What Happened to Best Friends Forever? Grieving The Loss of a Living Friend

Types of Grief and Loss / Types of Grief and Loss : Eleanor Haley

The loss of a living friend feels especially relevant right now. Sure, breaking up with a friend has always been hard to do, but 2020 seems to be a banner year for the disintegration of relationships. I blame the giant crevasse that we call the political divide.

The degree to which conflicts and disagreements bend or break a person’s relationships is entirely subjective. Some people view particular disputes, offenses, beliefs, and attitudes as make-or-break. Some manage to keep their friendships stable as long as there is any common ground left to stand on. Some allow second, third, and fourth chances.

Some cling to a sense of shared history and affection for the person they used to know, only to finally realize their friend has shifted so far in their entire way of being and believing they’re effectively a stranger. Am I getting a little too specific here?

Let’s move on.

The loss of a friend as a secondary loss

There’s an added layer of relevancy to this topic for WYG’s audience because friendship loss is a common secondary loss after experiencing the death of a loved one. Hardship changes a person’s support system for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • People don’t always know what to do in a crisis, so they offer bad support or disappear altogether.
  • People sometimes struggle to accept when a grieving friend doesn’t quickly return to “normal.” 
  • Grieving people sometimes feel they’ve outgrown or drifted away from certain friendships.

Grieving people often experience an interesting paradox. On the one hand, they are grieving for relationships they’ve lost. On the other, they may have a deeper appreciation for friendships they’ve kept and the new connections they’ve made since their loss (what we like to call “grief friends”). It’s important to understand, gratitude for existing relationships doesn’t cancel out grief over lost connections.

Why does friendship loss suck so much?

The reasons why your friendship break-up sucks are specific to you and your particular situation. What happened? What did the friendship mean to you? How does it make you feel about yourself, your friend, people in general? These are all questions only you can answer and, because this is a loss deserving of being grieved, we encourage you to take some time to ask yourself these questions.

Looking at the issue more broadly, we believe one of the main reasons friendship loss is so difficult is because it’s an ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is when you’re grieving a person who is still alive. ‘Ambiguous’ in this context, is another way of saying confusing and complicated. You can read more about ambiguous loss here and here.

Generally speaking, ambiguous losses are different from death losses in that:

  • It’s often unclear whether there has been a loss
  • There’s a lack of any finality (the loss is ongoing)
  • There are questions over whether the person or relationship will return to normal or be restored
  • A person may feel stuck between a sense of hope and hopelessness
  • A person may feel uncomfortable or guilty for experiencing grief-related thoughts and emotions over someone who is still alive

When the relationship has changed:

When a friendship starts to fracture, there’s often a lot of uncertainty. People might find themselves caught between grief over the loss of the friend and hope that they can someday reconcile.

When the friendship break-up is due to a conflict, you may question:

  • Who is to blame?
  • Is this friendship worth repairing?
  • Can I ever trust this friend again?
  • Why did the person give up or abandon the friendship?
  • Did I ever even know them?

When a friend has changed: 

Someone might experience ambiguous loss over a friend if their friend has undergone a drastic change in identity. Specifically, Pauline Boss, who introduced the concept of ambiguous loss, discusses loved ones who are physically still with us, but who have undergone a significant identity change but are expected to be who they always were.

Obviously, people change over time. So we’re talking about changes in identity that may seem a little more drastic. For example, if someone:

  • joins or leaves a devoutly religious group
  • changes their identity for the sake of a new relationship
  • joins a cult
  • goes through a life-changing experience (yes, like grief)
  • enters drug or alcohol recovery
  • significantly changes their belief system, lifestyle, or priorities.
  • etc

In these instances, one may feel the person looks the same but is completely and utterly changed. Many will hold onto their shared history and hope that the person they once knew will reemerge, only to repeatedly feel frustrated and let down when it doesn’t happen.

Does this always mean the friend has changed for the worse? No, of course not. Consider the scenario of someone with a substance use disorder getting sober. That’s a good thing! But, no doubt, it changes a person’s priorities and relationships. Perhaps his friend-group consists of drinking buddies who still expect him to be the life of the party. No matter how many times he says he’s sober, certain friends will always offer him a drink.

Sometimes friendships can adapt and withstand major change – and sometimes they just no longer work. Often it takes people a long time to understand the relationship is over, and usually, there’s a lot of grief that comes with acknowledging the loss of the friendship.

Coping with the loss of a living friend

You may have a hard time labeling your experience as loss or grief because you’re used to associating these things with death. Also, because you may feel so hurt, angry, or abandoned that you want to say, “this is no loss to me!” 

But if the relationship mattered to you, I’m willing to bet you’re grieving at least something. Whether you’re grieving the person, the person you thought they were, or your entire faith in humanity, there’s loss – and where there is loss – there is grief. 

You also may be struggling with many unanswered questions. One question in particular that many people struggle with goes something like: “

Did I ever know this person?” or “Should I define this relationship by how it ended?

Again, you’ll have to find your own answers to these questions, but I do urge you to consider the reality that, sad as it may be, people come and go from our lives. Why does friendship have to be forever to have been worthwhile? And why does the end get to override the good stuff at the beginning and the middle?

I get that sometimes the end feels so egregious and revealing that it changes how we view everything. I’ve definitely had a few relationships like that. I also get that sometimes people hold onto anger and pain as a warning not to make the same mistakes again.

However, I do think it’s possible to hope that in the future, when we feel less burned and less vulnerable, that we can view the relationship as something that was good for a little while and then ended. If not that, but as something that was bad, but which we learned from.

