The Truth About Friendship
Have I mentioned I’ve been doing some reading?
My husband came home yesterday and laughingly said, “I’m getting the most depressing Amazon alerts…so how many more books on grief are out there, do you think?”
Yup. I’m nothing if not thorough…
(Yeah, that didn’t feel good to me either…I’m nothing if not slightly obsessed? That’s better).
Either way, these books (podcasts, TED talks, and cartoon shorts) on grief have me all depressed.
And not for the reasons that you think.
Before I say more, it’s really important to me that you know that I am not being crappy about someone else’s work. I’m not naming names and telling you to never read these books. Most books on grief are written by truly heartbroken people, who are offering readers insights out of empathy and a way of validating their own experience. I am truly grateful for their efforts. We all are.
I just wish they would stop saying a few things. And maybe say a few differently. We read to feel seen and understood, right? I’ve read twenty-seven books (oh, I wasn’t going to admit that, damn it) and thus far I’m still a little lost and waiting to hear a few specific truths.
And begrudgingly, I’m going to talk about one of those truths now (and if you know of someone more articulate, better educated, smarter, taller, prettier and less of a jerk who has already written this, for the love of all that is holy please tell me and I’ll delight in adding their work to my resource page).
My truth is about friends.
If you are a griever, you are going to get this immediately. If you love a griever you are about to say, “oh God I hope that wasn’t me. It’s me, isn’t it? I have to make a call…”
For each griever, there is one (maybe more than one) friend/family member who is sucking for them right now.
We have already covered the people who say all the wrong things (bless).
This is a different sort of betrayal.
I’m talking about the people who just don’t show up.
These folks get a solid mention in almost every book. If you talk to someone in grief, they can tell you exactly what that person is currently not doing. They aren’t calling. They didn’t stop by. They didn’t come to the funeral. They didn’t mention the loss. It’s a brutal story of hurt piled upon hurt.
Are you ready for the truth? And trust me, I hate this truth as much as you do…
It was always going to be this way.
I know, I know. You want the person who is currently hurting the crap out of you to be a villain. Maybe you have generally surrounded yourself with terrible people and the redemption story will be a cleaning house of relationships.
But I doubt it.
You, like me, and every other person who has ever been through a loss, are simply surrounded by humans. Actual imperfect humans who occasionally make things suck more by not showing up.
When my dad was dying, I was incredibly lucky to have a carefully curated collection of the best friends and family on the planet (I’m sure yours are great, too, but honestly, my friends could beat up your friends). When my mom died suddenly the universe gave me the gift of my husband, my siblings, and the two women who have been down in the grief bunker with me before and I with them, I hope, physically onhand like emotional EMT’s.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice an empty seat or two.
I want to tell you that it didn’t hurt…that I was so well covered by my team, and so enlighted by Deepak and Oprah and all that meditating I have been forgetting to do that I was above feeling anything but tranquility and peace.
But it hurt. One friend in particular (**editor’s note, if you are my personal friend, and you are reading this, I am not talking about you. The person I am talking about knows what I am about to say…we have hashed it out. It sucked and hurt us both, and we are not exactly okay, but that is okay), was completely absent as my dad was dying. I’ve known him since high school. My kids refer to him as an “uncle” and as I was spending hours sitting with my dying dad, he was falling deeply in love for the first time in his life.
I want to be clear. I adore this friend. BIG TIME love. And it is not lost on me that I was also not there for him at an important time in his life. A part of me wants to say the petty sentence in my ten-year-old mind — you know what it is right? BUT MY DAD WAS DYING. I WIN (or lose as is the case).
But here’s what I actually know.
The death of your parent (or parents in my case) is actually a developmental phase — a normal progression of life. Something that happens to everyone. A significant life event.
Like going to college, starting a new job, your first serious relationship, moving in, getting married, changing jobs, having a baby (omg, thank god for editing, I initially accidentally wrote shaving a baby..woah), sending kids to college, becoming a grandparent, retiring…
And do you know what those events have in common?
You lose friends.
Be honest. You did. When you went to college you broke up with your hometown girlfriend, or your bestie was weird when you came home for Christmas.
When you got your first serious boyfriend, your roommate Chantelle started talking about you behind your back — you never want to go out anymore, you won’t do anything without your boyfriend…
When you got married you couldn’t decide if you still wanted Ryan in your wedding. I mean, you had always been such good friends, but the past two years were different, and what if he took that job in North Carolina, would you even see him anymore?
Don’t even get me started on the babies. I have sat in my office with equally devasted parties…she had a baby and she doesn’t call or want to go out anymore AND I had a baby and she doesn’t call, or want to go out anymore.
And I hate to say this… it’s just normal.
Look, I am not for one second trying to say it doesn’t or shouldn’t suck. It does. And when you are already grieving, losing or simply feeling disappointed in a friendship is so unfair it makes me want to rage against the machine (my favorite kind of rage).
But it’s just standard. Average. Typical.
And I think we should tell the truth about that.
The books I have been reading sometimes mention losing other relationships as part of grief. In many cases they suggest there is something we should do to fix it.
But what if we just accepted it? What if someone (I’m looking at you Oprah) changed the narrative to “this is a natural part of grief …” I mean sweet mother, the number of times I have to read about Kubler-Ross’ inane and inaccurate and misinterpreted “stages of grief…” Couldn’t we scrap the stages altogether (we can, I promise you) and tell the truth.
When someone you love dies, friendships take a hit. It will hurt.
And I’m not trying to be all bright side here, but if we can struggle less against the truth there will be less suffering. And if we can do that, there is another truth connected to losing friends…
When someone you love dies, new friendships develop, old ones deepen and it will surprise and delight and possibly save you.
We are wired to notice pain first. And when we are already in pain, it’s simplest to feel more pain. When we are already losing we feel more loss.
For every person missing from a funeral, there is also one who showed up. An unexpected face in the crowd who makes you crumple in gratitude.
In therapy that quote..”There is darkness before the dawn (yeah, I’m sure I butchered it, go ahead and send me the real citation…everyone loves that guy)” reminds us that if you make friends with disappointment, pain, grief, loss, you also get the light, and love and the grace of connection.
I can’t tell you if I will ever forget the empty seats at my father’s and mother’s funerals.
But you know what I won’t ever forget? The unexpected face of my high school roommate standing with my friends from adulthood at my father’s funeral. She’d driven hours, on her husband’s birthday.
Or greeting people at the entrance of my mother’s funeral and finding myself looking into the tear-filled eyes of the neighbor who ran the farm up the street. And her daughter who had been my dearest and best friend from third through eighth grade. And her son who had been the copilot to my younger brother’s formative (and not always entirely safe) childhood experiences. They’d taken ferries and cars and trains to be with us (on their father’s birthday come to think of it. What’s with the devastation and celebration on the same day…seems like the universe is trying to make a point here? Shut up universe. No one likes a know it all).
There will always be people who don’t show up. But the love I felt in those moments is still so overwhelming it makes me cry to write that.
And that, my dear grief mates, is also the truth.