Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

Trying to Avoid Friend Grief? Good Luck with That

A rose for each classmate who died
First of all, right off the bat, I’m going to say you can’t avoid friend grief. You can’t avoid grieving when a friend dies. But bear with me and read on.

We grieve our friends because we love them. We grieve for anything we’ve lost: hair, energy, good looks, high metabolism, our first car. Why wouldn’t we grieve for friends?

When someone is a part of your life – or was a part of your life – and they’re gone, there is a noticeable hole. Your life is now incomplete. That part of your life existed in part because of that friend. Your witness is gone.

What if I hadn’t had the courage to strike up conversations with total strangers a year ago January at the Writers Digest Conference? What if I’d just gone back to my hotel room instead of tagging along with seven other people for dinner? My writing – and the past year – would not have happened in the amazing way it did.

What if I hadn’t started talking to the other girl cooling her heels at the CYC dance sophomore year in high school? What if we hadn’t discovered that she and I were both waiting for the same girlfriend to show up (who didn’t)? We wouldn’t still be friends today.

What if I hadn’t taken the stage managing class I didn’t need when I first moved to Chicago, so I could try to meet people? What if I hadn’t agreed to stage manage the teacher’s next show? I wouldn’t have launched a career that included directing, founding a theatre and a trade association before morphing into a fundraising career.

At each of those moments, I did something that took, well, more guts that I normally possessed. Did I know those decisions were going to change my life? Of course not; I only know that in retrospect.

But what came of each moment was the beginning of a friendship – or two or three or twelve: friends who kept me going when life threw me curves. Friends who have encouraged me and loved me and tolerated me and been brutally honest with me: in other words, the definition of a true friend.

Not all of those friends are still here. Some I’ve simply lost touch with; too many have died. But perhaps more so than with family, our friends are a great barometer of the different times of our lives.

The program for my wedding welcomed our friends and identified the different groups: my husband’s California friends, my high school girlfriends, my theatre friends. We met them at different times in our lives. So it stands to reason that they knew us in different ways than those who met us at other times.

Think back to when you were in high school, or when you were married, or at your first job. You were a different person in each situation. Your friends knew you in that particular context. They didn’t know the “you” before that.

Now think of the special ones, the ones who continued to be your friend after you graduated, after you divorced, after you changed careers. Those friendships aren’t just based on a narrow definition of who you were: those friendships are built on mutual respect and love for who you’ve become.

Why wouldn’t you grieve for them?

Gatherings, whether they’re class reunions, weddings or even funerals, give us an opportunity to reconnect with people from our past. And almost everyone is nervous about that.

Why? Because we’ve changed, thank God, since we were 17.We’re the same, only different (And so are they, we often forget). Will they still like me, we wonder?

Some will, some won’t, but they’re still part of your past. They’re still part of the times in your life that make you who you are. And you’re still part of the times that make them who they are.

If you’re very, very lucky, you and your friends from those special times will still connect. Maybe you’ll only see each other at class reunions, have a great time, and that’s it. Nothing wrong with that.

But maybe you’ll both see those planned or chance reunions as an opportunity to re-establish your friendships.

The saddest part of a reunion is talking about who’s died. And the conversations inevitably revolve around how they lost touch with others. There may be regret, there may be full-fledged guilt. But there doesn’t have to be.

Take some time today to think back on a particular time in your life – not your whole life, just one period. Maybe it’s when you moved away from home, or when your kids were small, or you started that first really important job.

Think about the people who you considered friends. Maybe they were other moms, other new hires, other lonely kids far away from home for the first time. Remember why you became friends in the first place.

It’s so easy now to track down people. I’ve done it through my university alumni website, as well as Google and Twitter and Facebook.

So try to find one old friend, just one, and reach out to them. Maybe it’s the age I’m at, but I find when I’ve done that in the past few years, it’s always a very positive response. I can’t guarantee that’ll happen for you. But a brief, friendly “you popped into my head today and I just wanted to say hi” can make someone’s day. Including yours.

So, no, I’m sorry, you can’t avoid grieving when a friend dies. But you can make the effort now to never have to say “I should’ve called when I was thinking about it.”