Maybe not – maybe you’ll find very different answers. Regardless, I urge you to take the time to process what you’ve been through. If you’re not sure where to start, things like journaling and talking about your experiences can help you find perspective. Also, if you want to learn more about coping with ambiguous loss, read the second half of this article: Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone who is Still Alive.

breakup with a friend

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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7 Comments on "What Happened to Best Friends Forever? Grieving The Loss of a Living Friend"

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  1. mary  October 3, 2020 at 5:16 am Reply

    During our Covid 19 lockdown i was on the verge of coping with my own terrible lonliness and intense anxiety with caring for my profoundly disabled spouse and the awful fear of somehow getting covid and infecting him and everyone at his resthome. My close friend who has always only confided in me with major issues was also going through a crisis- hers involving a bad relationship. One night when my own spouse was having a crisis she rang in a crisis. I found myself shaking with anxiety and stress, and anger as she knew how hard things were for me. I had to reach out to some other friends to help her as i was unable. Since then i have had to step back from being the go to person when she is in crisis as i just can’t cope any more- I feel so very ashamed but something about covid has broken me and i have nothing to give other than focusing on my immediate family. I haven’t been texting her regularly or meeting up weekly anymore- i hate being strategic like this but i feel so scared of it happening again. She has always been such a kind friend and i feel like i have let her down.

  2. Betty Potash  October 2, 2020 at 7:15 pm Reply

    I had known my friend since my 20’s….she got married and moved away …she came back into my life 16 years ago…we reconnected……when my mother died 3 years ago she never came to the funeral nor to the shiva……….I still remained friends…..however, now her husband has cancer and she never told me much about his cancer……I recently asked her 2 questions.( she only does texting)…….about her husband’s health and she texted me very angrily and was almost nasty……..I have tried to extend myself and try to smooth things over…to no avail she has not responded…….at this point, I am beginning to realize perhaps she does not know how to be a friend….I am very sad…

  3. atb1  October 2, 2020 at 1:11 pm Reply

    A lot of the time, it’s nothing you have done, it’s that the other person has married or is associating with someone who has undue influence on their decisions. I had a friend whom I met in college- she was always flighty and under confident because she came from a very large family where females were not considered to be full human beings. She seemed to be always searching for answers and trying to learn more than what was taught her in her home life. Unfortunately, men became her escape. When she was with a man who was reasonable, nice and good, all was well between us. But when she was with someone who was trying to dominate her, she always succumbed to it. Now, she is on her second husband and upteenth career…The second husband apparently decided he doesn’t like me or perhaps my husband and so, that was the end of my relationship with my “friend.” The last time we met, she told me that he was only nice to us in the beginning because he was trying to impress her. Now, she supports him because he quit his job and decided to be a poet. When my father died a couple months ago, I let her know because frankly, she spent a lot of time with my family and my parents were very good to her. She texted me back and sent a sympathy card but it felt hollow to me. I went to her father’s funeral and spoke with her as he was dying. I now accept that there is nothing I can do to help her and that the friendship I thought we had wasn’t real. Unfortunately, people are unreliable, fickle and self-involved. That’s just how it is in life.

  4. Colin  October 2, 2020 at 12:23 pm Reply

    Interesting enough its not just the loss of a friend. Its also the loss of a family member who is still living but has changed due to the loss of another family member – in his case his mother. He has become estranged from his family and girlfriend and seems to increasingly focus on his dog. That too is a loss of a living person.

    In my case I get to the point where I get emotionally drained due to the loss of my wife. I have lost living friends, made new ones and there are also friends who allow me to withdraw at times to recharge.

  5. Anonymous  October 2, 2020 at 12:18 pm Reply

    If I had any advice for a young person, it would be this: Learn to accept the natural ebb and flow of friendships in this grand journey called Life. For various reasons, friends may come and go. Some friends may be lifelong; most aren’t. Don’t fight change or expect more than Life can realistically deliver.

  6. anonymous  October 1, 2020 at 6:51 pm Reply

    Thank you for this post.

    I’ve had very powerful conversations with myself about all of the above.
    None of this, for me, is due to politics.

    I’ve learned it best not to run towards any fires.
    To be super gentle with myself.
    To feed my body nourishing foods and feed my inner life nourishment, too.

    Music and fresh air and yard work help me stay grounded yet free.
    And prayer and meditation, which, for me mostly happens sitting on the front steps, with morning coffee or afternoon tea. Outside with birds singing, just being one with it.

    I can be analytical in matters of finance and the maintenance of home, yet find that analyzing relationships, for me, is a sure path to zero peace of mind and emotions.

    I live in a part of the USA where we have 4 seasons, and they allow me visual reminders of the cycles of life. That is a comfort to me.
    Life, and relationships, with others and with myself, really do change. Naturally. No point resisting. Best for me to feel it all and trust the cycles.

    I continue to sense the love of my husband around me and within me, still.
    His Spirit left his body in the season of Winter.

    October is his birthday month.
    Then November, our wedding anniversary month.
    Then St. Nicholas Day, December 6th.
    All, for us, in the season of Autumn.
    And for us, always bright, light, joy-of-a-child months.

    It is the Spirit of a person which remains with me, and once I get past the fear of being (seemingly) alone on this dense earth, I am able to settle in to a place of acceptance.

    • CC  October 11, 2020 at 9:54 pm Reply

      This was beautiful. I also recently lost my husband and everything you said about self care is so true. Thank you for writing such a lovely, moving comment.


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