Loss of a Friend

Tayana Kessler, a freelance writer living in New Jersey, describes the impact of loss on those who have experienced the death of a friend.

The shock was like a thick black smoke, threatening to suffocate me, leaving me gasping for air. My father phoned to tell me that my best friend from high school, Marianne was killed in a car accident. The girlhood friend that I had shared so many secrets with; and with who I still enjoyed visits as we shared our lives together.
It is true that losing a parent or child to a sudden illness or accident is a life-altering, emotionally crippling event. The death of an immediate family member is a devastating reminder of the fragility of our human nature. The grief process is one that can take months and is understood by those close to us to be a necessity in the path to healing. However, the loss of a close friend can be equally, if not more, devastating and debilitating. While it is a significant experience in our lives it is one of the most unrecognized types of grief by society.
The realization that I would never see my dear friend Marianne, was too much to bear. The week following her death was the toughest -with the wake, the funeral, the burial, and her death continues to affect me so strongly sometimes as it it had just happened. At other times I will reflect on our lives together over the years, and there are many happy memories to reflect on that bring her back to me. While the initial deep shock of her death has most definitely subsided, the pain and sorrow can come back so strongly that it still manages to take my breath away.
Dr. Klein, a psychologist and certified thanatologist, with a bereavement counseling practice in Dallas, Texas indicates through her readjustment model of bereavement that grieving is a lifelong journey that has no true endpoint. In grieving, we undergo two simultaneous processes: inward steps and outward steps. The inward steps are visible only to the bereaved and the intent is to search for answers and reflect on what is happening internally. The outward steps include acts that are visible to outside observers and the intent is to reconnect to the outside world. At every turn in our development we may remember things about the person we lost, and at times the pain may be so very sharp. This may be particularly true when we lose a friend and may depend on the intensity of that relationship, and the centrality of that person in your life.
Dr. Klein recounts how powerful the bond of friendship is through a story of a friend of her daughter Gili, who died at the age of eleven in a tragic accident almost sixteen years ago. Many people throughout Gili's lifetime told her how much her daughter touched them, how intelligent she was, how compassionate. Very recently she received a letter from one of Gili's school friends, who is now twenty-seven years old with her own children. The friend stated in the letter that she still thinks about Gili, even all these years later, and remembers her fondly. She has saved notes, letters and pictures from Gili. She wrote in the letter that she wanted so deeply to come to Dr. Klein's house and just hug her after the accident, but she was just a scared little kid and didnâ??t know what to do. She indicated that Gili "will always be in my heart".
This is a poignant example of how the impact of the death of a friend can be life long, and the grieving process can last throughout our lives. We can be overwhelmed by some of the same feelings of sorrow and loss as years ago. It is a fluid process, never linear, always changing, always personal.
Sandy Lipkus is a grief counselor from Montreal, Quebec who started a web site more than four years ago called sharegrief.com, which offers support and resources to the bereaved through an innovative approach. She was recently working with a teenager who lost a very close friend in a car accident and was utterly devastated. Sandy indicates that sometimes a friend can be closer than a family member, however, what sometimes occurs is that they get sucked into the family who is grieving, without an acknowledgment of their individual loss. Sandy stresses that it is important to recognize and bring forth the loss of someone's friend by helping them to:
-reminisce and remember the person in good times
-understand that the grieving process is to honor that person
-recognize the special relationship they had with the deceased
-rejoice in a celebrations of that life

