Getting Through To An Old Friend
By Esther Mann, LCSW
Last week, I was on Central Avenue and I bumped into Henny, an old friend of mine, whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while. We were never really close friends, but we’ve known each other for a long time and know a lot of people in common. We stood there for a few minutes talking and catching up, when I decided to ask her if she felt like sitting down in the pizza shop we were standing in front of and having some lunch, since it was around noon.
We sat for a while, and Henny told me what’s been going on in her life. I had heard that she lost her husband around five years ago, and she confirmed that. But she went into great detail about how depressed she’s been and how lonely and miserable her life has been. It seems that when she was married, she and her husband had a large group of couple friends that they spent all of their time with, and after the death of her husband she has been feeling abandoned by these couples. Though the women will call to check in, she’s no longer included in their dinners or other social get-togethers. So not only did she lose her husband, but she feels that her entire social life also disappeared.
I asked her whether she’s made any new friends, women with whom she has more in common at this point, and she said no. Family didn’t come up, and I didn’t want to press because I sensed that she didn’t have much support in that regard either.
I lost my husband a few years ago, and I can understand her pain and loneliness. I struggled tremendously for some time. But after a while, I picked myself up and started figuring out what my new life should look like. I made the necessary changes to make new friends, find new activities, and basically create a new life for myself. I still miss my husband tremendously, but I’m not sitting around feeling depressed all day the way Henny seems to be. I go out, go to lectures, join classes, and pick up my phone a lot to stay connected, at least by phone, with people from my past and present.
I was tempted to exchange phone numbers with Henny and try to help her move forward, but I realize that I’m not strong enough or talented enough to pull her out of her depression and her set ideas about the sorry state of her life. Frankly, I worked very hard to get myself to a better place and I’m afraid that if I spend time with Henny, I could easily fall back into my own sad place. I worked too hard to get out of it, and I can’t risk going back there.
The even scarier part of this whole story came when Henny offered to drive me home. Since it was pretty hot out, I accepted her offer. Her driving was crazy! She was weaving and going so slowly that it was a risk to the other cars, and she seemed oblivious to the chaos she was causing on the road. I personally was never a driver, but I know that a few of my friends got to the point where they realized it was time to stop driving—their reflexes weren’t as sharp as before and it was dangerous to keep driving. I asked Henny whether she felt she should still be driving at her age. She got very defensive and told me she couldn’t see any reason why not, and that since she’s alone, who else is going to drive her places?
I didn’t want to start up with her and explain how scary her driving was, but it made me think that she’s somehow not totally connected to reality. I was thrilled that I got home in one piece and would have been happy to say goodbye to Henny and never see her again. She just left me feeling so sad and kind of helpless and hopeless. But I’ve been thinking nonstop about our conversation. I’m feeling very unsettled and that it is selfish to pretend I never bumped into her and that I can just walk away without trying to help.
The question is, what can I possibly do? Henny is the type of person who doesn’t listen to reason. You can say something to her that makes perfect sense, and she’ll just say, “No, I don’t think so.” No explanation as to why her reasoning makes any sense. So what can I actually do to help her and, frankly, keep her and the roads safer?
Bumping into Henny must have been a very tough experience for you on a number of levels. First off, you sound like a compassionate individual, and it’s always hard to be around someone who is in pain and feel you don’t have the ability or opportunity to alleviate any of that pain. It’s frustrating to observe it with your hands tied, since she apparently doesn’t want to listen to any ideas that might be helpful for her. But beyond that, I’m sure listening to her bemoan her loneliness and sadness must have brought up in you some of your own past emotions that probably never really disappeared completely. Though it sounds as though you’ve worked very hard and successfully moved forward, there is always residue from past trauma that never totally ceases to exist and can be triggered under certain circumstances. No doubt, feelings around your own loss were sparked.
Yes, it would be easiest to just walk away and pretend that you never bumped into Henny in the first place. But it doesn’t sound as though that’s the kind of person you are, and you’ll constantly feel unsettled if you don’t at least attempt to reach out to her. Though it sounds as though she is in dire need of professional help and seeing a therapist would do wonders for her, I don’t think that’s a suggestion she’s likely to take from you. So scratch the idea of discussing that possibility with her.
But it would be amazing if you could invite her to join you at some of the lectures and classes you attend. Since being together with her in her car is not only a safety issue but also an environment that would force you to marinate in her hopeless talk, which you’ve already seen is not good for you, you can give her the dates and times. Tell her you’ll be there and encourage her to check it out and meet you there.
I can almost guarantee that she’ll blow you off and not attend—certainly initially. But keep trying. Call her once a week to let her know what’s on your agenda and share the specifics. After a month or so, she’ll either get so annoyed at you for constantly calling that she’ll take a peek, if only to get you off her case, or you’ll know in your heart that you’ve tried and it’s time to let it go. But you will have taken a proactive, kind approach to Henny, and then it’s up to her. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water . . .”
Your description of Henny’s driving is definitely troubling. She is in danger—as is the rest of the community! If there is some way to locate a family member, that would be my best advice. Again, from the way you describe Henny, telling her yourself that you are concerned about her driving will not be helpful, since you’ve described her as someone who does not listen to reason. However, a family member might have the power to take away her car or her license, or make some kind of arrangements for her that Henny can accept. You mentioned that you know a number of people in common. Maybe you can do a bit of detective work and see if you can uncover who that family member might be. Good luck with that!
By the way, your letter sheds light on some seriously important matters that not everyone may be aware of. For starters, it is an eye-opener for couples who may not be as inclusive as they should be toward a friend who has lost a spouse. On the contrary, when a friend is left alone, it is that much more important to keep the status quo and invite that person to everything and everywhere they were formerly included in. And should they feel comfortable enough to join, make sure they never feel like the odd man out. More than ever, they shouldn’t be alone or feel alone.
The second important issue you bring up is the intensity of the experience of losing a spouse. We all know it is a tragedy, but as with most things, without having walked in their shoes, it’s hard for us to truly grasp the potency of such an event. It can turn someone’s life completely upside down and undermine them in the most basic ways. So after shivah is over and you’ve brought over your dinner and sat with them and shared their memories, it’s important to understand that the challenge of regrouping and creating a meaningful life is beginning now, and the hardest moments are yet to come. Therefore, be sure to stay present and alert for signs of depression.
Finally, the issue of seniors on the road who should no longer be driving is crucial. If anyone has a family member, friend, or neighbor who they know should have their licensed revoked, say something or do something—don’t just ignore what could be a dangerous situation.
So, thank you for caring about Henny, despite yourself! And thank you for bringing up these important matters that deserve attention. And finally, as you reach out to Henny, make sure to do so in a way that protects your own well-being while offering her opportunities for growth.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.