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.