Source: Photo by Milada Vigerova at Unsplash
A client, whom I'll call Sarah, felt devastated over the loss of a meaningful friendship: "We were friends for 28 years. Through the births of our children, holidays, deaths, everything. Now she won't speak to me. I feel abandoned."
Losing a close friend can feel as painful as losing a love relationship. You might suffer physical symptoms like insomnia, gastrointestinal pain, and chest tightness. It can feel like a literal heartache (Eisenberger, N. I. 2012).
You might also feel psychological symptoms of anxiety that include racing heart, rumination, worry, and numbness. The loss of a close friend can spiral us into depression with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness.
If we believe we have enough friends to meet our needs, we cope with stress better. The loss of a friend shakes that belief and rocks our emotional foundation (King, A. R. et al., 2016).
Friends can promote better health and longer life and even improve our financial picture. An absence of friends can be harmful to our physical and mental health over time. An inability to seek and maintain friendships is associated with depression and other mental disorders (Brent, L. J. et al., 2014).
I asked Sarah what led to this rupture of her friendship with the person I'll call Monica. "She told me she was tired of having to cheer me up. Our business took a huge hit during the pandemic. We had to work crazy hours to keep from collapsing. At the same time, she inherited millions of dollars from her family's trust fund. She wanted to enjoy life and have fun. I needed her encouragement and support. She said I was being negative and bringing her down. I thought I could trust her. Now I feel so hurt and like I wasted all those years helping her through difficult times," Sarah said.
It is hard to accept impermanence and loss. We want to feel securely attached to those we love. We don't want to think about losing anyone. Yet loss is inevitable.
Sarah said she thought of Monica as her "forever friend." It shocked her that Monica would not offer emotional support but instead cut off the friendship during her time of need: "I feel like everything I believed about Monica was wrong. I saw her as strong, loyal, trustworthy, and kind. It's shattering to see her as cold and uncaring."
Each of us approaches friendship in a very personal way. We all require different levels of contact and maintenance. I've divided these into three different types of relationship preferences.
- Succulents. These individuals require very little maintenance. They like a lot of light (tell it to me straight) and very little water (don't talk too much). They grow slowly and steadily, even in harsh environments.
- Trees. For these people, after the first couple of years of staking the seedling and providing fertilizer and water, they grow stronger, with deeper roots as time goes on. They like to get to know you well in the beginning. Once established, not as much maintenance is required, and the friendship grows deeper with each passing year.
- Flower gardens. These people require frequent weeding, pruning, fertilizing, and replanting. If too much time passes, the weeds take over, and the flower garden disappears.
If you're a succulent or a tree, you probably see the flower garden friend as "high maintenance." For a succulent, too much sentimentality, water, time can feel smothering to their prickly nature. If you're not spending regular time together, you are not a friend at all to a flower garden. Yet all three types of friendship share the need for love, trust, and respect.
Sarah saw herself as more of a tree type. She felt the 28 years of deeply rooted friendship with Monica mattered. Because she had to work more hours to keep her business afloat, she assumed Monica would understand her stress and lack of availability. Monica seemed to be a flower garden. She needed things to be pretty and nice in her friendships. Monica wanted a lot of time spent enjoying one another's company. Sarah's negative emotions weren't maintaining the good life Monica wanted.
One hallmark of mental health is the ability to cope with loss. We cope with loss when we continue healthy behaviors even through sadness and grief. Sarah's grief hit her hard during a time of great struggle in her life. She needed support to help her accept the loss of her friend.
To cope with the loss of a friendship, consider the following:
- Loss is normal and inevitable. People will move away, drift away, and pass away. Acceptance of this reality helps us cope better.
- Loss can feel personal but often isn't. Friends can fall away during times of change, leaving for college, finding a mate, having a child, changing jobs, moving, divorce, and retirement. We might feel hurt that our friendships end or change, yet it doesn't mean we've failed.
- Grief and loss can bring us to our knees, yet life continues. Yes, we cry, suffer sleepless nights, feel pain. We can adapt to the loss, reorganize our lives, and find meaning and happiness once more.
- A non-judgmental attitude helps you recover faster. When we lose a friendship, we might judge ourselves and our friends harshly. Judging amplifies our suffering, feelings of shame, and disconnection.
Sarah judged herself as "negative and needy." She saw Monica as "cold and uncaring." Sarah alternated between blaming herself with self-loathing comments and blaming Monica with anger and resentment.
I explained to Sarah that feelings happen in moments of time. Momentary feelings cannot describe the full majesty of a human being. Sarah needed something that Monica could not provide, and Monica needed something that Sarah could not give. Sarah need not judge herself or Monica to accept the end of the friendship.
In the early days of her hurt and anger, Sarah wanted to get rid of every gift Monica had ever given. "Everywhere I look, I see reminders of trips we took together and happier times," Sarah said. To see those reminders of happier days only made Sarah sadder about the loss. She needed closure to address her hurt feelings and let go of her friend. I suggested that she write Monica a goodbye letter. In that letter, she shared her heartache about the end of the friendship and her deep disappointment that Monica abandoned her when she most needed support. Sarah also shared her love and gratitude for the good times they had shared.
One of the hardest things for Sarah to manage was her enduring love for her friend. "I still love her. I don't know what to do with all of this caring, history, worry, and love that I have for her," she said.
I suggested she begin with love and compassion for herself. If we live long enough, we will all lose friends. It hurts. It helps to hold ourselves in kindness as we pass through the pain. Self-kindness includes:
- Regular sleep
- Nutritious food
- Emotional support
Over time Sarah found other places to plant her love where it could grow. She found other trees.
Brent, L. J., Chang, S. W., Gariépy, J. F., & Platt, M. L. (2014). The neuroethology of friendship. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1316(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12315.
Eisenberger NI. The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nat Rev. 2012;13:421–434.
King, Alan R.; Russell, Tiffany; and Veith, Amy C., "Friendship and Mental Health Functioning" (2016). Psychology Faculty Publications. 21. https://commons.und.edu/psych-fac/21