The unique heartache that comes from the loss of close friendships
About a year shy of our fortieth birthdays, my freshman year college roommate stopped responding to my text messages and phone calls. In the twenty-plus years we’d known each other, there had been a few stretches of disconnection in our friendship, but it had seemed to me like the older we got, the more we appreciated each other and the consistency and longevity of our connection. In the year before the silence began, I had flown out to visit her twice.
During the early phase of her non-responsiveness, I figured she was just too busy to talk. She had recently moved across the country and had two small children on hands. Her life had also become complicated in additional ways I only partially understood, but based on numerous past experiences, I figured I was pretty high on her list of people she could talk to when the going got tough, so I felt confident I’d hear from her soon enough. We had been discussing the possibility of my spouse and me becoming the guardians of her children should something happen to her and her husband, and I couldn’t imagine she would go incommunicado with this important matter unresolved. But as the months went by, I grew concerned. Eventually I logged into Facebook and found she was still very much alive, and communicative in that mode.
My concern turned into confusion and hurt.
When her fortieth birthday rolled around, I sent her a card and a text message. She didn’t respond.
In addition to just missing her, and feeling a little emptier for the loss of our unique connection, this development extended an unpleasant pattern in my life. When they said only love can break your heart, I’m pretty sure they were talking about romantic love. But for me, confusing and abrupt losses of close friendships have been far more devastating than the dissolution of any romantic relationship.
Hints of the theme emerged early. I grew up right next door to Stanford University, and most of the kids I went to school with were the children of Stanford graduate students, many of whom hailed from locations far from California. Some came from across the country; many from across the world. It seemed like each year, I’d make a new best friend, only to have their parents(s) finish their PhD(s) and get a job back where they came from, taking my newly minted best buddy along with them when they left.
In sixth grade, I started writing letters to a girl who moved away at the beginning of the school year. We hadn’t really been friends when we lived in the same place, but I imagined she might feel lonely in her new home, and I liked writing letters. She wrote back, and we began corresponding regularly. Over the years, our pen pal relationship grew into a rich friendship. Throughout high school, we wrote to each other frequently, talked on the phone, sent each other birthday and Christmas presents, and visited each other. She saved all of our letters and spoke of turning them into a book about our friendship.
During my first year of college, she moved to San Francisco, where I was living. This seemed an excellent development. I took the bus to visit her at her new apartment, and she told me all about her new boyfriend. I called her the next Friday evening and asked if she wanted to get together over the weekend. She said she was busy, but she’d call me later. She never did.
I’d been ghosted before ghosting was even a thing.
Later in college, I studied abroad in England, where I encountered a fellow American who shared his name with a famous fictional character in American literature. He was a strong presence, and at first I tried to avoid him, thinking him hopelessly uncool. But our paths continued to cross, he grew on me, and a friendship burgeoned. We cooked Thanksgiving dinner for our English flatmates and friends. We sat in pubs and drank Guinness and talked. We went to Ireland over spring break. With him I felt seen, recognized, and understood in ways that felt like the best possible combination of exhilarating and mundane.
Towards the end of our year abroad, our friendship morphed into a romance of sorts. It seemed like the natural extension of what had already been an intense friendship, and I couldn’t help but be delighted, even though our time together in England was drawing to a close. In the midst of this new phase of knowing each other, he pressed me to come to visit him in his home state that August, after we’d returned to the US following our separate European summer adventures. I was hesitant, but his insistence convinced me, and I had faith in the staying power of our friendship, confident it could withstand even the withering of our romantic connection. I bought a plane ticket, opting to stay with him for ten days instead of the two weeks he advocated for.
I realized the trip was a colossal mistake as soon as he picked me up from the airport. I hadn’t expected we would pick up right where we left off, but I was completely unprepared for the utter indifference I was met with. When he returned me to the airport at the end of an excruciating ten days, he scarcely uttered a goodbye. By then, I didn’t care what he said or didn’t say — I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
I returned home shell-shocked. Friends asked me how our visit had been, and they couldn’t understand my explanations. Was I sad because we had broken up? Well, no — we weren’t exactly in a definite relationship, I would say. So, they would ask me, if the two of us hadn’t been dating, why was I upset? Because he’d acted like we weren’t friends and never had been, I would tell them. Oh, they would respond, quizzically.
Years later, he looked me up, and apologized. I appreciated this, but I was more interested in an explanation than an apology. We were such good friends, I told him. What happened? Couldn’t you have told me not to come visit you if you didn’t want to hang out with me? I don’t know, he said. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t handle what we had.
Sometimes people do things they can’t explain. Sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with you, even though it also has everything to do with you. Sometimes when other people do what they need to do to move forward in their lives, you don’t make it into the next chapter.
The redhead epitomized this point. She and I became friends while serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia together. Circumstances propelled each of us out of our villages and into Lusaka, the capital, where we shared both an apartment and a workplace. Initially, spending so much time together was awkward, at least for me, but eventually our bond transformed into one that fit my idealized definition of family. We’d lived together for about a year when she was sexually assaulted one night when I was out of town. She decided to return to the US for counseling and to generally just get out of Dodge, and I couldn’t make it back to Lusaka before she left to say goodbye in person.
I was crushed I hadn’t been there to potentially prevent what had happened or, at least, to support her in the aftermath, and anguished by her suffering. And totally bereft from the sudden loss of her presence.
