The title of this post is in no way to suggest that friendship, itself, is a slow painful death. However, the end of a good friendship is one of the worst kinds of deaths: slow and so horribly painful.
Having spent so many years away from my family, most of that family rooted in the Boston area, I have gravitated to friendships to sustain me. Over the years, some friends have come to feel much more like family, our ties strong and deeply important in my life. As my husband and I have moved around– from medical school to residency, then to two different jobs in different states and completely opposite ends of the country, we’ve been even more isolated from family, and friendships have taken on more weight. Friends have filled the seats at our holiday tables; they have been by my side as I took care of my mother; many of them have helped me work through my own depression, and find my way back to solid ground. I can’t imagine life without many of the people who have become so important, over time. Until a friendship ends.
I’ve always thought friendships are much like love affairs. New friendships have a sparkly feel to them: it’s easy to feel giddy, when there seems to be so much potential in a new friend. The initial attraction and “courting” phase is much like falling in love. You like the same things; you agree about issues; perhaps you share a similar sense of humor; it feels like magic when you find those people in life. Much like dating, it’s a process, but that process can be so exciting. You get to know each other; you test the waters, and if you’re lucky, you find someone who really fits– and a friendship is born.
When I was younger, this process often went
too quickly, and friendships bloomed and fizzled easily. In my youth, there was more drama, and the emotions were sometimes shallower; beginnings and endings didn’t feel as important. It’s not that I took friendship lightly… on the contrary. Things often felt super intense; but, then morphed and changed quickly. However, in youth things ebb and flow constantly, and friendships were a casualty of my inability to understand commitment and work. I didn’t understand then, the importance of good communication, or hard work– the idea that sometimes you have to push beyond hurt feelings or mistakes, and dig in, to sustain a relationship. No doubt, some of the friendships I’ve had since my childhood (one of my closest friends has been close to me since we were ten!) are the ones that I’ve come to value so much over the years. Those friends know where I came from, and where I am now, and love me still. It’s amazing that we’ve sustained relationships through years of growth and change. There were plenty of things to work out along the way, and each lasting friendship is a miracle of sorts!
As I’ve aged, my lack of understanding about how to nurture and sustain a friendship has changed completely. Good communication, working hard in relationships, digging in… These are things I do understand now, and feel strongly about. I work hard at it. I’m not an easy person to love sometimes, and I know that. I am well aware that there are those who like my big personality, and others who don’t. While I accept that, I certainly have days where I still wage internal wars with myself, and many other days when I am at peace with that reality. Over time, I’ve become much slower to make friends, I’ve learned (the hard way) that it takes time really know someone. These days, the friendships that I have tend to be much more important to me. I work hard in relationships and value enormously those who reciprocate that. I don’t let go easily, to a fault, no doubt. I chew on things and dig in, hoping to make relationships that have become important, stay important. It isn’t always possible, however, and in the end there have been losses that are hard to deal with.
For several years, I was estranged from one of the dearest people in my life. We have been friends since I was nine. She has been through nearly every important time in my life: my father’s death, school, college, getting married, and I have a photo of her holding my first child, just weeks old. The estrangement came for several reasons, but there was not a week that went by that I didn’t miss her. We finally reconnected over the past year, and we are both deeply committed to keeping the ties strong. She is my family; I love her, and life wasn’t the same without her.
I get it: things happen; emotions shift; not all friendships last forever. Even the ones you’re sure will. I guess I didn’t really understand that for a long time. In my heart, in my head, once certain thresholds have been crossed, it’s always been hard for me to imagine letting go, or moving beyond a relationship that was once vital and sacred in my life. Admittedly, it’s something I still struggle with. I’m grateful that digging in, saved the friendship I mentioned before. Others can’t be saved. There are different kinds of ends, some are easier to come to terms with than others, even if they are not easy to move past. Sometimes we meet people in our lives at a certain stage, a particular place in time, that we just meld, and it works. Our kids are the same ages; we get along as couples; or perhaps we live near each other. It’s easier to let some things go when you meet those kinds of friends. You tend to overlook little issues, that over time may or may not cause cracks. Convenience and/or comfort makes for an easy blindfold; it’s easy to overlook smaller conflicts, when you find someone you think will fit into the big picture. When things shift or change however, perhaps some of these friendships don’t hold up. If it’s a mutual break, it’s much easier to accept, and move on. When it’s one-sided, it can be hard for one or both parties. While I’m not good at letting go, in general, it’s an ending that I’ve been better at moving past, as it inherently makes sense to me.
