Maintaining Old Friendhips in the "New Normal"

I received the following post from a dad who recently experienced a loss. He correctly suggested this topic should be a new thread.

I think it's an excellent question and one that I struggled with a lot. For some reason, it is also one I often forget to address, so I am grateful for how beautifully he articulated it. I will comment after I get it posted -- I hope you will too. Thanks everyone.


Hi Tim,
I'm new to the blog. Our daughter Selah was stillborn on September 22. I apologize for commenting off topic, but I'm wondering if you'd be interested in starting a thread about how to maintain friendships during the early stages of grief. More specifically, I'm finding that I'm surprised at the friends (who have been truly good friends to me in the past) either 1)avoiding me or 2) pretending nothing has happened because their wife sent a sympathy card in the mail, so let's all just get on with life. I really understand that the whole thing is awkward for friends who have never suffered this kind of loss, and I don't want to label (most of) them as just too shallow to handle real friendship...i.e. I want to maintain the friendships, but I feel that my ability to connect meaningfully with them anymore is severely hampered by their response (or non-response?) to my loss and grief. Obviously, if they're true friends, starting an honest conversation with them is going to be a good place to start. But the catch-22 is that right when I'm most needing the friendship, I don't have the emotional energy to be the one doing the reaching out...I don't feel like I have the energy to be in the "teaching" role (i.e. 'teaching' friends how to be good friends to me--or anyone--who has lost a baby). I'd love to hear yours and others' comments, suggestions, etc., regarding this.


  1. NOTE: I got a little long winded in my response tonight so I have to post it in two entries. Sorry about that. I'm not sure if it's the wine I had with dinner or the fact that your question struck a chord with me that I had not thought about in a long time. In either case, I appreciate your tolerance for wading through this. Take care.


    I first of all want to say how sorry I am for your loss. September 22 is not very long ago, and I can all too vividly recall the feelings of deep sadness I felt in those initial weeks following my loss. Maybe because our daughter was stillborn on September 27, hearing about Selah's death stirs a lot of feelings in me. I obviously don't know where you are located, but in Minnesota it's fall -- and a rather cold and cloudy one at that. I always struggle this time of year, in part because of the memories and in part because of the changing seasons and all that represents to me.

    As for your question, I think you stated it beautifully and I thank you for taking the time to write.

    When Kathleen died, I assumed that I knew who would be there for us to support us and help us survive. I also assumed I knew who wouldn't be. Boy, was I wrong! It seemed that many of our closest friends were very uncomfortable, and really didn't want to talk about Kathleen. Other, more casual acquaintances, whom I would have barely expected a card from, were there in ways I never dreamed of. I can tell you that some of our friendships changed because of that experience, but I can honestly say that we found new connections with more people than we lost our connection with.

    Ironically, my wife, Monica, was a social worker at the time and was acquainted with a number of the social workers who worked at the hospital where Kathleen was born. It was very hard when those people who were both friends through work as well as professionals in a field you would expect understanding from, totally failed us. They were probably the hardest ones for us to be able to understand and be OK with.

  2. I think there are several reasons our closest friends struggle to be able to help us. First, they are the ones who have known us and felt a connection with us in a more intimate way than casual acquaintances. Thus, they have way more to lose in facing the reality that this loss changes who we are. They understandably simply want us to be "normal" again so that we can pick up where we left off. They don't want to accept that we now have a "new normal" that includes being the parent of a child who died. While the goal for all of us is to find happiness again -- and I honestly believe you will, even though that might seem impossible this early in your grief -- that does not change the fact that many of us view life a lot differently than we did before our loss. That doesn't make us better or worse than who we were before, it simply means we have been changed.

    I totally understand what you mean about not having the energy to be the "teacher" at this time. You shouldn't have to be. But, you are obviously a very well-spoken and reasonable person who will eventually be able to enlighten SOME of those around you. Unfortunately, not everyone will appreciate your perspective, and they will likely be the ones you lose some of your closeness with.

    As for the "quiet ones" who seem to avoid you for fear of having to saying something ... remember what we have all been taught in growing up. "Aunt Hilda needs to be alone now, she is grieving." In some form or another, many of us get that message over and over again. The big question is -- did Aunt Hilda say she wanted to be alone, or did the people around Aunt Hilda decide she needed to be alone so that they didn't have to face the uncomfortable moments of feeling inadequate?

    The more people care about us, the more they want to "fix" us. Not only is their heart likely breaking for us, they want their old friend / neighbor / co-worker / brother / nephew / grandson, etc. to be the same happy go lucky person they were before. Added to that feeling, is the totally helpless feeling of not having "the answer" to make our pain go away. In other words, many times the avoidance comes from a feeling of not being the friend they want or think they should be. They don't realize that letting us see their tears or feel their hug is all any of us really want or hope for. No one knows better than us that there are no magic words that will make our pain go away.

    My guess is that you are a person with a lot of friends. I also suspect that you are the friend who has been the "strong" one -- the dependable one. So, seeing you struggling is not only frightening, they are possibly feeling like they can't be for you what they believe you would be for them if the situation were reversed.

