A neighbor recently asked me for some advice. Diane is the nursing mother of a newborn and a toddler. She also, somehow, works full-time. A friend of hers who has no children recently lost her brother to a terminal illness. Diane did what she thought best — she called her friend, sent her texts and emails and generally tried to check in on her during the difficult time.
But despite her best efforts, Diane’s friend had just sent her an email saying she was a bad friend and hadn’t been there for her during her difficult time. Diane posed a question to the friends and neighbors: Can you be a mother and a friend? We hashed out how she should respond — should she send an email explaining to her friend how difficult it is to manage young children, employment and friendships? Should she simply apologize and tell her she’ll try harder? Should she just give up the friendship?
Another friend weighed in that she had lost her sister to cancer years ago and still struggled with depression over it. She suggested that the friend who lost her brother was probably just feeling depressed over the tragic loss. She suggested that Diane encourage the friend to see a grief counselor.
Other amateur advice columnists weighed in. One suggested that the surviving sister was simply angry and wishing to lash out at something. It’s like when you’re a teenage girl and you get mad at your mother in part because you know she’ll still love you after you say horrible things. “Just give her some breathing room,” said Myra, “She’ll come back to you.”
One neighbor weighed in with a personal story. She’d lost her mother and it happened when she was pretty young. She said it was so painful an experience that she would say horrible things to people and simply expect them to deal with it.
What Laurel suggested was interesting, though. She said that people should treat friend who have lost close family members the same way that we treat new mothers! From her perspective, it’s a similar situation. When you lost a mother or sister or other close family member, you’re juggling a completely different life than what you knew before. In addition to all the chaos of dealing with packing up belongings or managing the estate, insurance and other bureaucratic nightmares, you’re also just muddled and struggling to make dinner or take time for yourself.
In the same way that telling a tired new mom that she’s just overly emotional and shouldn’t do something or the other is not helpful, neither is it helpful to tell that to a friend who just lost their mother, father, spouse or sibling. Make her dinner, come over to help her with her laundry and just call to check in with how she’s doing, Laurel said.
In my experience, even though my friends who are mothers are far, far, far busier than all of my other friends, they remain some of my best and most thoughtful friends. This week my husband and I are tied up with dealing with medical issues for our youngest. It’s not terribly time consuming so much as stressful but many of my friends who are mothers already offered to bring over prepared meals. When we were single, we never thought of doing such things.
My advice to my friend was to be as forbearing with her friend as she’d hope her friend would be with her under similar circumstances. We don’t always say the right thing. Sometimes we lash out at those we should treasure the most. But forgiving others, particularly those who are experiencing great anguish and a tragic loss, can’t hurt.