“Before my father’s sudden death last year, I thought I understood what to expect about grief. My mother in law had passed away in 2013 from a long, difficult, and rare illness. It was heart-wrenching. But nothing, nothing could have prepared me for how different this unexpected loss would feel. There are so many things I could write about in regards to this. So many. I’m not ready to go into all of those things. Today, I am compelled to write about a friendship loss that hurt me deeply and has stayed with me for months. I hope that writing this story down will help me let go of the hurt and anger I carry over it, and that it will inspire others to be good grief supporters.
I’ve spoken to many wonderful people on this journey, and learned I am not alone at ALL in losing a significant friendship in the aftermath of a death. What does this tell me? It tells me that we live in a grief illiterate society, and we need to talk about it! Your friend who is grieving needs you now MORE THAN EVER. Please don’t make them beg for support because they are barely hanging on as it is. This is my story of a former friend who is now just somebody I used to know. My friendship with this woman began a few years ago – in fact, it really started between her and my mother, who watches my 4-year-old son. He was 1 at the time. She and my mom would walk the boys, who were only a month apart in age, each day. Naturally, a close and easy friendship formed. Her in-laws also got to know my family and my parents. We spent so many good times together with the kids and other neighbors.
In fact, I was enjoying a lazy summer day with the kids playing outside at her home when I got the phone call that my father had collapsed and was being taken by ambulance to the hospital. In the immediate days after his death, there were texts of concern; food was dropped off. This is the part where I think most grief supporters feel they’ve helped the bereaved. It is hard to avoid sounding ungrateful here – those things are 100% appreciated, always. The people who reached out in this way, including my former friend and her family, were thanked and the help was needed and so appreciated. It’s what happens in the weeks, months, and even sometimes years after (warning: cliché coming) that really tell you who your true friends are. What became very clear to both myself and my mother over a short time was that my friend was acting different. At first, she acted like nothing had happened, when my mother’s husband (a man she knew and had in her home) had died, and my mother had moved in to my home. She made insensitive comments about how awful it would be to live with her in-laws, knowing my mother had moved in, comments that made my mother cry on more than one occasion.
She spent less and less time with either of us, even inviting my mom over and barely talking to her, and only talking about herself and her problems. She seemed to move on with new friendships and left me feeling replaced and ‘too sad’ to be around. I was in denial that the friendship was changing at the time, but it was. I have looked back on pages and pages of messages and seen that the friendship was completely one-sided – me asking how her family was doing, me asking how her premature baby was doing in the NICU, me asking how she was doing after her cat died, me wishing her well, me offering to help any way I could, me, me, me and not one.single.message with a simple, ‘hey, so how are you guys doing?’ The same thing would happen if chatting in person. And maybe the friendship had always been one-sided, but it had never impacted me the way it did now because I was so in need of my friend’s support.
I spoke to her about this 2 weeks after his death, when she was acting like nothing happened. She was very defensive. It felt like a mistake to even talk to her about it. I told her what I needed was just her friendship and to try to check in once in a while. She did not. For some time, there was what I believed a good reason why I didn’t hear much from her, because her baby was born very early and was in NICU for 94 days, about 3 months after my father died. But even my daughter, husband, and others noticed that things were different. ‘Don’t you spend time with so-and-so anymore?’ And I would say, ‘oh well you know she can’t really get together because her son is in the NICU, and they can’t have anyone unvaccinated over, they have to be careful, etc.’ Meanwhile, I noticed other friends invited into her home and thought, ‘well they must have a flu vaccine and be allowed to meet the baby.’ She had told me very clearly a few weeks after her son was born the rules to see him when he eventually came home, and that NO ONE could visit him in NICU besides immediate family. She told me how upset it made her that some people kept asking her if they could visit him at the hospital.
