Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Different writers offer their input on ways to navigate through life’s messiness. We are all about “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Kimberly Maier.
Please note: The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.
On 4 October 2014 the lights went out, the house suddenly became cold and someone switched the volume down. It remains as such today. The change is as shocking as it was dramatic. Yes everyone who could came to the funeral and they all spoke kind words and promised to come a see me and Rhiannon and help us through this dark period.
A week after the funeral and no one appeared at the door and no one phoned or even text but I put it this down to people maybe just getting over the shock and thinking that we might somehow want to be alone for a little while. Another week passed and more of the same. The nights were getting longer, darker and colder and the silence in the house was deafening. Rhiannon spent most of the time in her room and I sat downstairs looking sadly at photos and video footage of our last 25 years together. I really needed a visit from a neighbor or a friend at this point as I was becoming very low. Rhiannon found solitude on her Facebook Account and chatted to her friends that way but none of then came round to break the silence in the house that a few weeks before had been alive with light and laughter.
When I ventured out to the local shops I hoped to see some friendly faces but to my amazement people I knew did all that they could to avoid me including crossing the road and ducking into different isles in the shops.
Where were all those friends and relatives that we had? Was it up to me to pick up the phone and beg them to come round and see us? I barely had the energy to do that in any case even if I got desperate. A month passed then two months and no visits other than one from a good neighbor who started visiting regularly when he realized that no one else was visiting us. And a friend started phoning regularly from 500 miles away again after realizing that none was visiting and the two of us had been left/abandoned in serious mourning all alone in our silent house as if struck down with some highly contagious disease and a sign had been erected outside our door warning people to stay away in case of infection. Three months passed including Christmas and New Year and not even a visit from a close relative let alone a close neighbor.
And this to what had been a very popular house and we were very friendly people. No family fall outs had occurred. We both had to go out to see people because people never came to see us. At Christmas we went and stayed with family for a day or two but none of them reciprocated by coming to see us. At New Year, I took off and visited my 500 away friend to thank her for her kindness and contact.
A full year passed after my lovely Suzanne passed away and other than that one lovely neighbor no one has ventured over our thresh hold. Suzanne’s belongings are as they were. Untouched in wardrobes and drawers as I have been unable to face removing them or even storing them away.
I thought I had lots of good friends. I also thought I had good and supportive brothers and sisters some no more than 20 miles away. I thought I had good neighbors. How wrong I was on all three counts and how disappointed I have become. And somewhat angry because we did nothing to warrant such lack of support and because Suzanne in her life was such a kind and beautiful person in her heart that she would have crawled on her hands and knees if need be to visit friends, neighbors and relatives in need and without invite.
I guess I now know who my true friends are. The handful who were there for me in my greatest hours of need. I no longer regard the others as my friends because they were not there for me or Rhiannon when we needed them the most. I have made some new friends and can only hope that these people would be with me if I ever really needed them but this can only be tested were something to happen so I have lost my faith in friendship to a degree.
So while still trying to come to terms and accept the death of my soul mate and struggling with this i am also struggling desperately to understand why I have been let down so badly in my hour of need by my friends, my family and my neighbors. I am curious to find out if this experience is quite common or if what happened to me is quite unique. What I do know is that had my friends been there for me I think I may have been a little further forward in the grieving process than I now am. I am truly disillusioned with the people around around me that I considered to be my friends and neighbors and completely disillusioned with my family members.
Signed, Suffering and Alone?
Dear Suffering Friend,
Oof. Your words tumbled right off the page and collected in a ball of sorrow in the back of my throat that made it hard to swallow while I read your letter. My deepest condolences for the immeasurable loss of Suzanne, and your current shrinkage of faith in friendship.
While your community may have momentarily failed you, no, you are not alone. Your experience has been echoed in internet chat rooms and support groups and repeated on countless pieces of cheap furniture in psychiatry offices all over the world. I have heard the sentiment uttered by every person I know who has suffered with the aching, cavernous hole that is left behind when a child or spouse is lost to cancer.
“What happened to all of my friends?”