We stayed in touch for months after she left Zambia, until all of a sudden, we didn’t. A month or two into this lapse, I heard from a mutual acquaintance that she was getting married. I couldn’t believe it — wouldn’t she have told me? — and I called her immediately. It was the middle of the night in her time zone, but she answered the phone and said yes, it was true, she was indeed getting married. Part of me dared to hope she would then say she had invited me to the wedding, the invitation was in the mail, and I should save the date, but she said nothing of the sort. Still stunned, I sent her a congratulatory card, and I received a short note of thanks in response. I never heard from her again.
I surmised she wanted to put the painful elements of the past behind her and start a new era in her life. But I felt like the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.
These friend-vanishings were different in many respects, but my initial reaction to each was sadness and confusion. In addition to just missing the singular, inimitable presences of people whose company I had immensely enjoyed, I was deeply bewildered by their departures. Was their absence temporary, just part of the natural ebb and flow of life? Or were their disappearances permanent, and if so, why? I had loved these people, and I knew, with as much certainty as I had ever had about anything, that they had loved me too. Their retreats from my life made me wonder if my judgement was way off, my trust misplaced — or if something terribly wrong with me had prompted each of them to relinquish our friendship so completely and without explanation. Was I flawed beyond redemption, and impossibly deficient in self-awareness to boot?
Others’ inability to comprehend my grief compounded my feelings of alienation. The therapists I tearfully confided in didn’t seem to get it. Friends’ reactions were usually something to the effect of a puzzled, “But you have other friends, don’t you — you have me!” This was always true, and always completely beside the point. Losing connections to wonderful people I’d been so close to through circumstances that felt like passive rejection was confusing and painful in ways I couldn’t find a vocabulary for. The lack of a lexicon for these experiences added insult to injury: my sadness over the loss of friendship seemed baseless. And if it was, was it also true by extension that the friendship was never really important in the first place?
Much to my chagrin, the wariness of others and general heart-weariness these experiences instilled in me stayed with me for years. The best medicine I found for what ailed me was being of service to others working through their own pain. My half-healed hurts augmented my capacity to recognize, witness, and compassionately acknowledge other people’s suffering. It was and is an honor and a joy to support others in this way.
Yet I continued to hanker for a more complete healing of my own lingering wounds. Writing this essay was, in part, another attempt to make peace with the past. But as I wrote and re-wrote its ending, any hope for new perspective or a greater ability to just let it all go seemed increasingly elusive.
I was nearly at the point of accepting that I might not be able to produce a satisfying ending — either in my lived experience of this story or in the telling thereof — when I told a new friend that I was working on a personal essay but couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I told her what it was about. She, a former therapist with a fair amount of personal experience with loss, said immediately of the state of anguish I described, “Oh, that’s called disenfranchised grief.”
I had never heard of disenfranchised grief.
And I found this pretty surprising. I have a fair amount of exposure to psychology, both popular and academic. I consume a lot of self-help/personal development literature. I’m trained as a life coach, I have a PhD in sociology, I’ve worked in the realm of holistic health and well-being for years. And I’d been, you know, actively trying to heal the wounds I associated with these losses for a long time.
A quick Google search relieved me of my ignorance. Broadly speaking, disenfranchised grief pertains to grief society doesn’t acknowledge, or validate, or permit. I read story after story about the double-whammy other people experienced upon losing someone important to them — through death or otherwise — then discovering that no one around them considered their loss worthy of recognition and support.
Sad though they were, these stories brought me a swift and potent dose of relief. For so long, I had yearned to feel like my experiences of loss and sadness and confusion and grief were intelligible and legitimate. Learning that my travails weren’t unique, and finding new ways of naming and claiming my experiences helped me feel less isolated and more understood.
This ended up being the missing ingredient, the catalyst for transforming all of this psychic lead into gold I had long sought. Alchemizing these old hurts into fertilizer for new growth and possibility finally started happening, instead of seeming like a process that was theoretically possible, but unavailable to me.
Little by little, I stopped viewing the sudden and unexplained losses of these friendships as indications that Something Was Wrong — with the friends, or with me, or with The Order of Things in the Known Universe. Eventually, I developed a different relationship with the acute sadness that I had associated with each of these events.
I finally recognized that my desires for satisfying answers about what had happened in each of these situations would never be fulfilled, and, moreover, that my attachment to a need for answers or reasons or clarifying insights was causing me a lot more suffering than my feelings of loss and sadness were. In life coach-y terms, I started to let go of my stories about what had happened (and my many painful, unhelpful thoughts), and started to allow myself to just — “just” — feel all of the grief that still lived within me from a place of love and awareness. My internal dialogue switched from “why did these things happen and what do they mean?” to “I feel hurt and sadness and confusion and that might be mighty uncomfortable but I can handle it, and this is just another amazing flavor of life.”
Not everything worth eating tastes like chocolate. Not every worthwhile experience in life feels like elation and joy.
From inception to completion, writing this piece took about a year, including some long pauses. The day I felt like I had finished it, once and for all, I set it aside, as is my practice, with the plan to look at it a few days later with fresh eyes for a final round of editing.
Later that day I received a Facebook message from the college roommate. No joke. She said everything I would, in my more magnanimous moments over the past couple of years, have imagined she would say. Life had gotten complicated for her for a while there. Really complicated. In her state of breakdown, it was hard to reach out to me, and the more time that passed, the worse she felt about not reaching out, so the harder it became to say anything at all. She said she could only imagine the hurt and confusion I’d been feeling, and that she loved me but would understand if I didn’t want to talk to her anymore.
I get it, I wrote back. I totally get it. And I’m here.