Hello my new friend. What brought you to this topic? Were you, like me, surprised by the ‘friends’ that disappeared when you became a widow? Did you come here surprised, angry, lonely, disappointed? I understand.
I read before becoming a widow that we re loose 75% of the people we believed were our friends. That won’t be me, I thought, as friends flooded our lives during my husband’s terminal illness. The statistic has been true for me as well. During my first year alone, the exit of friends has been one of the more painful parts of my journey. I have pondered, researched, wept, and confided in those still in my life.
What I can tell you is that your loss is real. Your pain is real. However, you can move forward. The pain lessens as you seek to understand. Freedom comes as you forgive. And there will be space in your life for new relationships.
In the months that I have been alone, I have come to chuckle over many of the reasons people tell me that friends have exited my life. I have also had the opportunity to help educate some of these dear people as they truly do mean well. I have learned much myself and look back at some of MY behavior in the past. I wish I could do a ‘rewind’ of some of my own blunders.
May I share with you some of the myths we widows believe? This list has evolved as I have become friends with a growing circle of widows who have been willing to be transparent with me. Our bond of widowhood, which, of course, we do not want, nor would we choose, is nevertheless, a powerful bond. We find ourselves describing an event in our lives or a feeling, and our new friend communicates “Ah ha, you too? I thought I was alone—until now.” Our circle of friends and acquaintances also believe many of these myths making it difficult (this is an understatement) to move into our new life without our mate.
MYTHS ABOUT FRIENDSHIP
Myth # 1. Friends understand what you are experiencing.
Unless a person has lost her/his HUSBAND/SPOUSE through death she/he does not understand what is happening to us.
People do, with kindly intentions, refer to important losses in their lives. I have had people refer to the loss of a grandparent, a beloved parent, a dear friend, a brother or sister. I listen and nod my head. I hope they don’t talk long.
Do they crawl into an empty cold bed at night? Do they reach in the grocery freezer to pick up pot pies and realize there is no one pulling in the driveway that loves pot pies? Do they stare in the refrigerator and realize they don’t even know the kind of food they like? Do they run their fingers through their hair and realize theirs will be the only fingers making that simple sweet gesture?
It is unfair for us to expect them to understand. We set up an impossible expectation and we WILL be disappointed.
While divorce has some of the same aspects there are significant differences as well. In talking with my divorced friends, theirs is a different kind of anger. Many divorcees also feel rejection. The impact of divorce on a woman’s self esteem is different though both widows and divorcees usually suffer feelings of lower self worth.
What is my response to these well meaning friends? I am grateful they are trying. I try to have and ‘exit’ statement in my mind in case I can listen no more.
Myth # 2. Friendship from the past predicts friendship in the future.
We know that marriage creates a strange and paradoxical entity. Two become one. What a mystery. Couple friendships are usually based on who you were with your husband—in my case, Team Neff, Bob and Miriam. Our topics of conversation, our travels, our humor, the music we listened to, and much more were Team Neff. And now 50% of Team Neff is gone. 50% of me is gone as well. Silly me. It was immature thinking on my part to believe that our past friendships would remain. My universe has changed. So must all in it.
I have often stated I was a better woman because of Bob. A man of gracious speech, patient listening, ‘other oriented’ person, he made me better than I am. Who am I without that? The package here has changed and I have come to peace with the fact that some friendships of the past are no longer in the ‘good match’ category. Rediscovering my love of galloping, loosening the reins, leaning forward and watching my horse’s hoofs gobble up the beach is not everyone’s cup of tea. Sailing alone on a catamaran, sail, rudder, and only the wind at my back on the ocean is not the Miriam they knew before. (I did not know that Miriam either!)
My children say I am more blunt and I rather believe they are correct. I remember during my husband’s intense and long battle with ALS, I spoke often with our support group social worker about all the ‘stuff’ in my life: the endless necessity of me pursuing relentlessly insurance claims, disability disputes, and much more. I felt I had to become a battle ax to secure the appropriate necessities, treatment, and the best care for Bob. “Will I return to ‘nice’ again after this is all over?” I asked Laurie.
