Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 7, titled, “Finding The Edges of Our Circle.” This is a podcast about creating space for healing and finding movement through the grief process. With every episode, I hope to bring a little more grief literacy into the world and to create confident, compassion-filled grievers and grief supporters. You deserve to live and grieve in a world where all of you is welcome, including your big feelings and even bigger questions. And you are very welcome here.
This week, we are having a very brief conversation about the value of boundaries in the grief process and where to begin.
One of the greatest gifts you can receive when you are grieving is the gift of space. Whether that looks like someone making time for you to express yourself honestly, or taking your responsibilities off your plate and allowing you some free time. It can look like asking questions without the intention of correcting your grief experience. It can also look like offering you relief from having to answer any questions at all.
But the people who can offer you space are also the people who know what it means to recognize and respect the boundaries of others. And finding these people is the best place to start.
It is necessary to realize who can and who cannot hold space for you as you grieve. But doing so feels like another form of grief in and of itself – because it can be alarming to realize who does not respect your boundaries or even understand your need for them. Defining our circle of support and friendship is something we somewhat understand and practice in our day to day lives. There are some people we feel drawn to, and many others that we are not so close with. Ideally we have an inner circle of a close knit few, people we already trust with our full stories. It can be temping to say, “My life is an open book – ask whatever you want and draw near!” But to be honest, the phrase “open book” always feels like a warning sign that I’m about to encounter a storyteller with confused boundaries.
Now, before you turn off the episode, hear my heart. You owe your story to no one but yourself. And while sharing our honest life experiences and struggles can be incredibly healing for everyone, that only serves if your story is a source of refuge and healing for you first. Telling the details of every encounter under the banner of transparency or authenticity can expose our wounds in ways we do not intend. If those wounds aren’t being treated with honor, we may inadvertently deepen them. There’s also a chance that our “open book” policy can cause confusion or pain in the very people we hope to draw near.
Like I said, our story belongs to us first but what does that mean? It means we know first who we are, what we need, and where we can find it. That’s when we share with those who can honor those details and needs without inserting themselves into the narrative.
As you may know, grief can cause those who are near to often pull away out of confusion, pain, or just discomfort. The people we expected to remain in place aren’t there and now, we’re faced with the prospect of grieving without the circle. Suddenly, the hundreds of friends are nowhere to be found. This is why finding the edges of our circle is so crucial – we can trust those sacred few to have already drawn close and committed to our stories before we ever encounter grief itself.
On the other side, not defining boundaries before grief means that everyone feels they have a right to influence, encourage, and access you when you are grieving. Think of the platitudes and invasive questions – everyone thinks they have a right to know what’s going on, because you are an “open book,” right? I don’t know about you, but when I’m grieving, the last thing that really helps is reliving the story repeatedly for anyone who asks. I need a break from the unhelpful, “How are you?” question.
So boundaries, set in advance if possible, give us space to reflect upon our grief process and figure out how to receive what we really need. Often we grievers struggle to make space for ourselves or to advocate for what we need once we figure it out. We don’t want to cause more drama or grief, so we will let our boundaries slip a bit in the name of “keeping the peace.” Even though it depletes what energy we have left, we might feel obligated to answer the questions we just want to ignore because hey! These are our close friends, right? They deserve an answer.
Here’s why I think that’s unhelpful: Because when someone violates a boundary that you’ve set, then you, my dear friend, are not at peace. So what peace are you maintaining by allowing such behavior to happen? If you have to minimize your own pain and frustration for the sake of keeping another person comfortable, you are forsaking your duty to honor your story. You are allowing the desire to be an “open book” rule your life.
It can be very tempting to believe that we owe our time, energy, story, and attention to anyone who wants it. But – and I cannot say this enough – we belong to ourselves first. Supporting yourself with boundaries allows you to heal and live as you want, with the priorities you identify as paramount.
I know this is painful. Like grief, establishing and communicating boundaries can be a drastic change. And when we draw hard lines on what we will accept as a behavior or how close we allow someone to come, we may break some connections. It’s awful to think about. Some of the people I expected to remain close couldn’t handle the boundaries I set throughout my grief process. Grief changes how we see the world, and that can be complicated for others to understand.
But the goal in all of this is to find yourself. In loss, we also lose a sense of self that we may only notice when it feels too late. It isn’t too late — but it may be harder to recover if you allow yourself to be surrounded in grief by those who compound the pain. Finding yourself means finding the edges of your story and establishing your boundaries in a way that benefits you (the griever) first.
