I lost my dad when I was in college; I was at an age when it felt like I was the only person who had lost a parent. I didn’t know how to relate to people; I didn’t know if or how to tell people I met about my loss. When we lost my sister’s boyfriend to an overdose six years later, the isolation quickly set in again. I felt like we were the only family that had experienced addiction and knew the pain of a substance loss.
The irony of these feelings of isolation was that I had wonderful friends: I had friends from childhood who were like family, I had friends from college who I loved dearly. But as I grieved, I felt utterly and completely alone. It wasn’t that my friends didn’t try; they did, each in their own way. The problem? They didn’t know what I needed. Hell, I didn’t know what I needed. Most of them had never been through a significant loss. They weren’t sure what to say or do. I didn’t know what I needed them to say or do, but I did know that it felt impossible to talk to anyone about what I was going through.
Despite this isolation in my grief, I was actually one of the lucky ones. Though I didn’t feel connected, my friends didn’t shy away from me out of discomfort. They generally put up with some of the crazy decisions and behaviors that were born from my grief. Not everyone is so lucky, I know. Sometimes our friends not only don’t know what to say or do, but they avoid us because they are so uncomfortable. They are worried they will say or do the wrong thing. Rather than accepting and tolerating the way grief changes us, sometimes our friends—as wonderful as they are—can’t make sense of the change or tolerate it. So there we are, feeling like everyone should understand that the worst thing imaginable has happened and we will never be the same… While our friends are there, wanting everything to be back to normal.
Grief re-writes your address book. Sometimes the people you think will be there for you aren’t. It can be easy to just hole-up in your house feeling angry and bitter that your friends aren’t there for you the way you thought they’d be. It can be even easier to feel like you will never connect with people in the same way again, that no one will ever understand your loss, and that you will live on your own little grief island forever.
So what can you do other than sulk in your house alone, eat Ben and Jerry’s, and watch Law and Order marathons?
First and foremost, cut your friends some slack. Remember that supporting a griever isn’t easy. Recognize that, even if they aren’t there for you right now, that doesn’t mean they are objectively a bad friend or that they won’t be there for you in the future. And hey, you can even send them some of our tips for being a good friend to a griever
Next, open yourself up to making a grief friend. Yes, a grief friend. When you lose a loved one, you become part of this tragic little club that you never wanted to be a part of. But if you can open yourself up to talking to some other members of this club, you may just find yourself a grief friend: someone you can connect with, who can support you, who you can support, all without judgement.
Take me and Eleanor, for example. We were just two gals who worked together. She’s an introvert, I’m an extrovert. She has kids, I am not a kid person (to put it mildly). She had been working at our job for quite a while, I was brand new. But at some point, we started talking about our own losses. Who knows why, but we did. We connected on the lack of support we found in our grief. We had similar experiences, as mental health professionals supporting grievers who had both had significant losses. We were both (charmingly?) weird and equally obsessed with people using photography to express grief. We were able to talk about all our grief-craziness, neuroses, and public meltdowns without judgment. And at some point, we went from two gals who worked together to grief friends.
Fast forward a year or two, and one of the things we bonded about—the lack of online support we could relate to-turned into this blog. A place to help people understand grief; to take the academic and make it accessible, to accept that sometimes a glass of wine and some ice cream are the only coping skills you can muster, to normalize that grief makes you feel totally insane, to say that an existential crisis every now and again is okay, and to show that coping can be everything from baking a cake to taking a photograph.
I know. When you are grieving, the idea of opening yourself up to new anything sounds terrible. You may be thinking that you don’t make new friends easily, or that you won’t find someone to connect with. But opening yourself to new relationships in grief can do amazing things. It may not drag you off your isolation island right away, but it may allow you to have someone come and visit you every now and again. It may be someone at work, at church, at school, online, in a grief support group, or at the dog park. Grief friends turn up where you least expect them if you can bring yourself to be open to them. Seriously.
Had Eleanor and I not opened up to each other about something so personal—something so many of our pre-grief friends couldn’t support us through—we never would have found our amazing grief friendship. Had we not opened up about our grief here on our little corner of the internet, we wouldn’t have found so many new grief friends: all of our amazing readers. You share your losses with us in the comments here and on social media. You support us when we open up about our pain. You let us support you when you are having more bad days than good.
Grief does re-write your address book, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we get to write in new names. I am so glad I got to add Eleanor’s name to my address book, and together we are so glad we have gotten to add so many of you to our list of grief friends.
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