After experiencing a significant loss, have you ever asked the question: “What happens when my friendships die too?”
Friend, I’ve always considered myself to be an extrovert … that is until I hit my mid-30s. At any rate, anyone who’s known me over the years would describe me as an outgoing person. As part of that, I enjoyed spending time with friends socializing, hosting parties, and traveling to various parts of the world. Finally, in college, even though I attended school hours away from my hometown, I quickly made friends and assimilated.
Friendships came fairly easy to me and shaped my view of intimate connections. I found mine to be fun, vulnerable, and mostly drama-free.
So you can imagine how startling it was for me to confront the reality that some of my closest friends weren’t able to hold my grief following my mom’s death in 2012. Frankly, it wasn’t something I’d even considered.
Around the time of her death, as is common for many grieving hearts, many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances made themselves known. They attended my mom’s memorial service, left text and voice messages for me, and shared thoughtful gifts.
However, at the six-month mark, the “buzz” around my mom‘s death, as well as the support I needed at that time, had diminished.
It left me questioning many things I thought I knew. When friendships die too, what do you do?
Given that I was new to the whole ‘grief thing,’ I wasn’t equipped to even know what to ask for. Day by day, the ebbs and flows of grief thrust me into messy and unfamiliar places. I didn’t know what I needed. In addition, I wasn’t sure how to ask for help. And without even realizing it, I guess I assumed that others would readily know how to best support me as a grieving person. Ever been there?
Nearly 9 years into my grief journey, I’ve learned a few things about friendships. Before sharing these, however, let me speak from the heart. What I’m about to share isn’t a condemnation of my dear family and friends. It’s also not a statement of most of my interactions surrounding grief. It’s simply a reflection on discoveries I’ve made about some relationships.
First, in the face of grief, people around you are confused as well. They struggle to know the right words to say, when or how to show up appropriately, and what to do when they do show up. So on a logical level, I can easily understand why, upon experiencing such confusion, there’s a tendency to simply avoid it all. I can think of individuals who, likely for this reason, weren’t sure how to engage with me after my mom died. The result was my being ghosted. And over time, as I’ve worked to name and more readily and healthily express my anger surrounding friendship loss, I can now appreciate this perspective. Thoughts?
Second, sometimes grief simply highlights the fact that certain friendships were problematic in the first place. I recall one friendship that honestly, had been difficult for quite some time prior to my mom’s death. While I enjoyed aspects of the relationship with this person, I also felt drained and used for my thoughtfulness and presence in the relationship. Ever been there? So when my mom died and this particular person began to speak about their own needs, as opposed to listening wholeheartedly to mine, it wasn’t surprising. And as you might imagine, over time, my desire to want to engage with this person dwindled. Roughly 9 months after my mom‘s death, our friendship just fizzled out. And to be honest with you, I felt relieved.
Third, sometimes the grieving person simply doesn’t have the energy to pursue the friendship. Grief is exhausting, which can result in limited emotional capacity on the grieving person’s part. I know this might sound harsh. At the same time, it’s sometimes the reality. Following my dad’s death in March 2020, grief impacted me much more so in physical ways than when my mom died. As a result, I lacked the physical and emotional stamina to ‘do’ all the time. To honor my grief needs (as well as pursue a lifelong dream), I quit a full-time job in the midst of the pandemic, tightened up my schedule, and shrunk my social circle to a handful of people. I feel guilty about this on some days, yet I know it’s what’s best for me during this season. What about you?
When friendships die too, it’s important to focus on what matters most.
Here are a few things you can consider.
Increase self-care, in whatever form that’s meaningful for you.For me, that’s been loads of rest. Now that I work for myself, I typically spend 3-4 days per week focused on career pursuits. I spend the remaining two work days focused on experiencing heart centering activities, whether that be traveling, simply reading a good book, or journaling. What I’ve learned is that if I don’t focus on what I need throughout my grief journey, my emotional well-being is significantly compromised. I’m sure you can imagine the impact this could have on those around me.
Identify those people around you who can offer grief support in ways that are most beneficial to you. Like it or not, this might mean breaking away from certain friendships and seeking community elsewhere. One of the ways I’ve pursued connection in the face of loss is linking up with other grieving hearts. They’ve been able to support me in unspoken ways, and I don’t feel the temptation to explain what it is I’m facing throughout my grief journey. In addition, I feel more seen and known in these spaces, something that truly matters to me.
Take the time, as is healthy and helpful, to communicate your grief needs with those friends who remain alongside you. One thing I’ve had to work through is assuming positive intent on my friends’ parts. When I haven’t received the phone calls or gotten the text messages to check on me, I’ve had to challenge myself to not over-react or shut down in frustration. To those friends who I consider lifelong partners, I’ve done a much better job of communicating my feelings and allowing them to show up in meaningful ways. It’s important to know that even as a grieving heart, you have certain responsibilities, in terms of communication with supporting friends.
So here’s the bottom line …
It’s possible that your friendships will change after experiencing loss. It’s also possible that you’ll gain new friendships as you walk through the grief journey. Either way, focus on what you need and take steps to express those needs with others. The consequence of not doing so is social isolation, emotion overwhelm, negative thought patterns, and so much more. And as a grieving heart, I know you have much to contend with already.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Take a moment to leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in learning more about managing your lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others, click here: https://mekelharrisphd.com/.
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Dr. Mekel Harris is a Memphis-based licensed psychologist who loves helping other perfectly imperfect folks navigate life's challenges in order to grow in lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others.
This really encouraged me and enlightened me at the same time. Although I have not loss any as a result of death. I have had several relationship “sizzle” out which have been honest with myself and identified them as losses! Thank you for your ability to be able to help others who need to re-find there way.
You’re so welcome, Lorraine! Grief can definitely take many forms beyond physical death. I appreciate your comment!
This message was received and it filled my heart.
Even before I lost my Dad I knew some people in my circle were shady.
Then when he died it was total proof.
I rather have a handful of friends than a group of people who waste my time.
Thanks for sharing your truth!
You’re welcome! Grief raises the surface many truths, including those within friendships. It sounds like you’ve identified your social circle. I’m happy for you!
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