On leaving the cocoon.

Please do not use without permission.

March has marked the first month since September that I have 100% resided at home (my home) since my mom stopped treatment for her lung cancer last year. I’ve been feeling better, especially since the time change, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, socially. I must say, it’s harder than I expected to turn back into a social butterfly.

Boyfriend and I went to a party last Friday to celebrate a friend’s talk. It was your average grad student apartment party, complete with booze, video games, and a pretty low square footage to guest ratio. It was also my first social outing with more than 10 people present in… a long time. It was good to catch up with people, but when our friends remarked that they hadn’t seen us in ages, I felt awkward. My internal monologue was performing rapid calculations on whether we were close enough that it would be weird not to tell them why we’d been MIA, but for most people, I just went with “It was a long winter” or something equally vague. On the one hand, I didn’t relish the idea of yelling, “That’s because of my dead mom!” over the party din, but on the other, I resent having to avoid talking about a major life event because it’s a bummer at parties. It’s the reality of my last five months and I’m, uh, not thrilled about it either. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve actually had people edge out of the conversation when I bring up my recent history in group settings. We’re talking people I consider friendly acquaintances or distant friends here, not strangers.

Anyway, I was kind of anxious for the first half of the party because I felt like I had this big secret I had to guard and someone might catch a whiff of the trauma or grief if I wasn’t careful. For the most part, I chose being evasive with friends over risking that they might think me socially inept or just straight-up damaged. (Admittedly, I care too much what other people think.) While it’s okay to talk about how much you hate grad school or how your research hit another dead end or that you and your longtime S.O. broke up–and you’re supposed to acknowledge when people have gotten engaged or married or pregnant–death is just “too real” or something. It makes it really hard not to feel disingenuous when your answers to “What have you been up to?” and “How was your winter?” and “How have you been?” are all about as precise as a Miss Cleo reading.

I eventually settled into an honest conversation with an unflinching friend of a friend who lost someone close to her not long ago and is also involved in her grandmother’s care, which really helped. After that, I was able to feel present in conversations about extreme sports and post-college ennui and what’s on the horizon for friends graduating this year. I guess all I really needed was for someone who didn’t already know what was up to validate my experience so I didn’t feel like a saboteur who’d done something wrong just by showing up.

I’m sharing this because I wouldn’t have known what to say to someone like me before this experience. I can’t speak for every grieving 20-something, of course, but there’s so little advice about how to respond to a bereaved young adult in a helpful manner and I hope to fill in the gap a little by documenting my journey. My takeaways from this past week were:

  • Just because someone suffered a major loss recently doesn’t mean they want to embrace their sadness about it right now.
  • Just because they don’t want to feel sad about it right now doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
  • If they bring up their loss (assuming you don’t already know about it), don’t assume they did so to solicit pity. In fact, they’ve probably had their fair share of awkward, overdone condolences lately. (My mom’s contact at her credit union literally left me a teary voicemail after I notified them. I didn’t return her call for weeks.) A simple, earnest response will do, and don’t dwell on it if they’re not.
  • Caring for a sick loved one can be the framework of someone’s life, just like being a student. It can be hard not to mention, especially if it involved travel or it disrupted their social life or work life. Your friend’s stories and experiences will be shaped by this for awhile, so if they offer information about their loss as context when talking about something else, think of it as if they’d said, “On my way to work…” They’re not necessarily dwelling on it or trying to be a downer. Oftentimes, finding a way to edit that stuff out without sounding like a walking non sequitur just takes too much effort.
  • Grief, at least for me, has turned me into a temporary introvert. It’s weird and I don’t like it. Understand, once you know about their situation, that your friend may need a little help feeling comfortable in situations that were commonplace before. Avoiding them after you find out is the opposite of helpful.
  • If you do get to talking about their loss, make them feel validated. e.g. “It sounds like you did an amazing job in a tough situation,” or “I don’t have any experience with that, but it sounds like you handled it really well.”
  • It’s okay to empathize (good, even!), but make sure you’re self-aware, too. For instance, if you lost a cousin to cancer, but you weren’t directly responsible for her care, know that “the same thing” did not happen to you and someone who was a caregiver. Like psychologists tell people to resolve conflict using “I feel” statements, make your statements about you and don’t put words in their mouth. e.g. “I don’t know if you can relate, but one of the hardest things when I would visit my cousin was figuring out how to connect while she was so drugged.”
  • Also, coming from a place of empathy, don’t get too caught up in recounting the 999 ways you can relate. (I think I’m bad at this.) Be prepared to let the conversation shift. If your friend wants to keep talking about their loss, cool, but if not, know that it can be really important for them to feel “normal” for a little while, too.

Can you relate? Have you had some missteps reentering the social sphere after the death of a loved one, a pregnancy, an illness, or something else? Tell me about it in the comments!

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