    Of course all of this is just one person's theory about possibilities. I look forward to hearing what others have to say. In the meantime, know that I and many others are here to listen, understand, and offer whatever level of support we can to help you in the weeks and months ahead. My heart goes out to you and I once again thank you for reaching out.

  3. Tim, your response covers the bases so well, I can't think of a thing to add. It's so (sadly) true that support comes from unexpected vectors, while those we thought would be supportive failed to meet with our expectations.

    Friendships change. My wife and I saw one friendship that used to be decent die on the vine. The hard part is the need to forgive your friends for not knowing better how to be supportive when your child dies. I'm still working on that one.

  4. This is a very relavent post and perhaps one that men find especially hard. A bit of a stereotype but women cry more and people get where they are at. Men don't and rely on conversations and are perhaps less good at saying how they feel.

    I have often felt very isolated in social and friendship settings. We are blessed with some great friends but I still feel as a whole my life is not an integrated whole.

    Abigail died 17 October 2008 so we are just approaching the 1 year anniversary this weekend. I still feel tension in my relationships at this somewhat sarcastic post points out

    One image that a bereaved father of 16 years ago shared with me was the image of a train terminal. With lots of train lines converging. Some stopped. Some changed direction. Some continued. That is like our friendships. The death of Abigial was such a life defining event for me. Some friendships do not survive but some are created when you meet people with a similar experience and some can over time be strengthened as your capacity for meaningful relationship increases. It isn't all bad

  5. Thanks to all three of you for the hope expressed in your posts. I honestly had not thought much about the possibility that friendships could/would be strengthened through these tough times, but of course some will! It also helps to stop and remind myself that I need to give my friends the benefit of the doubt; that their anemic expressions of support aren't because of their lack of care, but rather because of their lack of knowing what to do or say.

  6. Hi guys. This is my first go at posting anything on here so I hope it works. I found reading this post and the responses touched thoughts I have been having on the subject perfectly. I couldn't express the thoughts as well as they have been written here so thanks for all who have written something. We lost our first child (Sophie) on August 18 this year. I am finding getting by is tougher now than it was to start with. I feel sick and empty. I find it hard when many of my friends act as if nothing has happened, it feels like Sophies life is being over looked.

  7. Jon -- thanks for writing. I'm so sorry to hear of Sophie's death.

    The fact that coping is getting harder is certainly not unusual. Once the "new normal" sets in and it seems that everyone on the planet is moving on except you -- it can be a bitter reality. I sometimes refer to it as the "grief dance" -- one step forward, and two steps backward.

    As has been mentioned in these postings, it can be exhausting trying to "educate" our friends, and even family, to the fact that we need them to talk about our children rather than pretend they did not exist. Even though we might understand that they don't talk about them because they are afraid of "reminding us," or because they simply don't know what to say, it still hurts. If nothing else, know that those of us who have walked this path before you understand what you are saying and have likely experienced something similar ourselves.

    I can tell you that your pain will start to diminish as you begin to heal. It will take time -- more time than you want it to -- but it will get better. The real key to that healing, however, is making sure that you use this time to both take care of yourselves and your relationship and let yourself feel the hurt. By allowing yourself to feel it rather than run away from it, I really believe that you will actually start to heal faster than if you pretend everything is OK. Sometimes it can be tempting to just tell yourself everything is fine (or should be) because those around you seem to be pressuring you to act like it. I tried that, and it didn't work.

    Keep the lines of communication open with your partner. Check in with each other and try to be OK with sharing your feelings and respecting each other's individual needs. Also, try and seek out someone who you can talk to in addition to your partner. Maybe your hospital or local support group can hook you up with another bereaved dad who understands. Of course, I certainly hope you will feel free to use this blog as a way to ask questions and reach out for support. We want to help in whatever way we can.

    Even after this much time, I find myself looking for magic answers that will miraculously make someone feel better quickly. I have to keep reminding myself that those answers don't exist. All I, or anyone else, can do is let you know that I understand and am here. Take care, Jon.

  8. While I'm still in the early phases of grief -- our 6 month old daughter Olivia died only 3 months ago -- I have been blessed with friends that have so far been very understanding and compassionate. My wife and I don't have a very large social circle to start with, but instead have a few select very close friends.

    From the outset we've been very clear that things aren't going to be the same for a long while if ever... We're still invited out to dinner or movies, but haven't felt up to being in much of a public setting. How long will we continue to get invites? Who knows.... but that will determine the true strength and understanding of our friend.

    I have managed to go out a couple of times with some friends, but find the experience exhausting both emotionally and physically, after 1 or 2 hours I'm ready to retreat home. The whole time I'm out, I feel that I turn every conversation to Olivia, which then makes me feel guilty about having nothing else to bring to the conversations besides my grief... yet that's what I want to talk about. It's going to be a long time before She's not the dominant thought in my mind... Hopefully our friends will still be there when we emerge from our cocoon in the shape of our new selves.

  9. What I found worked best was to simply be honest with my close friends about where I was at. While they maybe could not totally understand why I needed to do what I needed to do, the truly good friends just gave me the time and space I needed. But at least they knew it was about me and my sadness and not about any lack of desire on my part to maintain the friendship.