My friend’s husband recently passed away. We don’t see each other often so when we do, most of the time is spent catching up. She continues to ask how things are going in my life but my saying I’m worried I might have allergies now or wondering what my next career move might be seems so trite next to what she is going through. I don’t want to be an asshole and go on about such trivial challenges compared to what she just went through but she has always made a point of having “normal” conversation, even in the midst of tragedy. How do I balance this out?
First, my condolences to your friend. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner.
Everyone seems to grieve differently, and in my experience, people choose how to express their grief depending on who they are communicating with. Not that they’re putting on different faces or hiding feelings exactly; I think that people fill different roles in our lives, and that holds true for providing support in times of tragedy. So your friend may see you as someone who can help her feel more like herself right now, by talking about things the way you did before her husband died. Basically, I suggest trusting that she knows what she is looking for from her friendships, and is communicating that to you honestly.
As for worrying about saying something trite? I wouldn’t, at least not seriously. And those things you mention as examples – they aren’t what I’d consider trite. You’re talking about your health and your future, and if those concerns are really impacting your life right now, your friend will still want to know about it. Now, she may not be in a space to offer good advice (if that’s what you’re looking for), but I think it’s fair to believe that she is still genuinely interested in staying connected with what’s going on in your life.
That said, if you are partnered, I would try to avoid complaining – or raving – about your husband or wife for awhile. Your friend obviously knows that you have a partner, so you shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist, but it’s possible that hearing about any (non-life-changing) situations in that arena is just a bit too much right now.
Finally, I think it’s realistic to accept that there is a chance that you will say something ‘wrong.’ People, even with the best of intentions, sometimes screw up. If you think you’ve really stepped in it, cringe, make a note of what you said, apologize if seems necessary and appropriate, and then trust that your friend will understand. Most of us aren’t the best at knowing what to do in times of tragedy, and our good friends will not hold our human moments against us.