Why We Lose Friends When a Loved One Dies (and What to Do About It)
Everyday I open my Facebook page and read heart wrenching posts from parents who’ve lost a child. What took my breath away this week? A beautiful little boy accidently shot and killed by his father, the nineteen year old daughter who was murdered by ex-boyfriend, and the eleven year old boy who took his own life. Why are these in my news feed? Because I am one of these parents, a mom with a story of how my twenty-one year old son, a strong Army Infantryman with the best smile and the softest brown eyes, died of an accidental overdose… from half a pain killer.
Although the cause of death varies every time I scroll through my newsfeed there is one constant – Bereaved parents feeling disheartened and hopeless, questioning why friends and family can’t or don’t support their grief.
In our greatest time of need we, bereaved parents, are left to lean only on each other as people we thought would always be by our side fade away.
It leaves us with, not just the why did our child die, but why can’t others stand by us. In the five years since my son died this is the best I can come up with.
One Word Answer: Vulnerability
The loss, of a child, spouse, parent or friend, makes other people feel weak, defenseless & helpless. It challenges their sense of control and makes them face their own greatest fears of losing a loved one. For them to stand with our pain, they must touch a place in themselves they don’t want to go to.
I know I was guilty of being this person before my son died, and I’m sure I didn’t show up in the best way possible for friends who needed me. Because back then, like our friends now, I had a choice. But now, I don’t get to choose the amount of vulnerability I expose myself to - death of a loved one mandates that we step into vulnerability. And I’m not talking putting our toe in the water – it’s a cannon ball type of immersion into vulnerability!
There lies the difference between us and them – they get to choose to walk away from those feelings, protect themselves and take shelter from the raw, vulnerable, burn of an unexpected death. They get to slather up with Vulnerability Protection Factor 50 (VPF50) and go on with their lives. Appropriately protected from the damaging effects of appreciating our loved ones mortality.
Bereaved parents no longer get to choose and we can no longer slather ourself in VPF50 and pretend that the universal laws of life and death don’t apply. We have experienced one of life’s most scary realities… and it burns deeper when we reach out for support and don’t get what we need.
Brene Brown (my girl crush) has the best TED talk on vulnerability and it will change the way you see the healing potential of embracing this tough emotion.
It’s Not Personal & It’s Not Intentional
Most of our friends and family mean well and are doing the best they know how with the skills they have. The skills we have at any given moment are a culmination of our lives experiences.
We need to let go of wondering why they can’t just say and do the perfect thing, they might not have the experiences they need them to allow them to do that.
One reason we lose friends after a loved one dies is that we expect them to know what we need using our own life experience as the reference point. The perfect example of using our own life to scale others experiences is the comment, “I know how you feel, I lost my: dog, cat, goldfish, great-aunt, teddy bear (fill in the blank with something you perceive to be less than your loss here).” The person is trying to connect with you based on his/her own experience and that’s the best they can do… whether you like it or not.
Just as you wouldn’t go to your dentist to deliver a baby, be realistic about what your friends’ strengths are and how they can support you. Perhaps you have a dear friend who sucks at hearing your stories of sadness, but she is great at bringing home baked cookies unannounced. She is showing up in the best way she can, honor that in her and don’t make her the bad guy when she can’t do what she doesn’t know/can’t do.
How do I make my friends get it?
Your job is to continue to do the hard work of healing fully and reap the benefits of doing the work.
Your job is NOT to make your grief journey about what or how other people respond to you. If you want to make it about how other people are reacting, then do that by your own actions. Your authenticity and truth about what heals you and owning your journey will make people take notice – in a positive, cultural paradigm shifting way.
Being angry, resentful, bitter and complaining that people don’t act the way you want does two things:
- It prevents you from getting curious and learning what you need to heal.
- It perpetuates the exact problem you are complaining about.
Demonstrate how vulnerability can create deeper empathy for others suffering by embracing your healing. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world“. This journey isn’t about changing other people, it’s about changing yourself for the better. Working to become a better, more compassionate citizen of the world because of your loss.
Yours is a sacred healing journey, not a Disneyland vacation. Choose your companions wisely.
You could go to Disneyland with just about anyone and everything would be ponies & rainbows. The sacred journey of deep healing decrees that we carefully select our cohorts. For these types of journeys it’s better to have a small group of fierce healing warriors in the arena with you than a thousand fans cheering you on from the stands. (truth is we need both)
I am not suggesting that you ‘unfriend’ people who aren’t able to stand in the fire with you. Rather cast the characters in your life story in the roles they can best play. We need all types of people in our world!
Seek to surround yourself with those who can stand in the fire with you. @crazygoodgrief
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Join a support group, an online community, attend a retreat or whatever you need to do to cast the other roles that your current friends and family can’t fill.
Paula Stephens, M.A. is a professor, yogi, wellness coach and bereaved mother. After the loss of her oldest son, Brandon, she realized the lack of positive resources for bereaved parents wanting to rebuild a happy life after such a tragic loss. Paula created, Crazy Good Grief, which is dedicated to the inspirational empowerment and self-care to those healing from the loss of a loved one. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and her website.
Image courtesy of Tamás Mészáros.