Dear Carolyn: My sister killed herself two months ago. She had been suffering from depression and was diagnosed with a medical issue that would have entailed long-term treatment and/or an organ transplant.
I am devastated beyond belief. The shock and horror of her death and the circumstances surrounding it have been overwhelming. I’m getting therapy, and it is helping. I have many close friends who have been incredibly supportive and caring.
However, I’m very hurt by the lack of support of any kind from a number of people I had thought of as friends. Some are members of a club; some are neighbors; some are colleagues. Some are people I’ve known for decades. I know they’re aware of my loss, and yet they haven’t lifted a finger to text, email or call me.
If I continue to participate in my usual social circles when I feel up to it, I will see some of these “friends.” What do I say to them? I simply cannot imagine sitting down to dinner with them or discussing a book or anything else in their presence. Do I simply stop participating in these activities? If not, how do I handle seeing those who have ignored me?
— Heartsick and Hurt
Heartsick and Hurt: What a terrible loss, I’m sorry.
You’re not alone in seeing some of your people vanish just as you need them most. Not by a long shot; such vanishing is a common, and cruel, byproduct of death in a culture where the rituals aren’t universal, established and clear.
This is not to excuse anyone’s silence, merely to explain it: It’s actually a question I get fairly often, from people who don’t know how to respond to someone’s grief, then hesitate out of indecision and fear of missteps, then realize their silence has now lasted an unseemly amount of time, then are moved to ask me or others, “Is it too late to say something?”
Deaths by suicide especially seem to trigger this kind of support paralysis. Again, cruelly so, since a compassionate universe would send more support for more complicated grief, not less.
Something else I see in your letter that suggests these people fell through this same uncertainty crack: You describe them as friends of proximity. They happened to join the same club, move to the same neighborhood, work at the same place, for their own reasons . . . and then found a nice acquaintance in you. So they’re going to care about you, but not necessarily feel comfortable rushing to your side in a crisis, deducing you have closer friends for that.
Again — not to excuse this, just to explain. As your justifiably hurt feelings attest, the only answer to uncertainty around grief is to find some way to show up. Write, call, offer to stop by.
I’m so sorry these friends failed to see this.
It would be a loss atop a loss, though, if you were to drop valued groups and activities in response. Please maintain your connections. And when you see the people who went silent on you, keep it simple: Say hello, then let them say what they have to say. Your response doesn’t have to be scripted or tidy or on anyone’s terms but your own. Just see truth, then proceed as you see fit from there.