The Wariness of Grief

The Wariness of Grief

I am from the South. My parents were both Southerners. I have never lived outside the South, in spite of the fact that some would claim Northern Virginia, where I lived for almost 40 years, is not really “part of the South.” I maintain that it is.

Friendliness is an entrenched southern virtue. I was indoctrinated in friendliness from a young age. It also happened to be an easy fit with my natural personality and disposition. My husband alleges I can “talk to a post.” He’s probably right about that.

For my whole life, I have had many friends in many places; friends from childhood, friends from college, friends from work, friends who were neighbors. I made friends walking my dog; I made friends riding the subway. Once my children were born, I made friends with the parents of their friends, made friends with their teachers, made friends with other PTA parents and so on. Many, many friends. Obviously, I was closer to some than others. I maintained more regular contact with some than others

I did have some experience with betrayal and rejection, but it was not so intense or so painful as to make me abandon my natural open friendliness. It took losing my son to do that.

I am different now. I think I am still friendly in neutral situations, but it is a guarded friendliness. When I walk the dog, I still greet everyone I meet on the street. I have conversations with many, but these are short, superficial conversations. (These are not to be confused with conversations I may have had with strangers on the street in my most acute days of grief. In those days, I occasionally wept on the shoulders of strangers.)

I have become wary of people.

I am wary of new people. It takes a certain set of circumstances, sometimes forced, for me to even confess to new people that I have lost a child. When contractors come to my house, I take down lots of photos and hide them so I’m not asked questions about any of the shrines to my son. It is rare for me to have such a feeling of safety with someone new that I choose to let them in on my secret.

Sadly, experience has taught me to be wary even of people I’ve known a long time. I have been surprised by those I was formerly close to who have hurt me or disappointed me. Or who have disappeared. So, I wear my mask and conduct myself carefully.

Recently, I came across this quote:

“Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.” -Dinah Maria Mulock Craik

 So, under what circumstances do I feel this comfort? I feel it with my sister, with a few old friends, but mostly, I feel it with the other bereaved parents I’ve come to know through The Compassionate Friends.

~Peggi Johnson

Piedmont, VA TCF

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Comments (18)

  • I can so identify with this. I too have become less outgoing. My son Stephen was also 19 when he died of suicide. As a teacher it is becoming very difficult to do my job because I don’t want to make connections with the students or parents.

  • Two and a half months after the stillbirth of my grandson Sammy, I can see that I am definitely more guarded with people because hardly anyone knows what to make of such a calamity — and by even mentioning it, I feel like I am causing whoever I am talking to unnecessary discomfort. Also, since Sammy’s life/death, I don’t know who I am anymore because I don’t know what I believe anymore. I’m having to rebuild my entire comprehension of what existence is all about. I’m just not as “out there” as I used to be because I feel like the ground has totally shifted under my feet.

  • When your foundation turns to rubble, it is impossible to know where to stand. It takes time to find your footing again. Nothing has the same meaning it once had. They say grief is the price of love… the bill is never paid. Living becomes an unending task of merely coasting. Why make more friends to simply pretend everything is ok? Then sometimes, without warning, a memory makes you smile. An occasional hummingbird seems to give you a wink and a nod… no you will never be the same, but you will be more than ok. Maybe not today, and you can make a new friend some other time.

    • I just observed the 12th anniversary of my son’s death this week. There is a date on the certificate but the 3rd Sunday in August is the annual date that I struggle through. I read Becky’s reply above and was wowed by her words and wisdom. I like to ask Becky if I may quote her words in my chapter’s newsletter. I am currently the editor of TCF of Reno’s monthly newsletter and always looking for pearls of wisdom for our 300 recipients.

  • You do very quickly learn who you can fully grieve with and who you can’t. Almost five months since our 26 year old son, Trevor died of an accidental drug overdose. Finding The Compassionate Friends in my area has been life-saving for me. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • I lost my
    Nephew Dean aged 21 years in December 2016; not a day
    Goes by when I don’t think of him or his mam. My
    Sister . it’s a grief that never leaves even me as an auntie I think all parents losing a child are such brave people.

  • It takes a long time to adjust to life without your precious child or children. Sometimes people. in trying to make us feel better, say things meant to make us feel better that do not help. I always said, “Thank you, I know you are trying to make me feel better but that does not help! Most frequently the comment was, “Your child is with G-d!” I always retorted. “Is that where you would like your child to be?” I always did it kindly, because I was trying to educate them for others who are or would become
    bereaved families.

  • Yes I find myself not speaking about my son to strangers. I recently started a new job last summer working with other moms with childrens the same age as my son when I lost him age 19. They will bring up birthdays, graduations, trips or how they just managed life at home with their children. Its always so hard because I just can’t bring myself to tell strangers that I lost a child so I referrer to my sons as still here with me. and leave it as that. I just can’t make myself feel vulnerable in that way or take them off guard. Its takes one of us to understand how life has changed not a acquaintance.

    • Angela
      it will be 2 years for me in May and like you i still can not tell strangers my son died . Even people like my dentist i just still talk as if he is still here .
      Was happy to see your comments , to know i am not the only one that has a hard time just saying it out loud.

  • Peggy Johnson….I recently lost my Grandson to murder. I became a follower of Compassionate Friends after the loss of my 11 year old son in 1986. I totally feel what you speak about. It’s like I could close up in a shell and live there. No compromise…no expectations. I just feel “done”.

  • Excellent article.

    I attended your workshop at the Orlando conference. I assume you’ll be leading one again this year if TCF is able to hold the conference. I found an article recently that I think might be a good handout for the attendees.

    If you’d like to see it, please e-mail me. I think you can find it on the form below.

  • My oldest son took his life at age 23. It will be 15 years this September.

    I have been feeling the wariness all these years but did not have a name for it until I read your article. Wary of long time friends and family. I’ve even been wary of connecting with any support groups, online or otherwise.

    I now have a name for this feeling and it helps me to know how common it is.


  • Thank you Peggi… as a lifelong southern extrovert I relate to this. Since Ryan died, I can sit endlessly in silence, though initially I can remember breaking down everywhere I went. My inner barometer has run amok. And it seems like recalibration will take the rest of my life. My spouse, my best friend, my sister and Vic whose son died when he was six. These are the people I trust. with or without words.

  • Thank you for this article. I too feel the same wariness around a lot of people. I lost my twenty-two-year-old son to suicide almost ten years ago. After many years of attending Compassionate Friends meetings, my husband and I moved and we have yet to connect with the local chapter. I need to do so, though, since I am fairly isolated and not doing as well as if I were still active in a CF chapter.

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