The language of loss: making new friends through grief

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Our new Host for Let’s Talk About Loss in Perth, Fritha West, has written this brilliant blog all about making new friends when you are experiencing grief. If you’d like to join our Perth meet up group you can find out more here.

I made a new friend a couple of months ago. It was the first time I really hit it off with someone new – the first time I even felt open to hitting it off with someone new – in about three years. 

Did they want to hear how I spent the last three days sorting through my dead Dad’s belongings? I figured they probably didn’t. 

Meeting people is hard when you’re grieving. It’s like everyone suddenly speaks a different language. There’s all of the usual awkwardness of getting to know someone, but with the added pressure of explaining your situation, and (at least for me) a strange sort of guilt; as if I need to apologise just for being there, all strange and silent.

Even seeing old friends in the pub would leave me tongue tied. They would chat about their weeks at work or school, and I would have nothing to contribute. What could I say, that wouldn’t be misinterpreted or make everyone feel uncomfortable? Did they want to hear how I spent the last three days sorting through my dead Dad’s belongings? I figured they probably didn’t. 

Pretending everything is fine!

Sometimes I would over-compensate, try to go above and beyond to show everyone how totally okay I was. Look at me! I can laugh and be silly and I am absolutely not going to go home to an empty house and sob into my pillow! Everything is fine!

From speaking to other grievers I know this isn’t uncommon. Our worlds have been upended, so of course we feel out of place, and of course we each have our own coping strategies. But this gets exhausting after a while. I will always be grateful to the friends that stuck with me through the worst of it, those who were happy to sit in silence or listen to me raging about something tiny and inconsequential, those who were there when I needed to let out all that nasty, scratchy stuff that no one likes to hear.

But these are people I have known forever. Our relationships were solidified by teenage dramas, drunken nights out, ridiculous arguments and inside jokes. The easiness between us had taken years to cultivate, and could never be replicated, because no one is ever going to meet the person I was pre-loss ever again. 

Unfortunately, you can’t rely on your childhood friends forever. Especially if you go and spoil it all by moving 500 miles across the country. So, like it or not, I had to get out there and socialize. 

Explaining the new version of myself

Occasionally, when I meet new people, I have an urge to sit them down in front of a carefully curated PowerPoint presentation on “The Person I Used To Be Before Everything Went Wrong”. I could go into vivid detail about how I used to be fun, but then my Dad died and we lost our house and now I am sad all the time. I’ve so far resisted by reminding myself that I do not have to apologise for who I am, and bereaved or not, I still have plenty to offer. This doesn’t always feel like the truth, and it often feels easier to stay silent. But I have learned you can’t leave out the hard part of your story just because you don’t know how to tell it.

I can’t get the hang of him as past tense.

I have to rely on the topic coming up naturally. One day I was chatting with my new friend, and we began swapping stories about our parents. I told her how my Dad convinced me raisins were made out of squashed flies, and how twenty years later, I still avoid eating them. This made her laugh, and there I was, sharing my Dad’s jokes with someone who didn’t even know he was dead. The only clues she could have were the tenses I used, and even after three years, those still vary. I can’t get the hang of him as past tense. 

Eventually the subject had to come up. The exchange probably sounded perfectly normal to her…

Me: “Well, we lost my dad a few years ago…”
Her: “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

… but it left me fuming. What a ridiculous thing for me to say! 

My Dad is NOT lost. There have been times in my life where I have lost my Dad, especially as a kid – in the supermarket, or out on walks, or once at a festival when I followed the wrong hat moving through the crowd and ended up being taken to the first aid tent by a kind but drunken stranger who called for my parents on the tannoy. When I was small I would have nightmares about losing him out in the woods where he worked, fearing he would be kidnapped by goblins or fairies, and that I would never see him again. That was the worst thing I could imagine. 

But now he is gone.

Gone, but not lost. I know exactly where he is – he is 500 miles away on a green hillside just outside of our home town, underneath 6 feet of chalk soil. 6 feet below the trees we planted, and a great big granite headstone with his name on it. He is not lost.

The funny language of loss

It’s funny, the language people use around death. They will say almost anything to avoid the word itself. I remember how angry my mum used to get in the early days: “He didn’t pass away, he died.” There was something insulting in the way people tried to ease themselves into the idea by saying “passed away”, making it seem peaceful, natural. Because it wasn’t any of those things. 

But everyone has their own language for it, and we all have to respect that. What works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. The one thing I have found to be true for almost everyone is that talking about in in some way – however you prefer – helps. And the most amazing thing for me was that later, once I opened up to this friend, she told me her own story. She had lost someone too. At last I felt like I didn’t have to watch my words. The ease I had only ever felt with my childhood friends started to creep back in. 

Now, I can only speak one language, so I can only imagine the joy a bilingual person must feel to be unexpectedly greeted in their mother tongue. But that moment with my friend is probably the closest thing I will have to that sudden sense of relief. 

So yes, meeting people is hard when you are grieving. But I think it is worth it. 

Fritha West

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