A recent widow wrote to Dear Abby because her best friend is blowing her off, cancelling plans, and not calling or texting. The widow is understandably upset because not only is she mourning the loss her husband, she’s mourning the loss of a friendship as well as being hurt and confused because she doesn’t understand her friend’s behavior.
Neither does Abby. (Understand the friend’s behavior, that is.) As she so often does, the advice columnist doesn’t bother to go into depth with her answer, just suggests that the widow join a grief support group and to keep busy so she doesn’t “brood.” After that, according to Abby, the widow can confront her friend if she decides it’s in her best interest.
Normally, that weak answer would make me think the columnist was ignorant of grief, but she herself is a widow. (She’s also 80 years old, which means she should be a lot wiser than she tends to be.)
A woman who recently lost her husband and whose best friend wants nothing to do with her is grieving, not “brooding.” She’s also doubly alone, and loneliness tends to exacerbate grief. So many of us who have also been left alone (with the obvious exception of the columnist) know the truth of grief — that it takes you in its grip and doesn’t let go until it’s ready to let you go.
As for the friend, it probably wouldn’t do any good to confront her. Chances are she has no idea why she’s ignoring her widowed friend. I’m sure the friend feels uncomfortable and hesitant to be around the widow, but if she’s like most people who are still married (I’m making an assumption here), she can’t handle the other woman’s grief because if she gives it any credence, then she also has to accept the possibility that she herself will one day be in the same unimaginable situation.
Death is shrouded with an element of blank. It is the great unknown and unknowable, and our brains are not equipped to handle the immensity. We who are left alone have no choice but to grapple with all the conundrums death brings, but others can and do choose to ignore the whole situation. And they choose to ignore us, because — to them —we are the situation.
While we are in the grip of our grief, the survival mechanisms of those around us are triggered. To avoid facing the unfaceable, people close to us will indulge in self-protective behaviors that shut us out. Some also sense that our needs are so great and so complicated that they would be best not to get too involved. And perhaps they sense their own inadequacy at dealing with the very topic of death.
Even though I’m sure they know deep down they are being unfair, people blame the grievers, as if the grief-stricken had done something to bring on their fate. (That in this case the husband died of The Bob would make it even easier to blame the victim, because either the widow or her husband should have been smart enough to avoid getting sick.) We humans simply cannot handle the idea that life is capricious, that we are living at the whim of fate. (I think learning to handle that concept is part of why grief takes so long. The biggest part, of course, is that someone intrinsic to our lives is gone, leaving us with a huge hole in us and in our life.)
It’s possible that one day the friend will resume the friendship when the raw grief the widow is feeling has been tempered by time and work (grief work, that is). It’s possible the friend will excuse her behavior the way people always do, professing that she thought the widow would be uncomfortable with couples or with people who are still coupled. It’s possible the friend will assume they can get back on the same easy footing they once had, but that easy footing won’t ever happen. Even if the widow comes to understand the friend’s behavior, it’s hard for me to believe that she’d ever be able to let down her guard around someone who so willfully let her down. But more than that, grief changes people. It’s as if a line was drawn, and those on the loss side see things differently from those on the “no loss yet” side.
A fellow griever once told me she had a friend who treated her as if her grief was a small thing, telling her to get over it, to move on, all the usual platitudes. Later, when the friend’s husband died, she called to apologize because she hadn’t known the truth of how hard it is to lose someone to death. As she discovered, you can’t know until you’ve been there, which is why I sometimes give people the benefit of the doubt when they offer paltry advice and scant comfort to people who are hurting. But it’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has been there, yet still offers little help or understanding.
The letter writer should have come to me instead of writing Dear Abby. I do offer grievers both help and understanding, as well as a few stray tears of empathy.
At least I do now. Before Jeff died, however, I was as impatient and as uncomfortable as everyone else on the clueless side of the line.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.