Friendships can crumble. Over the days and weeks and months of a NICU stay and even after discharge, friendships and family relationships can become strained. Even the ones you thought were crumble resistant. When you least expect it and when you need them most, sometimes friendships fall apart in the midst of crisis. A NICU stay and the months that follow are without question, a crisis. Your life instantly changes in the most dramatic and uncertain way. The new normal for you, is foreign to your friends and family. And unfortunately, you might find a few broken friendships in the debris once the crisis passes and the dust has settled.
There are a hundred reasons why friendships fall apart during a NICU crisis, logical and otherwise. Sometimes it’s because friends don’t know what to say, so they say all the wrong things that intentional or not, really hurt. Sometimes they don’t understand or might completely ignore your wishes and requests during hospital stays or quarantine. Sometimes it’s because a friend or family member offers too much advice or criticism or judgement. And because they don’t know what do do or how to interact with you in this new circumstance, some friends might retreat and disappear. And let’s face it, a season or two of isolation with little or no contact with friends and loved ones doesn’t help.
It’s been two years since we started our NICU journey and thankfully for the most part, my friendships and relationships stayed intact. We felt overwhelmingly supported and loved by our friends and family. They truly carried us through the most difficult time in our lives. And more often than not, they said the absolute perfect thing. And they were completely understanding of our requests. And they rarely offered anything other than support and compassion. But there were some hard moments. There were hurt feelings. There were misunderstandings. We found some cracks in the foundation of long standing relationships that, to this day, are taking time to heal.
In the very midst of our NICU stay, I didn’t have the time or the emotional capacity to think about the potential cracks that our crisis might be causing to some relationships. I couldn’t think too much about feelings that might get hurt because of a decision my husband and I made that was best for our family during that time. To put it bluntly, if someone didn’t understand, I didn’t care. I couldn’t think about anything other than Tucker. He needed every single bit of my energy. Every single available space in my heart and every single thought in my brain was occupied by that little guy in the plexiglass box. I don’t feel guilty about that. It was the right thing.
About a year after discharge though, once the monitors, oxygen and immediate day to day crisis were gone, I had time to decompress. To think about where we had been. Time to think about my relationships and the ways they had changed. Some had grown closer. Some had grown distant. And happily, there were new ones formed through a shared NICU experience. During my reflection of our year, I came to terms with knowing that some friendships just didn’t survive this season in our lives. And that was ok. Our paths had come to a fork, and letting go of that friendship was best for me. I also though, came to recognize that some of my friendships needed mending. There were some deep rooted connections that for me, were absolutely worth it, to repair. To move forward, I also had to dissect and reconcile in my heart, my role in the cracks of a broken friendship. I came to realize that there were times in this journey when it was probably pretty darn hard to be my friend. Gulp.
What I know now, is that I changed. You changed. Crisis changes us. The NICU experience and the foggy first years at home with a medically fragile child changes us. How could it not? Nothing is the same and that person you were before the crisis is not the same one that emerges after the battle. The moment the doctor said, “We’re delivering NOW.”, you were replaced. By someone who reacts differently. By someone who communicates differently. By someone who empathizes differently. Quite simply, you come to understand that during this NICU journey, you are not you. At least, not the you that your friends know and recognize. The change is hard for both of you.
Once you’re on the other side of the immediate NICU crisis, you may begin to evaluate where your relationships landed. You might decide that some friends or family members were (and still are) just too insensitive to your new life, that it’s best to part ways gracefully. And that’s ok. There will be friendships that you realize grew stronger and deeper during your crisis-be thankful for these friends and family and make sure they know of your gratefulness. Some of your relationships will need a little mending. The mending process for these friendships will require grace and forgiveness for you both. In the end, you’ll find that those friendships that remained, those that deepened, and some of the new ones you’ve found on this journey will be some of the longest lasting connections you’ll have. I’ve come to appreciate very much, the people around me who were there at my lowest and hardest hours. They will always be some of the heroes from our NICU story. They caught us as we fell, and I’ll never forget that for as long as I live.
Dealing with hard friendships during crisis
- Forgive Yourself-You aren’t yourself during the NICU journey. If you weren’t the best at being a great friend during this time, recognize it and forgive yourself. Your emotions are ragged to say the least. You gave every bit of yourself to a child who needed it.
- Forgive Your Friend- Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to say or do for a friend in crisis. Most likely your friends really care about you and want to help, they just may not know the best way to support you.
- Let Go– If there are people who were (and continue to be) too insensitive during this time, it may be best for you to say goodbye. There may be a friendship or two that just don’t survive this season.
- Work It Out– For friendships that you value but that may have become strained during your NICU time or the time after discharge, find some common ground and grace and work it out.
- Be Thankful. If you were like us, there were many, many more relationships that deepened, than those that didn’t. Thank them. From the bottom of your heart, for carrying you and supporting you during one of the hardest seasons of your life.