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Maintaining Old Friendships in the "New Normal"

by Tim Nelson

Hi Tim,
I'm new to the blog. Our daughter Selah was stillborn on September 22. I apologize for commenting off topic, but I'm wondering if you'd be interested in starting a thread about how to maintain friendships during the early stages of grief. More specifically, I'm finding that I'm surprised at the friends (who have been truly good friends to me in the past) either 1) avoiding me or 2) pretending nothing has happened because their wife sent a sympathy card in the mail, so let's all just get on with life. I really understand that the whole thing is awkward for friends who have never suffered this kind of loss, and I don't want to label (most of) them as just too shallow to handle real friendship...i.e. I want to maintain the friendships, but I feel that my ability to connect meaningfully with them anymore is severely hampered by their response (or non-response?) to my loss and grief. Obviously, if they're true friends, starting an honest conversation with them is going to be a good place to start. But the catch-22 is that right when I'm most needing the friendship, I don't have the emotional energy to be the one doing the reaching out...I don't feel like I have the energy to be in the "teaching" role (i.e. 'teaching' friends how to be good friends to me--or anyone--who has lost a baby). I'd love to hear yours and others' comments, suggestions, etc., regarding this.

I first of all want to say how sorry I am for your loss. September 22 is not very long ago, and I can all too vividly recall the feelings of deep sadness I felt in those initial weeks following my loss. Maybe because our daughter was stillborn on September 27, hearing about Selah's death stirs a lot of feelings in me. I obviously don't know where you are located, but in Minnesota it's fall -- and a rather cold and cloudy one at that. I always struggle this time of year, in part because of the memories and in part because of the changing seasons and all that represents to me.

As for your question, I think you stated it beautifully and I thank you for taking the time to write. 

When Kathleen died, I assumed that I knew who would be there for us to support us and help us survive. I also assumed I knew who wouldn't be. Boy, was I wrong! It seemed that many of our closest friends were very uncomfortable, and really didn't want to talk about Kathleen. Other, more casual acquaintances, whom I would have barely expected a card from, were there in ways I never dreamed of. I can tell you that some of our friendships changed because of that experience, but I can honestly say that we found new connections with more people than we lost our connection with. 

Ironically, my wife, Monica, was a social worker at the time and was acquainted with a number of the social workers who worked at the hospital where Kathleen was born. It was very hard when those people who were both friends through work as well as professionals in a field you would expect understanding from, totally failed us. They were probably the hardest ones for us to be able to understand and be OK with.

I think there are several reasons our closest friends struggle to be able to help us. First, they are the ones who have known us and felt a connection with us in a more intimate way than casual acquaintances. Thus, they have way more to lose in facing the reality that this loss changes who we are. They understandably simply want us to be "normal" again so that we can pick up where we left off. They don't want to accept that we now have a "new normal" that includes being the parent of a child who died. While the goal for all of us is to find happiness again -- and I honestly believe you will, even though that might seem impossible this early in your grief -- that does not change the fact that many of us view life a lot differently than we did before our loss. That doesn't make us better or worse than who we were before, it simply means we have been changed.

I totally understand what you mean about not having the energy to be the "teacher" at this time. You shouldn't have to be. But, you are obviously a very well-spoken and reasonable person who will eventually be able to enlighten SOME of those around you. Unfortunately, not everyone will appreciate your perspective, and they will likely be the ones you lose some of your closeness with.

As for the "quiet ones" who seem to avoid you for fear of having to saying something ... remember what we have all been taught in growing up. "Aunt Hilda needs to be alone now, she is grieving." In some form or another, many of us get that message over and over again. The big question is -- did Aunt Hilda say she wanted to be alone, or did the people around Aunt Hilda decide she needed to be alone so that they didn't have to face the uncomfortable moments of feeling inadequate?

The more people care about us, the more they want to "fix" us. Not only is their heart likely breaking for us, they want their old friend / neighbor / co-worker / brother / nephew / grandson, etc. to be the same happy go lucky person they were before. Added to that feeling, is the totally helpless feeling of not having "the answer" to make our pain go away. In other words, many times the avoidance comes from a feeling of not being the friend they want or think they should be. They don't realize that letting us see their tears or feel their hug is all any of us really want or hope for. No one knows better than us that there are no magic words that will make our pain go away.

My guess is that you are a person with a lot of friends. I also suspect that you are the friend who has been the "strong" one -- the dependable one. So, seeing you struggling is not only frightening, they are possibly feeling like they can't be for you what they believe you would be for them if the situation were reversed.

Of course all of this is just one person's theory about possibilities. I look forward to hearing what others have to say. In the meantime, know that I and many others are here to listen, understand, and offer whatever level of support we can to help you in the weeks and months ahead. My heart goes out to you and I once again thank you for reaching out.