Nonni Burrows lost her friend, Cara recently to
a sudden illness. From diagnosis of late stage ovarian cancer to imminent death was a mere three months. While the surgery and intensive chemotherapy was intended to prolong Cara's life, her family started planning for her death once they were aware of the rapid advancement of the cancer. Nonni's calls to intensive care were fraught with anxiety and despair, in her attempts to find out information about her friend. Her family was there around the clock but Nonni was unable to visit as the family was intent on protecting Cara's privacy. Her memories of her dear friend kept her going through those rough times, and phone calls allowed her to reach out to her friend and let her know how much she was thinking of her. While Nonni was devastated when she learned of her friendâ??s death, she was comforted by the opportunity she had to say goodbye.
In fact, Sandy Lipkus indicates in her experience with grief counseling, that the grieving process appears to be similar whether the bereaved is prepared or not. When death occurs from an illness, the grieving starts at the point of diagnosis. Sandy believes there is a real place for online grief counseling, especially for people like Nonni, who have lost a friend and might not have the resources or support system to work through their grief. Often, the bereaved feels a need right at the beginning, when they are still in shock and feel overwhelmed. The short term, brief contact with an online anonymous grief specialist can fulfill this need immediately. Further benefits include being able to reach people who are isolated, elderly, homebound, or with disabilities. The service can also reach those that have busy sheduled lives and teens and adolescents who may not like to talk to anyone in person about their grief.
Not surprisingly, there has been a proliferation of online counseling services since the tragedies of 9/11. This is something that Catherine could have benefited from in the early days following the loss of her friend in December of 2001, in a tragic motorcycle accident. Friends and neighbors in her affluent rural New Jersey Township were reeling from the effects of the collapse of the twin towers. In particular, a close neighbor of Catherine's lost her husband in the senseless tragedy and the neighborhood was in shock. Catherine's best friend from law school, Nathan, called her to tell her of her friend Jim's death. Jim was a true gem, the kind of person you feel lucky to have met. Catherine had met him in college and remembers what a commanding presence he was - he was so funny, affable, good-looking and good-natured, successful in everything her touched. Although she hadn't kept in touch with Jim for years, she reached out to him after the deterioration of his first marriage, and then recently went to see him while he was recuperating from a motorcycle accident earlier that same year. Catherine wanted to talk to Jim about some trouble in her own marriage and Jim was so upbeat, so positive and so happy now in his second marriage with his wife and toddler son. She felt that he gave her the strength to refocus and remain positive in her own relationship.
Learning then of his death seemed impossible - he had just fully recovered from a terrible accident and staph infection and was so happy with his new family. Catherine first felt incredible shock and then just anger for the next several months - angry at Jim for getting back on a motorcycle, angry at Jim for dying at thirty-four years of age when in the prime of his life, angry at Jim for leaving his beautiful wife and child. When she talks about the emotional impact of her grief, her eyes brim with tears as if Jim's senseless death just happened yesterday.
It is indeed such a powerful wave of emotion, this "friendgrief" termed by Harold Ivan Smith to describe the grief felt for the loss of a friend, in his book entitled Grieving the Death of a Friend. Mr. Smith indicates that friendgrief is complicated since often, people are closer to friends than to family, but it does not truly have social recognition or a word to describe it such as "widow" or "widower". Furthermore, can there be any true healing or moving on after the death of a friend, especially one that has been part of the fabric of our lives for a long time? No, grieving may never truly end, as Dr. Shanun Klein indicated earlier. Mr. Smith concludes with a wonderful chapter of ways we can cherish the memory of a deceased friend including remembering the family members and other friends, having an informal gathering with mutual friends, visiting a favorite restaurant, adopting one of your friend's good habits or continuing one of their traditions.
The memory of my friend Marianne is one that will always be bittersweet with me, full of fondness but racked with pain. Iâ??m occasionally overwhelmed by an incredible anger that she was taken away, and that her daughter that survived the accident is left without parents. Last summer I made my own small steps to cherish her memory, by visiting her grave with my own children, starting an education fund in the name of her daughter, and reminiscing about Marianne's escapades and adventures with her mother and sister.
The memory of Marianne will remain forever ingrained because of the experiences we shared, but I continue to grieve for Marianne and our future. It is so difficult to imagine a world without her. Nevertheless it is these same memories, and the joy with which Marianne lived every moment of her life that remind me to take pleasure in the everyday moments with my friends and family that it would be so easy to take for granted.
The End

submitted by: Sandy Lipkus M.S.W., B.Ed

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