How Grieving Folks—and Everyone Else—Can Ask for More or Less Contact

I hear often in the grief support groups I’m part of that folks feel like they were forgotten by their friends and family over time. They report an immediate outpouring of support that dwindled away after a few months. I am happy to say that I have not experienced this myself, but I have reflected on my own behavior toward people I’ve known who suffered the loss of a loved one; I’ve realized that several times I lost touch with a friend following their loss.

I didn’t back away from them because of their loss but because of my own poor communication, introversion, life chaos, or the notion that I would be bothering them. For example, a friend lost a parent near the beginning of COVID. I kept in touch with her for a couple months and then my husband had his stroke and I stopped communicating regularly with her. I realized today that I hadn’t heard from her in over a year and I sent a text. To her, it may very well look like I ghosted her after her parent died. Another example involves a colleague who took another job shortly after her loss. Because we no longer saw each other regularly, I fell into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap and stopped checking in with her.

In both these cases, the other person didn’t reach out to me, either, and that could be taken as a sign that they were no longer interested in a friendship. However, being widowed has made me very aware of how much effort it takes to reach out to others in the wake of a significant loss. I have a few friends who have been very diligent about texting or calling regularly regardless of whether I respond. I so appreciate this! I feel loved and happy every time they call or text me. But because I seldom respond, they may very well wonder if they are bothering me and over time, they may stop calling and texting.

But wait! All I have to do is periodically let them know how much I appreciate the continued communication. Every few months, I send them an email or text that says something along the lines of, “Thanks for thinking of me. Although I seldom respond to your messages, every single one of them means something to me and I hope you will continue reaching out. Maybe one of these days, I’ll surprise you by answering the phone or replying to the text.”

I have been invited to a lot of get togethers over the past year that I declined. I’m an introvert to begin with, so socializing drains my battery, even when I’m having a good time and truly enjoy the company of the folks I am with. Add grieving on top of that, and now anxiety, and often the thought of spending even a short amount of time with other people feels like too much for me.  

Case in point. I had drinks with a friend last week who is much more social that I am. She regularly invites me to do things with her. I say yes as often as I can, but frankly, “as often as I can” probably equates to two or three times a year under the best of circumstances. After our drinks last week she said she was continuing on to another event and invited me to go with her. The event sounded like fun, but I knew it was too much for me. Just working up the energy to meet her for a drink had taken some effort and I was already looking forward to being back home.

I told her the truth. “That sounds like a fun event, and I wish I had the energy to come with you, but I’m feeling pretty depleted.” She said she understood.

Then I continued: “I appreciate you regularly inviting me to do things and I hope you don’t take the fact that I almost always decline to mean I’m not interested. I just don’t have the energy these days. Please keep inviting me to things.”  

“Oh,” she said, “I’m so glad you said that! I sometimes wonder if I’m being a pest with all my invitations.”

“Not at all,” I assured her. “I love being invited! And one of these days I’ll surprise you by saying yes.”

This isn’t just something grieving folks can do. Anyone who wants more or fewer invitations can make that desire known. My sister is even less social than I am and I used to regularly invite her to my events. At some point a few years ago, she said, “I’m never going to say yes. Just stop inviting me.” I said, “But I keep hoping you’ll change your mind and show up!” She said, “I won’t.”

I checked in with her again about this over the weekend. “Years ago you told me to stop inviting you to events. Do you still want me to not invite you?”

She didn’t hesitate. “I still want you to not invite me. It was stressful to have to say no to every invitation and worry about hurting your feelings. Now I never have to worry about that.”

I fall somewhere else on the spectrum of introversion. I do want to be invited—but I want the authentic option of saying no and there being no hard feelings. I’ve learned that all I need to do is tell people what I want.

Folks who are worried that they are bothering someone who is grieving, why not just ask them how much communication they want? To avoid succumbing to the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, you can put reminders in your calendar to check in on them.

Why I am trying to make friends with my anxiety (and taking drugs in the meantime)

A tricky thing about anxiety is that once you experience it, you begin to have anxiety about anxiety. I found this happening almost immediately. After my first anxiety and panic attack, I began worrying, “Will it happen again?” Once I began having trouble sleeping because of anxiety, I began dreading bedtime, worrying about anxiety kicking in.

Anxiety and panic thrive on and create fear. The more fear they create, the more they thrive. It’s a self-serving cycle that is hard to break.

