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My 10-year-old will receive her second COVID-19 shot today. She should have its full protection two weeks from now. While I continue to take precautions, I’ve been gradually widening my circle, going on more outings, making plans I wouldn’t have a year ago, holding dates for 2022 events. There isn’t a perfect way to describe this in-between state, which feels as far from sheltering in place as it does from any pre- or post-pandemic reality—it could be the turning point I hoped for, or it could be the lull before an Omicron wave. Still, with the final member of my family vaccinated at last, the possibility of normalcy—or something nearer to it, at least—has started to flicker at the edges of my vision.
I thought I would be elated to reach this point. Certainly (despite new variant worries), I feel grateful. But I am also conscious of a new and unexpected anxiety, as I’m learning just how hard it is to imagine or believe in any version of “normal” when you are grieving.
Our concept of time is linear, but the way we experience grief isn’t. Which is why, many days, I feel as though I still exist in April 2020, when my mother was dying on the other side of the country. If it had been possible to wish or will myself into her presence then, I would have made it happen. As it was, my daily life at home—already rearranged into strange new patterns, thanks to stay-at-home orders and closed schools—gave way to a distanced, disorienting round-the-clock vigil.
When my dad died in 2018, I did what I had to do; what many of us do in this country. I took a short bereavement leave, plus a couple of “vacation” days (I know I was fortunate to get even that much), then returned to everything I had been doing before: working long hours, ferrying kids around, dealing with all the responsibilities that couldn’t or wouldn’t wait. By the time my mom died last spring, we were juggling remote work and school, but most other activities remained in forced suspension—there was no way to jump back into my old life, no pressure to go out every day and pretend that things were normal for anyone else’s benefit. I stayed home with my family, and ever since we have grieved my mother in our own time, our own space, our own ways.
I haven’t had to learn how to be fully in the world without her, yet. And while I realize there is no returning to the normal we knew, for so many reasons—we need to forge ahead with a new one, incorporating these losses and lessons into our lives—sometimes I’m genuinely unsure how to move forward after spending this much time at a relative standstill. I suspect I’m not the only person in mourning who now finds even the possibility of “normal” to be an utterly foreign concept; who wonders how it will feel to face not just one place, but every place, without the person I’ve lost.
Perhaps this is the opposite of that searching phase of grief I’ve heard about, when you imagine that you can somehow find and recover your loved one who died. I know that no matter where I go—and soon, I may be able to go just about anywhere—she won’t be found.
Here at home, the territory of loss is familiar. I understand how my grief fills this space; I know its height and its breadth. Every room holds memories of it. This is where I had my last conversation with my mother, where I got the call telling me that she was gone, where I livestreamed her funeral while kind neighbors left flowers on our stoop. This is where I lost her, but it is also the last place I had her, had a parent, at all. Try as I might, I’m unable to shake the feeling that as long as I’m here, I am still with her, keeping my vigil in the only way I can.
Hi I Have Notes,
I lost a close family member over the summer after a rapid decline. Shortly after, I was scheduled to officiate a wedding between two friends—their second, “big” wedding, after they had a smaller ceremony in 2020 due to the pandemic. The day after my family member’s funeral, I had a tense text conversation with the bride and realized it was about a ceremony script I had said I’d write. I asked her to decide if she still wanted me to officiate. The couple ended up having the family member who officiated their 2020 wedding do this second ceremony, a decision I was more than okay with. I attended the wedding as a bridesmaid.
A couple months later, the bride reached out to talk on the phone. I told her how I would have preferred her to show up for me in my grief, with direct, honest communication, and she seemed to take it well. She then started telling me about how my actions affected her in the days leading up to the wedding. She cried; she asked if how I showed up to her wedding was rooted in the state of our friendship (“You were at another wedding this weekend and looked so happy on Instagram”—it’s true I wasn’t happy at her wedding, because I had just buried my family member). Since this conversation, I’ve decided pretty firmly that I don’t want to be friends with her. She has become a trigger for the most intense grief I’ve ever experienced.
What I’m asking for advice is about the friend group. The bride is a part of a close group of friends, located throughout the country, and I’ve known them all for years. I’m still active in the group chat, but having anxiety about if and how to continue engaging with my former friend. I’m nervous about future events where I may have to interact with her: other weddings, baby showers, etc. I’ve not told other members of the group about the end of our friendship, because I don’t want them to feel like they have to choose, and have been making an effort to nurture 1:1 relationships with them. But I’m still struggling—how can I show up in a friend group with someone who has hurt me so much? Is it worth telling the others about her actions? Am I prioritizing the comfort of the group over my own feelings, or am I being mature in not creating drama? I don’t like feeling fake, but I also don’t want to lose the whole group. Do I need to let go of the friend group and grieve that too?
— Still Grieving
Dear Still Grieving,
Someone once told me that grief is its own country, difficult to understand unless you’ve spent time there. So many people don’t know what to say or how to react in the presence of strong grief. I’m sure you already know this, and none of it excuses the lack of compassion you were shown—but perhaps it does explain some of it. I had a similar experience with a former friend after my father died, right down to the accusation that I hadn’t seemed happy enough to see her. It’s always hard when a friendship frays or breaks, and as you pointed out, the loss of this particular friend is now linked to your grief.
I’m sorry that this situation has continued to weigh on you during such a hard time, and that it’s made other relationships more complicated. While you need (and have every right) to express your feelings over the way you were treated, it could be that trying to do so within this particular group would just make things tougher for you. Having to explain everything to the others might be distressing, even if they immediately empathize and offer you their support. And of course, because they are also friends with the bride, things could get a bit messy. But if trying to hide this falling-out—or the cause of it—starts to weigh heavily on you, affecting your friendships and making your interactions seem “fake,” you might decide you need to be more candid for the sake of those relationships. (It is also possible that one of your friends will notice the rift between you and the bride, and ask you about it directly.)
As you’ve made the excellent choice to nurture your 1:1 friendships with everyone in the group, I think it makes sense to consider what to say to them on a case-by-case basis. Ask yourself: What do you want this particular friend to know, and why? What will allow you to feel most comfortable with them going forward? How do you think they’ll feel if you tell them more, and how will you feel? You might decide that it’s easiest to say nothing to one friend, or to simply acknowledge the rift and leave it at that. You might want to share more of the story with another. (If you do tell someone and you don’t want the entire group to know, ask for their discretion.) Remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation, and you don’t owe anyone your silence.
I think you can take a similar approach with any future events where you might run into your former friend. Some could be easier to deal with than others—if you’re both invited to a big wedding, perhaps you can go and just try to focus on the people you actually want to see. If the group plans a meetup somewhere, that’s probably going to be more awkward. Any number of factors are always involved in the decision to attend a given event; with this group, you now have one more to consider. It’s unfortunate that you do, but if it helps, remember that you don’t have to figure out every potential scenario right now.
You asked if you need to let go of this group, and I don’t think you do, at least not preemptively. As time goes on, check in and be honest with yourself about how each friendship, and your overall presence in the larger group, makes you feel. Be as open as you want to be about your grief or the fallout with your former friend, especially if this feels crucial to maintaining the connections that matter to you. Don’t ignore your own needs or hurt yourself in order to keep someone in your life. If you ever become convinced that the group as a whole is no longer good for you, give yourself permission to focus on the relationships that are.
I know that you don’t want to lose any more friends, and I wish I could promise you that you won’t. In the absence of certainty, try to trust in your own intentions, at least—it’s clear that you care about these friends and would like to keep them if possible. I hope that you’re able to, and that you find all the understanding and support you need from those who are willing to hold space for your grief.
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