Why not everyone will be there for you when you’re grieving OR "Now I know who my REAL friends are"

Why not everyone will be there for you when you’re grieving

I love my friends.  I would be lost without them.  Fact.  I update facebook all the time (which still isn’t often enough) about what awesome friends I have.   I’ve read a lot of quotes and people’s thoughts about friendship and what true friendship is.  All sorts of lovely stuff about how true friends will stick by you through absolutely anything.  And how it’s the tough times in your life that will sort out who your real friends are – those people who really care about you. And of course these times will also sort out which people aren’t your true friends at all. Because everyone knows that your true friends will stick with you through thick and thin and be there for you no matter what happens right?  They will be your wings when you’ve forgotten how to fly, right? They will stand right there by your side always, won’t they?

What a load of fluffy, idealistic twaddle. (I would love to use a better word than ‘twaddle’ but I’ll refrain.  ‘Twaddle’ does the job well anyway).  If you’ve lost your parent or indeed anyone close to you recently then holding these beliefs about the people around you is going to make your experience feel that little bit more painful and lonely, you’ll have incredibly unrealistic expectations of the people you know, and you could well end up writing off certain people or holding grudges against them for a long time.  And this is a pity – you might need them in the future.

When I say ‘fluffy, idealistic, twaddle’ I’ll admit I’m being a little harsh.  What I probably should say is ‘yes and no’.  Some of your friends will be ‘there for you’ and some won’t and it won’t necessarily have much to do with how they feel about you or whether they are ‘real friends’ or not – whatever that really means.  When I have been through death and loss in the past I wouldn’t have got far through it without my friends.  But they didn’t all behave the way you might think.

As I started to explain in my last blog – this is not something small and tricky you are going through.  It’s DEATH.  People are scared of death – they are scared of it happening to them and they are scared of it happening to people they love.  They don’t really want to think about it…..or talk about it for too long. When I explain the work I do to people I actually can’t even use the d-word, as often, without even knowing it,  people will actually shut down before my eyes.   When I’ve done this in the past I have watched the mental earplugs get inserted and people excuse themselves from my company.  They might not understand exactly why but they suddenly feel the need to…..go and do absolutely anything else.
Your friends, your colleagues, your loved ones will have different feelings, experiences and issues around death, and it’s highly likely they aren’t even aware of them.  Your experience can be scary and push buttons deep inside them that they don’t even know they have.

Let me give you a first-hand example.  I’ll bet there will be a few people in your life that this reminds you of.  About 6-9 months before my own dad died, the father of a girl I worked with passed away from cancer.  Let’s call her ‘C’.  C is a good friend of mine now and has been for years but at the time when this happened we had only been working together for a few months. Though we worked in a large office, she and I were part of a small team of 5 people and our desks were opposite each other with a chest-height partition between us.  Due to the work we did we all worked very closely together and I couldn’t leave my desk without passing her.  I spoke to her a lot during a normal day.  So all in all I had a lot to do with C.  I’m not sure I knew her dad was ill before he died but I remember being told when he had.  She was away from work for a week and when she returned here is the wise, insightful, and highly supportive thing I said to her. ………… …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….  Yip, that was it.  Absolutely nothing.  I didn’t say “I’m sorry”, or “I heard about your dad”.  I didn’t even allude to it with one of those concerned knowing looks on my face and an indirect (but loaded) question like “how are you doing?” or “how is the family coping?”.  Not even an “are you ok?” Nope, I didn’t say a single word and I acted like everything was normal.

Was I a rubbish friend?  Did I not care about her?  Not at all.  Here is what really happened.  I told myself that I didn’t want to upset her, that maybe if I brought it up it would remind her and make her feel worse, that she would bring it up if she wanted to talk about it.  I told myself I didn’t need to tell her I was sorry – of course she knew that I was. How could I not be?!  I told myself that she was well aware I was there for her if she needed me.

When my own dad died I could look back on what happened and see it so clearly for what it
was.  I was scared by her experience.  I could only look at it from out of the corner of my eye.  Just for a second.  And I was scared of her.  I didn’t know what would happen if she got upset and fell apart in front of me.  I didn’t know what the right thing to do and say would be.  I didn’t know how to make her feel better or how to fix it for her.  I didn’t want to deal with any of it.  It was just too big.  And the important thing to note is that I only understood this later.  At the time I told myself I was doing it for her.

When I went through the same experience not long after C did it became amusing to me to watch the variety of reactions around me.  Some people  practically climbed all over me and wouldn‘t leave me alone, some treated me like a leper (they definitely didn‘t want to catch what I had), some forgot, and some did/ said the most unusual things.
When you’re grieving, some of your friends will be around you as much as possible, some will distance themselves from you – either temporarily or sometimes permanently, and every variation in between.  It will vary hugely based on their own feelings and experiences.

It is actually very unrealistic and unfair to imagine that the people closest to us, and even those that are not as close to us, will somehow, in our hour of need, miraculously get over some of their deepest darkest fears – often that they aren’t even aware they have – so they can be there for us.

