grief therapy, ask sally, grief, loss, friendship, healthista

Grief therapy – ‘My mother died and my friend didn’t even call’

Grief therapy is the focus of this week’s Ask Sally column – reader Carla says her bond with a close friend deteriorated when she recieved no condolences when her mother died

The problem

‘Dear Sally,

When my mother recently died suddenly, my friends rallied around me. It’s been the most bittersweet experience to know how many truly compassionate, caring people I have in my life, both family and friends. But one friend didn’t even send a text message and this is despite being very close with her, her husband and children for many years. Recently she contacted me via Facebook suggesting we meet up, saying ‘the children miss me.’ I ignored it, and she then texted me to ask why I didn’t reply. When I explained how hurt I was by not being contacted at all when my mum passed away, she replied saying that I had been very distant with her in the lead up, cancelling dates (when my mum was dying) so she didn’t feel comfortable calling anymore. She even turned it around on me, saying ‘I’m sorry you feel hurt’ rather than apologising properly.  If the tables were turned I know nothing would have stopped me calling her, going over to check on her etc. But the silence from her was deafening and I just feel so hurt I can’t overlook it. I don’t want to be someone who holds grudges but I can’t seem to get over this’.

Carla, 40, London

Sally’s advice

Dear Carla,

What a sad and deeply upsetting experience for you, at a time when you are at your most vulnerable and in need of human connection. I find it so life-affirming that death can bring out the best in people, stripping back all the ‘nonsense’ of daily life that it’s so easy to get caught up in, and putting into stark relief what really matters – love, relationships and showing compassion to other people.

But like any powerful emotion, grief also creates anxiety for some people. Beyond stock phrases like ‘Sorry for your loss’ or ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’, many of us simply do not know what to say to a bereaved person.

We can be paralysed by a fear of getting it wrong, or by thinking that anything we say will sound trite, pointless, and patronising, and do nothing to help the bereaved feel better. So we retreat into silence.

We can tell ourselves a story that other people are closer to the bereaved person, and that they have got the ‘support thing’ all sewn up

Talking about bereavement is almost a taboo in today’s society. We tolerate it being talked about for a few weeks, but there seems to be an expectation that the bereaved person ‘gets back to normal’ as soon as the funeral is over, and the death is rarely if ever mentioned.

We can also tell ourselves a story that other people are closer to the bereaved person than we are, and that they have got the ‘support thing’ all sewn up. We may even imagine that we’re superfluous and in fact, that our friend is so caught up in their grief, they have forgotten our existence.

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Many bereaved people do withdraw, even if they need contact, love and support from people more than ever. Asking for help can feel like just too much, even if it’s what they need more than anything else.

So it can take persistence on the part of friends of the bereaved to push through this. And doing this is harder for some people, especially those who are less secure in both themselves and their relationships, who may be hypersensitive to any signs of rejection. I wonder if this is the category your friend falls into?

As Martin Luther King said, ‘We will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’

There is no set way of grieving. People need different things at different times. So it’s not easy to get it right when you support a bereaved person – we have to just keep communicating, keep showing up and feel our way through.

But some people are really scared of getting it wrong.  There can also be a feeling that ‘bringing it up’ might upset the bereaved person, as if they had forgotten that their loved one had died and will break down if you remind them.  So they wait until they think things are ‘back to normal’ before contacting you, when you’re not so scarily fragile, and normal life can be resumed.

But as you experienced, what we need from friends, colleagues and family when we are grieving is acknowledgement of what we are going through. You also need people to acknowledge the injustice of your mum’s life being cut short, and the gap she has left both in your life and in the world.

It’s far, far too big a thing to go unacknowledged. And if that lack of acknowledgement comes from someone you consider to be a close friend, it will feel like a devastating body blow (and brain imaging shows that experiences like this activate the same area of the brain – the dorsal anterior congulate cortex or dACC – as being physically hurt).

As Martin Luther King said, ‘We will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’

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But – and it’s a big but – I think we only really get bereavement if we have experienced it yourself. I remember one friend saying to me when her mum had died, ‘I feel like apologising to all of my friends who were bereaved before me, for not being there for them in a more significant way. I had no idea how devastating it is, even when the death is expected.’

Now that a few months have passed, it seems your friend expects all to be back to normal, and for your friendship to carry on regardless, with the small matter of your mum’s death swept neatly under the carpet. Contacting you via Facebook because ‘the children miss you’ has almost an accusatory tone – is she implying that you are withholding your company and the children are suffering as a result?

The fact that she can’t bring herself to tell you the truth – that she misses you, not the children – suggests she is unsure of her place in your world. You say you spent a lot of time with her and her family, but I wonder if your friend felt secure in your friendship? Perhaps you seem to have a more glamorous, exciting or busy life than she does. I wonder that because it only seemed to take a few (understandable) cancellations on your part for your friend to start to question her place in your life.

Sometimes, our insecurities and anxieties drain our compassion

Sometimes, our insecurities and anxieties drain our compassion. We’re so wrapped up in our own experience, we don’t even consider the pain of others. It’s not an excuse, but it sounds like this was what was going on for your friend. She felt so hurt by you seeming to snub her that she lost the ability to empathise with your grief.

grief therapy, Ask Sally, grief, loss, friendship, healthista

Ressurrecting this friendship right now will mean putting a huge amount of feelings into a box and pretending you are OK with things that you are very much not OK with.

But given that you are still on the grief rollercoaster and no doubt have days when you need all of your resources just to get up, get dressed and pretend to function as a human being, you are no doubt reluctant to use your precious energy on being fake with someone.

surround yourself with those people who showed you much they love and care for you, and who were brave enough to step closer to you at this time

And so to the question of forgiveness. We are all human, and have failings and weaknesses. Who doesn’t look back on some of their past behaviour or choices with the wisdom of hindsight and wish they could turn back the clock and do it differently?

I suspect your friend is already regretting the way she reacted. But it might take her some time before she is prepared to admit it, even to herself. When your friend is brave enough to be honest with you, and admit she messed up, you may be able to begin the process of forgiveness.

Until then, surround yourself with those people who did acknowledge your grief, who showed you how much they love and care for you, and who were brave enough to step closer to you at this time of emotional difficulty and uncertainty rather than holding you at arm’s length. Don’t let your disappointment at one friend cast a shadow over that, because it’s a wonderful thing.

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