On Making Sad Friends

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” C.S. Lewis

The dead kid club is one that no one wants to belong to and that everyone wishes would never, ever get any bigger. Whenever a new member joins, no one is happy. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that you will be welcomed into the club with extensive weeping on your behalf. You’ll be pulled in by gentle hands, sat down in a comfy chair, handed a warm beverage, and hopefully asked a simple question such as, “What was your kiddo’s name?”

And you will find, suddenly, as you start to speak that even though you are crying, you can breathe right for the first time in a long time. As you watch, you’ll see eyes fill with tears, not only because you are crying, but because they are experiencing their own pain again as you share yours. You don’t have to extrapolate, quantify, explain, justify. You can give words to your horrible, callous, fear-ridden, faithless feelings and no one will bat a dewy eyelash. Because we’ve been there before. 

One of the greatest gifts I have found in my journey through grief is the support of other people who have buried their children. I remember standing at Lydia’s memorial service and at the very end of the line of people who came to hug and share our sadness was a sweet lady from my parent’s church. She had a little boy who had died a few years before. She took my hands and said, “Some days, you’re going to think, ‘Hm…it would be ok if I got hit by a bus or something…’ and that’s ok.” I immediately felt one of the knots that had curled itself around my heart loosen a bit. Someone else knew how I felt. And how I felt was OK. 

Since then, I have met and befriended several women who are walking through similar grief, and here are some thoughts I have about friendships with other bereft parents. Or, as I like to call them, sad friends.

1. You do not have to be best friends with every parent you meet who has lost a child. Yes, loss like this puts us all in the same club but that doesn’t mean we have to grow super close to every one we meet. The hurt of losing a child (and anyone really) can be expressed in many ways. Most of these ways are OK, but sometimes a person’s expressions of grief will be different enough from yours to be problematic. Maybe what is a balm to them is painful for you. You are allowed to decide. There are ways to love and listen when you are able and keep distance to protect yourself.

2. Befriending someone who is grieving a similar loss to you will bring up all of the feelings. Yes, you’ll feel heart-broken for them and want to help carry their pain. But as you listen and allow a friend to process, this will likely bring up a lot of what you have already processed or are still working through. I needed SO MUCH THERAPY as I walked with a friend through the loss of her daughter. I wouldn’t have changed it, or walked away, but it ripped open wounds I thought had healed. But it was a price I was willing to pay for her, especially because I know she carries so much of my pain too. 

3. Use the internet, but carefully! The internet can be a magical land of insane connectedness! One of my first sad friends was a lady who lived in Colorado who I got connected to because our pastor’s wives were friends and she and I both blogged. We started up an e-mail conversation that lasted the better part of a year. I think we spoke on the phone once or twice. She was one of the greatest mercies of my first year of grieving. Her wisdom and thoughtfulness from just a few steps ahead of me on the grief journey made such a difference to the way I grieved. Because we live in a time and country where, thankfully, there are fewer people who understand child loss. You might not come into physical contact with someone else for a while who gets what you’re going through. But the internet is full of support groups, blogs, online magazines, etc. to help you not feel so alienated. Like I said before, not everyone you meet will be your people, so proceed kindly, with hopeful caution.

4. If you have found a sad friend, ask and put their important dates on your calendar. Their person’s birthday? Put it down. Death date? Put it down. This way, you can check in with them as the days approach and support when they need. Actually, this is good for just anyone who has a friend who has lost a child (or any other important person) so if you know someone like this WRITE DOWN THE DATES.

5. Get ready to cry a lot and laugh a lot. The beauty of a sad friend is that you don’t have to mask your emotions. You can start crying in the middle of Joann’s craft store standing in the stuff to leave at your dead baby’s grave section (or, as the non-sad friends know it, the garden decor section), and your sad friend won’t mind. She’ll stand there with you or let you abandon your cart so you can go sob in the car. It’s also wonderful how easy it is to laugh together. You don’t feel like you’re not allowed to laugh and often you will laugh at the completely inappropriate. It’s nice not to be looked at as an unstable emotional basket-case. 

The only other thing I want to say is that it’s good to remember grief is a fickle fiend and befriending someone who is grieving (even if it’s grief you understand) can be a challenge. But it’s a challenge worth taking on. In your sad friends, you will find people who will tell you true things when you don’t want to hear them because they know you need to, friends who will bake birthday cakes for your baby’s birthday because they know it hurts like crazy, and friends who will buy you a million flowering plants to put in a memory garden because they know you need it too look beautiful immediately or you’ll be heartbroken it’s not instantly lovely. 

As my newest sad friend Chelsea said to me, “Sad friends make us less sad.”

This post is brought to you by Megan, Lorna, and Chelsea who have been amazing sad friends to me.

PS - I know I wrote about all of this from the specific perspective of child loss, but I do really think it applies across all types of losses. Having people around you who get it without having to have it all explained can be so healing.

Jennifer Thompson