When you have just lost someone close to you there is a part of you that wishes you could walk away from it all and ignore it, or shut your eyes and come back in a few months when things are a bit better.  And there are people in your life who are simply a reflection of this part of you.

Want to know something else?  You need these people too. This fantasy that everyone will be there for you would never work out.  Sometimes you need the people who won’t look at you funny and will let you pretend everything is normal.  You might not want everyone to see you suffer and these are the people you won’t share it with.  These people can be a lot easier to be round than others when life returns to something resembling normality. Not everyone in your life needs to have been through this with you and seen your pain.  It can be a very private thing sometimes.  And the truth is that some people really are so lost about what to say or do around you that you’d have to be helping them, rather than vice-versa, which you probably don’t have the energy for.

Another important job of people who you think aren’t there for you is that they make absolutely awesome targets for your emotions.  When facing where the real pain and stress is coming from can be too big and overwhelming, you’ve probably found yourself obsessively pissed off at someone close to you who you felt abandoned you and didn’t do what they ‘should’.  I have found this situation with almost everyone I’ve coached.  They are a safe and distracting place to focus some of what you are feeling until you‘re ready to really look at the real source of your pain.

Every type of reaction to you – no matter how confusing, frustrating or odd, serves a purpose.  If everyone were there for you, understanding and seeing your suffering, you would risk being smothered and overwhelmed, being expected to talk about it all more than you might like to, and feeling vulnerable and unable to act normal at the times when you want to.

Something very interesting to know too is that just like the people who ‘aren’t really there for you’, the ones who are have their own stuff going on as well.  The most supportive ones have often been through something similar before and, here’s the key bit, they are still trying to make sense of it themselves.  They don’t just come to you to help.  They come to you for help as well.  Energetically these people can actually be a bit draining  for you so to have everyone around you be like this would be a nightmare.

So just remember that the people around you do love you very much, that they will do what they can for you, that (though it isn’t always obvious) they are helping you and you do need them – all of them.  But most of all know that they are human too and don’t set your expectations on them so ridiculously high that some of them are bound to let you down.   You are loved no matter what.


About Kristie West

I'm a Grief Specialist and I help adults who have lost a parent. I am known for positively changing people's experience of the loss of a parent in less than 4 hours.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Dealing with the people around you when you are grieving, Helping friends who have lost someone, Looking after yourself, Loss of a parent, Talking about death, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why not everyone will be there for you when you’re grieving OR "Now I know who my REAL friends are"

  1. Steph Beitzel says:

    Hi Kirsty,

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s perfect timing. 8 years ago, one of my best friends gave birth to a baby daughter very prematurely, and after 6 weeks of intensive care, she lost her fight and died. I was in London and my best friend was in Sydney. At the time I couldn’t bring myself to send or write anything to her. I called to speak to her – but she was putting on a brave face and I know she wasn’t appreciating the drama merchants so our calls were more matter of fact than anything. I wanted to write and send stuff – but I felt powerless to do so – as if anything I wrote or sent would trivialise what was going on and how much pain I was feeling for her – let alone what I could barely comprehend how she was feeling. And since that time, it felt like she’d moved on and it wasn’t right to go there. Last week she blogged about the death – the first time she’s really talked about it – it would have been Liljana’s 8th birthday. And finally I feel like I can write what I feel. Her blog has given me permission to let her know I constantly think of her, and Liljana, and that I regret not being able to ‘be there for her’. I never really understood my own reaction – but I’m going to send your blog to my friend with the cards I bought at the time and couldn’t send. Thanks so much.

    • Kristie West says:

      Hiya Steph,
      You’re very welcome. It is so much trickier than people think and NEVER just a case of being there simply because you’re a friend.
      A friend of mine the other day told me about a friend of hers who lost a child in an accident recently. Having children of her own, my friend admitted that she could allow herself to think about what had happened, but only very briefly. I didn’t need to ask to know that she probably had very little contact with her friend during this time.
      There are so many layers and reasons to why we can’t all be there. But it’s also so important to remember we aren’t all supposed to be there. Too much of that type of support can be overwhelming and crippling. If you look at the situation there will probably be reasons why it worked out better for your best friend and you that you weren’t in contact that much. Forcing yourself to try and help when it isn’t the right thing for you can actually destroy friendships just as easily as anything else. And if this is the first time she has been able to share about her experience I’d guess that you being there for her in that way and talking to her about it might not have been quite right for her until now anyway.

  2. Pingback: Questions I get asked: 5 tips for someone who has just lost a parent or someone they love | Kristie West – Getting Beyond Grief

  3. Mike Stephens says:

    Personality types do differ, and there’s a song that says something like “you say it best by saying nothing at all”. Looking back at my dad’s death, funeral, and the time period shortly after, I think the people I enjoyed being with the most were those who said little or nothing about the matter at hand. There were plenty of people who were cheerful and treated me like they always do. I didn’t even realize this until I read your post, and it is good insight on how I may (or may not) act/react the next time somebody close to me loses a loved one. Thanks for sharing this post!

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