“No,” was her soft, but true answer. “When you discover what you have about companies, people, life, and death, you are never the same.”
I appreciated her candor. Wishing to be the exception did not make it true. The friends from the past would discover a new person if they stayed in the friendship.
Why are we frustrated admitting that this myth is not true? Because before, we got to choose our friendships. We felt changes coming and intentionally moved away from, or closer to others. We chose. Becoming a widow was not our choice. The exodus simply happens. We are left puzzling if we said or did something wrong. No, my dear friend. The team is gone.
But the new you has some good people and new opportunities as well.
Myth # 3: Friends have your best interests at heart.
There are at least three different words in Scripture that are all translated into the English word ‘friend.’
1. Philos (noun) one who loves. Proverbs 17:9, 18:24
2. Hetairos (noun) a comrade/companion/partner. Proverbs 18:24
3. Peitho (verb) to persuade, influence Proverbs 14:20
Our # 1 friends love us. They are willing to swallow our less than perfect behavior and protect our reputation. They love us unselfishly, without an agenda, and they just keep showing up. I am humbled and undeserving of the way some of my friends have stepped into my world, into the shattered mess of my grieving, and found ways to bring laughter. They find a way to make us look good when we don’t care.
May I digress with a personal example? I had friends who literally took it upon themselves to make me look good when I did not care. Due to the nature of my husband’s illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a three year period of my life moved into a cloud with only one goal. To walk beside my husband through his valley and bring to his life as much quality, peace, and joy as I could. Taking care of me was not on the ‘to do’ list.
In timing that I yet do not understand he exited this world for heaven three months before my contractual, scheduled retirement after 26 years counseling in public high schools. By contract, I needed to return to work five days after his celebration/funeral. Needless to say, one very numb person made her way into her office and went through the motions of her last months of work. To my dismay, there were numerous retirement events that I needed to show up for. I knew I would later regret missing these occasions if I did not make an effort to be there.
Now this may sound quite trivial to you, but I had nothing to wear, and it kind of mattered. My size had changed, larger of course, and everything I owned was old.
My tenacious couple friends, Steve and Carol, met me at a restaurant (that in and of itself was a treat) with two large Chico boxes in the booth. Can you imagine friends that GIVE you a total outfit with various tops that make you look good? Can you imagine a flattering jacket covered with parrots? How could I help but smile in my new clothes? Let me tell you, the pictures of me at the functions with my friends and family are the best rendition of me that was possible, given the circumstances.
Now beyond real is the fact that they added to the ensemble at Christmas. I had something for every occasion because of my # 1 friends.
Our # 2 friends are partners on the same mission with us. If we continue to care about the same things we did when we were a couple, these friends persist. Often, those causes are no longer so important to us. They may have featured an interest of our husband, (golfing, etc.) They may have been mission projects that were more his heartbeat than ours. In some cases, those causes may still be very important to us, but not always.
I heard of one widow who continued to give generously to every project she and her husband supported. She got into financial difficulties and was unable to pay her own bills. Unwilling to admit that her resources had dwindled, she continued. Upon her death, her finances were a mess. Of course, her favored charities were not responsible for cleaning up the mess, her children were. God didn’t get glory for that.
I am told by widows who have been on the journey much longer than I that all will be well. I am already beginning to imagine that. A friend from school invited me to join her on a hiking trip in Maine in the fall. Of the ten hikers, I know only her, and fully expect to enjoy this new possibility of friendships.
Our # 3 friends are really not friends. They are users. Here are some categories of users to beware of. People who have a financial plan for your life. If you sense someone has become your friend to sell you something, BEWARE. Check out the finance section of this website for guidance. While you do need input from wise people, those bottom line decisions are yours. Remember salespersons are salespersons. Their motivation is to sell you something. They are more likely to sell you something if you believe you have something in common with them. Remember the questions they ask you? They want you to feel that they are your friend.
I am told that some widows are pursued by men who perhaps have lost their spouse as well. While many wonderful marriages result from this, some men are looking for another caregiver or a supplemental pay check.
