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How to Mourn a Friendship

In 2008, I had two best friends: A and C. I adored them. At school I would sneak away during lunch breaks to leave them voicemails, telling them about my morning. During class, with no phone, I’d write longhand letters to them that I’d later photograph and send to them. In the evenings I would hunch over my computer and IM with them, sometimes through the entire night. We’d have the kind of aching adolescent conversations where you develop for the first time some of the vocabulary you’ll use to talk and think about yourself for the rest of your life. We planned futures together — as roommates or as bridesmaids; as constant, burning suns in each other’s lives.

At the end of 2008, A told me that our friendship was no longer healthy. She said that our intimate club of two had become cynical and exclusionary. She was correct. I was shattered. I entered one of the worst depressive periods in my lifelong history of depressive periods.

A few months later, miserable, I told C she shouldn’t bother with me anymore. She took me up on the offer, having tolerated a lot of negativity for a very long time. I was bereft. More than that, I struggled to understand what had happened, or why it happened, or why I was so devastated, or how I could possibly move on.

Mourning a friendship is a peculiar process. It requires you to harden yourself against future heartbreak, and yet stay tender and learn. It’s often oddly secretive; you’ve lost one of your biggest confidantes, and the people left in your life probably don’t understand the magnitude of your loss. You’re embarrassed, and you’re either blaming yourself or — even worse — you’re diving into an impulse to blame everyone else.

As with any kind of mourning, there are no easy solutions. But here’s what I’ve learned about grieving, and remembering, and growing, and sowing seeds for better friendships in the future.

Think through why the friendship ended.

In particular, think carefully about whether you had any culpability, and if you did, acknowledge it. You don’t want to be the common factor in many failed friendships. If you owe an apology, make it, without any expectation that it will be accepted or have any effect at all. (And remember the three big rules for apologies: 1. Acknowledge exactly how you messed up, so your recipient can feel heard and understood. 2. Don’t make excuses. 3. Actually say the words “I’m sorry.”) You don’t want to carry around that weight.

In the same vein – if you’ve been asked to forgive, do so as soon as you can stand to. Author Lewis B. Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Acknowledge that your friend is gone.

The person who loved you and made you feel safe has logged off. Create the narrative you’d use to describe the end of the friendship to someone else. Add logic to the collection of events. Accept that you will probably never be friends with them again. Even if it comes to pass someday, let it be a lovely surprise.

Think about what you learned and gained from the friendship. Then think about how you’ve changed or want to change as a person.

When I look back at the two friends who broke my heart 10 years ago, I still feel a twinge of sadness – but it’s sympathy for the person I was then, who is a different person. And that’s by design. Personal evolution will give you the distance from the friendship you’re looking for – you’re no longer the person they knew or the person they hurt.

Now is the time to embrace any positive traits your friend suppressed in you. For instance, maybe your friend was cynical, and scoffed when you wanted to be open to new experiences. Maybe your friend hated basketball fans and you always had a secret yen to root for the Knicks.

You have a new freedom now. I know this sounds improbable, but really think about it: There are probably parts of your personality you shut away while you were with your friend. (I have more than once realized a friendship was wavering when I showed someone a piece of art that was important to me and had them write it off for superficial reasons.) Now these other passions can thrive. Write down a list if you need to.

Be grateful for the time you had. Embrace the memories – and archive them.

You can’t delete every trace of the fact that the friendship happened – every photo, every text, every email. And you shouldn’t. It will impede your ability to develop more happy friendships in the future.

Save these records as a sort of grave marker to memorialize what you once cherished. Honor the fact that at one time, this person made you feel so happy and seen. But try to place that metaphorical grave marker in a place you’ll only see when you explicitly intend to, so you don’t have to keep metaphorically tripping over it. For me, this has meant tweaking some settings on social networks and digital photo albums.

Let yourself grieve.

You are going to feel so, so sad, for so much longer than you think you will. If I may paraphrase a lyric that means a lot to me: This is the price of loving someone.

Here is a small tactic I recommend: Label your emotions, and do so with specificity. “Sad” is an umbrella term that contains everything from “embarrassed” to “shocked” to “despairing” to “lonely.” The more specific you are, the easier it is to parse what you should do next.

Stay polite and kind.

Don’t insult your former friend to mutual acquaintances. Don’t lash out at your former friend with belated lists of all the ways they wronged you. You will never have a reason to regret this, and there are lots of reasons to regret acting to the contrary. Keep your heart soft for the next opportunity you will have to love a new friend as deeply as you loved the friend you lost. What a wonderful burden it will be.

Cherish the friends you still have.

Ask them, “How can I be a better friend to you?” You will be astonished at the new doors this opens, at the new ways you’ll find to support and connect to others. Be conscious of avoiding the mistakes you made before. This is your chance to grow.

Featured photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash.

Published inPersonal

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© Mary Gaulke 2023