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Guest Post: What do you say to someone who has just lost a friend?

October 8, 2010 | By | 16 Replies Continue Reading

By Kris Hintz

I recently lost a close girlfriend after a brave two-year battle with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Debbie had always been a bold, funny, active woman. Our families had enjoyed adventurous travels while our sons were growing up. It was difficult watching the daring friend who had once convinced me to zip line through the Belizean jungle lose her independence, and eventually her life, to this relentless, incurable disease.

This experience reminded me how fortunate I was to have the rare privilege of close female friendship. I learned that the death of a cherished friend brings a uniquely poignant sense of loss that many have never experienced, and few understand.

The week after Debbie’s passing, I attended a breakfast gathering of a professional group in my community. Funeral services and follow-up obligations to the family had been time-consuming and exhausting. I had obtained accommodations in other areas of my life. Unfortunately, I had missed a meeting of this group, forgetting to make backup arrangements. A colleague took me aside about the oversight. I explained the sad situation I had repeated to many in recent weeks. To my surprise, my colleague completely ignored my description of my friend’s death and reiterated the importance of faithful attendance.

It is no revelation that our society is awkward and ambivalent about death, we have a “get on with it” culture, and insensitive people abound. My feelings bounced from incredulity to outrage, but after recovering I realized that friendship loss is a special case in our grief-phobic society. When an immediate family member passes, it is standard etiquette to say, “Sorry for your loss!” Employers add, “Take the time you need.” But what about when the deceased is “just” a friend?

Friendship is not an “official” legal or biological relationship, like a spouse or parent. It is entirely voluntary with no formal, binding responsibilities. Friendship is not universally defined; it means something different to every individual. There are so many shades of closeness. We say, “my friend” whether referring to a colleague, minor acquaintance, someone we’ve just met, long lost school chum, next door neighbor, shopping buddy, fellow parent in our child’s school, or intimate friend who has shared thick and thin with us forever. When someone says, “My friend died,” what kind of friend is she talking about? How should we respond?

I have seen more public discussion of pet bereavement than friend loss. We have all seen postings for pet loss support groups. For pet owners, the loss of a beloved animal can be more painful than the loss of relatives, especially for the elderly. As a passionate dog lover and lukewarm cat lover, I am a big believer in the “rainbow bridge” myself. I am the first to express empathy to a pet mourner, perhaps drawing the line only at fish.

So what about friends? Civility and sensitivity, qualities not abundant in modern life, nevertheless hold the key. If someone says, “My friend died,” I naturally presume it is a close friend. I may ask how the deceased’s family is doing, but first I ask how the bereaved friend is doing. Once I even sent flowers to a friend who lost a friend.

Why not? Just as there is nothing more soul-satisfying than a treasured friendship, there is nothing more poignant than the deep, sad ache for a cherished confidant with whom you can no longer share your everyday escapades or innermost thoughts.

Kris Hintz is a college, graduate school and career consultant for students and young adults, founder of Position U 4 College in Basking Ridge NJ. She is the author of collegeblog and careerblog. She is married with one son, a sheltie, border collie, black cat, and many cherished friends.


Related posts on The Friendship Blog on the death of a friend:

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Category: Death

Comments (16)

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  1. LaTrice says:

    My best friend passed away seven years ago from diabetes complications. We graduated from high school together, and she was the ONLY person that I maintained a friendship with. I will cherish that one week I spent with her at Walt Disney World.

    My best friend called me one month before she passed away. She told me that she was moving to another state, and wanted to pursue a career as a nurse. I told her to give me her address as soon as she was settled, and I wanted to visit her.

    I called my best friend on her birthday, asking if she can call me back as soon as she gets settled. I was relieved when she called me back. When I was checking my voice mail box, it was her stepmother, asking if I could call her back. By the sound of her voice, I knew that something was wrong. The next day, I returned her stepmother’s phone call, and that’s when she told me that my best friend passed away. I was hysterical!!! How could my best friend leave WAY BEFORE HER TIME? It wasn’t fair that I had to lose someone that I loved and cared about. Although my best friend and I had very little in common, we still had that bond.

    I’m thankful and blessed that my best friend from high school allowed me to be a part of her life. I appreciate the fact that she didn’t judge me, and loved me for myself.

    I know that I will see my best friend again someday, but for now, she’s my guardian angel.

  2. Irene says:

    It is hard to understand what your daughter understands and is experiencing but she may be doing well if there are no obvious signs of distress on her part.

     

    Do you belong to a parent’s support group? They may be able to give you practical strategies for helping your daughter and helping yourself.

     

    Warm regards,

    Irene

  3. Anonymous says:

    The loss of a friend or family member is terrible and sad, but I have found that it has been harder on my daughter who has Down syndrome that it has been on me. Her concepts of life and death, time and eternity, heaven and hell, are very vague and inconsistent. She grieves privately for the most part, and it’s been very hard to get her to talk to us about her pain. I have found that she opens up much more easily to a professional (counselor, therapist) than to us, and that has been hard for us. I think she thinks she’ll upset us if she talks about her own grief. It’s difficult to know what to say to her, how to respond to her tears, when to talk and when to just stay quiet and hold her.
    Vivian

  4. Irene says:

    I am so sorry that your grandfather’s health is failing. He must be very frightened and upset. Have you spoken to your parents about this? To your grandma? How is she holding up? You might suggest that she speak to his physician if she is as upset as you are.

    Hugs, Irene

  5. Anonymous says:

    my grandfather has had this disease for a little while and he already lost him legs and his arms are going….he is always upset and taking it out on me and my grandma…i dont know what to do anymore i am always upset and i dont realy know what to do please help me… i really need it please even as i say this i am starting to cry please someone give me advise.

