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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; you know, that time I had a massive meltdown in the sock aisle at Target. 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 Carrabba’s. Click on the link below and select the dates that you would be able to attend. (The website is called doodle.com and it’s the greatest thing since Carrabba’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. Then after my sister lost her boyfriend, something similar happened: She struggled to keep connections with his family—even 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, and the death may have 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.
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 you may have to accept at some point 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:
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.
Make use of technology. Keep in touch by texting, social media, email, whatever works for you. 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.
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 the same tradition, despite the loss.
Create a memorial website or Facebook page. This may not seem like ‘staying in touch,’ but it’s actually a great way to create a central place where everyone can post comments, memories, photos, videos, or share grief struggles.
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.
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.
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 pass and we suddenly realize the good friend of our spouse, or our child’s college roommate, or our mom’s cousin has totally fallen 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!
Plan a new tradition. Be it for your loved one’s birthday or any other day, plan to hold something every year in memory of your loved one. Invite the friends and co-workers of the person who died. If everyone knows it will happen every year, they can block out the day. Even if time passes and you lose touch of some of those more distant friends of your loved one, you will still have this set time to connect with them at least once a year.
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 a day that you will make a couple calls or send a couple emails to initiate contact or make plans and—you guessed it—Just Do It. Yes, actually follow through. You can even tell one of your friends which day you plan to make the call(s) and then ask them to check in with you to make sure you really did it; we all need a little accountability sometimes.
Now, you may be thinking: I have let waaay too much time pass. It’s too late now to re-establish the relationship. Guess what!? It’s 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.
Reach out and let the person know you regret not being in better touch. Chances are they may have similar regrets.
Let them know why you’re reaching out now. There may be many reasons and, yes, they may be obvious—but this can help to give the person context for where you are now in your life, grief, etc. and why you want to get back in contact.
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 calls. If you have a template to work off of, just making small changes for each person you send it to may feel a little less overwhelming.
Plan something simple: coffee, dinner, beer, whatever. Just get SOMETHING on the books!
Don’t be scared to talk about your loved one. This is probably the connection you have to each other, 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! And don’t forget to subscribe to get our emails right to your inbox.