I have witnessed my own family, friends, and patients experience massive, painful losses, and I’ve often wished to God that I knew the exact right words to say, the words that would make it easier for them.

But I don’t know. Like most physicians, who need to take action and make it better, dammit, we learn that we are largely helpless in the face of grief. We feel we ought to be able prescribe a salve, a tonic, a cure; or, at the very least, reassurance.

This week, a childhood friend has lost her mother, a strong woman who was respected and admired, and who, I’d venture to say, had a firm hand in steering more than a few of us young ladies towards the better path to adulthood. She was a quick and steady role model, very sure of the difference between right and wrong, and also fiercely caring.

One high school Saturday night, as my friend and I primped for a party, I remember her mother asking me, with a masterful mixture of honest concern and   Italian humor: “Are you really going to go out in those clothes?” and placing a warm hand on my shoulder, adding: “I only ask because I care about you, dear,” and then, with mirthful candor: “Because those jeans look painted on.”

We all laughed, and I know that I did not change my clothes. But from that point on, every time I even thought about wearing those jeans, I thought twice.

This was more than a lighthearted lesson in modesty. Now that I am also a mother, I realize how much harder it is to correct my friends’ children. It’s easier to stay silent, then to make the effort. Even with the gentle directions, “Now what do we say? We say Please,” Or, “Okay, when we make a mess, we clean it up,” I risk offending my friends, or worse in my mind, their kids not liking me. To speak up requires commitment to their future, faith in the process, and confidence in our role. It takes much more than that to do it right, and I’m still working on that.

Yes, she pushed us to be our better selves then, and inspires us now. As I read and re-read the news account of her sudden and unexpected death, I felt great sadness for her, my friend, and their family, as well as regret.  I so wanted to reach across the years and miles to tell her:

Thank you, with all my heart. Your interest and efforts thirty years ago helped me to become the person I am today.

If I could hold the prayer of my belated gratitude in my hands and offer it to my friend as a small comfort, I would:

Your mother was a special person who made a positive difference in my life, and while I know that won’t in any way treat your pain, it’s true, and it’s all I really have to give you. I’m thinking of you, and yours, and pray that you find the way through your grief. 

Rest in peace, Patricia Metz.