Keep In Touch: how to maintain relationships after a death

A couple years ago (almost exactly two years ago, in fact) the mom of one of my best friends died.  Those of you who have been hanging out around WYG for a while may remember me talking about this back when the sock aisle at Target caused me to have a meltdown in the middle of the store.  Tears happen, sometimes in public, don’t judge.

So a couple years ago her mom died and less than two months later I got the following email (addressed to me, a few other close friends, some family, and a lot of her mom’s close friends):

Hey friends and family! I’m trying to plan our first monthly memorial dinner for mommy. I thought we could start at Carraba’s.  Click on the link below and click on the dates that you would be able to attend. (The website is called doodle.com and it’s the greatest thing since Carraba’s bread). And please please please forward the link to anyone you’d want to invite. Love you! 

I remember reading the email and being amazed that so soon after her mom’s death she was pulling things together to organize not only a dinner, but a MONTHLY dinner with friends and family.  As I stared at my screen, impressed by this touching (and brilliant) dinner plan, I did a mental inventory of the family members and friends I had lost touch with following significant losses.  My dad didn’t have a big family, but we had lost touch with the few family members he did have.  He had good friends that I hadn’t seen since his funeral.  After my sister lost her boyfriend, she struggled to keep connections with his family, though she had been very close with them.

Keeping in touch after a death isn’t easy.  You’re grieving.  They’re grieving.  Emotions are complex, sometimes the death had brought out conflict and unpleasant feelings.  Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to call anyone or plan anything (other than maybe for a pizza to be delivered).   Yet, ultimately that day comes that you come up for air and realize months (or years) have passed and you have lost touch with people who were important to you, or to your loved one.  Or, on the flip side, maybe you try to maintain a relationship, but for whatever reason they don’t reciprocate.  In either case, the pain of this ‘secondary loss’ kicks in.  You realize that you have not only lost you loved one who died, but you have lost your relationship with their family or friends as well.  If you are feeling this sort of pain, you should check out our post on secondary loss.

So, what can you do?  First and foremost, keep in mind the old serenity prayer: “God grant me (I seek) the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.  The following are things you can do to try to maintain relationships after a death, but keep in mind that, if the other person does not reciprocate, you can’t control that.  Do your best, but at some point you may have to accept that there are relationships that will be lost, even if only temporarily.

Alright, now for the concrete suggestions on how to stay in touch after a death:

  1. Take a cue from my friend and plan a monthly dinner. You could do it at home (pot luck style, to make it easy) or go to restaurants your love one loved.
  2. Make use of technology. Keep in touch via email, social media, and texting.  You may not be up for conversations or dinners early on, but a quick note can let people know you want to keep up a connection and are thinking of them, even if you aren’t ready to get together in person.
  3. Make plans for holidays. The first holiday after a loss can be confusing, especially if the person who died was key in planning and bringing people together for holidays.  Reach out to family members early to let them know you want to carry on with the same tradition, despite the loss.
  4. Create a memorial website or facebook page. This may not seem like ‘staying in touch’ but it is actually a great way to create a central place where all come to post comments, memories, photos, video or share grief struggles.
  5. Make plans for birthdays, anniversaries, and deathiversaries.  These can all be tough days and, if you have lost touch with friends or family, you may feel especially alone and isolated.  Don’t let these days creep up on you.  Instead, reach out to friends and family in advance to let them know you want to spend the day with them.
  6. Make a list of all the things you did together with friends and family before the death.  It may be Sunday dinners, holidays, vacations, or just visits here and there.  Whatever it is, make plans for how you will continue those traditions.  It may mean stepping into a new role as ‘planner’ if the person you lost was the one who always made the plans.
  7. Make a list of the people you want to stay in touch with.  This seems silly, but sometimes in our grief we are so self-focused that two years passes and we suddenly realize the good friend of our spouse, or our child’s college roommate, or our mom’s cousin has fallen totally off our radar.  Having a list can help you remember the people you want to keep a connection with at a time in life when it is hard to remember anything!
  8. Plan a new tradition.  Be it for your loved one’s birthday or around any other day, plan something you will hold every year in memory where you will invite the friends and co-workers of the person who died.  If everyone knows it will happen every year, they can block the day.  Even if time passes and you lose touch of some of those more distant friends of your loved on, you will still have this set time to connect with them at least once a year.
  9. As Nike has taught us, Just Do It.  Sometimes the hardest part is taking the initiative to pick up the phone or to send the email when you are grieving and have no motivation at all.   Pick the day that you will make a couple calls or send a couple emails to initiate contact or make plans and (this is the important part) actually follow through.  Tell one of your friends which day you plan to make the call and then ask them to check in with you to make sure your really did it.  We all need a little accountability sometimes.

