Life Goes On: New Friends After Big Losses

When you experience a significant death in your life everyone knows about it, whether you want them to or not.  You get the tilted-heads looks of sympathy and questions about how you’re doing with exaggerated intonation: “oooh, how aaaaare you?”  People walk on eggshells or check on you constantly or avoid you or whatever.  You have the friends who just know and understand and help you through.  You have the friends who have no idea what to do and do nothing, or do the ‘wrong’ things.  But they all have one thing in common: they know about your loss.

I was 18 when my dad died.  I had only needed to say the words out loud once, and then came the comfort that friends told friends and suddenly everyone just knew.  They all miraculously appeared at my house and at the funeral.  I felt like I would never have to say the words out lout again.  And that was in a world before social media!

 

That summer I had a short-term job far from home, family, and friends.  I rented a room in a house full of strangers.  Though part of me missed the safety of the friends and family who knew everything that had happened, there was a relief in being surrounded by these strangers.  There were no tilted-heads, no awkwardness, no looks to me like I might suddenly burst into tears at any moment, no unwanted advice.  Though I felt totally consumed by my own grief, something about being away from everyone who knew gave me control over something again.

Time went on and these people I lived with went from strangers, to roommates, to new friends.  I am a totally different person than I had been just months earlier, and yet this was the only person they knew me to be.  It was both devastating and liberating.   At some point it became clear I couldn’t live in this controlled world forever.  I would have to tell these carefree, beer-drinking, college kids that just a few months before moving in with them I had spent weeks on end in the ICU watching my dad die.  I dreaded the looks of pity and discomfort that would come, and yet I somehow felt these people couldn’t be “real” friends until they knew.

That was 13 years ago.  I hadn’t thought of that summer in many years until I read a post back in February on the blog Finding My New Normal called “When to Drop the ‘Dead Baby’ Bomb”.  After losing her first baby at 36 weeks, the author puts into words something I think all grievers can relate to, no matter the type of loss:

“Everything about my current life is the way it is because my son died.  Nothing in my life now would be exactly the same if he had lived.  Yes, I have my rainbow baby now and to the outside world I’m sure I look just like every other new mother. Only I’m not.”

She goes on to talk about her “safe friends”.  They are the friends who knew about her loss, who she never had to explain anything to because they were there for it.  And then she talks about meeting new friends after a death:

“None of these people know my story. So within the course of the normal “getting to know you” conversation I have lots of landmines to step over . . . I just never know how much to tell. How much to disclose about my personal tragedy. After all, new friendships are fragile. If you come on too strong, or too fragile, or “too much drama,” you can be written off before you have a chance to get to know someone. But if you wait too long then you can seem fake or insincere. So what to say, and when to say it is a struggle for me. I mean, when is the right time to drop the “dead baby” bomb?”

 That summer I finally told my new friends.  I wish I could tell some amazing story about how poignant it was, but I honestly barely remember how the conversation played out.  What I do remember was lying in bed thinking about the reality that everyone I would ever meet from then on would only know the new me – the dead-dad-me.  They would never know my dad.  They would never know what I was like before this unbearable pain and existential crisis that would put my life on another path.  Overdramatic?  Possibly.  But true.

Fast forward a few years.  I broke up with the boyfriend who I had been dating since my before dad died.  He hadn’t known my dad well, but he had known him.  Breaking up was the right thing, but a new revelation came with the split:  whoever else I would date would never have known my dad.  They would never just “know” my story like my “safe friends” did.  Whoever else I would date, I would have to tell them these things.  I would have to find words to explain who my dad was, who I was because of this, what my grief was.

Grief makes you crazy, death changes your perspective on life, and I was losing the one person who had seen me through that.  Joni Mitchell streamed through my head on loop in those days . . . I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad . . .  I knew this relationship couldn’t last for ever, and yet it terrified me to imagine building a meaningful relationship with someone who hadn’t known my dad and hadn’t been part of my devastation and despair.  It seemed so fundamental to who I was; fundamental to who I am even now.

I didn’t know how I would tell those friends that first summer, but somehow I did.  I didn’t know how I would date someone new, who hadn’t been part of my anguish and loss, but somehow I did that too.  We like to be practical and helpful here at WYG.  Most days we offer suggestions and tips for coping, but not today.  Today I’ll just say that often in grief we do things and we have no idea exactly why, when, or how we managed to find the strength to do them.  We get out of bed.  We “drop the dead-baby bomb”.  We learn to say words out loud that we never imagined we would have to say.  We help new people meet our loved ones for the first time through our stories and our memories.  We discover new best friends who only know the “dead-dad” us, the “dead-husband” us, or the “dead-baby” us.  In the words of Robert Frost, In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”     

June 9, 2017

13 responses on "Life Goes On: New Friends After Big Losses"

  1. I came across this post when I was googling “why can’t I make new friends after loss.” Though I didn’t quite get the “answers” I was looking for, I really related to this post. It’s been over six years since my boyfriend died. Four and a half years ago I moved across the country so I could breathe. But I have not made ONE single friendship or connection that I feel like will last through life since he died. It’s like I am lacking grace/patience/care and I just feel like I can’t sustain anything new. It’s been six years. I do feel better this year than I have for the last five combined, but I still can’t sustain any kind of relationship (romantic, regular friendships, etc). But it sorta makes sense. It’s like I don’t want to be the dead-boyfriend me, I want to hang on to the old me when he was still here, so maybe that’s why I cherish those other relationships (the ones that existed when he did)?

