Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
The wife of a close friend of nearly 50 years passed away from ALS. We spoke each week at least once and I visited her when I could. I actually emailed her more towards the end since she longer could speak. The bottom line was that she asked me a few months before her passing to promise I would stay in touch with my friend, to which I replied, “Hey we’ve been friends forever, so why wouldn’t I!” But their marriage wasn’t the best and she had other illnesses over time that her husband was very squeamish over. Weekly I’d ask how “he” was doing, to which he’d always reply, “Hey, I’m not sick, she is!” But towards the end he said after work he just wanted to keep driving and not go home, which I sympathized with. Finally, at her funeral his out-of-state daughter reiterated her mom’s comments to me to “promise you’ll keep in touch.” Odd, I thought. But as time passed we spoke about finances, went out for a few beers, and then bang, I’d call and get no call backs. I’d send holiday cards, leave gmail, but nothing. It all came to nothing. I wasn’t the only one he “abandoned,” it was pretty much everyone. It’s been like 10 plus years now. I guess it’s done. I just want to know what it’s all about!
There are two basic ways to cope with adversity in general, or loss specifically. The first is to integrate it, move toward it, find a way of managing the troubling feelings and experiences, and make peace with them. The second is to avoid the troubling event, segregate it, and cut off from it, and the people, places and projects that remind us of it. Of course, adapting to the illness or death of a significant person in our life customarily involves some measure of both: we need to acknowledge the hard parts if only to figure out what to do with them, and we also need “time out” from constant confrontation with the loss, if only to remind ourselves that life continues. But problems can arise when we rely so heavily on one of these coping styles that we exclude the other.
Much about your friend’s situation suggests that he was primed to follow the path of avoidance. Both his wife and daughter must have sensed his tendency to cut off, or they would not have been so insistent that you take the initiative to stay in touch. His confession during the illness that he didn’t want to go home, but instead to keep driving, signals a similar tendency-however understandable-to move away, rather than toward, a painful encounter. And his failure to return calls or email, likely to not only you but also to other friends and family, followed in a similar vein: avoid the people whose very presence served as reminders of the loss, and in doing so step away from the troubling feelings they evoke. To sacrifice so much of one’s life and relational world is a big price to pay for the fragile protection afforded by avoidance, but it is a pattern many people, and perhaps especially many men, display when they can’t figure out how to tolerate, understand and address the difficult feelings associated with loss.