How Friendships May Change for Bereaved

“Can’t make lunch tomorrow.  We’ll re-schedule,” said the note.  It was short, to the point and oh how it stung.

It was nearly 3 months since my brother died, and this lunch with one of my oldest and closest friends was something I’d looked forward to for weeks.  With a brief email, it was cancelled — as were the next two. And so the friendship drifted, and the person who I thought would be my biggest support disappeared from my life.

My story is not unique.  I’ve heard it repeated multiple times in different ways over the years.  Those we expect to come through often don’t or can’t, and we are left wondering what happened.

I’ve also been on the other side.  I’ve been that friend trying to support a newly bereaved parent, spouse and sibling.  It’s hard work.  Calls and emails go unanswered.  People we knew so well appear distant, distracted and conversation is difficult.  When you’ve been friends for many years, it comes with a set of expectations about reciprocity.

There are norms of behaviour around courtesy and respect that we’ve grown to expect.  And yet, someone who is grieving is likely unable to expend any energy in these areas beyond what’s required to simply “get by.”  When you’re on the receiving end, it’s hard not to take it personally.

Reframing has helped me to do better on both sides.  My bereaved friend’s distance and inability to connect are unrelated to me.  The forgotten birthday, the apparent lack of interest in my life, the occasional harsh comment are not about me.  They are about her absolute and overwhelming grief for her loss.

When I step away from my preconceived ideas about our relationship and accept, that for now, it will be mostly about her, it’s easier to understand.  It requires vigilance this new set of eyes.  When I feel the sting of a perceived slight, I reflect on all that she’s missing.  “It’s not about me” is a refrain I practice.

Reframing can help when we’re the griever too.  I’m four years removed from my brother’s death.  Now I can now look back and see that maybe I too was difficult to be around.  I avoided phone calls.  I stopped joining friends for outings.  I disappeared.  And it was very easy to drift into a place of negativity about what “they” weren’t doing.

I told myself I didn’t really care if I saw them again.  But really I did.  I wonder whether I might have benefited from someone helping me to reframe a little.

When loss enters our lives, our social network, our ability to interact and connect with others is so often strained and compromised.  And yet grief is a road that you walk alone but cannot do without the support of others.  We need people.  We need relationships.  They help us remember who we used to be.  They paint a picture of who we might become.  They hold us up.  They nudge us to keep moving.

So who bears the responsibility of reframing?  The griever or the friend?  I say, “whoever has the energy.”   In my world, I know that it is most often me.  Professionally and personally, I willingly accept the role.  I have the energy.  And someday when I’m faced with sorrow again, and my behaviour stretches the bounds of friendship, I hope my friends will reframe for me.

Brenda Marshall 2010

Brenda Marshall

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Brenda Marshall, Ph.D., CT Dr. Brenda Marshall is a well known executive coach, speaker and founder of the Solacium Group. Her interest in grief work came after the sudden death of her younger brother in 2006. At the time, she was a senior level business consultant at a busy management consultancy. Recognizing the challenges she faced grieving her brother’s death while carrying on in her role, she decided to create a resource to support others. The Solacium Group is the first Canadian consulting firm dedicated to supporting and guiding leaders and their teams after the death of a loved one. Brenda now splits her time between general organizational consulting through FLOW Learning Group, Solacium consulting, and a busy writing and speaking schedule. She is a sought after expert in the field of Adult Sibling Loss and Grief in the Workplace, speaks at international events across North America and consults with professionals and individuals dealing with loss. Her book, Adult Sibling Loss: Stories, Reflections and Ripples, by Routledge Publishing Inc. has received wide praise. Her second book, Sibling Loss Across the Lifespan, by Routledge launched October 2016. Brenda holds a Ph.D. in Adult Education from the University of Toronto, an M.Ed. in Teaching and Learning from Brock University, a BSc. in Psychology and Criminology from the University of Toronto and has advanced training in Solution Focused and Narrative approaches to coaching and counselling. In addition she is a certified thanatologist, a designation held by fewer than 900 practitioners in North America. To read more about Brenda's work, please visit her websites: www.solaciumgroup.ca www.flowlearninggroup.ca

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  • shelly graham says:

    Thanks for the article.I have lost my husdand and son all within a year and half.It has been very difficult.I have lost friends throughout these two deaths but have also gained new ones.

  • Bernadette says:

    Hi Brenda – all of the stories i have read (which is not many because i have avoided reading a lot of them over the past few years) i am inspired by – reframing or thinking about things differently is always helpful – i lost my wonderful husband almost four years ago – and i miss him every day – and i will always miss him – in the past few months i feel like a moth = and have started to think about being alive and enjoying each new day – which sounds a bit naff – but i have new goals = children – and a future = grief is a journey that has no rules -we are all so different – some of my friends (couples) dropped off my social calander = during life’s transitions – people do drop in and out of our lives – i remember very well this happening over the past thirty years – sorry for going on and on – i admire your resilience and your character – and good luck for your future – B