When you get divorced, people generally ask how you’re doing for a few weeks. If your father suddenly dies, the next month will be full of notes from people who knew him and loved him. If your oldest child has been diagnosed with autism, people who’ve walked that path will hear about it – and will thoughtfully reach out and offer guidance, if wanted.
Afterward, the communications start to dwindle. You don’t want people to feel sorry for you and you don’t expect constant attention. What happened… happened. You’re doing your best to regain some normalcy in life. But you also have a sense of loneliness. Could it be that people have forgotten how your life has so drastically changed? Yet only a few still check in.
Perhaps even worse? When others seem to expect some kind of miraculous recovery. They don’t understand why your grief hasn’t dissipated; they think you need to “move on” and don’t understand why you haven’t already.
It’s a life skill to move through pain. Grief or sorrow comes in waves and one hopes certainly that each wave decreases in intensity as time goes by. Yet there are times on this journey that you can get hit with a wave that’s even stronger than the first few. You don’t want to define yourself as a victim and allow the difficult things in your life to govern you, but the fact is that it takes time for the waves to recede.
I have a friend whose husband died two years ago. “How are you?” will pop out, without my thinking about it; she’ll kinda laugh at the question. I’ll follow quickly with, “Where or how are you today?” Another friend has cancer that’s in remission, after a fiercely fought path through chemo and radiation. Every now and then, hopefully when it’s appropriate, I bring that journey up. When I do, she lets me know where her heart, her mind, and her body is.
I’m well aware of the time it takes to embrace loss. So why is it that many people get so itchy for you to move on?
The role of fear…
I think it’s fear. People shy away from reality– that the unthinkable can happen. It’s frightening to wonder if their own life could get out of hand — that they might be faced with a change that’s unwelcome, an illness that could be life-threatening, or a loss that feels unbearable.
So they back off. They want to believe you’re doing just fine — that whatever loss you’ve experienced is manageable — that your life isn’t careening off the scale.
Three thoughts on handling your grief...
Here are some ideas to consider as you’re dealing with what life has brought you.
1. Appreciate the people who do check in and allow yourself to talk with them openly.
When you’re hurting a lot, it’s easy to isolate, to not want to show your grief. You can often try to hide what you’re going through or convince yourself that it only makes it worse to open up to someone. Talking with a trusted good friend that knows how to be supportive can ease the loneliness. Your true friends want to be there for you — it’s an honor for them — and it’s what you would do if the roles were reversed.
2. Use distraction when you need it, but know that your grief will wait for you. And it won’t go away on its own.
Often initially, you may fill your life with things that will take your mind away from what has happened. You go see friends, you throw yourself into work, or you become involved in a relationship. You accept every invitation you receive. You’re exhausted and you may even realize what you’re doing. But you’re compelled to do it.
In time, know it’s better to stop and face what’s waiting for you. It can feel more lonely to to be running away than standing still.
3. Realize it’s not that people don’t care — they may not know what questions to ask or whether you’re open to sharing.
People may fumble around and not know what to say, but be attempting to reach out. You can let them know you’re okay with talking about it, if indeed, you are. You can look for support groups in your area or now, Zoom or FB groups abound with support for different issues and losses. Those people who are facing what you are, or have done so in the past, can offer a kind of wisdom that others cannot.
If it’s not a good time to talk about it, or risk revealing vulnerability, you can always say, “Thanks for asking, but I can’t talk about it right now.”
Advice for those who want to ask but don’t know how…
Simply ask. Don’t allow whatever fear you have about wording or how to “best” act control what you do. “How are you doing — really doing?” “Are you in a place where you want to talk about things?” “I remember it’s only been a few months since your dad died. Where are you with all of that?” “Now that you’re living out your divorce, how is it for you? How are the kids adjusting?” “Since Jacob’s diagnosis, what have you learned?”
It may feel awkward, you may stumble around a bit. Yet you asked. You let them know you care. You let them know you remember.
And they won’t feel quite as lonely because you did.
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Originally published July 15, 2018; updated and republished on August 18, 2022.