Then there are endings that are painfully one-sided. One party changes; one person is no longer interested or invested; two people drift apart, and the ending feels unbalanced. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and it never feels good; it’s never easy. If you’re being left behind, it’s hard not to wonder what you could do differently, or try to mend fractures. It’s hard not to feel injured and defensive. Been there, done that. If you’re the one moving on, it might feel like the right step, but it isn’t necessarily pain-free. From this side, it’s easy to feel guilty and torn, despite your conviction that the friendship isn’t right for you. If you share other friends, it’s even harder. There’s often an inevitable awkwardness to social contact, for both parties. Mutual friends may feel torn, and it’s easy to feel like you’re in a sticky mess all around.
In my mind, the hardest end to a friendship is when things just get screwed up, and there’s not turning back. Hurt feelings, difficult situations, and painful moves that lead two seemingly close friends, to separate and end a friendship. I’ve said it before, these past three years have been rough. There was a lot of shit raining down on my corner of the world, and not all of my friendships came out intact. Depression, my mother’s death, tough marital issues that took a lot of energy and work, and I needed my friends more than ever. Sadly, things don’t always go the way we want, and not all fractures mend. When you’ve done all you know how to do, all you can, when “I’m sorry,” doesn’t turn the tide, and the wounds run too deep, there is an inevitable time when you have to cut the ties and let go. It sucks, and I’m terrible at it. Terrible. Leads me to crazy ass dreams, hours (and hours and hours) of wishful thinking and what ifs… More I’m sorry’s and wishing to fix something, I can’t fix. Loss, I’m not sure I’ll ever be good at it. There have been some sad days, working on growing up.
Life is complex, and one person’s expectations or hopes for a relationship doesn’t always gel with another person’s. Plain and simple. Simply painful. Relationships that once seemed indestructible, and on which I hung my hopes, didn’t stand up, and it’s a very hard pill to swallow. Admittedly, I’ve gagged on that pill too many times, before finally accepting that I just need to gulp it down. The slow end of a close friendship is a death, and there’s mourning to be done. It’s one thing to mourn someone who is truly gone, and another to mourn someone you still run into, or who still pops up on Facebook, who your kids still ask about, or you still think of often. They’re not really gone, but the relationship has died. The grieving process is twisted and surreal. Letting go is much more challenging.
If we indeed marry our best friends, as a few of you have suggested, than marriages that last are truly a gift. Why do we work so hard at those friendships, those ties, and not the others? I’ve confused those lines at times, believing a friendship is like a marriage: it takes work and commitment. They’re not the same. Is it children, or legal worries that keep us married, or is that friendship truly above all others? Is it any real mystery that so many marriages don’t last, when so many friendships putter out.
And yet, time does indeed heal all wounds; I believe that. I also know that it can take a lot more time than I’m comfortable with, but it does heal. New friendships are born, and fostered. Through our moves, and life’s changes, I’ve learned that there are always new experiences and surprising new relationships to be had. Being open to them is key. It’s easy to hold people at a distance when you feel like your life is just the way it should be, and miss out on new, rich relationships that you might never have considered, from a comfortable spot. It’s also easy to keep your head down, when you’re feeling lost. I’m also learning to look up and around a little more. Sometimes there’s something special right in front of you, that you didn’t notice, trying to hang on to relationships that weren’t working anymore. It’s good to find out that loss there is new growth and new ties.
Through all of it, I’ve learned to stand on my own more comfortably, and not expect so much. I’ve looked much closer at the mistakes I’ve made and the ways I need to change, as well as the things I just can’t change– the things that are integral to who I am, that may not work for some others, but are too much “me” to give up or change. It’s all growth, and that’s a good thing. It may not be easy, but it’s a good thing in the end. This year as I take on working at Hospice, as I let go and accept difficult changes, as I work on accepting the things I can’t change, and enjoy the positive new relationships I have, I’m making my peace with death.
Do you have friends that have been in your life forever? Do you have a bestie, and what makes that friend your bestie? Have you lost a good friend; tell me about it, in the comment section. Share your thoughts.