This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to the Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What we hold onto, we become. Holding onto anger makes us angry and bitter. Holding on to fear about anxiety makes us fearful and anxious. In the case of anger, I have learned through experience that letting go of it enables me to move on and be happy. In the case of grief, I’ve learned to let it pass through me at its own pace. If I try to control that pace by pushing it away and telling it to come back later, it outsmarts me and shows up at the most inopportune time.

A year after my husband died, I am still liberally turning my camera off during remote meetings and crying during face-to-face interactions. When I feel my emotions coming on, I let them come on. That’s the #1 rule of “turning towards.” Turning towards means not allowing the instinctual tightening to happen and to instead relax.

Applying this idea to anxiety means making friends with anxiety. The idea behind befriending or embracing anxiety is that anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations, in my case, the loss of my husband, which stirred up my fears of being alone, of not being enough when he was dying, and of dying myself. Acknowledging my fears and my anxiety about them lessens their grip.

Trying to make friends with my anxiety is somewhat terrifying—it’s like seeing a tiger charging toward me and deciding to hold out my hand to see if it’s friendly. Trying to outrun it is pointless.

This means when I feel anxiety bubbling up inside of me, instead of steeling myself against it, which signals my brain’s fear response to ramp up, I try to think to myself, “Oh, there’s anxiety. I wonder what it wants.” The tiger sniffs my hand, strolls slowly around me, and then sometimes slinks off. Sometimes. Other times, it just keeps strolling around me, slowly, keeping me on edge for a bit. It eventually loses interest.

Making friends is not something that comes naturally to me—I am socially awkward and introverted. I don’t seek out opportunities to make new friends, and I feel similarly about making friends with anxiety: I’d rather not. But anxiety is a tiger that keeps stalking me.

I’ve been listening to guided meditations on the app Insight Timer with names like “Befriending Anxiety” and “Embracing Anxiety.” While traditional Buddhist/Zen meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind, simply makes space for my anxiety to take hold, guided meditation gives my mind a focal point so that space doesn’t get created.

Like everything else hard in life, it is a process and not a linear one. I am getting help along the way with therapy and drugs. The drugs help me relax, which allows me to get enough sleep to function, and to resist that instinctual tightening. I’m taking Escitalopram, an antidepressant that helps with Generalized Anxiety Disorder; Ativan, which I take at night to help me sleep; and hydroxyzine, which helps with acute anxiety during the day. Ideally, I will be able to ease off the medications within a few months, after I’ve made peace with my new pet tiger.

I had anxiety all wrong–and maybe you do, too

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I have started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. For about three weeks, I have had a near constant nervous feeling in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. This constant low-level anxiety spikes a few times a day and becomes a panic attack in which I start hyper-ventilating. Sometimes I burst into tears. As someone who has meditated for decades, I’ve been shocked to find that meditating right now makes things worse, especially at night when I am trying to sleep. Emptying my mind seems to create space for my brain to go directly to my darkest, scariest thoughts, and touching on those thoughts seems to plunge me directly into a feeling of dread and doom.

While meditating isn’t helping, other aspects of my Buddhist practice are helping a bit. Chanting works better than meditating because instead of focusing on clearing my mind, I can focus on the chant. My go-to chant is nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, which is shorthand for the concept of karma. Chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo allows me to focus on the order that does exist in the world. I also know that at the exact moment that I am chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, someone else somewhere else in the world is, too, so it helps me feel connected rather than disconnected. My late husband used to chant nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo when he felt overwhelmed by the challenges of his stroke, so the chant also makes me feel closer to him.

Another aspect that is helping a bit, which I will talk more about next week, is turning toward my anxiety rather than away. This means rather than trying to avoid anxiety, and push it away when I feel it bubbling up, I try to respond with curiosity and compassion. I actually talk to my anxiety; for example, when I feel it building in my chest, I’ll say, “Oh, hello, anxiety. There you are. I wonder what you are trying to protect me from right now.” It might seem cheesy, but it gives me some distance from it and helps me not identify with it.

I’ve also started reading a book recommended by a friend, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith. As the title makes clear, Smith suggests that anxiety is a typical part of grief. My own grief therapist echoed this, saying many of her clients experience anxiety. In my case, my worsening vision coinciding with the anniversaries of my husband’s stroke and death may have been the perfect storm for anxiety and panic to manifest.

I had it all wrong

This new experience with anxiety is making me understand how ignorant I have been abut anxiety in the past. I have had countless students tell me they have anxiety. My daughter struggled hard with anxiety in high school and continues to be challenged by it. While I am not someone who ever questioned whether anxiety is “real,” I have minimized its impacts. I have misunderstood it as unmanaged stress. I have minimized their experiences as being about lack of good sleep hygiene or stress management skills.