Indiscriminate, cruel villain that she is, cancer has a way of reminding us that life isn’t fair, that anyone could find themselves on the wrong side of fate in the distance between home and the local doctor’s office. When someone in the community is diagnosed with a terminal illness, it forces everyone to recognize that their own lives are fragile. For some people, it serves as a reminder to cherish every moment with their loved ones, watch the sunset, seek out a greater meaning and purpose. For others, reality is too messy and they will distance themselves because it’s not pleasant or it makes them uncomfortable.
It’s easy to be a good friend when the weather is breezy, right? It’s fun to share an appetizer, watch the game, exchange presents on birthdays and anniversaries. Most friends are up for commiserating over drinks after a recent break up or financial difficulty. But what about when life brings a storm more painful than that? Can friends be expected to stick around when the storm is a hurricane that rearranges your whole life?
The truth is, most of them won’t. Most friends can be expected to send a sympathy card or bake a casserole, an exceptional few will stand right next to you in the eye of the storm while you bravely endure a downpour that you didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. I know this, because hurricane Cancer swept in and made a mess of my life back in 2009. I was amazed at how many of my close friends refused to visit me because it was “just too much.” I found out that I didn’t have that many friends after all, but I had a few, and it mattered. I bring this up because I wonder if your friends are absent because they are of the fair weather variety or if it’s possible that your friends don’t know how to be there for you. If you think it’s the latter, you might want to give them a second look.
You should never have to “beg” (as you put it) for people to be there for you. Good friends should and will put their own feelings of grief and sadness aside and be there for the person who needs it. I took special note when you mentioned that your friends realized you weren’t being supported and began making an effort to call and spend time with you. That’s important. That detail matters because it tells me that your circle is not aware that you are dealing with this on your own. You’re right, spending time with them is what is going to help you move through the grieving process. I think it’s very healing to share memories and keep a loved one’s narrative alive. Enigmatic love, so slippery and real, is described in the details. It’s in all the little gestures your wife would make and mannerisms that she had. It’s the curve of her rested thumb or the way her posture changed when she caught her reflection in the mirror. Those intricacies were the backdrop of your life for 25 years, and I can see how her absence has left you feeling a bit… vacated. Talking about your wife with your daughter and others who loved her is a really lovely way to honor her.
As vulnerable as it makes you feel, you might have to spell it out for your friends. If you passively mention that you’d like to hang out more often, your friend might dismiss it as the usual thing people say to each other when they’re catching up. You might have to be more bold: “My wife’s birthday is next week and I’m having a hard time. Can we make plans to see a movie together on Sunday?” A real friend will have no problem making the time to support you because that’s what friends do. It’s not too much to ask. And maybe they can’t, maybe your grief is too much for them, maybe it forces them to face their own unpleasant feelings and they don’t like it. If that’s the case, then you definitely need better friends. If I were your neighbor, I’d like to think that I’d be the one to bring you a coffee on Sunday afternoons, a few deliciously compelling books tucked under my arm, fully prepared to visit in your kitchen or hear about the day you fell in love with Suzanne. As I write this, I’m thinking perhaps I have a neighbor who is suffering like you are, wondering where all the good people have gone, feeling afraid to reach out. I wish they would. I’d be there on Sunday, steaming coffee in one hand, delectable literature under my arm.
I’m willing to bet that you’re the kind of person who would attend the birthday party, the funeral and the movie on the weekend of your friend’s dead wife’s birthday, and you deserve friends who would do the same. Fair weather friends are a dime a dozen, and who needs them? Someone who can weather the storm is a more rare and valuable gem. Like C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” You said that your wife “would have crawled on her hands and knees if need be to visit friends, neighbors and relatives in need and without invite.” Obviously, this is something that made her unique, but you see, she stands as evidence of the best reason to have faith in humanity. There are good people out there. I wish I could tell you that these wonderful individuals hang out together in a convenient one-stop location (trust me, I’ve looked for Awesome Friend Island for years to no avail), but they’re out there, and when you find one of these unicorns it’s the kind of thing that gives value to surviving.
All my best, Kimberly
Kimberly Maier is a nonfiction writer and freelance editor who lives in Portland, Oregon. She designs a publication for senior citizens called Voices from the Terrace and was formerly an advice columnist for Elle Magazine and The Clackamas Print.
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