If you feel lonely, you are not alone. In recent years, loneliness has been described as an epidemic. While the isolation experienced during the pandemic has decreased, the lack of social connection continues. For some, loneliness is a life-long struggle. What makes this such a debilitating struggle is that we are not meant to be solitary, we are built for community. The God of love has created us for love, which is nurtured when we are together. Moving from loneliness to connection can seem an overwhelming task. Where do we start? For me, it can start with something as simple as a smile. It started that way with Shannon.
I noticed her panhandling outside the Dollarama. The sunlight was making her head of auburn curls gleam. Most people ignored her ask for money, walking by quickly with their heads down. I didn’t have anything to give, but we had a brief exchange where we looked one another in the eye and smiled. It was maybe a few weeks later that I learned she was an artist, who especially loved to paint. At the time, The Dale (the community organization and church where I work) was doing a weekly art workshop and so I invited her to come.
With time, Shannon and I became very good friends. In fact, she eventually went on to adopt me as “mom”, though in reality she was my elder and our age difference made us more like siblings. We shared a lot over the years. I accompanied her to important appointments, after which we would always get burgers. We sat in countless waiting rooms together, visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, went on walks, and shared meals at The Dale’s drop-in. When my daughter and I went on a trip to Italy, Shannon was insistent I give her a picture of our experience, one that she framed and put on her apartment wall. I held her hand as she lay in the Intensive Care Unit, and she held mine after my mother died.
Shannon lived with many challenges. Over the years she willingly shared about her time living outside and all that went along with that. Shannon always made me feel safe to share about my own challenges. As someone who understood loss, she helped me make sense of my own. We also had our own shared struggles. Sometimes she would ask me to do something that I simply could not. We had many hard conversations. I do know that the depth of our relationship was possible, in part, to a strong commitment to boundaries.
Henri Nouwen once said, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Shannon offered me that kind of friendship. Despite all of our individual struggles and quirks, we realized we were still worthy of connection, of love, of belonging.
Relationship with Shannon began with a smile. We might never have greeted one another if not for our connection to the neighbourhood: she routinely sitting outside the Dollarama, me walking by with frequency. It didn’t require that we be at a party or a work function, instead it was both of us doing ordinary things in our place. We started to expect that we would see one another. We slowly learned about shared likes and dislikes. We discovered we both loved to say hello with a hug. Friendship arrived with a simmer, not a boil.
There were times in our friendship that Shannon and I saw less of one another. Open about her addictions, Shannon would sometimes relapse and disappear, or I would have to attend to crisis elsewhere and find myself overwhelmed and distant. We had to learn how to have grace for each other and, as I mentioned earlier, develop healthy boundaries. For us this was about learning that we could not be everything for the other. While it might seem counterintuitive, this actually deepened our bond.
Shannon and I also had fun. She liked to laugh at me, or “with” me as she would claim. We would eat junk food on the stoop of one of her apartments. We hung out in the park that she slept in for a time. She almost always had a gift for me, oftentimes artwork she’d created. While there was a lot of opportunity for us to send time together at structured events, these unstructured times were some of the most precious. Friendship is nurtured when people waste time together.
It would be easy for me to leave this story here. I want to. Except, that would leave out an exceptional part: Shannon died suddenly a few years ago. The news came as a great shock, especially because she had repeatedly overcome adversity and survived near-death experiences on so many occasions. For some, this adds to the confusion about friendship. Why, if relationship involves loss, would we pursue it? The grief I carry for Shannon serves as a constant reminder of how much she meant to me and makes me understand love more. I can know joy because I know sorrow.
The loss of Shannon doesn’t make me fear friendship, it makes me long for more. I don’t know how to navigate this life that is both beautiful and hard without friendship and connection. Fashioned after a communal God, we are designed for community. And so, even though it’s challenging, I try to notice people in my place: in the line at the grocery store, in the coffee shop, on the bench in the park, or even outside the Dollarama. I notice, and then I smile.
(Shannon gave me permission during her life to share her and our story).