We got an email last week from someone who lost a friend. Not just any friend died, her best friend died. The kind of friend that is family. You know the kind of friend I mean. Here is a little clip from her email:
I have had a terrible time finding anything online about losing your best friend. She was my closest, dearest friend for 25+ years. We lived less than a mile apart. We were like Oprah and Gayle best friends, you know? We vacationed together, etc. She was never married and I’m divorced, so we didn’t have the distraction of families. I have a son but she was childless and loved my son like her own. He’s grown, though, so we were able to hang out daily as best friends often do when they’re younger, before marriages, etc.
Do you have any suggestions for me? I can’t be the only person dealing with this.
Of course she is right, we know she is certainly not the only person dealing with this. Yet off the top of my head, I couldn’t remember reading many articles specifically on coping when a best friend dies. This, of course, inspired me to do a Google search to see what’s out there. That turned up a few sites on losing a pet (your other best friend) . . .
What struck me most was the simultaneous lack of information on the topic, coupled with an overabundance of vague, generalized crap grief advice. Articles that are so broad and empty that you could title them “dealing with the loss of _________”, fill that blank in with just about anything, and have it work. I don’t know why that continues to surprise me – it was the whole reason we started What’s Your Grief – but it does.
The articles I found gave the same advice you might give anyone grieving: don’t avoid the pain, remember you aren’t alone, remember all your great memories . . . blah blah blah. I mean, it isn’t that those things aren’t true; they are. It’s just that, let’s be honest, in the midst of your despair and confusion related to a very specific grief experience, hearing the same old broad, vague advice, again and again, is just frustrating. And finding a post called “How to Get Over Losing a Best Friend That Passed Away”? Well, that just shouldn’t even be allowed because, really? How to get over it? Oh, okay. Sure. Are there 7 easy steps?
Alright, sorry. Rant over.
Anyway, all of this is just to say that this post is not going to be about all the general ways to deal with grief. We have a zillion other posts on coping with grief in a zillion different ways. All types of loss have their unique challenges and this post is going to be about what makes dealing with the loss of a friend uniquely difficult. Ready?
Aristotle described deep friendship saying, “What is a friend? A single soul in two bodies”. Plato reflected deeply and extensively on the nature of friendship and love. Thousands of years later, psychologists are helping us understand why friendship is so important.
We know from a review of 148 studies on friendship that there is a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. Yup, people with good friends live longer and are healthier! Spending time with friends actually reduces stress in women by increasing their oxytocin levels, friendship has been linked with lower rates of hypertension and heart disease and women with breast cancer who had close friendships were found to live longer than those who did not.
I can throw all this friendship data at you, I can share the CS Lewis quote I love, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival”, but at the end of the day it is something that feels impossible to describe.
Friendship is deep and powerful and amazing, but it is hard to really explain why. If you have a close friend you just know what I mean. No surprise, when a friend dies, like when a family member dies, we don’t “get over it”. We learn to live with it. It may get different, it may get easier, but it is always with us.
What is it about losing a friend that is particularly isolating? Why are there so few articles? Why aren’t more people talking about it?
First, society doesn’t recognize what a big deal friendship is.
You know that your friend is family, that you love them as deeply, maybe even more deeply than your brother or your mom. Plato and Aristotle knew. But society in general? That is another story. Society often values family relationships over friendships. There is a weight given to your relationship with your parents or siblings or grandparents or spouse that comes from the title alone.
Somehow talking about your bestie often doesn’t feel like it carries that same weight. Ironically, your relationship with that friend may have been as, if not more, important. This can feel especially crappy when a friend dies and those around you don’t give you the same support and validation that they would have had it been a family member.
Along with that, your friend’s family may not welcome you or get how close you were.
This isn’t always true, but if you didn’t know your friend’s family members they may not understand the nature or depth of your friendship. This could be because they didn’t know you, your friend didn’t talk with them about you. They might not get it for some of the same reasons society doesn’t.
