Friendships can be among the first casualties of grief. I’m not talking about the mistakes we make that send the griever running away from our unintentionally hurtful condolences—these mistakes can be repaired quite simply (see my book, Condolences Pocket Guide ).
I’m talking about the friendships that we end due to the all-too-common misunderstandings about grievers and what they can and can’t do in a friendship. These are the types of relationships that our grieving friend desperately wants to save—but can’t. This is a different matter entirely.
Slipping away. After losing our two young children, my husband and I also lost our best friends to what I now recognize as the end results of the grueling length and profound misunderstandings of grief. We watched as our friendship with the dear couple who were our best friends slipped away. I felt helpless and hurt, while at the same time harboring the dread that it might be all my fault.
It had to be, right? Because I was the one who wasn’t calling them back. At the time I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t just pick up the phone. Now I understand that I was so saddled with the lengthy illness, depression and low self-esteem that resulted from my grief, that I couldn’t fathom a friendly conversation with even the people I loved most dearly.
What could I say? Every time I had a little energy during my lengthy illness, I thought about calling them, but didn’t want to burden them with complaints about my poor health. Well, I guess I could have talked to them about my constant terror that we were going to lose our house due to our medical bills stacking up. Or there was always the topic of how depressed and insecure I was because everything that had defined me had been stripped away—I couldn’t work, exercise, clean our house or help my husband with anything—let alone do anything fun like surf or have coffee with a friend.
Oh, and there was also the little matter of my ongoing grief over the loss of our daughter, my father and our son.
Years later when both my health and my self-esteem were restored, I did reach out to them several times. But by then the damage had been done and they never answered my calls.
Repeat. I bring this up because last week, while talking to my dear friend, Amanda, she mentioned that she was no longer going to reach out to her friend Tracy because it had been four months since she’d heard a single word from Tracy—ever since Tracy’s best friend had died!
I told Amanda about my experiences with grief and how four months was a drop in the cavernous bucket of loss. But she clung to her hurt feelings and insisted that Tracy should call her.
I hear stories like this often from both sides of grief. Friends and family feel pushed away and abandoned by their griever. Grievers feel judged and misunderstood by their friends.
Let's change this. First let’s see how this happens:
We reach out to our grieving friend. They don’t respond. We feel some mix of confusion and wanting to cut them some slack. So we wait.
After a while we reach out again, this time politely indicating that it’s their turn to get back to us. Still no response. Now maybe we feel some fear that something’s not right in our friendship. So we worry and wait some more.
Maybe we give them one more chance—usually not, but on a really good day we just might reach out again. Still no response. By now we’re incredulous and indignant that we’re being rebuffed.
So we write off our friend with something like, They know how to reach me when they’re ready. This is the kiss of death.
But we can change this pattern! Step 4 is the very place where we have the opportunity to save the relationship instead of end it. But the juicy news is that it’s on us to save it.
Yes, it’s not fair, and yes, it will make total sense once we understand what’s actually happening—with us!
Below the surface. First thing to know is that step 4—the place where we get indignant with our griever—is really about our feelings being hurt. Indignation and self-righteousness are protective stances we can all take from time to time that are smoke-screens for hurt feelings.
OK, so our feelings are hurt. Big deal!
Second thing to know now that we’ve agreed on the hurt feelings, is to ask ourselves, why are our feelings hurt?
Well, duh. That’s obvious! Our griever has dissed us like 50 times already!
I know, but what’s the real reason? What’s the code that’s been broken? What agreement did we have in our friendship that the griever just broke like three times in a row?
The rules of engagement. The griever has broken the two primary, but unspoken, rules of most friendships: 1) give and take and, 2) meeting each other half way.
Let’s see how grief changes these rules:
Give and take - Grievers don’t have anything to give. Nada. Zippo.
Meeting each other half way – Because grievers are running on empty, the half-way point gets moved almost all the way over to them. Remember, half of empty is still zero.
How could our griever tell us, Hey, I’ve got to change the rules of our friendship? I need you to initiate everything for like, 1-3 years, and often you’ll have to put all your needs aside when you’re with me to just listen. Oh, and by the way, I can’t listen to your troubles. Will that work?
Too risky. Grievers can’t risk being in any conversations with even the tiniest whiff of confrontation to them—like one where we or they must state their needs—they’re running on empty, remember?
Too much shame. They can’t reveal how ashamed they feel for how much they're crying. Neither can they say they’re worried sick about how depressed they are, nor how they already feel like losers for not doing their share for the friendship. Add to that the fact that often we’ve already made it pretty darn clear we’re upset at them for not responding to us and, game over. Now for sure they can’t reach out.
Eyes wide open. It’s like being mad at someone for having cancer. They’ve been changed. Against their will. And this is how it is. We can be mad, and it’s still how it is.
But get this! If it makes you feel any better, keep this in mind: Our griever would give anything, I mean ANY-THING, to be able to be in a conversation with us about something other than their grief. But for a long, long time, they can’t.
The solution. So what can we do?
We can learn that our hurt feelings are normal, but that they don’t have to dictate our behavior.
We can remind ourselves that this situation is no one’s fault—everyone is hurting here.
We can keep reaching out even when it feels thankless, knowing that it will help our grieving friend a lot.
We can get support from other people in our situation by going to the Let’s Talk! section of my website.
Next steps. What can we say when we reach out to our griever? Something like this:
Just wanting you to know that I’m thinking of you and holding you in my heart. 😊
I know you likely can’t reach out right now, so please take this little message of love with no strings attached. I love you. 😊
I love you and miss you, but I know that healing takes so much energy, so please rest easy that we are good. Big hugs for your big beautiful heart, no matter how you might be feeling. 😊
Please know that making this change is really hard. But also know that when we do risk feeling stupid by reaching out anyway, we’re doing some of the most meaningful work we can do on this planet.
Even I, who knows this inside and out, still suffer from doubt and worry. For example, with my friend who recently lost her young daughter, I worry that I’m saying the wrong thing or that she doesn’t like me texting. But every once in a rare while my friend is able to send me a text, which invariably starts with an apology for never getting back to me, and always ends like this:
You have no idea how much your texts mean to me. Thank you so much.
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Did I mention I have a book?