Friday, April 13, 2012
Ms. B's Advice on a Disappointing Friendship
Dear Ms. B,
I had a friend not talk to me for almost an entire year. Not only did she not attend parties and events, but she didn’t even RSVP “no” – just didn’t show up and no response. Randomly she started asking me to hang out recently, so I told her we needed to talk about our friendship. So last night she admitted to me that she wasn’t coming to our parties because her husband was uncomfortable. And, well, he was about to leave for basic training, and she didn’t want to spend their time together arguing. So she just went along with what he wanted. I asked her why her husband was uncomfortable, and she said that he feels our surviving daughter is living in her twin brother’s shadow. He feels I focus too much on my child who died, that I am too involved in the loss community, and that I’m not dealing appropriately. He feels awkward, apparently.
Well I have no clue how he even makes this judgment of me (she claims he isn’t judging but is just ignorant). First off, he has never lost a child. Secondly, he doesn’t even have any children. Third, we don’t hang out at all (remember, almost an entire year without communication). Our loss happened 16 months ago, so how does he feel he can make an assessment of my coping skills or my way through grief when he hasn’t even been around?! I guess he is making his judgments based on Facebook posts, as I make remembrance images sometimes for my friends on their child’s remembrance date. Well, I refuse to feel ashamed of something that I feel honors my son’s memory (and the memory of other babies lost who deserve acknowledgment!). I feel my son would be proud to know that I try and help others through their grief. In a way it helps me to feel that he didn’t die in vain if I can do something to support others through this loss. For people to make me feel like I’m denied those very things that HELP me through my grief is just infuriating to me.
When my friend told me this last night, I did not show her how angry I was. I just tried to explain where I was coming from with needing to do these things, and I wanted to see if she could help me understand her husband’s perspective. Now I am left feeling like a hypocrite, because I went along with suggestions to continue the friendship and keep in touch better. I didn’t know what to say or how to react without blowing up, so I played nice. Now I’m just angry. If you were in my situation, what would you do? Should I write her off for her husband’s actions? I don’t feel that is fair, but on the other hand, I don’t see how we can possibly continue a friendship. I will always feel judged. I will always feel hurt that she didn’t find our friendship important enough to stand up to her husband’s critical eye of me.
Angry and Hurt
Dear Angry and Hurt,
First of all, Ms. B is very sorry to hear about the loss of your son. Secondly, she sincerely hopes that other readers will chime in with their perspectives on this issue--particularly if anyone has had a similar friendship experience. Ms. B does not claim to be an expert, just an opinionated busy-body. Multiple insights welcomed here!
Here is Ms. B's opinion on the issue: Your friend's husband is wrong. It is simply wrong to judge the way someone else copes with their grief, or to assume that they are doing it inappropriately simply because you don't think it's the way you would handle a similar situation. Of course, as human beings we make these kind of judgments all the time, but we should not be surprised to learn that they sour relationships very quickly.
It appears that he is basing his assessment of the situation on very limited contact with you, and Ms. B is certain that he actually feels uncomfortable about the situation for a myriad of different reasons (baby death doesn't fit with the way he wants to believe the world works,he wants to differentiate himself from you--"I would handle it differently"--so as to protect himself from personal fears about loss, he has anxiety about his own mortality and upcoming military service). Regardless, his opinion is misguided and incorrect, and your friend is also in the wrong for not defending you, and for burdening you with his judgments (Ms. B wonders to what extent your friend may agree with your husband but not want to come out directly and say so).
As for whether or not to try to salvage this friendship, that's a call that only you can make, although Ms. B certainly would not question your decision to cut ties except for superficially polite social encounters. In order to move forward, though, and truly repair the relationship, it's clear that you are going to have to be completely honest with this friend. Ms. B thinks that you do need to separate your friend's opinion from her husband's (assuming those were his judgments, not hers), but that you should also express that you were hurt that she either didn't recognize or didn't try to correct her husband's misconceptions about the way you are grieving your son and parenting your daughter.
A conversation with your friend would probably be the best way to confront this issue, and even though you seem to regret having "played nice," Ms. B thinks it's a good thing that you didn't explode on your friend when she first explained what was going on. You've demonstrated that you're calm and rational, and that you value her friendship. But you must make it very clear that if she values your friendship, then she needs to TRY to understand your perspective. You stated it beautifully in your e-mail: I feel my son would be proud to know that I try and help others through their grief. In a way it helps me to feel that he didn’t die in vain if I can do something to support others through this loss. For people to make me feel like I’m denied those very things that HELP me through my grief is just infuriating to me.
Your friend needs to read and/or hear those words, and to try to understand where you're coming from. You deserve to have friends who are not judging you, and friends who are not sitting idly by and allowing other people to do so. So... a conversation with your friend might start with you explaining that you've been thinking about what she said and you realized that you're really disappointed and upset by the situation. Then you can tell her that you want her to be a part of your life, and therefore you're going to try to work through your disappointment that her husband is a total douchebag judged you unfairly and that she didn't defend you. BUT you can also express that in order to do so, you'll need her support as you continue to grieve your son and parent your daughter (in ways that you might emphasize are considered perfectly healthy and "normal" by psychologists, grief counselors, your minister/priest, and many other bereaved parents). Anyone would bristle at having their parenting style criticized, and it seems perfectly fair to say, "I understand that we all cope with tragedy and loss in our own way, and you and your husband may handle things differently than my husband and I do. However, I will never apologize for the things I do in memory of son, and I don't appreciate being told how you think I should be parenting my daughter." You can tell her that you understand many people don't know what to do, but the one thing they SHOULDN'T do is make judgments about you without really trying to understand where you're coming from. And you can (kindly) let her know that you always welcome questions and conversations about how things are really going.
Above all, don't let the misconceptions of other people put any doubt in your mind. You are aware that pretending that your son never existed would be unhealthy for you and your family. What you're doing instead is demonstrating that you love both your daughter and your son, that your son's life is meaningful, and that it has gifted you with compassion and the desire to help other people. That's a healthy and beautiful thing. It's clear [from your blog, which Ms. B is keeping anonymous] that you are not neglecting your daughter as you cope with your grief, and there is no reason to fear that your daughter is growing up in her brother's shadow (although this is a common fear shared by many bereaved parents). Yes, you will parent your daughter differently because her brother died. To do otherwise would be impossible. But as a result of your tragic loss, your daughter may grow up with parental role models of strength and fortitude, a sensitivity to the struggles of other people, and a greater appreciation for the all good things in life. In that way, her brother's life will be not a shadow, but a light.