Dear Swipe This!
Earlier this year, my college BFF’s dad died. He had been battling with cancer for about a year. I was shocked. I hadn’t even known he was sick! I only found out after the fact because she posted about his death and his battle with cancer on Facebook.
We’re not really BFFs these days, so it isn’t that weird that she never reached out, but it made me sad that I hadn’t known about such a big thing happening in her life. We were extremely close in college. But then we graduated and moved to different cities, and our lives took somewhat different directions. I moved to a big city for grad school, worked as a barista and made new friends. She married her college boyfriend, bought a house in the suburbs near where she grew up and started planning a family. We went from weekly Facetime dates to occasional texting and then, eventually we just kind of stopped talking. I guess I thought it was natural that we drifted. She got busy with her life and I got busy with mine. But it always made me kind of sad.
When I saw her dad had died, I hearted her post right away and commented that I was so sorry. She hearted my comment back. I didn’t expect a reply or anything. My comment was one of many and I’m sure she was just exhausted from grief. But we never ended up talking about it friend to friend, and I started to wonder if my comment was too casual. Should I have reached out directly?
Since then, my friend has been grief-posting a lot. She posts pictures of her dad and writes long captions about her memories of him. Sometimes she posts pictures of her 3-year-old that become posts about her dad and how she wishes he could be here to see his grandson growing up. I always heart the posts on Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes, I leave hearts in the comments too. But I keep getting this weird feeling in my gut. Like I feel kind of guilty. It seems like such a shallow way to connect when she’s going through something so serious. I’ve felt like maybe I should message her or write an email. But I have no idea what to say. And also, now that it’s been a few months, I’m worried that it’s too little too late.
What do I do? What’s the right way to respond when someone you care about but aren’t really connected to anymore is grieving online? Should I just keep supporting her online? Or is it more appropriate to do something extra? Also, am I total freak who’s overthinking this? Why is it so hard to know what to say and do right now?
Dear Awkward Ex-BFF,
The only people I know who are capable of expertly approaching the grieving are either very old, have weathered extreme tragedy, or have literally devoted their lives to being around death and the dying. The fact is, most people don’t like to think about or deal with the fact that all of us are going to die one day. And that’s why approaching someone who’s grieving is so incredibly awkward! You’re not just dealing with someone else’s grief; you’re confronting our collective sadness and fears of mortality. And that is no small feat. So no, you’re not a freak. Grief makes awkward weirdos of us all.
But I’ll let you in on a secret: You don’t have to be suave or sophisticated to comfort the grieving. In times of grief, even awkward weirdos can be great company. Grief is inherently awkward. No one wants to be the person who walks into a room and reminds everyone that we’re all going to die. So if you feel out of place or unsure of yourself, you’re actually in a very relatable space to your friend. You don’t have to craft a perfect email or script an eloquent phonecall. The most important thing you can do is show up. And, in many ways, I’d say you already have.
You alluded to social media being superficial or shallow, but in fact, it’s a tool for connection. When your friend posts about her grief, she’s reaching out. As trivial as a like or comment may seem to you, it means something that you’ve engaged. I bet it does mean something to her when you respond.
But, you have this nagging feeling that it’s not enough, and you’re getting at is the inherent distance we feel when we connect via social media. As much as Instagram and Facebook can connect us, they’re also spaces that remind us of our isolation. Sharing a lonely experience like grief on social media can lead to brief bursts of attention and comfort, but it can also sort of compound our feelings of isolation. When you respond to your friend via likes and comments, it’s as if you’re being reminded of how far apart you really are.
Which brings me to you and your own grief. Did you ever stop to let yourself grieve this friendship? You say you thought that drifting is natural, and that may be true, but does it make it any less sad? You experienced a loss, and now at this moment where your friend needs support, you’re rubbing up against the consequences. It’s almost as if there are two layers of grief separating you from connection—your friend’s grief posts are one layer, and your own unexamined grief over this friendship is another. I can imagine that those barriers may feel insurmountable, but it’s obvious that you want to cut through them and connect. So why not dive right in? What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Maybe you fear embarrassment or rejection. Maybe you’re worried that by reaching out, you’ll somehow amplify her grief or make it worse. These fears are reasonable and human, but I don’t think they’re worth throwing away an opportunity for connection.
Another thing you mentioned is that you fear it may be too late. But another secret about grief is that it stays with you long after the loss occurs. At first, when we grieve, lots of friends and family reach out and check in on us. But then, as time goes on, life tends to return to its usual rhythms, and all the texts and phonecalls dwindle until suddenly, we find ourselves very much alone with our grief. So, if months have passed, your friend may be feeling especially lonesome with her grief, and now may actually be the perfect time to remind her that she’s got an old friend who cares very much.
Another thing I’d like you to consider is the evolving nature of friendship. You say you were “BFFs” in college, and sometimes those extreme labels lead us to take an all-or-nothing approach to connection. But there are so many ways to be a friend to someone, and they don’t have to all involve high levels of intimacy on a frequent basis. Some friendships grind to a halt very suddenly because, as you described, our lives take dramatic turns and sustaining them as they were seems impossible. But sometimes, when the time is right, those friendships open up again and are reborn as something different but equally beautiful.
What if you were more flexible in your definition of this friendship? What if you aren’t her “ex-BFF” but an old friend who’s thinking of her and who’s curious about who she is now and what she needs from friends as she works through her grief?
If you’re still unsure of what to say, there are plenty of articles online about how to comfort the grieving. You can run a Google search and read up on this topic so you feel more ready to support your friend. But please don’t overthink it. You’re thinking about this so much because you clearly love your friend. So stop worrying about doing the “right” thing and do something to connect more directly. Send a text or an email. Or, if you’re up for it, ask her if she’d be willing to schedule a call. Let her know you’re thinking of her, that you care, and that in spite of feeling like an awkward weirdo, you want her to know that you’re there.