Be patient (but persistent) when grieving friends don’t answer, and give them room (and reminders) to breathe.
After my husband died, a maelstrom of emotions consumed my energy and focus. What little coherency I had went into consoling and caring for my daughters and poorly completing the most basic household tasks. (I seldom remembered — or bothered — to care for myself.) It probably seemed like I was ignoring friends’ efforts on my behalf, but social niceties were so far off my emotional radar they belonged to another plane of existence, another lifetime.
Many caring people reached out to offer support, to see how I was doing, and to let me know I was loved. I was aware of every phone call, handwritten note, text, and Facebook message, but as if from a great distance. I knew etiquette rules (and common sense) required I acknowledge them, but I lacked the ability, the energy, the will to respond.
When people said, “Call if you need anything,” I knew they meant it — but I also knew that I would not call. I couldn’t. Could not. Even if I’d been able to identify what I needed–and for a long time I had no idea — it was beyond my capability to pick up the phone and ask for help. A couple of times I almost called back, but my cell phone felt like an anvil whenever I tried pressing the call button. It was weighted down by the reality of my husband’s death.
Kindhearted folks offered, “Let’s go to lunch one day.” On a rational level, I knew it would be good — and good for me — to get out of the house with a friend when I was ready. Unfortunately, the rational part of my mind was overloaded by the irrationality of emotion. Picture standing in a shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Hear the roar of voices and competing store soundtracks and crying children? Now imagine a friend waving at you (from the other end of the mall) to listen to the tune of an antique music box she just wound. That music box tune across the mall was the rational part of my mind in the earliest weeks and months. The highest, hardest-to-hear notes were my social skills.
Some offers were too soon for me, but for another bereaved soul they might have been perfectly timed. Most were not repeated. I’d like to think that was out of misguided (though well-intended) respect for the privacy and space I’d needed earlier. A handful of folks asked again — a few days or weeks later — but I still wasn’t ready. I appreciated their invitations even when I didn’t accept them.
The friends whose invitations and contact offered the greatest support and strength were politely persistent:
- They never asked why I hadn’t returned earlier messages. (The last thing mourners need is the added grief of blame or guilt.)
- They didn’t give up. They waited a bit, then contacted me again, whether I’d responded or not.
- If I asked them to call again next week (or whenever), they did. Promptly.
If they offered to call me two days or three weeks later or a month later, they did. (And no, I didn’t mark their anticipated contacts on my calendar, but yes, I was fully aware when they demonstrated I could count on them. I also recognized when others failed to make their promised callback.)
- Instead of asking, “How are you?” they asked concrete questions like
- “What time can I drop off a [plant, dessert, card…]?”
- “Can we get together __-day for [lunch, a movie, a workshop …]?”
- “You asked me to wait a while before [calling, coming, inviting …]. Are you ready for that now?”
- “Are you remembering to [eat, sleep, drink water, breathe (yes — breathe)* …]?”
As weeks passed into months and I became more willing–and able–to interact, I learned about the importance of patient friendship through grief-clouded days. By the time I was ready to step out, so to speak, many of those who’d invited me to do so no longer reached out. I still wasn’t strong enough to call on them, but one by one I began answering those who still contacted me.
It took a long, long time for me to return phone calls. It took much longer for me be able to make them. (It’s been over three years, and sometimes it’s still hard to do.)
I will always remain grateful for the patient friends who kept reaching out to me when I couldn’t yet reach back.
*A note on breathing: A couple of weeks after my husband died, another widow asked, “Are you breathing?” At first I thought the question ridiculous. Of course I was breathing. Then she asked if I was emptying and filling my lungs completely. I took a deep, deliberate breath — and was shocked. After that one lungful, I understood what she’d meant. I’d been barely breathing, existing on shallow breaths ever since the shock of that night. The difference was invigorating, but it took months of conscious effort to learn to breathe normally again out of habit. Since then, I learned that in traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are recognized as the primary organ of grief.