“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. A while ago, I met a co-worker whose empathy in my early stage of  grief was unconditional. 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. I wondered, “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?”

Why is it that some relationships break down or end after the death of a loved one? Through a personal story, I was able to figure it out. 

For many years, my co-worker and our spouses enjoyed social activities together. When Chad died, this couple came to the funeral; but then, I didn’t hear from them for over a year. 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 …..”  Immediately, a silence came over the table. The evening ended abruptly, and we haven’t seen them socially since. I felt guilty for bringing up my son’s name!

Grief has taught me many lessons. One I learned was: 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. 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. 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. It’s necessary to set up criteria for who you friends are—after loss.

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. One day, months later, 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 story: 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.
(author unknown)

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!

Tags: , , ,
Nan Zastrow

Nan Zastrow

“I always wanted to write,” said Nan Zastrow. “But I never dreamed it would be about death, grief, and mourning. Today I write to heal my pain and teach others that even after a life-changing event, there can be a reason and a purpose to go on living.” On April 16, 1993, Chad Zastrow, the son of Nan and Gary, died as the result of suicide. Ten weeks later, Chad’s fiancée took her life. This double tragedy inspired the Zastrows to create a ministry of hope. They formed a non-profit organization called ©Roots and Wings more commonly called Wings. From 1993—2003, they published the Wings™ magazine, a publication about real situations and real people going through grief that was mailed throughout the United States and Canada. In 2003, their non-profit changed its focus to primarily grief education and support. They publish a free, quarterly newsletter by email to subscribers. Nan and Gary, together, have been keynote speakers at National Bereaved Parents and workshop presenters at various other events. They have been grief group facilitators since 1993, and host workshops and seminars. Each year they host an original theme-based community “When the Holidays Hurt” program for area funeral homes. Nan is the author of four books and over sixty Editor’s Journal Articles in Wings, Grief Digest, and other publications. Their non-profit organization is the recipient of the 2000 Flame of Freedom Award for community volunteerism. Nan was also nominated for the Women of Vision Award in 2001; the Athena Award in 2005, and The HOPE of Wisconsin, hospice volunteer of the year in 2008. Nan and Gary are hospice volunteers and survivors of six sudden deaths of significant people in their lives.

More Articles Written by Nan