One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.
I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)
Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!
Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.
It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.
Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.
“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!” SO PERFECT!!! It’s so frustrating to lose your BEST friend and have the followed up by losing many “good” friends just when we need our friends the most. Another thing about invites the outpouring of love and support, people will go out of their way to include their sad grieving friend and invite them to dinner, games, movies and eventually they move on and the invites stop but the grieving hasn’t. It’s heartbreaking to have a sudden drop in love and support too. I even found that our bishop backed off suddenly. Is there a rule book out there that says 2-6 months is the required time to care about a grieving friend but then immediately drop them no later than the 6 month mark? I think people unintentionally add to the pain. If you are sincere, go ahead, if you feel like it’s just something you should do, it’s better to just not.
MELPARKER, I’m sorry you’ve had such a frustrating experience–as if your loss and grief weren’t enough to manage. Being “dropped” after 2 – 6 months seems to be fairly common. I believe you are right to “think people unintentionally add to the pain” as their attentions fade. Grieving is such painful work. It hurts to feel it and it hurts to watch it. Perhaps those outside it just cannot sustain the emotional empathy to realize the pain they see in bereaved hearts keeps hurting so long.
When I look back on events after my husband died, I remember turning down several “let’s do lunch” invitations during the first few months. I was too much in shock to accept, but I remember telling friends to please ask me again later. (To this day I don’t know how I had the presence of mind to do that. Something deep inside me knew I wasn’t ready then but that I would someday NEED that interaction.) When the time came that I wanted to accept, I could NOT bring myself to contact anyone to say, “Hey? Remember that rain check I asked for?” Instead, I waited (and hoped) for them to call back.
I was blessed with a few very close friends who DID call back later, who did touch base with me every month or two. I will always, always remember their kindnesses as I was “still” grieving.
Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s very insightful. I agree that the best way to approach the bereaved is to simply ask how we can help. Everyone needs a friend like you.
Thank you, Yumi. I have been grateful for the friends whose thoughtful kindnesses lifted me when I was at my lowest. 🙂