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