You may want to connect with them, share memories, and be part of memorial events. Unfortunately, they may not be as welcoming as you imagined. This can make an already impossible time feel even harder. You’re left wanting to scream “I loved her as much as you did!!!!” at them.
It brings up our own mortality.
This one always feels weird or self-involved to talk about it, but it is a fact so let’s all just get over it. When people die it brings up our feelings about our own death. This can be especially true when it is someone who is “like” us and our friends are often “like” us. Research proves it – we are often friends with people who are similar to us in age, health, socio-economic status, education, and who are even genetically similar to us. For real! When they die it is a reminder that we will die and, who knows, it could be soon.
It can change your relationship with other friends.
This is a complicated one because the reasons this can happen are broad. But it is important because when you are grieving it is often the time that you need support the most and, in some cases, it is the very time that support from other friends can feel hardest to come by for many reasons.
Your other friends may not know how to handle your grief, so they distance themselves. Or, you may all be grieving differently and are struggling to support each other. It is also not uncommon to feel a sudden need to distance yourself from your other friends.
No matter what the reason, it is important to think about how you can make efforts to maintain relationships or seek other support, so you don’t fall into unhealthy isolation. A good place to start is assessing your support system.
You think you will never have another friend like them again.
And you know what, this is true. You will never have another friend exactly like the person you lost. Your friendship was as unique as the two of you. But this doesn’t mean you won’t have other wonderful, meaningful friendships.
When we grieve, there is often a pervasive fear of losing that connection to the person we lost. We worry that if we start to feel ‘better’ it means we are forgetting that person or moving on. With friendships, there can be a feeling that, if I let new friends in, I am forgetting or replacing the friend I lost.
Keep in mind, no one is ever going to replace your friend. Ever. You will have new friendships, they will be unique and close and amazing in their own way, but they will never be a replacement for the person who died. That said, opening yourself up to other friendships is a really good, really important thing.
Your friend is who always got you through the tough stuff.
When I think of my best friends, they are the ones I go to when life gets tough: breakups, divorces, financial troubles, school problems and job problems, illnesses, deaths, whatever. When life gets tough your bestie is often your go-to person. So when that person is gone you feel especially alone. You feel desperate, lonely, and devastated and your instinct is to call the one person who is no longer there to support you.
So what can you do?
Well, I am not going to run through all the general grief coping stuff here because you can check out the tons of other posts we have on that – take care of yourself, find ways to continue bonds, figure out your coping style. But I will mention a couple of things to keep in mind.
First and most importantly, when others around you are making you feel like you don’t have the right to grieve the loss of your friend in the way or time that you need, remember that you absolutely deserve the space to grieve. Work probably won’t give you bereavement leave, others may not acknowledge the depth of your relationship, but it is important you remember that you have every right to the grief and devastation you feel.
Something that can help with that is connecting with others who have lost friends. This can be tough because often support groups are for the loss of a spouse, parent or child. Even if it is a general support group, you find it is filled with people who have lost a family member, not a friend.
Look for a local support group on the death of a best friend. Many local hospices and grief centers are willing to place people in groups with individuals with shared experiences. So, talk to your local grief center or hospice and see if they may offer a group that would be a good fit for you.
Music, music, music
Lastly, look at music. I know, this seems like a big shifting of gears. But as I was thinking about friendship and the nature of friendship, it got me thinking about music. Though many parts of society don’t validate and talk about the loss of a friend, musicians seem to be the exception. There are a lot of amazing songs about losing a friend that get at the depth of those relationships and the devastation of the losses.
We have a huge list of songs about the death of a friend here. And here are just a couple, if you don’t want to see the whole list.
A classic . . . James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, written about the death of his friend Suzanne Schnerr. It also draws from some of his own struggles with addiction.
Another favorite that I am sure I have shared before, Elephant by Jason Isbell. In an interview on NPR Isbell explained that this song wasn’t about losing one particular friend. Rather, it is about several different “bar friends” who died.
For now just one more: Lou Reed’s My House, about the death of his friend and mentor, Delmore Schwartz. Warning, if you’re not a Lou Reed person this might not be your thing!
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