How to Cope with the Loss of a Friend
I was recently sitting in my favorite coffee shop, and remembering my dear friend who used to meet me there and who died not long ago. As I get older, I’m experiencing more and more loss, and so are my friends of a similar age. Those of us who survive loss still have to “keep calm and carry on” as they say. So I thought you might appreciate some help with how to cope.
There is nothing you can do to make such a loss less tragic, so the grief, anger and frustration that you feel are normal reactions to the circumstances. Grief is an organic process, it has its own wisdom, and it needs a witness. An understanding friend can be that witness.
As you go through the stages of grief: shock, anger, seeking, depression and peace, it's normal to feel anger at this terrible loss, a need for prayer and comfort, bouts of being overwhelmed and thinking you can’t go on, and, finally, acceptance and understanding that this devastating event is a part of the mortal life we humans all live. These feelings will come jumbled up, they'll recycle, and come in different order. Then, as the shock wears off, and the permanence of the loss sets in, some people may feel a bit relieved, some will be angry, some will pray or question God, and others just feel exhausted, disconnected, and overwhelmed. This jumble of feelings includes the anger, seeking and depression phases.
What can you do?
• If you feel inspired to do something hopeful (for example, setting up or giving to a memorial fund, commiserating with other friends, praying, giving blood, or writing letters), do it.
• If you feel discouraged, just feel it—the grief will gradually pass, and your disheartenment may indicate that you need a rest.
• If you feel like laughing, don’t let it worry you—it's a good way to manage grief and pain. It often signifies the beginning of healing.
• If you feel angry, remember anger is the underside of love—it's an expression of the value you attach to the lost friend, and very appropriate. But it, too, will come and go and fade with time.
• If you are afraid, of course you are. We are all programmed to want to live, and being so close to someone who dies, especially if you were there during a long illness, means being confronted with the fragility of all life, including your own. It is terrifying. Yes, someday, it will be you, but you still have a life to live.
• If you feel hopeless, it is because you are realizing that life is not in your own control. If it were, you wouldn’t have chosen to lose this dear friend. This is when faith and a belief in a higher purpose to life is very helpful. If you haven’t discovered a belief in higher purpose, then this would be a good time to search. Talk to clergy, read philosophy, meditate, pray, even get your fortune told. You can also focus on being grateful that you had this friend for whatever time you had. All these methods of attempting to understand the ineffable are imperfect, but they all can help. Faith gives us a framework for accepting the unacceptable things in life. It’s very helpful to have faith in an afterlife, in the meaning of life, but if you don’t, focus on nature or science to give you a sense that there’s some sense in life.
• If you need support for your own struggle with these issues, gather friends, family and neighbors around you. We never need each other more than at times like this. We need to feel a part of a larger, safer group. Although you may want solitude from time to time, to get your thoughts together, be careful not to get too isolated.
• Getting through the grief process will take at least a year, perhaps several. The first year is the hardest, because you encounter special days, birthdays, holidays and anniversaries all around the calendar. Once you’ve survived each of these once, it gets a little easier. Eventually you will have survived and healed, and be willing to get back to your real life. The promise of happiness is strong enough that the risk is worth it. You’ll probably experience some guilt, but know that if your former friend loved you, she or he would want you to be happy. Any new friendship you make will feel even more precious than the previous one, because you’ll know that it isn't here forever. You’ll arrive at a feeling of gratitude for all you shared with this lost friend, and a realization of what a gift a good friendship is.
Knowing the stages of grief is really helpful, because it helps you feel that you’re not crazy, and not the only one to go through this. For losing a loved one, the stages are: Shock/denial, sadness/depression, anger, confusion, acceptance, memories and moving on.
Creating a ritual can give the subconscious a framework for accepting the loss. The ceremonies, ritual words, sights smells (incense, flowers or candles) and sounds help your sensory awareness cope with the loss of so much sensory that used to come from your loved one. Some of this depends on your cultural and religious beliefs. If they are important to you, cultural and religious rituals will be very helpful. If you don’t believe, you still might find rituals are important to family members and friends.
I advise clients who have experienced the loss of a dear friend to set up a small space in the house for a picture and a memento or two, as a place to go when the grief is intense. I also advise clients to talk to the lost person, saying anything that is unsaid, to complete the relationship, and move it into a new, intangible space. The opportunity to share memories and talk about the loss is incredibly important, especially if you can find people who understand.
Americans don't handle grief, loss and death very well—we're spending our lives trying to avoid them. When you get around people who have been through it, and who can listen to you talk about your shock, anger and pain, you work through those feelings and process the loss more quickly and easily. This is why therapy or grief groups can be so helpful. They can also give you support and permission as you rebuild your life after loss. The best way to move from “why?” to acceptance is to begin to focus on gratitude that you had the person for the time that you did. No one escapes loss, we all must endure it. Learning to grieve effectively, and use your experience to help others, will help you reach acceptance.
Distractions can be good—for example, leaving your familiar territory behind and going to visit a friend in a different place can give you a break from the constant impact of your loss. But, please make sure it’s an understanding friend who will allow you to be down and withdrawn at least part of the time. Too much distraction can be counter-productive. People who try to run away from their grief wind up creating other problems. Usually, during the consolation blitz, the bereaved are in shock, and going through the motions. The real grief doesn't hit until you're back to “normal” life. That’s when you’ll need people you can talk to and support. Writing and Journaling can help, so can doing something for others. But, eventually, you have a certain number of tears you have to cry, and the more you let that happen, the better.
Grief is as natural as digestion, and if you stop either one from happening, you’re going to have trouble. If you allow yourself to grieve, your will to live will inevitably assert itself. Grief is like going through winter. Spring eventually comes, and things begin to bloom and live again. If you find acceptance impossible, get therapy. It will save your life. The following tips will help you move through these feelings and begin to focus on the future.
1. Get Support: The people around you will express a lot of conflicting feelings, because they’re experiencing shock and loss, too. This may be a time when you find out who your true friends are. Some of your friends may avoid you, because they don’t know how to deal with your feelings of loss. You need trusted friends, family, and a church or support group who will care about you, listen to you, and not judge or try to get you to “get over it.”
2. Talk or write it out: Talk and write until you’ve expressed all of your grief and loss, anger, confusion and disappointment. Assume you have a specific number of tears to shed, and the more you express your feelings, the quicker you will come to the end of the tears. Be aware that expressing all your grief may be more than some of your support system want to hear. A support group, clergy person or therapist will be able to listen without judging until you’ve said everything you need to say.
3. Have a ceremony: When you feel ready, create a ceremony for letting go of your grief. You may want to include some of your close friends, ritually destroy a memento which symbolizes your grief or anger, and share your hopes for the future.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.