Monday, September 25, 2017

In Grief: When A Friend Pulls Away

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood.  ~ Seneca

A reader writes: I am hoping you can advise me what to do. I have a very dear and close friend whose brother died of suicide a month ago. This was his only sibling. He had to go identify the body and had to come home to a hysterical wife and barely functioning parents. As far as I know he has cried very little if at all. He and I haven't been able to discuss anything at all. My husband and I did everything we could to help the family with things. The problem is now though he will not call anymore and he has pulled away emotionally. He is saying things to me that I would say are hurtful. I have been trying to keep in touch with him, but now he says we are not compatible. I really want to help him through this very tough time. Do I step back and give him space or what do I do??? I am hoping you can give me some guidance. Thank you.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the suicide of your dear friend's brother and of the tragic circumstances surrounding this death, and how good of you to be so concerned. Losing someone we love is difficult enough, but losing a brother to suicide is too horrible to imagine.

There really is no right or wrong way to grieve; your friend's way may be quite different from what yours or mine might be under similar circumstances. Grief can make a person feel and act quite "crazy," and what seems like inappropriate or out-of-character behavior toward you may be ~ at least for now ~ your friend's way of coping with his family's traumatic and unbearable loss. Still, certain reactions are common and predictable in grief, and the more you know about what is normal, the better you can understand what may be happening with your friend.

Everyone grieves differently and at their own pace, and there are important personality differences as well. For example ~ and bear in mind that I am speaking in generalities here ~ we women tend to be more expressive and willing to share our emotions more freely, while men might grieve more stoically, in silence and alone, thereby giving the impression that they are not grieving at all. Keep in mind that, although times and customs are changing, men in our culture have long been socialized to keep their feelings in check and to themselves, to appear strong and in control. Add to this the complicating factor that in your friend's case, this death was a suicide (with all the social stigma attached to that), so his behavior may be even more understandable.

I hope you know that anger is one of the most common reactions in grief, and especially for a man, it may feel safer, more potent, more comfortable and more familiar to feel mad than to feel sad. The anger your friend is expressing (by saying things to you that seem hurtful) may have nothing to do with you and everything to do with the outrage he must feel at his brother for committing this most outrageous act. And since his brother isn't here for him to confront and we're not supposed to be angry with a dead person, at the same time your friend may be feeling very guilty for feeling so angry (not only at his brother, but at God for letting this happen or even at himself for not being able to prevent it). So instead of acknowledging the source of his anger and expressing it so it can be released, on some level he may find it "safer" to get angry at you (because you're his good and loyal friend and he trusts that you will love him anyway).

I'm reminded of an experience I had with my physician father several years ago. He had been caring diligently for an older man who was dying, and despite everything my father tried, he could not reverse the course of his illness and in the end his patient died. The man's wife was furious with my father, and my dad confided in me how taken aback he was by this woman's white-hot anger. My father (who was a wonderful, caring, conscientious and highly respected doctor, and dearly loved by his patients) assured me that for months he had done everything in his power to care for this man, but he was powerless to save him and he felt terribly misjudged and abused by this woman's rage. I listened to his story, and then gently suggested to him that maybe this was not what this woman was really angry about. Perhaps, I said, what she was really angry about is the fact that her husband died. I will never forget the look on my father's face. He was astounded that this possibility had not occurred to him, and he began immediately to re-frame how he was perceiving this woman's behavior toward him. The next time he saw her, he was able to empathize with her anger rather than taking it personally ~ and they both managed to talk about it, recognize it for what it was, and get past it.

I share this story with you simply to illustrate how the anger that accompanies loss can be so hurtful, and how important it is to recognize that anger is one of the most common reactions in grief. When we're frustrated and hurting it's only natural to lash out and look for someone to blame. Being angry is a way of channeling energy, of making some sense of the pain. When we are protesting an unjust loss, we may have every right to be angry. Even if we know our anger isn't logical or justified, we cannot always help how we feel. For some of us, being angry may be preferable to feeling the underlying hurt and pain of loss.

Bear in mind that none of what I'm describing may be happening at a conscious level, and since I don't know you or your friend, I may be all wrong in my assessment. I'm just sharing with you what I think might be happening based on what I know of normal grief. See, for example, my article, How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences, including the Related Articles and Resources listed at the base. And apart from the gender and personality issues, there is the issue of suicide, which always, always complicates the grieving process. (See Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss.)

Since you've already let your friend know that you are there for him and his family, and since you're getting signals from him that he'd rather that you step back for a while, it may be wise for you to abide by his wishes. In the meantime, you may find these articles helpful also:
I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear, and that you will follow through with some of the suggestions. In any case, please know that I am thinking of you and your friend, and when you feel ready to do so, I hope you will let me know how you both are doing.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here.

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