  2. My father was killed in an electrical accident at our family cabin when I was 16. My first date with my later to be husband was a couple weeks following that. I came to believe he was brought to me at that time as the new main man in my life. But then he was killed in a plane crash when I was 34 years old, leaving me with three young children to raise. I understand many of the sentiments in this article. However many years later, I am far more appreciative of people expressing their sorrow for me with their tilted heads or their question of how are you doing. I’m no better at having appropriate or helpful words to say to someone going through loss than anyone else. What I’ve learned over the years is pain is pain, whether it’s from losing a baby, a spouse, a child, divorce, disconnect from having been adopted… I’ve been in the presence of so many sharing their pain with me and my thinking to myself, “I have no idea what they must be feeling, but I can recognize their pain because I have felt pain too.” The most helpful thing to me after both of these crises in my life, in moving forward, is investing in other people’s lives and giving help to others. It relieves a person of so much focus on their own pain. It will still be there, it will still hurt in the private moments, but it’s always good to take one’s eyes off of oneself and remember others are hurting too. There can be danger in staying in that really dark place too long.

  3. If you ever lose your own child, life goes on, of course it does even if you like it or not, stupid to ignore that fact. Is your life that is changed for the rest of your human life. I think your frigging DNA changes! Part of you died, too , that part doesn’t go on .

  4. Thanks for this. Realised recently that I haven’t made any new friends – not real ones – since my mother’s death two years ago. Last Christmas, my father died too.

    I do want to make new friends. It’s something I miss. I was half-hoping for practical tips, as so many of the ones on this blog are very helpful. But another part of me was hoping that – as your final paragraph suggests – this would just be one of those processes that happened in its own time, almost in spite of oneself, and that defied analysis. To make a new friend – to “explain” Mum and Dad to someone who never met them, and to explain them in a way that wouldn’t allow the circumstances of their deaths to overshadow their vivid lives – still seems impossible. But I hope I get there.

    Years ago, I thought I would never, could never, come out as gay to anyone. I did it, though, and I’m still not quite sure how. Eventually, identifying openly as gay became easy. Automatic. Hope this will be a bit similar, in time.

    • I lost my mom and dad both to suicide in 2008 and 2009. Reading your comment really touched my heart. It is really hard for me to talk to people about their deaths, not because I don’t want to talk about them, but because of how people might react. I just don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable. When I read your comment about how you didn’t want their lives to be overshadowed by the circumstances of their death I realized I feel that way too. I just wanted to comment to tell you even though it is awkward and painful I do tell people what happened to my parents. I think people need to be more aware of suicide and we need to talk about it more openly. This past year I participated in the Overnight walk for suicide prevention and I met so many people who had lost loved ones to suicide or who struggled with suicide themselves. I have been trying to talk more about it even though it is hard. I just wanted you to know you will be able to talk about it slowly but surely. Just take your time and follow your heart. And be prepared to cry after. Stay strong. You are not alone!

  5. Lisa it’s been a few years since you have written this piece, but thank you. It truly makes me feel as though I’m not alone. My mother was murder almost a year ago. Living in the small town we live in, everyone knows the Lori Heimer Homicide and they know she has a family fighting for her justice every day, but what they don’t know is that I am one of her daughter’s. I work in EMS and I’ve had patients bring up murder cases, luckily none have been my mother’s, but I’m so torn between keeping that professional and personal line drawn. I have not mentioned that I am Lori Heimer’s daughter to any of my patients, but I have had to tell new Co workers that have started at my work place. I’ve had to tell three people and it was a struggle every time. Thank you for being able to put our feelings into words. I’m so sorry for your losses.

  6. I can relate to a lot of things you experienced, different situation but same feelings. It’s the first time I’ve read (or heard)something that I sounds like I feel and think.

  7. Thanks for this. My parents died last year and I feel like there are 2 hesitations in navigating new friendships – when to drop the “dead parents” (yes, 2 in one year, 2 types of cancer resulting in brain tumors) bomb, and then figuring out who the heck I am now and in this friendship and who am I becoming. So often I’ve felt it not worth it, but I’m slowly getting there – especially with others who have lost parents under similar circumstances, who speak the languages of cancer and lost hope and being an adult orphan and being a parent. I love this site and am going back through all the articles, it’s one of the first grief resources I’ve really found helpful in touching the true experiences of grieving.

    • I lost both of my parents within the last year. Mom to metastatic vaginal cancer in June and then dad due to a broken hip complicated by kidney cancer in January. As a single, only child, I can truly relate to this article.

      • The article and so many of the comments… So well put. My parents died two months apart and I am a single, adult “orphan”. I have new friends who never had the pleasure of knowing my parents and they probably wouldn’t recognize the person I was before my parents died. The death of my parents helped propel me to make a better life for myself in many ways. The flipside is that I’ve experienced profound losses are in a short period of time that truly have changed who I am and how I look at life. It’s so nice when I come across something like this article, validating that am not alone in my experiences.

  8. Wow!! This describes my experience so well. After my husband moved to heaven, I temporarily moved in with my daughter in another city, and I believe I am better of for having experienced meeting new friends who helped me to get better. I was able to walk on the back which I loved so much. Now, I’m back at my house, and I’m learning to adjust here again. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks Louisa. Though they say no big changes in the first year, sometimes a break in another place with new people can be a good thing! Glad you are slowly adjusting to life back home again . . .

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