Ask a Widow: Navigating Friendships

Girl with backpack in city scene like DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

“My friend stopped calling me.”

“I feel left out.”

“It’s not the same with that group anymore.”

One thing that I hear often from my readers is how often other relationships change after the death of a spouse. Yes, you’ve lost your partner, but when the fog clears and you can manage to have a conversation with some of your old friends, it’s sometimes surprising when things just don’t seem the same. It can be hard to put your finger on what’s actually changed in your other relationships, but it is something many widows experience. (I remember thinking, “am I imagining this?”)

When Shawn died, I initially didn’t care much about any of my other relationships. If I’m being honest, I even had a hard time focusing on my children for a while. I was lost in the fog of grief. When I came up for air, I spent months solely trying to make sure my kids would remain whole, and that meant I interacted little with people outside my house.

But eventually, I started to re-engage with the world. My friends had been dropping by my place the entire time, supporting me with food and childcare and really anything I wanted. It wasn’t that I didn’t see them. It was that I finally woke up one day and actually started asking them about their lives. I started having more two-way friendships.

It wasn’t until about seven or eight months after Shawn died that I realized things just didn’t seem the same with a few of my friends. When we’d sit around in someone’s backyard or at a bar or a DC event, I’d feel something was off.

I wasn’t sure what I felt, really, but mostly things just felt different. In many ways, I felt like an outsider.

To be clear, almost all of my friends tried really hard to include me. They invited me out. They brought me to parties. They really wanted me to be a part of things.

But not everyone. Some of my relationships were really strained after Shawn died. Sometimes I just couldn’t connect with people who’d once been good friends. Sometimes they didn’t know how to connect with me. Sometimes there were hurt feelings and tough conversations and long stretches of time where no one really talked to each other.

I know this is the same for many other young widows, because I get a lot of messages about friendship. (Along with dating and parenting, it’s one of the biggest issues people write to me about.) It is not easy to figure out how to navigate friendships after your spouse dies, and I say this as a person who is very outgoing and writes a public blog about my life! Even for me, it’s been tough to figure out some of my friendships over the past several years.

I think sometimes it can be easier to make new friends who didn’t really know your partner. In fact, I have a few friends who were more like acquaintances before Shawn died, and now are quite close friends of mine. My running partner Purva is one example of that kind of friend, and I feel super lucky to have her in my life. She still drops off food for me when my dad leaves town and she constantly checks in with me when she knows there might be an emotional minefield in the near future. There’s no baggage with Purva, because we didn’t have to re-negotiate our relationship (and also because she’s just awesome.)

Sometimes, it may seem easier to let go of the older and more complicated relationships and start completely anew with friends who are new. And sometimes that’s a good idea.

But do you really want to throw out all your old friends? I know, it’s hard. It’s hard when you realize you’ve been left off of an invite list to a party or you hear that a group of couples is going on vacation together without you. It’s hard when you’re finally ready to start dating and your friends squirm at the mention of your Tinder profile or balk at hearing about your most recent date. It’s hard when you are grieving and your friends are grieving and you just can’t seem to grieve together.

It’s HARD. And it might seem easier to just go and make all new friends. But I have to push back on that a little bit, because after almost two years, I know that some of those friendships that I was ready to cut free have come back around. I have had to learn how to say something when my feelings get hurt, and I have had to live through their grief as well. But those friends – the ones who barreled through life with me, the ones who didn’t give up on me – well, I’m glad I didn’t give up on them either.

Listen, not everyone is made to be in your life forever. Some friends you will need to cut free. Without your spouse, you may not be able to maintain certain friendships for any host of reasons. I can’t tell you exactly what to do because every situation is different. But I’ll say this: do take a minute to think about it when you think you’re ready to cut someone off. Do you really want that person out of your life?

And if you want that person still in your life, what might need to change to make things better for both of you?

One thing I’ve frequently said to my friends over the past six months is this: I still want to be included. I certainly don’t expect everyone to think of me all the time, but if you’re going out and wouldn’t mind getting a reservation for 5 or 7 or 9….I’d love to join you.

There are, of course, a million other things you can say to help your friendships along. It would, of course, be way easier if the people with whom you have difficult friendships could just figure out how best to re-negotiate your relationship without making you do so much work. But you can do it, because you’re survived something much harder already.

Not all friendships will come through to the other side, and that’s okay. But for some of them, it’s worth fighting for. Not just for them, but also for you.

**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

4 Replies to “Ask a Widow: Navigating Friendships”

  1. Marjorie, this is such a timely comment for me tonight. I have been invited out by a friend that I don’t see very often but was once quite close. But she wants me to come to a pub crawl around to neighbourhood bars with some other friends that I know only slightly. I want to maintain this friendship, but I’m not much of a drinker and am feeling sad tonight about my husband. In the past I would have skipped this, but sittting at home by myself feeling sad is not any good either. I am trying to decide whether to go or not. It’s about trying new things, right? But people will want to know how I am and then do I really tell them the truth of how I’m feeling, or is that too much of a downer when they just want to go out and have a good time before Christmas?

    1. Oh, I have no idea what the right answer is to this one. There are times when I stayed home and should have gone out and times when I went out and should have stayed home. I think we do what we can, guess when we don’t know, and keep hoping that our friends stay with us through this journey.

  2. Michael Zoosman says: Reply

    Dear Marjorie,

    Thank you for your ongoing openness in sharing your feelings here with us and for us.

    Wishing you and your family a joyful Christmas and New Year ahead.

    B’shalom, in Peace,
    Mike

    1. Thank you, my friend. And a Happy Hanukkah to you!

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