Take a few minutes and draw your friendship mobile from your married life. Highlight the pieces that were especially important to you. If a white board is available use that. When I first taught this concept in a class for widows, having drawn the mobile on the board, I handed an eraser to one of the widows.
“What happened when your husband died?” I asked.
She began to erase chunks of her previous mobile. In her case she had to go take her husband’s business partner to court. What she thought was a trusting friendship including shared vacations turned out to be anything but that.
I gained perspective by asking myself these questions:
• Why were they in my mobile to begin with?
• Why should they remain from my perspective?
• Why should they remain from their perspective?
• What mutual benefit is to be gained by them in a continued friendship?
• What mutual benefit is to be gained by me in a continued friendship?
I was unable to even think of asking myself these questions for at least eight months into my solitary life. The answers, somewhere between uncomfortable and painful, at least explained why my mobile had changed. It also highlighted that many of our friendships had been ‘hetirous,’ those of comrades on a shared mission as opposed to ‘philos,’ one who loves.
Wouldn’t you rather see the truth and move on? I found freedom to release people in my previous mobile (they had exited anyway). I found freedom to face forward rather that trying to figure out what happened. I found freedom to begin the search for what mattered to me. This freedom lightens your checkbook obligations, clears your calendar and is quite nice.
Since we are being real here, perhaps one last topic should be addressed. It is tempting to categorize past friendships as superficial (those that don’t exist anymore) and real (those who remain). Examining reality, it is possible and probably likely that some of the perceived couple friendships we experienced existed because a coworker did truly care deeply about our mate. However, their connection with us was secondary and convenient. We know that behavior never lies. Admitting this, while painful, is necessary in order to heal from that hurt and move forward.
Have you finished erasing from your mobile? Perhaps the size of the ‘his relatives’ piece has now shrunk. Maybe girlfriends from your job become your new travel buddies. Drawing our mobile and adjusting it to the realities of today frees us to create new pieces or grow small pieces from our past. Our new mobile will not be empty though at times it feels that way. But it will be different.
Learning from Jesus
As I was contemplating what had happened to my friendship mobile, I recalled a chunk of Scripture, John 6. In this chapter Jesus experiences a huge reversal in popularity. While I had studied this in the past, Jesus’ experience and words took on new meaning in this season of my life.
Jesus had been gaining in popularity as word of his healing of people spread. Can you imagine what buzz that would create, given the medical expertise of that time? The crowd that followed him at that time is stated to have been 5,000 people. However, some scholars surmise that counting at that time only included males. If this were the case the crowd may have been 12,000 counting women and children. We can leave that to the theologians to debate. But either way, we’re talking big numbers here. (We might call it a mega-church meeting.)
Condensing the story, Jesus took a boys lunch of 5 loaves and 2 fish, performed a
miracle, and fed everyone. While this is an example of speaking on faith—Andrew suggested using the boys lunch, acting on faith—the disciples asked the crowds to sit down for lunch, and efficiency—gathering the leftovers, even miracle leftovers, there is another important lesson to be discovered.
The next day the crowds were following their leads to find Jesus. When they found him, they began a serious dialogue about more than food. Some wanted more miracles as proof he was the Messiah. Some were set on proving he was an imposter. Some trusted him to be who he said he was.
Jesus exposed the real Jesus. He told them who he was. “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60) It is surmised that the group of followers might have been around 70 at that time. This included his inner group of 12 as well as other committed followers including women, seekers who were willing to accept him for who he was, as well as some skeptics.
By verse 66 the group has shrunk again. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
Had these disciples seen him do good things?
Had these disciples even possibly helped hand out miracle food and collect miracle leftovers?
Had these disciples known his background?
Had these disciples heard him explain who he was and what he was about?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Now we can see the masses separating into the three types of ‘friends’ we looked at earlier: the users, the ‘buddies’ or comrades, and the remaining ‘philo’ friends.
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67)
As I studied this, I gained insight into the nature of our connections with other people.
Changing circumstances certainly changes our mobile.
I also gained a fresh perspective of talking to Jesus about the voids in my life and seeing again that truly there is nothing I experience that he has not already experienced.
