Other Family Members and Friends

It is inevitable that your relationships with other family members will be tested. People will respond in different ways and may not understand how to best help you or to help themselves, especially if the death is the first the extended family has had to face. This can result in one or more of the reactions described below.

Lack of understanding

Relationships can become strained when others fail to acknowledge the magnitude and length of your grief or are critical of your ways of dealing with it. Your child might not seem real to them, especially if they never had the opportunity to become acquainted with him or her. People can say insensitive and inappropriate things, not know how to talk to you, or in some cases, avoid the issue all together. It is easy to mistake this for not caring.

“Friends never saw the baby, so it was easy for them to walk away; it was too hard for them and they had no concept of the loss. It was very hurtful.” (Tony)

“My in-laws had no idea of our grief, couldn’t help us and felt quite sorry for themselves. Our own siblings were not helpful and we weren’t able to talk to them about our grief either.” (Lisa)

People avoiding you

Unable to go beyond the first outpouring of sympathy, people could feel uncomfortable and not know how to support you. They can become easily impatient when hearing you talk about your child or the death once again. They might say nothing, afraid of making things worse or avoid you altogether, as if the death is somehow contagious. Others who are struggling in their own relationship might avoid you because they somehow fear that your stress will also affect them,

Perhaps you are the only one in your circle who has had a child die which is every parent’s worst nightmare. The death can be especially difficult for friends or relatives who are pregnant at the time, and can cause them to pull back from you.

“My friends didn’t say anything about Jesse; they were initially shocked and terrified to talk to us. It made me very angry that they ‘wide berthed me’. One close friend was initially great but then distanced herself.” (Ally)

“Two friends who were pregnant at the same time aren’t as close now. I cannot see their children who were born after Romi. I feel uncomfortable with them; the friendships are not strained.” (Jo)

“You can lose friends, particularly pregnant friends.”(Ruth)

“People are well intentioned but cannot or won’t always be helpful. Accept when good support is offered – some people will be exceptional and others will disappoint. Your experience can frighten people away; they may not be able to cope with your losses.” (Lisa)

Unreal expectations

These can arise when your family and friends expect too much of you, failing to realise that you can’t just ‘snap out of it’ and get back to normal. This is difficult when you just want to hibernate. Take your time, even when others don’t understand. While it could cause you to lose some friends, your relationship with others might grow as a result.

“Don’t feel obliged to attend social functions. Even though friends say they need to see you, to see that you are okay, to hug you, your needs do come first. You need to tell them that you are not ready to socialise, that you need time to just be with family, to ‘hibernate’ and process what has happened.” (Linda B)

“Relationships with friends broke down. I used to be a ‘fixer’ a helper to others. I don’t want ‘high maintenance’ friends any more. It seems okay to let some friends go. I’m told I am more direct now. It’s hard to put yourself first now but accept that you will have to do that. You may feel guilty but this is a time for self-preservation. It is sink or swim. It’s only now, eight years on, that all my coping skills are returning.” (Leanne)

“Perhaps some friends wouldn’t have lasted anyway and maybe we have outgrown them. Somehow a baby’s death brings this issue to the fore.” (George)

“Friendships naturally wax and wane over time. But you will come to realise the true extent of friends’ and acquaintances’ empathy and support.” (Jenny R)

“Most of our friends have come back into our lives but I am not as close to them or expect as much from them now. I now understand why our friends weren’t there for us and forgive them, although there is still hurt.” (Lisa)

Different customs and religious beliefs

These could create difficulties, for example, when family members insist on a particular religious service against your wishes or differ as to the etiquette of people paying their condolences. It might be helpful to sit down with your partner and decide what you both really want at this time. As a result you could decide on a service without other family members, outside expected traditions and behaviours, or follow the traditions of one family rather than the other. Either course of action can be costly in terms of family harmony.

“We didn’t have a traditional religious service. My mother-in-law wouldn’t come to the funeral as my daughter was only blessed by the priest, not christened. To her it meant she wouldn’t go to heaven, wasn’t a Christian, wasn’t a person in God’s eyes. That was too hard to forgive at the time…my father-in-law bucked tradition and did come. I respected him for that.” (Nicolette)

“I was never close to my parents and sisters and aren’t now. My family are Scientologists and believe that you bring bad things to yourself. So they thought I was responsible for my (earlier) brain tumour as well as Jesse’s death and that my husband was the bad thing in my life.” (Ally)

Family and friends might not understand the importance of special days, such as the anniversaries of the birth and death of your child, which you feel need to be acknowledged. Birthdays, Christmas and other events linked with the happiness of children will be particularly sad times. For people close to you to ignore these important days can be particularly hurtful.

