After a close friend's father died, our reader backed away from the friendship but now wants to make amends. Hattie Sloggett doesn't beat around the bush with her practical guidance
"This is tough to write because I feel like I'm a dreadful person, but I really need your advice. Recently a good friend of mine’s father died; he had been sick for some time, but when he passed away she really broke down. She had her husband and family for support. I’m really awkward comforting people so I gave her space. I did text her when it first happened a month ago, but I haven't been in touch since. I felt like I was bothering her, that she had enough going on. I didn’t want to bombard her. However, this week I learned from a mutual friend that she was upset with me. She says I haven't been there for her and she feels like she has done something wrong. I genuinely thought that she wouldn’t want me interfering. I don’t know what to do, is it too late?"
I say this with kindness, this isn’t about you. It never has been about you. You feel awful because you know that the way you've acted is not right. We don’t back off from our friends when they're going through stuff, no matter how crap we are at dealing with it, because that would mean we are putting our comfort above theirs. If a friend is in pain, then it is our job to step-up.
When I went through a divorce in my twenties, it was a grieving process too. Like your friend, I had many people back away because they didn’t know what to say or do. One friend told me that people crying made her feel uncomfortable and that when I was feeling better, she would take me out for dinner. I’ll point out now that I never spoke to her after that.
Any kind of grief can take a long time to pass, sometimes it never passes, so to ‘wait out’ the process until it’s safe to get in touch, is not only selfish but utterly pointless unless you really don’t care about ever seeing the person again.
Look, I'm not saying I don’t see your point of view, I do. It is a difficult situation and I understand fully why you thought giving her time with her family was the best option. I don’t get the feeling this was malicious in any way, but at times like this it is always good to look to the person in need for direction. Good protocol is to ask what they need from you, rather than making assumptions. Often, in times of sadness, or stress, we actually look to our friends to ‘change the subject’ as it were or simply to reflect back to us what we’re feeling, not to fix anything.
While being surrounded by people who can comfort us during these life-changing events is lovely, sometimes we need to feel like nothing has changed at all and that getting back to normal is achievable.
As a person who has lost too many people in their life to count, I can assure you, that no matter how many people I had to comfort me, I still felt alone at times, as though no-one could understand the pain I was feeling. It was the moments of normality, like grabbing coffee and giggling with a pal’s new baby or hearing the mundane gossip from my girlfriend’s office, that actually got me through, that made me forget the excruciating pain for a split second.
Those seconds, eventually turn to minutes, to hours and to days, but they have to start as seconds. However, I still well up at the memories of my grandmother even years down the line, or find myself feeling sick about a friend who took his own life. When that happens, I often turn to friends that can make me think of something else. I have friends who are crap if I cry uncontrollably on their shoulder, something that you say you find uncomfortable. But they are brilliant when I say ‘I need to take my mind off this’. They take the controls and tell me about their most recent dreadful Tinder date until my sides are splitting with laughter, or book a table at my favourite restaurant, tell me to put on my makeup and take me out on the town. These are the friends that when the emotional hand grenade went off in the first place, they said to me 'I’m not great with tears and emotion, but whatever you need I am here for you' and I knew that. I didn’t turn to them for the comfort or a hug, or to sob until I couldn’t sob anymore, I turned to them, because they were pragmatic, they knew just how to lift my spirits, they didn’t dwell on the emotional side of it all, but on the strategic side. They helped me move forward. You can be that friend.
So, it’s your choice, do you want to step in, step up or step out?
Baby Steps: Pick up the phone
Dial that number and speak to your friend. If at first you don’t succeed, try again and again, until you get hold of her. It’s your time to put a bit of effort into this situation, if you want to make things right that is. Once you get hold of her, DO NOT start making excuses for your actions, acknowledge that you were in the wrong, apologise sincerely, and say ‘I am here now. What can I do to help?’. Be prepared to be asked to pick up kids, laundry, or cook her favourite dish, but equally bear in mind that she might say, the classic, ‘I’m fine’ – believe me, she is not, so keep on top of your check-ins, once a week texts are sufficient, possibly a funny meme to make her smile, just make sure she knows you are there, and willing to step in and help if needs be.
Head-On: Send a card and a care package
Let’s fix what you broke. First, send flowers, second, a card and third, a care package . The care package can and should include, but is not limited to, a journal so she can write about her feelings, a sweet treat from the best place you can find, bath salts to help her relax, a crystal to bring good energy to her space and your favourite book to take her mind off things. Follow this up with a phone call, telling her that you want to take her out somewhere. Bearing in mind the current Covid restrictions, this can be planned for a future date, or simply a walk in your local park. You don’t have to move too far out of your comfort zone in regards to overly emotional gestures, but you do need to show her that you are ready to step up and be the friend she needs when she needs you.
Full Nuclear: Walk away
I hope you don’t do this, but,given the situation, if you are going to bail on the friendship, now is the time to do it. Is the reason you don’t want to get close to her right now actually a sign that your friendship wasn’t working for other reasons? You don’t want to wait until she is feeling better for you to kick her down again. Perhaps this friendship isn’t right for you if you're unable to be the kind of friend she requires. I get the impression that this isn’t the case due to how awful you feel. If you do choose this option, make sure you do it quietly and without drama, step-out like the good little ghost you are being.
It’s a tough one for sure, but I think you will know what feels right to do. I hope that you can mend this and I believe you can if you want it, because some of the strongest bonds with our friends come from some of the hardest times in our lives.
Got some shame you want to change? Message Hattie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hattie is a confidence and emotional intelligence coach, Master NLP Practitioner and True-Self Advocate. She is so grateful for your emails and reads all of them but cannot reply individually. Names will be withheld if requested and letters may be edited for the wider audience. For a private chat or in-depth consultation find her at www.hattiesloggett.com
Names have been changed.