In its entirety, below is a blog post written by Melanie at https://thelifeididntchoose.com. She is an insightful and thoughtful author whose son died in a motorcycle accident in 2014. Please see my additional comments below. I would also encourage you to look at her original post and the comments below it.
I know that I seem to hit this subject hard – the aloneness of grief and abandonment of those who deeply grieve – but I think it’s important to emphasize this topic. By doing so, those who deeply grieve might gain some insight into the reasons people disappear and understand that they are not the only ones this happens to, and those who know someone who is deeply grieving might gain some insight into how awful the aloneness of grief can be and then make an effort not to disappear. The walk following the death of a child is an inherently one that must be walked alone, at least in some ways, but if I can encourage one person to not abandon a parent whose child has died, I will feel like my writing has been worthwhile.
Why Friends Abandon Grievers
It happens in all kinds of ways. One friend just slowly backs off from liking posts on Facebook, waves at a distance from across the sanctuary, stops texting to check up on me.
Another observes complete radio silence as soon as she walks away from the graveside.
Still another hangs in for a few weeks-calls, texts, even invites me to lunch until I can see in her eyes that my lack of “progress” is making her uneasy. Then she, too, falls off the grid.
Why do people do that?
Why is it, when we need them most, many friends-and I mean really, truly FRIENDS–just can’t hang in and hold on?
I admit in the early days I didn’t care WHY they did it.
It broke my heart and enraged me all at the same time. I felt abandoned, judged, forgotten, pressured to conform to some unwritten standard of how I was “supposed” to do grief and utterly, completely forsaken.
It took me months to begin to even consider their perspective and years to come to a place where I could forgive them.
Here’s what I’ve figured out this side of devastating, overwhelming, heart-shattering pain about why some friends run away:
- I represent their greatest fear. I am a billboard for loss. My life screams, “We are NOT in control!” And that is scary. Most folks run away from scary if they can.
- I remind them that faith is a living thing, tender and vulnerable to trials and testing. We love to tout Sunday School answers that follow like the tag lines on Aesop’s fables when asked about anything to do with Jesus or how God works in the world. But it’s just not that simple. The Bible is full (FULL!) of untidy stories where even the giants of faith got it wrong for a season. I think people are afraid that if they follow me down the rabbit hole of questions they might never come back out. Better to stand outside and hope I emerge safe and sound without risking themselves.
- My situation is messy and they don’t want to get involved. I will need ongoing, intense investments of emotional energy and time. Who knows where it might lead? Who knows how many hours might have to be given to come alongside and support someone whose journey looks more like slogging through a swamp than a walk in the park? These folks are just not going to risk entanglement.
- Some friends and family are genuinely afraid of doing harm. They feel my pain so deeply that they are frozen, unable to do or say anything because they fear they will make things worse. These are the hearts most easy to forgive and the ones most likely to jump back in when I assure them they cannot make it worse but their support can make it better.
- Some people were going to disappear anyway. We don’t like to admit it but many friendships are only for a season-we go to the same church, live in the same neighborhood, our kids go to the same school-and as soon as circumstances change these people fade away. Well, circumstances certainly changed! They leave because our differences outweigh our similarities and it requires too much effort to maintain the friendship.
Understanding why people run away has helped my heart.
It doesn’t undo the pain inflicted by abandonment of those I felt sure would stay close by my side, but it puts it in perspective.
Truth is, I’m not sure how many people I would have stalwartly supported for the long haul either before Dominic ran ahead to heaven.
None of us possess infinite emotional, mental, physical and relational resources. It’s only natural that we portion them out according to our own priorities-even when that means abandoning friends who really need us.
Rehearsing offense only ties me in knots.
It changes nothing.
I have limits as well.
Forgiving those that chose to walk away frees me to use my resources in more fruitful ways that help me heal.
My comments to Melanie’s blog were this:
I am a person who sees both sides of the coin. Even from the very, very beginning my HEAD understood that it was difficult to be around us, the parents of a child who had died. I understood why people ran away, but that didn’t make it any easier. Oh, how it hurt my HEART. Because we had absolutely no family close by (our closest family was nearly 2000 miles away), when almost all of our friends disappeared, we were so very alone. It was like we were falling down a deep, black hole with no one to catch our fall. [And to be left so alone felt like no one cared.] These are part of the secondary losses – secondary wounds that can happen following the death of a child. And the wounds leave scars. We can forgive, but I don’t think that means that we are not changed by the experience.
The thing in the Christian community, I would venture to say, is that we, as Christians, are encouraged to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to go the extra mile, etc. Not only did I feel like we were expected to tell people how to help us after Jason died, I felt like we were expected to understand and be okay with why people didn’t want to be around us [and to understand and accept it without question when they disappeared]. It just seems backwards.
I’m glad that you stated that it took you months and years to understand and begin to forgive. Sometimes it’s a process that takes some time and effort to work through. I’ve worked very hard on forgiving people we knew, even though there has been no acknowledgement or apology given.
Let me say that again: I felt like we were expected to understand and be okay with why people didn’t want to be around us [and to understand and accept without question when they disappeared].
