Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What?  You too?  I thought I was the only one.”-C.S. Lewis.

Losing a friend can be a shattering event, one that we will likely experience more than once over the course of our lives. Because friends can take on multiple roles in one relationship (how often have we heard, "She was my best friend, but she was also like a mother/mentor/sister to me"?), we can feel this loss experientially on many different levels.  We may be surprised at the depth and strength of our feelings and be uncertain about how to move forward and begin to cope after a friend dies. 

Because of the complexity of our connections to our friends, they occupy a unique place in our social hierarchy.  Unlike our relationships with our spouses, parents, or children, friendships are free from dynamics such as shared responsibility or duty. Feelings of competitiveness that may exist in sibling relationships are also typically absent.  Friendships are initiated and maintained from a platform of choice and, as such, can become a respite from the other relationships in our lives.  Because the impact of friend death frequently goes unrecognized by society – and by ourselves as well – there are unique challenges inherent in processing and honoring these losses.  

The Unique Nature of Friendship

When a friend dies, we may lose someone who has known us in many roles – child, student, wife, mother; a person who knows us in ways our spouses, children, and even our parents cannot.  We may have shared our deepest secrets with friends, including thoughts, feelings, or actions it would be uncomfortable or even inappropriate to share with others in our familial sphere, such as feelings of resentment towards our children and parents, or romantic feelings outside our marriage.  We may feel friends can see the “whole” of us as no one else can; that we can be more honest with them about ourselves and our true feelings than we can in other relationships.  Because of this, we may feel we can trust our friends in ways we cannot necessarily trust others close to us.  In short, our friendships may be the most positive and conflict-free connections we have.

When Our Friend Dies

When her friend died four months after a cancer diagnosis, Mary (not her real name) felt abandoned and afraid.  When she previously experienced something distressing, Mary always reached out to Linda for support and help, but now Linda was not there.  Because she had pledged to her friend that she would help care for her children and wife as they grieved, Mary did not really feel entitled or even able to begin to explore her own feelings or to talk with anyone about them.  Mary's world was shattered, but she didn't even know how to start to self-acknowledge her loss because of the depth of her concern and sympathy for Linda's family.  

Society does not do a very good job of recognizing and validating friend loss.  Rarely is bereavement leave offered when a friend dies, and while there are focused groups that explore spousal, child, or parent loss, I have never heard of a “friend loss” specific bereavement group.  The first question others may ask when learning of our friend's death is "How is the family doing?" rather than "How are YOU doing?” This focus on the family is both appropriate and generous, but if we do not allow ourselves to feel our own grief it can become buried, and we might risk cheating ourselves of opportunities to process it.  

Not addressing our feelings, such as loneliness and isolation, can have a lasting physical and psychological impact.  An Australian study conducted over 14 years (Liu, W-M, Forbat, L., Anderson, K., 2019) concluded that the death of a close friend resulted in impaired psychological and physical well-being for up to four years.  These adverse effects were found at higher rates in women than men, likely because women stepped in to caretake the deceased’s family more frequently than men did. The study’s ultimate conclusion and recommendation?  We need to acknowledge friend loss publicly and strive to develop support networks to better serve those who have lost friends.

Remembering And Honoring

Creating ways to continue our bond with friends after death can help us integrate the loss and move forward.  Harold Ivan-Smith, who writes extensively on grief, offers that we can help ourselves process friend grief by becoming a "friend-keeper," celebrating their presence in our lives and keeping the relationship that we had with them alive for ourselves in a healthy way.

You might consider:

  1. Creating a ritual, such as enjoying your friend’s favorite meal or beverage on a day that has significance to you, such as their birthday or death anniversary.
  2. Writing your friend a letter, appreciating them and your relationship.  Your friend will not read this letter, but it can help you to encapsulate the nature of your relationship and what you loved and will miss most about them.
  3. Writing your friend's relatives a letter, sharing your feelings and love for your friend and their impact on your life.
  4. Organizing a special memorial service just for friends, where you can come together and celebrate your friend simply as a friend.
  5. Visiting their grave or columbarium and leaving flowers or notes.
  6. Reaching out to another person grieving a friend loss, whether your same friend or a different friend.  Coming together to validate feelings with other bereaved friends is powerful and affirming.

Being proactive in recognizing and honoring our own grief can help us move through it, and by reaching out to others, we can begin to build a greater understanding of the impact of friend loss and create broader support networks for all who go through this ubiquitous experience.  We can strive to normalize this particular grief and continue to honor the very special people we have called our friends.