That has led to me making misguided suggestions (unsolicited, too) about strategies to try. Yes, I have been that person who has said, “Have you tried yoga? Or meditation?” Yoga and meditation have helped me with stress throughout my entire adult life, and because I was equating anxiety with unmanaged stress, the suggestion made sense to me. But now that I understand that anxiety is something else altogether, I feel foolish about those suggestions—and I am embarrassed that I broke one of my own rules about not offering unsolicited advice.

If you are one of the people who has born the brunt of my ignorance, I am sorry. I will do better from here on out.  

Now that I understand the distinction and the actual experience of anxiety, I am filled with compassion and admiration for folks who live with it. It’s a reminder to me that if I haven’t experienced something myself, I need to listen, accept how others describe their experience, and ask clarifying questions.

Speak from your experience

Since I’ve been talking about experiencing anxiety and panic, several people have reached out to me to offer strategies and resources that have helped them. What I appreciate about this help is that it is coming from people who have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks themselves. Right now, I want as many strategies as I can get, so please, keep them coming—as long as you are speaking from personal experience.

The Strokeversary

Two years ago today, my late husband had the massive stroke that left him paralyzed on the left and with a long list of medical concerns. Overnight, he went from being the most energetic and physically strong person I knew to being unable to perform most daily functions on his own. He needed help to dress and bathe himself, to go to the bathroom, to sit or stand or move to a lying down position. His memory was impaired, he was unable to follow conversations, and he was in tremendous pain. 

Last year on this day he was still alive. He had just gotten his long-awaited motorized wheelchair a week or so earlier and was excited to have a little more independence through that. That morning when I walked the dogs, Tom showed off his independence by waiting for me to get about a block from the house and then he used his motorized chair to go down the ramp, turn onto the sidewalk, and follow me. I had no idea he was back there. The dog kept glancing behind us, but I was used to the dog being distracted and didn’t check to see what he was turning around to look at. Finally, after a few blocks, I heard something behind me that made me turn around, and there was Tom! It was a huge and beautiful surprise—he had decided to follow me, put his sunglasses on (a serious challenge with only one hand and having to navigate around his helmet), and negotiated his way down the ramp and across two streets. I ran to him and gave him a big hug, and he gave me his usual low-key, “Hey, babe,” as if there was nothing special about what he had done. He followed along for the rest of the walk. 

At the time, I thought it was an indication that we were turning the corner on the struggles of his post-stroke life. Eleven days later I would have to make the heartbreaking decision to remove him from life support. 

I have been anticipating this strokeversary with dread, unsure of how it would hit me. I am having to remind myself constantly right now to be open to my emotions and my grief. That felt much easier to do a few months ago, and as this strokeversary and the anniversary of his death have gotten closer, I’ve experienced more and more anxiety. 

A dear friend texted me a beautiful reframing of the strokeversary. She said

I hope you are finding a lot of peace today. Just wanted to let you know that I am thinking about you and how this day started off the most amazing year of love and caretaking that I have ever seen, ever. 

Her reminder of how close and loving Tom and I were in the year between his stroke and death was exactly what I needed. The stroke was horrible and I wish it had never happened, but Tom’s intense care needs and my willingness to provide for them gave us an avenue to trust, love, and intimacy that was incredibly special. We were able to talk about things in the last year that we had been guarded about before. We got to witness each other facing tremendous hardship with love and grace. We were able to be completely vulnerable with each other. I was already madly in love with Tom when he had the stroke, and my love bloomed exponentially after that. Seeing him face his challenges with grace and humor every single day inspired me to be my most patient and generous self. My caregiving inspired him to keep fighting through the pain and exhaustion. 

This is a tough, sad day, but one that is also full of endless love for my amazing husband. When I see myself through his eyes, it is also a day of compassion for myself. Lately I have focused on what I see as my failings as a caregiver: the times I didn’t know what to do, I wasn’t as patient as I wish I had been, I got frustrated, or I didn’t understand the depth of his pain. I know Tom forgave me for my imperfections and appreciated my effort. I was surprised by how honored I felt to be able to care for him. Having considered myself a selfish person my whole life, I was amazed at how easily caregiving came to me and how fulfilled I felt by it. It allowed me to be fully present for more than a few moments for the first time in my life.

My friend’s text reminds me that I can see this day as a tragic one that led to my husband’s untimely death or as the beginning of the sweetest year of our time together. This is the anniversary of the day when I found out what both Tom and I were made of.