Living Friends Grieve Us, Too.
It’s just a slower death.
Reflecting on a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic may seem a bit meta, or even like self-flagellation. But with no end in sight, I would rather observe and adjust as needed. The initial belief of a two week shutdown has extended into 8 months and counting. My first anxiety about the pandemic came very early, as I commented on the level of global grief, both known and unknown. Friends commented daily on their own lives and confusion. Denial gave way to rage and I turned to my work, hoping to prepare words and ways for others to explore healing. But as the weeks dragged on, my own grief manifested wildly and without discretion. I almost missed it.
I’m not naïve; as great a tool as social media can be, it is also a warzone of unfiltered accusation and manufactured perfectionism. We have created a monstrous echo chamber, dismissing expertise for the opinion of a “first-hand experience,” despite the lack of correlation between proximity and knowledge. But what I did not expect was the onslaught of what I will call “friendly fire.”
My life has been fairly centralized around my local Christian community. I like to call Christianity the “cult I chose.” As an anthropology student and lover of culture, the idea of a cult doesn’t scare me, but makes me curious and indeed, Christianity is deeply misrepresented and misunderstood the world over. However, during 2020 I witnessed and received so many wild accusations of heresy and condemnation, I started to question if the misrepresentations were coming from reality.
The people around me, for the most part, have always embraced my rebel heart and wild attitude with compassion, laughter, and love. But in the middle of this pandemic, the intimacy and relational attitude devolved into name calling and conspiracy theories. The bible was used almost daily to insult my intelligence, my thought process (or perceived lack thereof), and challenge my faith as false. We’ve taken it on ourselves to condemn one another under the believed protection of a shared faith that calls us to hold our brothers and sisters to a higher standard. When did we forget the name of the standard is “Grace”?
Social Isolation and Suspicion
Being isolated and distanced from our closest relationships has left us awkward. Small talk sucked before Covid-19; now it’s punctuated with awkward Zoom jokes and confusing interruptions. Just recently my husband decided to troll his coworkers in a video meeting by wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat (I know, he’s trolling himself, too…) after they beat a rival team. He said it was the most authentic interaction he’d been able to have with his coworkers in months. Clearly, social isolation is not good.
As we decrease our eye contact, physical touch, and laughter with one another, we lose our compassion for the other person as human. We literally stop seeing them in front of us as another person with emotions, feelings, and worth. I become wildly suspicious, reading into their online interactions with myself and others with my own filters of understanding. We’ve become prosecutors with no evidence; wildly accusing people we know and purport to love with motives we will never understand because we have stopped asking open-ended questions. We’ve traded curiosity for duality; compassion for conviction. I don’t know if it started with politics and the problems of our two-party system, but I suspect that has done nothing but add to the black and white mentality, colored only by the blood we spill.
We’ve become prosecutors with no evidence; wildly accusing people we know and purport to love with motives we will never understand because we have stopped asking open-ended questions. We’ve traded curiosity for duality; compassion for conviction. I don’t know if it started with politics and the problems of our two-party system, but I suspect that has done nothing but add to the black and white mentality, colored only by the blood we spill.
No matter the source, relationships mean something. Whether it’s a long-lost pen pal, a ninth-grade classmate, or your spouse. We build relationships on trust with politicians, professionals, and more. Our trust is a way of believing this person is in alignment with me, on some level, and that I can trust them to continue to align with and build me up. Not perfectly, but we still lean toward those we feel we can see in ourselves, and vice versa.
But when trusted relationships erode, we lose security. Gone are the safe places to express your opinions, because your perspective is dismissed as unloving, uncaring, or worse. Social media is the worst place to witness this, because it constantly leads us into dichotomous and inflammatory arguments we would never deign to hold in person or with absolute strangers. The social contract of “kind” would prevent most of the humanity from coming unhinged in a grocery store over an offhanded remark by a stranger. It’s just not our lane — we have no relationship with that stranger, and no reason to engage. In person, we know we will not likely “move the needle.”
In some circumstances, engaging the stranger is powerful and necessary. But people will always remember how you made them feel over what you said (thanks for the reminder, Maya Angelou). If we are consistently breaking our promises of civility, no one will feel safe with us, regardless of the forum we choose.
Social media has taught us to believe we are required to remain connected to people from every season of our life. Great news: This is total bullshit! Let me explain. Our grandparents were not conversing weekly with their best friends from middle school. They didn’t have deep relationships with everyone they’d ever met at a party, and they certainly maintained smaller social circles because they were more focused on engaging their family and building their immediate community. Social media networking is destroying our ability to go deep with the few and allow the rest to kindly pass by.
I know I am not the right fit for everyone. Not as an author, as a friend, as a woman. But the people who answer my calls or plan trips with me are deeply enamored with the woman I am and the way I love them. It is normal to have small circles; social media teaches it is normal to engage constantly to the world around us, no matter the cost.
We do have a social obligation to engage abuse, manipulation, and to prevent harm. So I’m not campaigning against the engaged heart that knows when it needs to stand up and protect those at risk or to pursue justice. Justice is the very reason I’m writing through this grief, because the great tension that comes from trying to heal and maintain a dying friendship is unjust to myself and to the other people involved.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m just too easily attached. Self-reflection must come first, before we break the bond and walk away from a friendship. Perhaps my understanding of our friendship was deeper than reality but ignoring my role in the demise is to my own detriment. However, as I’ve worked formally through grief for many years now, I also know there is a relief associated with a loss that cannot exist without the release of guilt.
