"A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Walk beside me and be my friend." (Charles Caleb Colton)
My life changed gradually after the death of my son, Chad, on April 16, 1993-and so did many of my friends. Recently, I met a co-worker whose empathy in my early stage of grief was unconditional. I haven't seen him in nine years. We hugged and talked about our lives since then. I was reminded of his warmth and support; and it still glowed. Then it hit me! What was different about Steve that made him a loyal, comforting friend when so many others during the same period of time disappeared from my life?
Grief has a way of sorting out those who remain "true" friends and those who "ride off into the sunset." I was puzzled by this enigma. And like I've been doing with other aspects of my life since grief, I decided to reflect on that very thought. Did my relationship with friends and acquaintances change because of my profound grief that was uncomfortable for them or was it something more than that?
Often in the education series that my husband and I facilitate, a participant will bring up their sadness regarding the breakdown or ending of a friendship since the death of their loved one. I share my story with them about friends of ours.
For many years, my co-worker and friend enjoyed social activities that included our spouses. When Chad died, this couple came to the funeral, but I didn't hear from them for over a year afterwards. One day my friend called and apologized for ignoring me. She asked if the four of us could get together for dinner. Halfway through the meal, they started talking about the sporting events in their sons' lives. I said, "I remember when Chad played sports. It seemed we were always....." The sudden silence that came over the table was deafening. The evening ended abruptly, and we haven't seen them socially since. My feelings were shattered by this encounter.
In my journey through grief, I've learned not everyone who was your friend before your loved one's death will be your friend during and after your grief and mourning. I surmised that my friends changed because they didn't know how to deal with their own feelings about grief and loss; and additionally, they didn't know how to deal with the emotions I was then expressing. I felt confident that this was all there was too it... until now. Now, I know above and beyond these valid assumptions there was something more.
An even greater reason for the disintegration of relationships was the fact that as I changed-I grew! And, I grew in a different direction-away from them. This isn't a "bad" thing. But I was struck by the significance of my initial reaction that my friends didn't know how to be part of my grief-how to be my friend when I needed them most. I felt betrayed. Through an unstated mutual agreement, we casually drifted apart. They were no longer able to meet my personal needs, and I was destined to "grow" from my experience.
Being a companion in grief is a learned experience for some. It requires taking cues from the bereaved that need to hear the name of their loved one, tell their story, and talk about their experience. We encourage our group participants to establish their personal criteria for relationships with friends that will grow with them through their grief. Here is the criteria I found important for me.
- A friend in grief is someone you can confide in and trust with your most sensitive feelings and thoughts and in return, expect confidentiality.
- A friend is not judgmental and allows you to say what you need to say without trying to alter your expression of anger, fear, disappointment, or sadness. These are necessary emotions of grief that help you work through your loss.
- A friend is willing to listen, sometimes just sharing the silence with you, and accepting your quiet space and your open tears.
- A friend in grief encourages you to share your memories and talk about events in the life of your loved one.
- A friend keeps in touch and spends time with you for as long as it takes. A friend in grief is there when others walk away.
- A friend in grief will encourage you to reach out and explore your feelings and eventually create new dreams.
Next to my husband, my sister, Sally, has been my true friend. She admitted often that she couldn't imagine what I was going through. Initially, like others, she believed my pain would heal best if I put my loss behind me, moved on, and forgot about my pain. After a period of time, she realized it wasn't that easy.
Once, I told her my story about two eagles flying over our country home on the anniversary of Chad and Jenny's death. I was sure it was a symbolic message, and it gave me peace. This fall she told me, "Today, I saw two eagles soaring together. I thought of Chad and Jenny." Now that's a friend that was in tune to my needs; listened to my grief; and grew with me!
Those friendships lost during grief or gained during grief were critical to my personal spiritual growth. People come in to our lives for different reasons... (Remember the verse: for a reason, a season, or a lifetime!) Savor every friendship for what it means to you at the time; and you'll be able to accept the few that abandon you when you felt you needed them the most. When a friendship changes, allow yourself to let go of that relationship. You are not responsible for its disintegration. There's a new friend waiting to step into your life.
In my early days of grief, I found a poster that hung in my office and it still applies today.
Who knows the joys that lie ahead
The secret smiles I'll find,
The friends I'll meet
The memories sweet,
The cares I'll leave behind.
Who knows the beauty of the days,
I've never seen before.
My only wish for life is this
The courage to explore.
My husband, my sister, and my friend Steve were genuine friends during grief that met all the criteria. They were willing to walk beside me during the darkest moments and encourage me to find the meaning in my grief experience. Looking back now, I'm grateful for all my friends-those that walked with me and those that walked away. In each circumstance, they gave me the freedom to grow!
About Nan Zastrow
Founder of Wings, A Grief Education Ministry
Wings, a Grief Education Ministry was established in 1993 as a non-profit, charitable organization. Its purpose is to Honor the Past and Rebuild the Future.
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