Speaking practically, let’s talk about how to actually set, communicate, and establish a boundary. Confrontation is scary, and we don’t want to start yelling at anyone who asks a question. So what if you reframe this boundary setting as an invitation? Setting clear, honest, and direct expectations for a friendship is incredibly kind. If the person reacts poorly, take that as a sign that the boundary is more of a closing door, and that’s okay. If the person decides to ghost you, problem solved. Just like children love to know how far they can go and remain safe, we deserve the same parameters for our healthy relationships to flourish and for our grief to reseed into growth.
There is a beautiful quote from recording artist and adoptee advocate Ferara Swan. She writes, “As we begin to heal a little more, we begin to tolerate a little less when it comes to how we deserve to be treated. Some may dislike that you’re growing; others will love you more for it. Those are your true friends.”
The moment you decide to set a boundary is the same moment you start figuring out who you want to allow access to you while you grieve. This is establishing what might be a completely new circle of support, which is okay – and for some, even necessary.
Here are three questions I ask when the need for building a new circle arises.
First, I ask myself, “What kind of a person do I want in my inner circle?” This is when I will go through the characteristics of of people who I can trust to hold space for me without judgment, correction, direction, or interruption. These people won’t place demands on me to grow, heal, change, or fit their expectations of timing while working through my pain. I make a list and then, I reach out to each of those people.
Second, I open the door. I might say to someone, “I’m in need of a trusted few who can draw closer to me in this grief process. Do you have capacity to hold space for me right now?” This is a time to be vulnerable. We are asking others to see us where we are, and they deserve our honesty.
And last, I clarify by asking, “Do you understand what I’m asking for?” Most of the time, these people aren’t going to be strangers. They already know you, know that you’re grieving, and have some idea as to why. Inviting the person to ask questions about what you need will help you figure out what level of support you need. Are you looking for someone to call when insomnia keeps you awake? Do you need a running buddy so you don’t crash into a tree when the tears come and blur your vision? Maybe you just need to know you’re not alone during the day, and want someone you can text who won’t respond with advice.
The entire premise of these boundaries and holding a small circle is to create a support team you can trust when the difficult moments arise. A secondary benefit to this is that when the random person approaches and asks what you need, you now have an answer without having to think: “Thank you for asking, but I have what I need.” That’s it. It’s that simple. No one is trying to cause further harm or necessarily insert themselves in your life, but it’s hard to see people you care about living with pain. The natural offering of support allows that person to show they care, and you have the boundaries in place to know that you don’t need to give everyone who offers free access to your life and story. Not to mention, you can also avoid any incorrect belief that you are burdening others by allowing them to care for you. Those who are close agreed to it; those you decline are not going to judge you for it.
One last thought. You deserve a small circle of support. And I suspect that some of you may have cringed or pushed back mentally at that statement, but it’s true. You deserve to have your boundaries respected. You deserve to ask a couple of people to come alongside you. It may not be simple, easy, or painless. But if something in life fits that bill, I haven’t found it yet. Leaning into the discomfort of growth, even as we grieve, will allow us to reach the depths of our sorrow and to know we are not alone at the bottom. Become curious. Find the few who will feel your feelings with you, unafraid of catching your grief or losing their good vibes. You’re worth it. Every time.
Thank you for listening to episode 7 of Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. Boundaries are complicated, confusing, and often downright exhausting to enforce. But I strongly believe that with every time we decide our boundaries are worth the effort, we are agreeing that we, too, are worth the effort.
There are many books on boundaries in the world, but I want to share one last thought from Dr. Henry Cloud, one of the foremost experts on the subject. He wraps this whole episode beautifully for us:
“We can’t manipulate people into swallowing our boundaries by sugarcoating them. Boundaries are a “litmus test” for the quality of our relationships. Those people in our lives who can respect our boundaries will love our wills, our opinions, our separateness. Those who can’t respect our boundaries are telling us that they don’t love our nos. They only love our yeses, our compliance. “I only like it when you do what I want.”
I love Dr. Cloud’s input here specifically because I have experienced the push back from someone after I’ve declined their help. If this happens to you, take a pause and remember that it is likely a reaction to their own needs in that moment. It’s okay and even necessary to exercise your autonomy from everyone that wants access, because remember: you already offered access to the trusted few.
Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from the episode:
- Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No by Cloud & Townsend
- Infographic for Quick Boundary Hints
- Snag a copy of my book Restorative Grief
- Connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @MandyCapehart
- Join The Restorative Grief Project, a private online grief coaching community