I also believe that forgiving does not undo the wounds that have been inflicted. You’re right-as believers we are often asked to travel the whole distance in the forgiveness process. I’ll be honest, sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. Life is hard and child loss makes it harder. I just don’t always have the resources needed to reach out to the person that has hurt me. I know there are those that will say I always have the necessary resources in Christ-they are theologically correct. But I can’t always seem to tap those in my daily life. I’m trying ❤
I feel like, when we were hurting the most and were the most vulnerable a parent could be, we were supposed to be “Christian” about people disappearing – turn the other cheek, forgive without ever receiving an apology, understand the unthinkable of why people left us alone or why they didn’t respond to our requests of support. Rise above. Take the high road. Be the bigger person. Take the initiative to reach out. Understand. Don’t let it bother you. We were supposed to be okay with the horrible way we were treated by the people we trusted and considered to be good friends. We’re supposed to understand how hard it is for other people to reach out to us. I will say this about how hard it was for other people: As hard as it was for other people, whatever the reason may have been, it was so much harder for us.
I think there are a lot of assumptions that happen, too. People assume, because you are deeply grieving, that you won’t notice certain things – like people who pretend not to see you, people who don’t make contact for months at a time, people who talk about you from across the room. I also think they assume someone else may be doing the job of “being there” for a bereaved family, when that very well may not be the case. They assume that platitudes will comfort.
People hear what they want to hear, and sometimes we, as bereaved parents, tend to say what we think people want to hear, just to avoid an uncomfortable situation or to make it easier for people to be around us. It’s easier for the non-bereaved to hear something like, “God has used this situation to help me grow” than it is to hear, “This has absolutely crushed me and I have no idea how to continue living after my child died.” We tend to say what we think will make people the most comfortable so they don’t disappear. Them – “How are you?” Me – “I’m fine” (when what I’m really feeling is soul-crushingly heartbroken and on the brink of tears).
One response/comment on Melanie’s blog I’d like to point out is the gal who said this, “Sometimes the people who try to help are pushed away, quite rudely ! “How is she going to help ?” – angrily and ugly screamed at me . . .” She felt like she reached out to help someone who was grieving and was angrily rejected.
I can understand her frustration, but I can also understand it from the bereaved parent’s position. I went through a very angry stage. I was mad because of what I had lost, what was taken from me, especially my precious boy. I was mad that other people’s kids were hanging out with friends, graduating from college, would get married and live their lives when Jason would never have that chance.
I was so mad at everyone who abandoned us. I felt so rejected by those I thought would be there for us that I wanted to reject everyone I knew or who knew me. (Since I had been in leadership at two large homeschool groups and was very visual in my positions, I knew a lot of people and there were a lot of people who knew who I was.) I lost respect for nearly everyone I knew and held in high regard. In my anger, grief and alone-ness, I felt like they didn’t care and couldn’t be a friend when I really needed one. I was so angry with them for deserting us. I was mad at everybody. Grief and pain and abandonment disguises or displays itself as anger. When and if they eventually reached out to me, I had a hard time letting them back in my life, because I felt like they really didn’t know who I was any more. I didn’t trust them with my heart. If they didn’t care then, why would they care now?
Of course, with some perspective (and after dealing with my anger), I came to realize they simply may not have known what to do, as Melanie outlined above. That realization didn’t make anything easier for us when we so alone and hurting, and we walked away with many scars, but it did help in the forgiving process as time passed.
At her specific request, I have not written about most of what our daughter went through following her precious brother’s death. Oh, the stories I could tell. As Jenna said at the time, “People and the way they have treated us have made it 100 times worse.” (Sometimes “the way people treat you” can be that they simply disappear or that they “encourage” you to move on or that they ignore you when you walk into a room. Sometimes it can be much more than that, either by actions or inaction.)
Believe me, you would be shocked and grieved and mad, too, if similar things had happened to your child, your family. But, we were supposed to understand and be okay with all of it. It seemed backwards to me then and it seems backwards to me still. As a mother, it still hurts my heart just to think of all she went through – at 17 years of age. When other 17-year olds were hanging out with friends, choosing prom dresses and filling out college applications, our daughter was dealing with so much alone. She was looking at burial sites and helping choose music for her brother’s memorial service. She was finishing up her last year of high school with little to no support. It was a difficult time.
I really had to work at getting over my anger and forgiving people. I’m sure I missed some opportunities to connect with people because they didn’t understand my anger or guardedness. Once they tried and I didn’t respond the way they thought I would, they didn’t try again.
One thing that has become clear to me over the years is that most people simply don’t want to “go there,” even after all these years. They don’t want to hear about what we walked through after Jason died – not at all, not even now, not even one thing. If I bring up Jason or something we have walked through regarding his death, I can tell it makes people very uncomfortable. They either change the subject as soon as possible or are very relieved when I see how uncomfortable they are and change the subject. They must think enough time has passed to make it “safe” to be around us. As Melanie said in her blog, some people don’t want to risk entanglement. They don’t want to take the risk of entering into a bereaved parent’s pain and grief. It’s too uncomfortable. It’s too messy. It’s too painful. It’s too scary. It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been, most people simply don’t want to step into your pain.
I have been changed greatly by the people who hurt and abandoned us. I am scarred. I don’t trust people with my heart. I’m very guarded. If I do let my guard down and let someone in, they get one chance. If they blow it, my guard goes up and I have a very hard time letting it down again. I’ve worked hard at forgiving people, but I have truly been changed by this experience and have the scars to prove it. But, as Melanie said, I do keep on trying.
© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney
Edited for clarity 9/5/2018