I knew my son, not having a flu vaccine that year, wouldn’t be allowed to be around the baby even when he came home, and said, ‘that’s ok, you just let me know when he’s ok to meet us and we will be there!’ That never happened. I spent months questioning this friendship and why it had changed, blaming myself, and feeling sadness on top of the sadness I already felt on a daily basis about my dad. The thing is, friendships go through changes like this. It’s not abnormal to be very close to someone and then sometimes not talk for some time, and then reconnect and pick up right where you left off. What is different here is that grief doesn’t leave space in your heart to deal with changes like this. It is just too much!
Finally one day, I hit a breaking point. Browsing Instagram, I saw that she had planned a vacation with some other mutual friends and their families. That was the moment I knew all my nagging feelings over the past few months that the friendship had changed were real, and it just hit me like a stab to the heart. I was hurt. I felt confused, why had I not even been asked, when a year ago I would have been? Why had my family not met the baby if he was well enough to take on vacation? Pictures kept popping up throughout the evening, and I rashly unfriended all the women on the trip. I needed a mental break from it. I told her that it just seemed like we weren’t close friends anymore, that I had been hurting a lot over the past few months and needed space to heal. The reaction back was very unkind – accusing me of not being there when her son was in the NICU, a mean and unfair thing to say because it was not true or even how she really felt. When I pointed out how I had been told by her I could not visit, had offered to help in any way possible, had sent food over, had babysat for her older son and would have any time, and all she had to do was ask, all while in my own grief, well, she couldn’t argue that. So she switched tactics to ‘you expect too much, I have a lot going on too.’ I gently reminded her that I had communicated my need for support many months ago, but things just had really not changed. She said I thought very lowly of her, and I tried to explain that I didn’t think lowly of her at all, I just felt like she was moving on with the friendship and the timing for me just couldn’t be worse.
I owned and apologized for the unfriending in my emotional moment. I used to think I’d never be that emotional person. I have learned to forgive myself for having raw emotions like this. Things between us were left there, and she seemed more upset that I had made her feel like a bad friend than that the actual friendship was so damaged. I wish more people could see what we feel through a lens of grief and understand why we sometimes need to push people away and draw inward. My husband had a chance to speak with her mother-in-law, and sadly she was hurt in this fallout, because she was told that my family doesn’t feel she did enough after my father died. It makes me so sad, because every single time I saw her mother-in-law she asked me how I was doing and how my mom was doing. EVERY TIME. It was such a stark contrast to my former friend who wasn’t asking me at all, and often added to my confusion as I struggled with this relationship.
To her mother-in-law, if you ever read this, please know you are the epitome of compassionate grief support. She could learn a lot from you. I am sorry you were hurt in this and I wish things would have happened differently. To those of you struggling with grief and are looking for more support from your friends, my advice is this. Tell them what you need – but only tell them once. And if they don’t step up, then it is ok to take a step back from that relationship. To those of you who think your grieving friend is acting crazy, please know that what they feel is something you can’t understand until it happens to you, forgive them and love them a lot through it all. My cousin, who also lost her father a year before we lost mine, puts it well – grieving people remind people of death, and so they just can’t be around you, and it sucks.
Yes, it was a difficult and awkward summer running into my former friend, who I once saw almost daily in the summers and who I now don’t even speak with. But you know what? God sends you what you need in these times. I had, out of the blue, friends reaching out to me after this falling out. Friends saying they felt compelled to call me and check in. I received a sign from my dad, something that told me he was proud of me for being there for my mom. I started to spend a lot more time in my backyard really drinking in my children. I was enjoying them with new eyes that understand how short life is. I started to feel the peace that comes with having a smaller circle and spending a quiet evening at home.
When someone you love so much dies, it shines a light on all of your relationships, and you have to release the ones that aren’t fulfilling and that don’t bring you peace, or you will drown. The story of the whale mama and her pod, supporting her as she grieved her whale baby, is a story that has really stuck with me. I remember reading it and just ugly crying because the writer so eloquently wrote about what we are missing in grief support. It’s the ability to be seen, vulnerable, raw and maybe a little crazy and still be loved and included. Let’s be like those whales and support our pods. Be present. Simply ask, ‘so how are you?’ and if your friend feels like talking about their loved one, just listen. It is the greatest way you can support them.”
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