Many bereaved parents seem to experience the same thing: after they lose a child, their social life changes significantly. And I am not simply talking about going into hiding, avoiding groups of people or staying away from fun events and activities. This is likely true for anyone who grieves the loss of a loved one. Friendships in particular shift. The magnitude of these shifts is really difficult to explain and I am not sure if that happens in other grief situations in the same way. I do not recall it this way from my personal experience of loss previously. Over night, not only one’s dreams, hopes and future have been crushed, but the whole social support system goes into disarray. Some friendships cease to exist, others become a lot deeper and new ones form, sometimes with an unbelievable speed. My wife mentioned this effect of deep connections with other bereaved parents in her last post and it is so true. When friendships previously developed over years and years, one might suddenly feel closer to people who are almost strangers, but share a burden.
One of our friends posted this quote recently by Joan Didion who has faced two tragedies in a short period of time – the loss of her husband and her 39 year old daughter:
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved.“
She finds better words than I ever could to describe this feeling.
When I posted this quote “Hard times will always reveal true friends” recently in our online group, it received a lot more comments than I anticipated. Many bereaved parents added family to the list of either being very supportive or disappointing. There don’t seem to be many grey areas, just black or white. A common issue seems to be a push to move on. It appears that society is a lot more comfortable with topics other than death and loss, almost like an instinctive hunt for fun, laughter and positiveness. There is a complete lack of understanding that bereaved parents will not get better, in the sense of recovering from the flu. For me personally the realization is that the “old me” is gone and it will not come back, no path back to my previous self exists. I have to admit, I sometimes miss it myself, simply because life seemed much easier, maybe because of the absence of this nakedness and vulnerability. It is like my old personality died with my children and has been replaced with a different one. Ideas of getting better, getting over it or moving on are therefore just revealing an utter misperception of what is happening. Better get used to the new me as the old one is not coming back.
Losing a child does not only affect existing friendships, but any future ones equally so. One mom said she picks her friends by who can deal with her grief. In the first meetings she would bring up her child who died and if the reaction shows that the new connection is unable to deal with it, then it won’t develop any further. And this appears to me as the only way to approach this. If there are any awkward moments, not being able to be oneself or similar, then it would just waste the little energy that is available to a grieving parent. Others say grief is exile.
I can think of various reasons why this might happen. It certainly has to do with life experience as reflected in the quote of Joan. Added factors when dealing with the loss of a child might be the lack of “protocol”, people not knowing how to behave or what to say. It might be easier to avoid something that is as painful. I don’t want this post to sound negative and as if we have been abandoned by our friends. That is certainly not the case, in fact we have received very good support from a lot of people. But we do know a lot better now who to call a friend as well. And there have been many positive experiences and surprises. But what I am hearing from other parents is that a lot of disappointment happens.
I titled this post nightmare or beacon of love. The reason why I picked this title is simple. The shifts in friendships and relationships are extreme. The negative ones go all the way to a feeling of being shunned. Here comes the living nightmare, take cover. A couple who lost both of their children. Sometimes it feels like we have a contagious virus that others try to dodge by avoiding bereaved parents. As if ignoring the fact that children can die would change the probability that it might happen to them. Really, that is the solution? Let’s not talk about something horrifying so that it won’t befall us? In the case of a virus it certainly makes sense to avoid sick people. But bereaved parents are not sick, despite some newspapers speaking of a stillbirth epidemic. Ignorance won’t make a difference. It can happen to anyone.
On the other hand many people look at these tragedies from a different angle. People see it as a reminder of how precious life is and to cherish it, taking it as a reason to make a difference for them and others. We sometimes forget what is really important in life and an experience like losing a child sets our priorities and the ones of the people around us straight. I like to think that all bereaved parents are a symbol of love which is expressed in their deep and long grief. One of the nicest compliments we received so far is from a mom who wrote to us that she reads our blog and that it makes her a better mother to her children.
After all the changes in the social life might be explained with a combination of effects:
- Bereaved parents removing themselves from society in general. It is simply to difficult to function in a normal social setting for a long time.
- Lack of energy on the side of bereaved parents: survival is first and foremost and if friends do not make an effort to keep connected, relationships might stop.
- New priorities in life: sometimes the realization simply is that there is nothing to talk about any more. I certainly have lost complete interest in some topics and if those were the ones that dominated a friendship…
- Many people are uncomfortable with topics of loss and death, esp. if they have no experience with it. That might explain the draw of bereaved parents to each other, the connection they feel and that they share something. Maybe this even builds a barrier for others.
I certainly do not know why some people are able to see the love parents have for their children while others might see only the nightmare of loss. Maybe it is simply a personality trait, similar to some people speaking of a glass half empty whereas others see it as half full. If it becomes something to be afraid of though, they should think about the fact that life will always be a struggle. We like to ignore it, but I believe in some way or the other it always is.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known
defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found
their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a
sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with
compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do
not just happen.”
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, 1926-2004
Swiss-born Author and Psychiatrist