There are some friendship topics that are easy to think about, talk about, write about. And then there are friendship topics that are much more difficult.
Guest blogger DR. KAREN GAIL LEWIS helps us address one of the most difficult–losing a friend.
Best friends are so vital to our lives, yet we rarely talk about what it’s like when we lose them. We can lose them through death, but also through what I refer to as divorce. Divorce is when a good friend just drops you, a permanent falling out.
Losing a lover through death or divorce fits within our society’s understanding of loss and grief. But, unfortunately, we have no recognized guidelines for losing friends—the people who may outlive relationships with spouses and lovers.
“Linda and I have always had a long distance relationship,” explains Carla. “We talk at least once a week, sometimes more often. She’s on the West Coast and I’m here in Cincinnati, so we are always working around the time change. It takes some effort, but we’ve been doing this for the 11 years since she moved to Seattle. We make a point of getting together three or four times a year. I love my husband, but loving Linda is a different kind of love.
“She was the first person I called when Terry asked me to marry him, even before I called my mom and sister. Whenever he and I are at odds, she is always there to listen to me vent about Terry, to help me see the situation more realistically, and to walk me through the mess with him.
“We used to joke what would we do without each other.”
Carla’s voice breaks. She takes a deep breath, as if gulping in air would ease her pain. “I guess I’m finding out. Six months ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a quick decline. She was dead within three months.
“What makes me so mad is that if it were Terry who had died, I’d get time off from work; my friends would be calling on me, offering me sympathy. But Linda is ‘just a friend.’ Baloney. She’s my best friend, my soul, my stabilizer, my special other half, in a way Terry – as much as I love him – can’t be. But she’s just my friend, so life expects me to carry on.”
We live in a world with rigid ideas about love and affection. We have work place rules and social etiquette rules. The inflexibility of these rules, though, ignores some realities. Carla would be able to get time off from work, or a reduced price plane ticket, for the funeral of her sister, even though they haven’t spoken in decades, but not for her best friend Linda.
In many communities, when there’s a death, friends and neighbors come with the proverbial casseroles and pies. The bereaved gets company, food, sympathy. Carla, though, did not have any of that. Most people don’t think about the depth of the loss when it is a non-family member.
“My boss did let me take the day off to go to her funeral, but he sure didn’t understand why I was so unproductive for the next few weeks. If it had been my husband, he certainly would have understood. How do I explain losing a best friend is like losing a part of myself?”
Chances are Carla’s boss has had a similar experience—because losing a best friend is so common; it’s just not often acknowledged, and the pain is rarely discussed.
The same lack of social understanding occurs when best friends have a permanent quarrel—or divorce.
“Mary just dropped me; I don’t know any other way to put it,” bemoans Laurie. “Although this was 10 years ago, I still get teary thinking about it. I have no idea why she just stopped talking with me, stopped returning my calls. We had been such good friends for years. After several months, I wrote her saying she at least owed me an explanation. Boy, that was a mistake. She wrote back tearing me to pieces.”
Laurie’s eyes water as she goes back a decade in her memory. “I don’t know what was worse. Hearing all the things she didn’t like about me or having no one to talk to about losing my best friend. You know, if Laurie were a Larry, everyone would understand why I moped around for months, but you don’t get sympathy for breaking up with your best friend.”
Carla and Laurie understand the power of best friends—having them and losing them. There are rituals for dealing with the death of a spouse and a family member, but there are none for the death of a best friend. People know how to respond if a friend gets divorced, but they have no idea how to respond if that friend gets divorced from a best friend – even though the pain can be just as intense and the loss just as big.
There are other ways of losing a close friend. You can grow in different directions; after a marital divorce, friends may drift away, not wanting to choose sides. You can move and get so caught up in your new life, or work so much your friendships get left behind. And, too many women slip away from friends after an argument, rather than insist the friendship deserves their “fighting it out.”
No matter how you lose a best friend, it always hurts and leaves a hole in your life. The loss needs to be respected and given the same credence as the loss of any loved one.
So, if you know a friend who has had such a loss, reach out, speak up. Allow her to talk about the pain. Encourage her to share with you. You might even ask her boss to cut her some slack.
And if you are the one who has experienced the loss, don’t be shy. While there is no way to avoid the pain, there is something you can do that is a major step in healing. Talk to others about your friend; share your memories, look back over pictures, tell stories. Tell others what you need. If you don’t, they won’t know how much you hurt, regardless how the friendship ended. And, in the sharing, you may begin to forge a new friendship.
A final note: Some women are afraid to acknowledge how angry they are at their friend for leaving them. Don’t be. She may have had no control over dying, but she has left you. Your love for her demands you be angry at her not being there for you. That is an expression of your love.
DR. KAREN GAIL LEWIS has 42 years’ experience as a family therapy, with a specialization in friendships, single women, and adult siblings. She is author of numerous books on relationships, including Why Don’t You Understand? A Gender Relationship Dictionary. In addition, for 17 years, she has run Unique Retreats For Women – with specific retreats for single women and adult siblings. She has offices in Cincinnati and Washington, DC, and provides telephone consultations.
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