“Some people in the family forgot that it happened and needed to be reminded that it had happened. I felt very hurt and alone.” (Tony)

Distance

Geographical separation can make it difficult for others to support you and it is sometimes easier for them to avoid the issue altogether.

“My mother didn’t come over from Adelaide to support me which was very hard. I now know why and that she regrets this.” (Fiona)

“My brother lived in another state and didn’t even send a card. He has never once talked to me about my baby, even though he too had a child die some years later. He just passed on a message via my mother for me to take care of myself.” (Nicolette)

Managing these relationships

Try to surround yourself with friends and family members who are able to understand your grief and needs. You could make new friends who ‘just get it’, especially those you meet in support groups. Having people who give you space when you need it can be important and so too is having those with whom you can socialise or play sport, go for a walk or a coffee – with whom you can have a ‘grief-free zone’.

By reading about grief, you might be able to tell those in your circle about what would actually benefit you. Often, others just don’t have a clue and need to be told! Some want to be told and will be open to suggestions – helping them to help you.

It is vital that you understand that relationships which are already strong will, in all likelihood, stay that way. Weaker ones can also strengthen if there is mutual acknowledgement and sharing of the grief. Over time, you could find more energy to invest in your family. Some people begin to spend more time with their children and other family members than they ever did.

“My dad is very much an old fashioned guy who would prefer to forget these things, just leave it, but when it came to making a special box to store some of her things, it was dad who did it.” (Adam)

“I am now closer to my sister than ever before and also closer to my parents. They were very helpful and would mention the baby’s name.” (Helene)

“We spend much more time as a couple than with friends now. Leanne’s family is close and they have become my family too. I am less close to my family as they said some very insensitive things.” (George)

“We lost some friends but there were others who demonstrated such kindness and support. Some came from surprising places.” (Helene)

“Some friendships have been strengthened – these friends understand me and have supported me. I showed them my vulnerability. They have seen me at my worst, so I feel comfortable with them. (Jo)

“Real friends listen without offering any solution. They don’t try to ‘fix it’ for you.” (Anthony)

“Some friends do ‘get it’ and are helpful.” (Tony) (Fiona)

“My father felt the loss of Jessie keenly and got a tattoo in memory of her. This was so helpful to us.” (Prue)

“My mother-in-law made a quilt, which was very helpful to us. She also attended the grandparents’ group, which helped her and put less pressure on our relationship. She is still fantastic and a great part of our lives.” (Ally)

Understanding and forgiving people for insensitivity or lack of support is difficult. This is complicated if you feel a heightened sense of responsibility for causing pain to others, or are saddened by lost or changed relationships. In these circumstances, having fewer expectations of others and being able to forgive are helpful, resulting in less hurt, loss, anger and disappointment.

“Michael was able to put other people’s needs ahead of his and be generous and forgiving. He comes from a loving family and is a loving son, so had particular expectations of himself. In addition to looking after me, he was also very protective of his parents and felt he had brought grief onto them. He didn’t want to add to their grief. I wasn’t as forgiving of others as he was and couldn’t put others’ needs ahead of us.” (Jessica)

“Accept other people’s deficits…I too would not have known what to say.” (Kerri)

“Accepting that some friends won’t be able to support you, won’t be able to cope with your grief, meant we didn’t lose friends.” (Jenny O’N)

Finally, give yourself time to adjust to the death and accept that this will not be a quick or easy process. Don’t push yourself to normalise your life quickly. Be prepared to ask your friends to be patient with you until you are ready to socialise again.

“Many friends asked what they could do and continued to include us in social engagements. In hindsight, we probably added to our stress by trying to keep up with our social calendar rather than declining invitations. It meant that we would dine with friends and then cry all the way home. It is better to tell your friends – ‘we will come to being social again but leave us for now.’” (Jenny R)

Encourage family and friends to visit the Family and Friends section of this website and also read the Red Nose Grief and Loss booklet To Family and Friends: You Can Make a Difference. This has a more in-depth discussion of these issues, along with helpful strategies. Counsellors and trained parent supporters can also attend a meeting (called a Network Meeting) of those in your network who want to know more about grief and what can be helpful.

This article was prepared using extracts from When Relationships Hurt, Too.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.


Last reviewed: 20/6/24