Loving A Grieving Friend – Even When It’s Hard
Should grievers be given the freedom to mourn endlessly? Is it ok to withdraw, to be antisocial, to be far from the friend, daughter, wife, mother you once were? Is that understandable, justifiable when grief has stolen so much of your heart? Or does there come a point when enough is enough, when it is time to move on?
When my baby died five years ago, I was irrevocably changed. I lost my faith, my beliefs. I lost myself. Fear, guilt and regret hit me like a tsunami, shattering what once stood firm and strong, and washing it all away.
In my new bereaved world, every breath ached with the pain of her loss. It took all my energy to keep standing, to hold the tears at bay, for fear that if they started, they would never stop. My mind raced constantly, flitting from analysing every tiny aspect of her birth and death, constantly questioning, “what if, what if?”; to anxiety and panic about what was to come. I was distracted, distant. I could think and talk only of my baby and of my pain and I had little left to give to others. And yet I was still enveloped by the warmth of loyal friends, their patience and understanding carrying me. I was selfish and self-absorbed as I attempted to adjust to life as a bereaved mother, but my friends stood by me, gently lifting me each time I stumbled and fell.
At some point, I’m not sure when, I was supposed to be “normal” again. I was expected to be the friend I once was, to give again, instead of just taking. But no one told me the timescales. No one laid out the expectations. And living without my baby did not become any easier. There was a layer of guilt atop my grief, for I knew I wasn’t the friend I used to be. There were those who stood by and patiently waited for a little of the ‘old’ me to reemerge, for our relationships to become less one-sided; wonderful friends who placed no expiration date on my selfishness in grieving.
There was also a minority who couldn’t wait. Some tiptoed silently out of my life. Others left in a blaze of hostility and resentment, leaving me choking in the dust of their angry words. In the December after my baby died, eight months into my life after loss, I ventured out one evening. Not only was my grief still raw, it was Christmastime, my first Christmas without her. I was also pregnant with my second baby and in constant, anxious turmoil. But I agreed to meet some friends for dinner and braved the cold and the outside world. I remember being distracted that night, preoccupied by how lost and afraid I felt, by how worried I was for the new baby who grew inside of me, fixated on the frequency of her movements. I remember struggling to follow the conversation. I remember trying to work out a way to leave before our food arrived because it was all too much. I was a terrible friend to others who needed to talk. I could not listen, nor hold their pain, for I had too much of my own to carry.
Two months later, a letter arrived, detailing all the ways in which I failed as a friend that night. The letter told of my selfishness, of how I had ended the friendship through my inability to see beyond my own problems, both that night, and in failing to reply to messages in the weeks that followed. I remain as confused now as on the day I read those words. For if it was ok for me to be consumed by my grief in April 2013, then why not in the December? Why not now? Should allowances not be made for an endlessly broken heart? I’m not talking breaking the law here, but needing to withdraw, to be, on occasion, a selfish and terrible friend?
That letter sat in a drawer, hidden away like a shameful secret, its powerful words haunting me, “what if she’s right?”. And then, a few months ago, amidst packing for a house move, I found it, shredded it and let it go. Loving me means loving my grief, for it exists because she existed. I still look back with a little sadness and regret, but more than anything, the letter taught me to value the people I still have, my bright stars in all of this.
Parents who live every day without a child are warriors. We fight and fight to stay standing. There can be little left for other relationships, especially when there are more children to love fiercely and to worry about incessantly. If I could, I would give every griever permission to be however they need to be, for as long as they need to. And I would ask their friends, as I ask my friends, for continued patience and understanding and to please know that my absence is not personal and that I am so grateful they are still with me. I hope that one day I will have more to give.
Image: Author’s own