Sara Engram is on a maternity leave. The following column is excerpted from her book "Mortal Matters: When a Loved One Dies."
A teen-ager from Florida writes:
Q: I have a friend who was in an automobile accident almost two weeks ago. They say she is in a coma, not responding to anything. I wanted to see her, but only the family is allowed in. I believe her mother doesn't want to see anyone, especially teen-agers. You see, my friend was riding in a car and a 14-year-old was driving. Of course, my friend was the one seriously hurt.
I have tried calling the family and I went to the hospital, but I can't get any more information.
Do you know what else I can do? I thought maybe I could see my friend, talk to her, just let her know I am there. Or do you think I am being too pushy? Is it good for a teen-ager to see a friend who had so much life in her all of a sudden be on all kinds of machines to keep her alive? I truly have mixed emotions. I want to see my friend, yet I am afraid.
Also, have you ever heard of a citywide teen-age prayer vigil? I am sure there are teen-agers who would pray if only there was notice of the special day.
A: First of all, you should know that even though you do not qualify as a family member, you are an important part of your friend's life. If she does survive, your friendship will become even more important in helping her overcome her injuries.
In the meantime, is there someone -- your parents, a counselor, or a good friend -- with whom you can discuss your own reactions to the accident? Families need sympathy and support in times like this, but so do friends like you.
It is only natural for you to want to reach out to your friend's family, but it is important to realize that they are still stunned that tragedy could strike so suddenly. I suspect they are also exhausted from the physical strain of spending long hours at the hospital and from the emotional strain of seeing their daughter in this condition.
In times like this, it is important to respect a family's need for privacy. But that doesn't mean there is nothing you can do. For starters, you could send your friend a card telling her how much you are thinking of her. Even though she won't be able to read it, it will let her family know of your concern. It would be nice to include a note to them as well.
If your friend remains in the hospital and moves out of intensive care, you may want to find a special object to send her to brighten up her room, perhaps a small stuffed animal that could be placed on her bed or on a bedside table. You may even want to give it a special name and include a note explaining that you hope it will remind her of all her friends and their good wishes for her.
If she stays in a coma you may never know whether she is aware of any of your expressions of friendship. But you can take comfort in knowing that if there is any possibility that she is conscience of her surroundings, she will know that her friends have not forgotten her.
As for a visit, certainly it will be a shock to see her in that condition. But if you still want to do it and the family agrees, remind yourself that you're doing this for her, not just for you.
You mention the possibility of a prayer vigil. That could be a good way to do something for your friend and her family during these tense days when you feel so cut off from her. If you are active in a church, perhaps you could ask the pastor or youth adviser to help you organize a vigil.