  6. Ruby Taylor says:

    Death is an unavoidable part of the cycle of life, yet one is never truly prepared for losing a love one. It’s important to keep yourself as busy as possible when overcoming your grief. As you deal with loss, there may be some days when you feel like you have made progress with healing. You will be able to enjoy life again. Hang on to hope, as it is the most important thing you can do.

  7. Kris says:

    Hi–I was the writer of the post. My heart goes out to you about the loss of your friend who committed suicide. That must have been, and still is, such a painful, complicated grief on so many levels. Everything I know about suicide is that it leaves loved ones with so many unresolved feelings, not just of loss, but deep sorrow, regret and even free-floating guilt (i.e., “Is there something I could have done to prevent this?”, etc.).

    Add to this the fact that you were not a family member. As I said in my post, in our death-phobic culture people are looking for any reason to not extend empathy, and so they seem to draw the line at reaching out to bereaved people who have “only lost a friend.”

    Our society’s death-phobia is only trumped by suicide-phobia, and nobody wants to talk about suicide. It is such an overwhelming tragedy and most people feel so inadequate about discussing it that they would rather just avoid the topic. No wonder suicide is so shrouded in silent shame.

    All the above is a recipe for painful isolation when a person has lost a friend to suicide. My heart goes out to you, having to process this enormous sorrow all alone. Hopefully you will eventually meet a friend or therapist who does understand this situation and can help you work through it, even many years after the fact. Best wishes.

  8. Irene says:

    I am sorry for your loss. I’m sure you were a wonderful support for your friend’s mom as much as she helped you!

    Thanks for your post~

    Irene

     

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this posting. My deepest sympathies for your loss. I lost one of my best friends to suicide almost six years ago. We had been friends since childhood, and he was a big part of my life and who I was as a person. Most of the time, I felt like I did not get the support that I needed from my family, co-workers, and friends. It just wasn’t seen as being as life-altering as losing a parent, spouse, or child. I felt so alone. So, everything you said her in your post really resonated with me. I have often thought about these things, but it is so nice to hear that someone else is feeling the same way. I looked for books, article, etc. on grieving for friends, particularly in terms of suicide, and I didn’t find anything helpful.

    Actually, the one person who truly acknowledged the importance of our friendship was the mother of my friend who died. She repeatedly told me how important I was in my friend’s life, and we have become close friends ourselves, now. Hearing that from her made all the difference.

    Thank you again.

  10. Kris says:

    Thanks for your kind thoughts.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Loss of a close friend can be difficult, wether person, pet, old, young. My condolences to you.

  12. Kris says:

    Kathryn: No, you didn’t hijack my post! Miscarriage is a very genuine, poignant example of how our society trivializes loss. I am so sorry for the pain you and your husband have gone through, and always will on some level. The fact that you have had to “keep silent” about these losses rubs salt in the wound!

    It is dumbfounding that we are a planet full of people who are so miserly about sympathy that we have to be so limited about what we consider “legitimate” loss. The community organization I mentioned in my post has a policy of sending fruit baskets to members who have lost a parent. But a friend? Sorry, no fruit basket for you!

    Insensitivity is always a wake-up call to get a better class of friends. I am thankful that I have been lucky enough to find some special human beings who don’t measure how much empathy should be given out; they offer it freely. They get it, and they get me. I hope that you have found friends like that, with whom you can truly be yourself, and don’t have to be silent about your losses, or your joys.

    Can’t resist another quote from the Bard: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” (Macbeth)

  13. Kathryn says:

    My condolences, also.

    Having come from a less-than-healthy family of origin, i cherish my friends & am often (at least when i was younger) surprised that other people don’t feel the same. Some people seem to make friends so easily, so perhaps friendship isn’t a big deal to them.

    I have a hard time calling someone a “friend” until i’ve known them for a long time. “Acquaintance” is such an awkward word, yet that is the word i frequently use for someone new to me. To have someone call me “friend” quickly is rather a surprise to me.

    We have lost 3 to miscarriage, & had they lived we would have 3 young children between the ages of 16 months & 4-1/2 years. It is hard for me not to speak of them, but i’ve learned i need to keep quiet because in our society, no one knows how to handle these losses.

    I didn’t mean to hijack your post with this comment. I am sorry for your loss. This is something long term & not easily set aside. I don’t think we should have to forget this pain, but it isn’t easy to be part of our culture & embrace grief.

  14. Anonymous says:

    repeat

  15. Kris says:

    Thanks, Smitty, for your kind words, and I also feel for you after the losses of your friends. Yes, we live in a non-empathetic time. People seem to think that a grief has to be “justified” before heartfelt sympathy can be extended. Or if they themselves have not experienced exactly the same kind of loss, it doesn’t “rate” and they can’t relate to it. All kinds of loss can be trivialized in this way, ranging from miscarriage or infertility to job loss or a child going off to college.

    As Shakespeare wrote, “Everyone can master a grief but he who has it.”

    Thanks again for your kind thoughts and words.

  16. Smitty says:

    Dear Kris:
    My condolences to you! Not only did you lose a cherished friend, you had the pain of seeing the decline in her life due to this insidious illness Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    I’ve lost two dear friends to illnesses & I did have condolences offered — but then the sympathy abuptly stopped when people found out my friends were a lot older than me. Talk about strange. They acted like it wasn’t a “real” friend since the friends who died were 20 years older than me. I’ve never figured this out.

    I think we tend to live in a non-empathetic time. If someone hasn’t lost a dear friend, they can’t relate to the loss. So they downgrade it.

    I too have found that the loss of a pet seems to rate higher than that of a friend sometimes.

    I wish I had words of comfort for you. I know how hard this time is for you, and I am wishing you all the best.

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