Now, you may be thinking, I have let waaay too much time pass.  It is too late now to re-establish the relationship.  Guess what, it is never too late!  Reconnecting with someone you miss or regret losing touch with is a good thing, whether it was 3 months ago, 3 years ago, or 3 decades ago.

  1. Reach out and let the person know you regret not being in better touch.  Chances are they may have similar regrets.
  2. Let them know why you are reaching out now.  There may be many reasons, and they may be obvious, but it will help to give the person conext for where you are now in your life, grief, etc and why you want to get back in contact.
  3. Write an email ‘template’.  Okay, this sounds really lame, but if you have lost touch with a lot of people over the years it may seem overwhelming to send multiple emails or make multiple call.  If you have a template email to work off of, just making small changes for each person you send it too, it may feel a little less overwhelming.
  4. Plan something simple – coffee, dinner, a beer, whatever.  Just get something on the books!
  5. Don’t be scared to talk about your loved one.  This is probably the connection you have to eachother, and it is absolutely okay for that person to remain a part of your relationship.

 We would love to know what has worked for you, or what some of the challenges of staying in touch have been.  Leave a comment to let us know!  Don’t forget to subscribe to get our emails right to your inbox!

March 28, 2017

6 responses on "Keep In Touch: how to maintain relationships after a death"

  1. You speak secondary grief, we are still living through it almost 4 years later. My 23 year old son died Dec.1/2012. He and his girlfriend lived here while they went to University. My younger son 22 then had just rented a place with his girlfriend, he was all packed and ready to move. So when we came home from the hospital around 10.am. Absolutely everything changed. My sons girlfriends parents were at the house and she was packing up to move back home, naturally. My younger sons future father in law was at the house and he packed up my younger sons stuff into his truck and got him moved. My husbands parents were trying to control us, from that I had to walk away. That really made her angry. She kept telling us what we needed to do for my sons girlfriend and I kept saying no. By New Years my husbands Mother decided to walk away from all of us. It was the 3rd time she had told my husband basically her way or the highway. We haven’t seen them since. My husband feels 3 strikes and your out. He is an only child. I really hurt for him. We totally backed our younger son in his move, we knew it was a time that he would need his girlfriend and his friends more than us and I was glad he had them. I also have an older daughter and she has 2 daughters at the time aged 3 and 4. The oldest was my son’s goddaughter, it was tough on her. She still speaks of him.
    The second year after my son died I put on a charity soccer tournament the funds raised going to a youth outreach program in the area he was going to University. This year was our 3rd annual one. It is wonderful to see his friends every year now. His soccer couch volunteers and does the coaching for us. Each team has 1 player to volunteer to ref a game. Friends help me do a pie table, I bake 50 pies and sell them each year. Friends also donate for our silent auction. It has turned into such a positive day. The kids are awesome. At my sons funeral the poem The Dash, was read and as a family we have adopted that motto, whenever we do something new we say we’re living our dash. This year our younger son got married and our older sons girlfriend was there with her new fella. We were all happy for her and happy to see her. The kids have all stayed in touch.
    My husbands parents still don’t talk to us and now my husband really doesn’t want to talk to them either. I’m sorry if this is too long. Oh yeah my family lives in another province and we only see them a couple of times a year. So our family feels like it’s getting smaller. But we are all ok.

  2. In 2011 I lost my brother by suicide. We were always very close to our neighbors since we all attended school together. The youngest sister being 1 year older than my brother. Following his death it became extremely difficult to maintain a relationship with all 3 of them. I started doing suicide preventon walks and even did their big Overnight walk and would host a benefit concert with local bands to raise the money. This year is my 3rd year doing it and all 3 have never participated, acknowledged, or attended my event. Social media is the only way I know anything about them these days, no text, messages, or phone calls. I often get really hurt and offended when I say something on Facebook and someone responds with something negative, and one of them end up liking the status. For example: April fools, I posted a photo of prenatal vitamins saying “we’re excited”. Another friend commented “if it’s true, great, but if not that’s not cool, a lot of people have fertility issues” I commented later with a photo Pre-Nuptials, covering up the word natals. But one of them liked the comment “if I’m not really pregnant that’s not cool”. Speaking of weddings, all 3 were suppose to be brides maids in my wedding next year. Since I haven’t talked to any of them in over a year, and the time prior to that was over a year (were not talking a face to face meeting, or conversation on the phone, this is like a tag in an article on Facebook or a comment) I haven’t put them in the wedding, and in fact debated even sending them an invite. I’m really hurt and angry, and I’m one person, and there’s 3 of them who have just disappeared from my life. Shouldn’t they know I need them? Especially planning a wedding without my brothers. They were like my sisters.