I am no longer the woman I was in high school (and the masses cheered, for she was a lunatic of hormones and hysteria). I am no longer the woman I was in college. I’m hardly the woman from when I first married my husband, and blessedly, becoming a mother has changed me even further. While I am always a work in progress, why is it that I feel obligated to maintain so many connections to people from those seasons of life? There are a cherished few from each timeframe; the people I’m committed to traveling with annually and those I call when I’m worried about them. Their kids call me Aunt Mandy and I sneak them treats when no one is looking (not even a little bit sorry).
But because of social media, there are college roommates and high school classmates and elementary school soccer teammates that I cannot seem to shake. They’re not terrible humans, but nostalgia is the only thing holding me to them. And because of these obligations, nostalgia, and social isolation, many seem to be responding so poorly (in a surprise to no one). We have forsaken the right to allow others to leave our lives with grace for them and ourselves in the process. It does not mean we will not experience some level of grief because of it. It just takes much longer.
I recently recognized a friendship that I’ve been slowly grieving for the last decade or longer. Like a puppy, I kept allowing the familiar to resurface in that friendship because I did not want to believe that what pulled me away was real. There was a desperation to avoid the sorrow of loss, as well as a hope that the person would demonstrate a shift that showed up like I wanted to in our relationship. But the truth is, we’d stopped having a relationship a decade prior. I owned my part in the shift but didn’t ever receive what I thought I needed. Closure is a funny little myth, people. Ten years of believing I had it, only to be retriggered each time the topic arose. My emotional resilience around this loss was constantly beaten because I was willing to drop my boundaries again and again, just to see if there was a chance at reconciliation.
There are two “boundary gurus” I’ve followed in the last few years. Alison Cook speaks with faith and confidence on the necessary truth of boundaries and how we stand for ourselves amid a loss. After recounting a story of a wild misconduct with a coworker, she relied how she felt after resetting the boundary of how she will tolerate and appreciate the two-sided work of communication.
“The truth is: I didn’t need him to understand, and I didn’t need his apology, though of course it would have been nice. I’d gained something far more important to me. I’d gained my dignity.” Alison Cook, Ph.D.
The other, John Townsend, recently released a book called, “People Fuel.” Predicated on the idea that only a few people should be in your inner circle, he teaches that it’s perfectly normal and very necessary to keep the masses at a distance. Thanks to social media, we perceive this protection of our intimacy as confusing and unnecessary. I now know it to be one of the truest forms of self-care I can practice.
Reconciling Your Grief with the Living
If you’ve ever been dumped or betrayed, you likely understand what it feels like to grieve a living person. Knowing you might live in the same town or have mutual connections that remain is overwhelming and can drive anxiety through the roof. Relationships that are no longer healthy must end. Yet when we’ve connected our identity to the relationship or lack the understanding of boundaries to give ourselves healthy space, ending them seems like an affront to the social norms we want to honor.
What we must understand that our intention to grieve this relationship is not to throw the other person away. It is to remove them from our inner circles of influence and allow that space to be held for both ourselves and to create a seat at the table for another. Healthy relationships require intimacy and time. A garden does not produce without intention. Living at peace with another human, despite the lack of friendship, does not mean you must maintain constant connection.
I think of this often when I run into someone in my hometown. As kids, we needed one another. We were close. As adults, we’ve become something new. I’m not likely to hand out my number, although I will stay for a few minutes to hear who they’ve become. But thanks to social media, I’m almost certainly programmed to reach out online and forge a small bridge into my past.
Asking this question of why we want to reach backward is a crucial piece of self-observation in grief. In our current states, we grasp for the familiar. We need something solid, and for many of us, that is the past. It remains unchangeable; therefore, it feels trustworthy.
Present day relationships are more complicated but deserve the same open-handedness. There is grief hiding in your “connections” online. You cannot hold someone to a standard in your head without doing the work of relationship in person. That’s not justice. But be wary of accusing your brothers and sisters of breaking boundaries or damaging a relationship without first observing yourself. Are you reacting from grief? If so, is this a relationship where you can move the needle toward healing, or is it time to step backward and evaluate who you are and who you need around you?
Recognizing grief requires so much of our attention that, as we are struggling as individuals and world citizens to simply maintain some semblance of normalcy, it is no surprise that our grief is going untended. We’ve opted for the easier work of burning bridges and closing shop.
But grief is the only normal thing we can expect in the middle of such horrendous circumstances. We are cycling through varying levels of anxiety, fear, sorrow, and rage. The tension is real, and so is the grief. Be gentle with yourself. Become curious and try not to cuss someone out in the name of truth. It’s literally the opposite of what will change their minds about the topic, but it will change their minds about you.
“Should I Turn the Other Cheek?” Cook, Alison. Nov. 18, 2020. https://www.alisoncookphd.com/should-you-turn-the-other-cheek/
Mandy Capehart is a certified grief and life coach, and creator of The Restorative Grief Project. The Restorative Grief Project is an online community focusing on one another’s stories and new methodologies for grief, creating a safe environment for our souls to heal and our spirits to be revived. For more information, visit www.MandyCapehart.com/grief or follow along with weekly columns on Ask A Grief Coach!