – a quiet taciturn guy who drives a tugboat on the Hudson – practical, man of few words – and I just looked at him, speechless, not knowing how to say Thank You, especially to this tough resilient self-sufficient man.

He looked at me, saw the look on my face, understood the look, understood everything that was behind it – and said, “Listen, baby, what we did today was a barn-raising.”

Sheila's friends taking a break

photo via Sheila O’Malley

That’s the end. The “ask for help” advice is well-meaning but not really thought through. There’s shame, there’s enforced helplessness, there’s the feeling you’re not worth it, etc. My friends didn’t wait for me to ask. They showed up. They took over. They didn’t ask.

When they all swept out of there 4 hours later, my place was a home. Not only was everything put away – but now it had a memory attached to it, a group memory, friends, laughing, dirty jokes, hard work. These are the kinds of friends I have. Be that kind of friend to others.

To reiterate: this plan could have backfired. I very well could have been offended, insulted, hurt. David took that risk. Being a friend takes commitment. A willingness to take that risk.

Here’s a pic from the tail-end of the night. When you hang Christmas lights for your bereaved friend, you never know what will happen. My favorite part of this is Liz’s head low in the corner. She’s not even paying attention. She knows it’s happening. She just doesn’t care.

About the Author:
Sheila O’Malley is a writer. She is a film critic for, her works has appeared on The New York Times and The L.A. Times. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Sarah Lomas

Saturday 18th of February 2023

Truly a great story to share - my kids lost their dad as teenagers and the young friends didn’t really know how to help - your story resonates for any age though, it just takes one friend who takes a risk to help - and a life can be changed for the better.

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