“If a friendship lasts 7 years, psychologists say it will last a lifetime.” I’m calling bs on that cute little meme. Many people are fortunate enough to have such relationships, and I count a few long-term patient people among my friends. But still many more of us know that the time you put into a friendship is no guarantee of success. Friendships end. Not all, but many do. Sometimes it’s with a fight, a betrayal, a bang. Sometimes it’s with distance, time, a whimper. And none of us are immune to the death of a friendship after a major life change – weddings and babies are like sieves that not everyone makes it through.
I’ve seen my share of friendships end so don’t think I’m referring to any one person when I say I’ve mourned. Years ago I found myself searching the internet for coping skills on friendships ending. My face was sticky with hot tears, my stomach knotted in grief. I was in pain, in mourning, in disbelief, and didn’t know what to do. There was nothing I could do to salvage this relationship that had once been so precious to me, and I couldn’t just sit with the sadness. I needed something to do, a guide, a tip, some way to get through this.
But there was nothing.
Lots of stuff about how to get over an unworthy boyfriend, a few things on how to pick yourself up after the loss of a job, but nothing about how to deal with the loss of a confidant, surrogate sister, and the other half of so many happy memories. Sure, the stages of grief can apply, and yeah, getting over someone isn’t too terribly different just because you didn’t date. Love is love and grief is grief, but there’s something distinctly tragic about the loss of a friendship that leaves us raw and aching in a way no other breakup can. Friendship is felt in a different part of our selves, has a comfort and familiarity to it that we don’t notice until it’s gone. We trust our friends with our secrets and share with them our silliest of memories, so when they leave they seem to take those with them. It’s like the door we were leaning against suddenly opens and we fall flat without the support we didn’t realize we’d come to rely upon. Even when that door opens slowly, we can feel it giving way, but we still can’t stop it and we’re still left standing alone with a whole half of ourselves exposed that was previously firmly against our support. Got some good news to share? A secret to spill? An inside joke that you’re dying to laugh at? You turn and are left with the gaping doorway now, a giant hole. Instead of the familiar you are left with… nothing. Well, the pain is there. The ache of missing someone who is very much alive, of the realization that you must retrain your brain and rid yourself of the muscle memory that tries to constantly direct you to where your friend once was. The old adage tells us that when a door closes a window opens, but loss is much more an exposed and open door than a shut one.
This is where I was when I found myself searching for how to deal with the living loss of a friend.
Over my years of hurting and healing I’ve come to a few realizations that I hope will help you in coping with the same loss. I can’t say I have tips or tricks or exercises, because really you can’t trick a heart into healing or speed the process up, but you can allow it to make itself whole again.
First, allow yourself the memories. Whether there was a huge, emotional blow-up over a devastating betrayal or the two of you just drifted apart, you get to keep the memories. If they’re good ones, you’re still allowed to smile at them. No matter how mad or sad you are at the end of the friendship, the memories before that are happy and should be left that way. You had your laughs, your jokes, your special movies and shared memories. Your friend was a comfort and a joy at one point – don’t rewrite the past by not allowing yourself to remember those times fondly. Whoever that friend is now, they were special then. Keep it that way.
Don’t try to replace them. The closer the friend the larger the void they leave. Sure, you’ll have another best friend someday, and no one is ever limited to the number of friends they’re allowed. But don’t try to find a replacement. Don’t try to find a knock-off version of the friend you’ve lost. Don’t compare potential suitors to the past ones. Sometimes you’ll need more than one person to fill all the gaps the lost friend leaves behind. This doesn’t mean the new friends aren’t as good as the old one, it doesn’t mean you’ll never find that same closeness again. It means that everyone has unique gifts to offer each other, and while one may fill your laughing tank you may need another who will listen without judgement. Don’t try to find someone who will do everything for you. Don’t compare your new friendship to the deep one you’re grieving. And don’t scroll through your contacts to create a queue for best friend auditions. The living person you’ve lost was special and unique, and whether you think of them now fondly or ferociously, who they were to you will always be special and unique. Let everyone else be as special and unique as they can with you.
Wish them well. Seriously. As you work through the stages of grief – or as you work through the disbelief at whatever event has led to the end of your friendship – wish them well. Whoever they are, they’re stuck with themselves. You’re not around anyway to see them hit their shins on trailer hitches so why waste your energy hoping for it? It would be impossible to remember the good times fondly if every thought of the person you shared them left you seething with bitterness. Healing just isn’t possible while holding onto hatred. However it ended, they once meant a great deal to you. Protect what you had – and your own heart – by wishing them well.
Don’t wait around for them to realize their mistake. Denial is part of the natural process of grief. Hope is inescapable and can protect the heart by easing into the pain of sudden blows. Let yourself accept that it’s over. Delete their contact information from your phone. Yes, at some point they may miss you, too – you’re awesome, after all, right? But don’t pin your hopes on getting a text or message bursting with apologies and promises and invitations to dinner. Allow yourself to accept the finality of the situation. It will suck. It will hurt. But it’s the reality.
Admit any contribution you may have made to the demise of your friendship. Obviously there was nothing you could have done if your friend turned out to be living a double life as a snake you’d never have recognized, but in the cases of slow death, repressed hurt feelings, misunderstandings that festered, take the time to examine yourself. None of us are perfect. If you seem to have a lot of friendships fizzle, do some self reflection and honestly own – then address – what you may have done to aide in their expiration. Improve yourself. Don’t allow yourself to believe the hype that makes it easier to hate – you won’t heal if you simply point the finger and try to move on. Reflect. Admit. Accept. Grow.
Grieve. It seems so simple to say, doesn’t it? Of course you’ll grieve, right? In all the searching I did for help in getting over the living loss of a friend, not finding much tells me that no, we don’t know it’s okay to grieve. The person is still alive, after all, so what’s to mourn? If you’re mad at them then you’re totally justified and shouldn’t feel the sting of sadness, right? No, dear. A friendship is a living thing, a special something that only exists between the love of two people. It strengthens over time, fills with memories, has its own unique quirks and eccentricities, and must be nurtured to grow. It’s perfectly acceptable – even necessary – then, to grieve its death. There is nothing silly or indulgent in shedding tears over a pair suddenly separated. When a friendship dies a bit of magic is lost, and the cold and lonely reality of what’s left – and what’s gone – demands adjustment, acceptance, healing, and grief. Let yourself cry. Acknowledge the loss. Something has died and it is, indeed, very very sad. It is an end, but not the end, so grieve what you must in order to move on. But maybe wait a while before you watch Beaches, there’s really only so much grief a person need face all at once.
All of this to say, if you find yourself mourning the death of a friendship that ended too soon or healing from one that didn’t end soon enough, you will be okay. You will make it through. You will heal and laugh again. You will even find yourself one day living a life you never thought wouldn’t be shared with your friend and be startled to realize just how much about you they don’t know now. This gone-away friend is not the last one you will ever have. You will make new friends, more friends, different friends. What’s gone is gone but the memories will live on, and so, my friend, will you.