The people that remained with Jesus came to know and accept who he really was rather than the person they hoped him to be. Perhaps there will be an element of that truth in our changing mobile.
After contemplating Jesus’ experience, I think we can add another myth about friendships to our list.
Myth # 4: Quantity is better than Quality
While ‘quantity’ is certainly valued in our culture for most aspects of people’s lives, it should not be true when it comes to friendships. It’s hard not to get caught up in the ‘quantity’ notion when we think of the messages bombarding our minds daily.
The old message from our adolescence is that the cool person is the popular one with lots of friends. They get voted into office, queen of this, and president of that. The person of few friends is, well, the wall flower, somehow less worthy than the popular girl.
Many handbags, shoes, shirts, or any product is better than few. Buy a ‘look alike’ of the real thing for less money so you can buy 10. I love the idea of a bargain, but some folks get swept into overspending to have a quantity of everything. I was especially aware of this in the last decade of my counseling in our public high school. I saw girls in my office whose wardrobe costs kept them from spending money on college applications. And they had a different look every day. Which has the greatest potential for future returns? The ‘quantity now’ message is powerful.
We as widows are especially vulnerable to the ‘quantity’ myth because of our loneliness. I understand. When I compare my past of counseling in a high school, i.e. talking with and interacting with people all day, then coming home to life with my husband, this life is unreal. Bob in my life meant participating with him on social events connected with the boards he sat on, his extensive network of coworkers, our personal friends, and most significantly, his presence in my life 24/7 as my best friend! These days in retirement and widowhood are quiet beyond belief. I treasure more than ever my precious handful of friends. However, I also enjoy solitude.
Not all widows do. Be careful if you are one of those more intense people persons. You are more vulnerable to connecting with people for quantity sake not quality. Then you are more likely to be dipping into the ‘comrades’ group. This is OK if you share a common mission. But you may also dip into the ‘user’ group. This will eventually bring disaster. Being desperate for companionship creates a blindness to the user aspect of new relationships. Friends and family often recognize users before widows do. Disaster is a sure thing; the only aspect in question is, will the disaster happen sooner or later?
Let me illustrate from my family tree. (I am not proud this.)
My mother died at age 75. While my three sisters and I knew our dad to be a people person, we thought at age 79 having been married to our mother for 49 years, he would remain single. Living in the small town in the area they had called home since their marriage, it seemed likely he would be content with the friendships he had.
Wrong. We learned after the fact that our dad had remarried. We had never heard of this person and were upset by the surprise. We accepted the reality, however, and determined if this was good for him we were OK. Do you know how many secrets there are in small towns? Not many in the summer time when windows are open and everyone talks at the local coffee shop.
We knew from our dad’s complaints to us as well as others, who felt it their duty to keep us informed, that there were plenty of arguments. We also knew that money was being spent for things of little interest or value to our dad. Eventually as divorce loomed, my dad was told what, to him was the final insult. His new wife informed him that she only married him for his dental insurance!
Post divorce, he was once again lonely, as well as poorer, but this time wiser.
How can we choose what friendships to cultivate from those remaining in our mobile?
How can we find new people with whom to cultivate mutually enriching relationships?
How can we avoid the users without painful blunders to discover who they really are?
We need to become good people pickers.
As we spend time with people, we can ask ourselves questions about the person’s behavior in each of these eleven areas. Some are easy to answer from just talking and hanging out. Others take a little more time, perception, and observation.
1. Is she ‘at odds’ with many people from her past as well as present?
2. Does she communicate ‘my way or the highway’?
3. Does her behavior reflect biblical instruction and guidance?
4. Does she have the uncommon quality of common sense?
5. Does she repeat unhealthy patterns and unwise choices (i.e. stays in debt, stays in destructive relationships, repeatedly lacks self care)?
6. Is she self-absorbed? Does she strive to monopolize your calendar?
7. Does she monopolize conversations? Does she selectively listen to others including you?
8. Do you find yourself doing mental gymnastics trying to understand her statements, reasoning, or beliefs?
9. Similar to # 5, does she seem to get stuck in unwise situations and relationships either with an inability to see what’s real or the unwillingness to act on what’s real?