  3. Hello,

    I listen to your podcasts often and have found some support in the articles posted on your site. So thank you 🙂

    I was interested in listening to this podcast, as I am with any of them that refer to relationships and the breakdowns and maintenance of them, as that has been a very heavy topic for me in my grief (I am one day shy of 11 months of grieving the loss of my gorgeous 3 month old daughter). I often think that perhaps I focus and almost obsess on this topic purely to take a break from my grief, as I have found very little that does that for me. But really it probably consumes my thoughts so much because my friendships and relationships have always been the most important thing to me. In your post you talked about the possibility that the person who died was the person that brought everyone together. In my case, I’m the one who made the phonecalls, planned the parties, encouraged frequent get togethers. I haven’t died, but a big part of me has been changed forever and that social extrovert I once was has morphed into an anxious introvert who still desires hearing from people and holding onto those friendships, but I just don’t know how to at this point. I’ve tried to explain this to my friends, how I’m different now and need their understanding and support, but very few have actually stepped up, and it’s so disheartening.

    My secondary losses have added up to too many losses and it’s just been so shocking to see so many friends either ignore me (perhaps out of discomfort or fear) or say such inappropriate things that hurt me. So many of them expect the same person I was and while I miss her too, things, myself included, are different. I miss my friends and the ease of it all. I want to just text and reach out but it can be so difficult. I feel like I have on numerous occasions and the let down is almost worse.

    I’m not sure if you have any suggestions regarding any of this, but I appreciate having the space to share my thoughts. I know you deal with grief of all sorts, but loss of a child is something that is so very isolating – it’s just not something that should happen, nor does it happen to everyone, like some other losses that occur. It’s hard not to feel so scared and alone when it does and it’s easy to lose sense on oneself and all confidence you once had. I know neither of you have lost a child and I sincerely appreciate any articles or podcasts that discuss this type of loss. Keep up the good, and hard work that you do.

    Thank you,
    Gillian

  4. I am confused… I really do not understand why you would have sent htis e-mail to me. I may be wrong, but I thought I had responded to a previous message from you – as I am really concerned and interested in ministering to others. I lost my wife a year ago and was – literally, abandoned by her family. Any contact is initiated by me.

    But I am serious about my faith, I know that God would not abandon me and so I made an effort to connect with others and have been blessed beyond my wildest imaginations. I just celebrated my 85th birthday and was inundated by the cards and greetings, to say nothing of the attention expressed by others.

    But if that gives you the impression I did not suffer my loss, you are wrong. It was my faith that carried me through the pain and was responsible for the recovery.

    The important thing to do if others are grieving, forget the plans – just BE THERE.

    NOTHING is more important..

    • Sherwood, this came to you by email because you are signed up to automatically receive any new article that is posted on our site by email (usually about 2 articles/week). These articles are on all topics around grief and loss, so though they may not apply to your own situations specifically, they may apply to others who you minister to.

      I am so sorry to hear your wife’s family has abandoned you after the loss, though sadly I think that situation is not uncommon. Our hope with this article was it may help people to initiate contact in situations like that, as you already have. Though of course you can’t control others – sometimes we initiate contact, but there is no response, and there is only so much we can do.

      It is wonderful that you have connected with others and I couldn’t agree more that just being there is so incredibly important. It is easy for some than others to do that, and we hope some of the articles on our site help individuals who do struggle to connect to think of new ways they can do so. Happy belated 85th!

  5. Hellooooo Litsa! I always love your blogs, comments and insights.
    Another suggestion to add to your list is to have a “Private Conversation” on Aftertalk.com You can “talk” to a deceased loved one wishing them a Happy Birthday, sharing passages, struggles, life’s high points, apologies , updates,
    a remarriage….and just about anything you have on your mind.
    And you can share any conversation with Family or Friends.
    Thanks for letting me share this. Lisa

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