How To: Tell Friends What You Need

Pals disappointing you? Tips for creating and maintaining your support network when the chips are down.

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Loss can take a toll on friendships and intimate relationships. Friends who haven’t experienced something similar may not know how to respond in a way that is helpful; and some use their discomfort as an excuse to disappear altogether. All this can make it difficult to maintain a support network when you need it most.

Modern Loss spoke recently with Cheri Travis, a grief specialist with the online therapy site Pretty Padded Room, about relating your needs to well-meaning friends, keeping romantic relationships alive amid the stress and connecting with other young people who have experienced loss.

What can 20- and 30-somethings who have lost a loved one reasonably expect of their circle of close friends?

Young people can be less familiar with grief/loss and therefore may struggle more to support their friends. This can leave the griever feeling even more lost and isolated. Young grievers should be warned that their friends — and even family members — might say things that don’t feel helpful: ‘Well, at least you are young and can bounce back’ or ‘Your grandfather lived a rich, full life.’ People don’t know how to support grievers in general, and young grievers in particular may elicit hurtful or misattuned responses.

What are unreasonable expectations?

It is natural to expect people to know what we need when we are grieving: They don’t. When confronted with grief, people are faced with their own deep fears about losses they have experienced or will experience, so they often shut down. This can look like: not calling or visiting, not knowing what to say so saying nothing, making fun of raw emotions, etc. Don’t expect folks to say or do the ‘right thing’. Well-meaning friends may say things that hurt. They can’t possibly know what you need so try to gentle with them.

Do you/how do you confront a cherished friend whom you feel is not rising to the occasion? What about those friends who avoid you because they ‘don’t know what to say’?

It is up to the griever to decide which people to try and talk to about their needs. That might look like this: “I know you care about me and are trying to help. I really appreciate this. But what I need right now is (fill in the blank): more time alone, for you to call me more frequently, the chance to talk about him/her, for you to come clean my kitchen, etc. Some relationships will not be able to withstand your honest requests, so you must decide whom to confront (gently) and whom to simply put ‘on hold’ for a while.

We hear people say: After my father died, I found out who my real friends are. Translation: Some people rose to the occasion and others did not. So is it inevitable that you’ll lose friends in the aftermath of a loss?

One thing about loss is that it often leads to looking at life differently. Some people re-evaluate their friendships (among other things). It might be that when a friend reacts in a hurtful way, it becomes obvious that you don’t have enough in common to retain the friendship. In that case, you might go your separate ways. This is ok! But in other cases, some time may pass while you deeply mourn, and then the friendship will pick back up. Remember to avoid making rash decisions, and give friends the chance to show up the best they can.

Many people experience the implosion of a romantic relationship after the death of a loved one. Do you have any advice for the maintaining intimate relationships after loss?

It is not talked about, but the symptoms of grief range from simple forgetfulness to complete cognitive dysfunction (read: insanity!). It cannot be overstated that grief and loss can cause many aspects of our life to suffer. So when it comes to maintaining our relationships, the best advice is to slow down, be gentle with yourself and warn your partner that you will not be yourself for a while. Chances are they will try to help you but they probably won’t know how. Try to be instructive about your needs. There is no way to predict which relationships will survive and which won’t. Just make space for either possibility and hope for the best.

After a loved one’s death, relationships with family members can get tense. Often other family members have major limitations or you don’t see eye-to-eye about the deceased or about how you should be dealing with your grief. Do you have any advice for diffusing family tensions?

Much of my work as a grief counselor is in helping clients with this topic. It is very complex as the relationship history and power differential are brought into focus following a loss. The short answer is to lovingly (but firmly) outline what your needs are and put strong boundaries in. Examples are:

• “I know you guys think it is weird that I am acting this way but I am so, so sad. I know our family ‘way’ has been to just stay busy and chase away bad feelings that way but I can’t and don’t want to do that this time. Just know that I am doing the best I can and allow me that space.”

• “I know you didn’t like Michael but he was important to me. I need you to either say nice/neutral things or not say anything at all. Remember that this is an incredibly hard time for me and since you are my mom, please let this be about what I need for now.”

Our friends can be a comfort — especially if they knew and loved the person you’re mourning — but sometimes there is no substitute for someone who has been there. How can 20- and 30-somethings find other young adults who have experienced loss?

Hospice organizations have wonderful grief groups and many are free. Check with your local hospice to see if they offer groups for young people. Many will try to customize their groups according to similar needs, such as loss or parent or loss of child, etc. The Internet has great resources like grief blogs, etc. Obviously, a grief counselor is an amazing resource for healing and many offer groups tailored to specific demographics.

When grief and loss accelerates or creates substance or food abuse, twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous can be tremendous (free) resources — and many groups attract younger folks.

The most important thing for anyone who has suffered a loss and is grieving is to be gentle on oneself. In our culture, popular media presents grief as something to be ignored, to be exercised away, to be ‘handled’ in an hour-long TV show. Grievers who ‘come out’ as being sad, lost, crazy-headed, or abandoned are told to pray more, do more yoga, travel or to simply ‘get on with it.’ The truth is that losing a loved one is the most difficult task we will ever be faced with. Young people think they are infallible. Loss will cause them to question this. That may not be a bad thing because in the end, coming to grips with death can’t fail to improve life.

Cheri Travis is a licensed professional counselor and grief specialist with Pretty Padded Room, an online therapy site for women. Travis works with clients dealing with grief due to traumatic childhoods, broken marriages, and death and loss of all kinds — including pet loss. She has a special interest in “hidden grief,” or unresolved mourning from the past. Pretty Padded Room offers confidential video chat therapy and digital diary consultations.

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