10. Does her speech and behavior mirror her belief in God and desire to humbly attempt to live likewise?
11. Are her problems always some one else’s fault, including God’s?
How can we tell we are vulnerable to becoming involved in friendships not in our best interests? When we excuse behavior in the foolish category we are vulnerable. When we accept/tolerate behavior not in our best interests we are vulnerable. Often before we recognize the behavior we sense an uncomfortable feeling.
Do you feel emotionally and even physically drained just being around a person? That is a warning flag.
Do you find yourself rationalizing his/her behavior?
“She/he says”………….and refers to future behavior that will be different from what you are seeing now.
“I’ll be paying off that maxed credit card when I get my raise in three months.”
“Ill be able to call you more often when this work project is done.”
Remember behavior never lies.
“He/she does that because”…….and you rationalize poor behavior by past circumstances.
“I’m partly to blame because”…and you accept poor behavior of another person because of your poor behavior.
Solution to the “I’m partly to blame syndrome:”
1. Straighten up your act, Girlfriend, and see if his or hers changes! OR
2. Don’t inappropriately accept blame to help someone else look better.
Does this process seem hard at times? Does it require more focused attention than you feel you have? Becoming a good people picker is not easy. If you wonder if its worth the effort, talk to a widow who invested time in a new friendship that proved to be controlling and then ended badly. My friend who experienced this, in her loneliness let her new friend plan some vacations and become involved with her family. As their ‘friendship’ developed, my friend’s calendar was consumed with another person’s wishes and agenda. Becoming strong enough to say ‘No thanks’ was hard and the ending rocky. Better invest the energy upfront and avoid the painful ending.
The personal work of examining our mobile hasn’t been easy, has it? While we are grieving the loss of our mate, we also grieve the loss of our friends. They seem so insignificant compared to the huge loss of our husband. In a sense, however, it’s like the last tiny straw because loosing them was unexpected. AND they’re still here. Yes, our paths do cross sometimes and we start to feel the pain of the old wound.
However, we have some new wisdom to lean into. We know that the real friends, the ones who loved us are still our friends.
We know that the friends that have exited were our comrades or users not our friends. We have not lost our real treasures.
In discovering the true nature of the ‘friends’ who have left, it is normal to feel bitter and/or angry and/or betrayed. In our anguish of feeling bitter, angry, and betrayed we are in the perfect spot for God to do one of the works He most specializes in: forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the single most important thing we can do to move on.
Learning about the three kinds of friends and being real was a great help to me in forgiving. I recognized that we are all humanoids—my word for ordinary people with clay feet. I am one myself though my ‘clayness’ sometimes creeps upward. There were many other humanoids in my original mobile.
We’re letting go of a comrade or buddy, not a dear friend. We’re letting go of someone with whom we shared interest, not a dear friend.
Forgiveness frees us to let go. The void is no longer painful but rather an available space for either new people, or new projects and adventures.
I hiked beneath the snow-laden pines of woods where deer had hunkered down the night before. The indentations in the snow marked their presence. The evergreen scent was pungent and exhilarating. Carol, our hiking leader, came beside me to get better acquainted. She seemed to know every type of evergreen we passed and what kind of bird was creating each song. ‘Aha, another woman who loves the out of doors,’ I thought. An athletic, triumpher of cancer, effervescent individual, she seemed intimate with nature. ‘This is a person I wish to know better.’ We talk. I’m thankful for my new hiking hobby.
I pour over the manual she assembled about our upcoming hike in Acadia, Maine this fall. A sense of anticipation creeps in my spirit, a feeling I have not felt for four years. It feels good. Shall I check off whale watching or sea kayaking? I opt for whale watching because just last month I already experienced sea kayaking. On my solitary trip to the Dominican Republic that was one of my adventures. Will the other 8 hikers be as interesting as Carol? I hope so. I’m eager to find out.
I pause to reflect. I’m caught off guard by my awareness of the richness of this new life. I never wished for it, I never dreamed it would be so different. But I’m facing forward with new opportunities for friendship. Smells like hope to me.