This book is recommended for adults who have experienced the death of a friend. (390 pages)
“There are no books on the death of a friend!” I shouted on the phone to Eileen, my close friend of almost thirty years, days before we were to depart on an unprecedented, albeit short, vacation to Miami Beach.
“And you’re telling me this because…?” she replied (possibly alarmed that I’d foreshadowed something disastrous happening on this vacation).
I explained that, in addition to being asked to write a blog post on the death of a friend and invited as a podcast guest to discuss this overlooked grief experience, I was also tasked with writing a book review on the subject – something I had not expected to be such a daunting experience.
For weeks, I had scoured my personal library and combed through both scholarly texts and works of literature. Nothing. I searched for memoirs focusing on friend loss. I crowd-sourced ideas from other thanatologists, other academics, and my own students. I even tried search engines for self-help books, a genre that I generally avoid. Nothing.
It was by pure luck of internet algorithms that I stumbled on Nora Zelevansky’s novel, Competitive Grieving, two nights after my histrionic call to Eileen. I had the popular fiction book, touted as a “beach read” and a “summer must,” shipped overnight and it was securely in my suitcase alongside sunscreen and a beach hat when we departed for Miami on a freezing November dawn. I didn’t have high hopes that a “beach read” could capture the complexity and disenfranchisement of friend loss, but, I reasoned, it was the only book I’d found in weeks of searching.
And for four days in sunshine, I could not put it down.
The novel focuses on the experiences of Wren following the sudden death of her close and lifelong friend Stewart, a rising television star. While the text includes a sub-narrative of budding romance between Wren and George, Stewart’s attorney, the primary focus of the novel is on Wren’s attempt to make sense of the death of her friend as well as the coping mechanisms she employs in navigating Stewart’s family and other friends.
Some reviewers have criticized the character of Wren for being not wholly likeable – and she isn’t. She internally and verbally criticizes others for rooting through Stewart’s possessions and for expressing more emotional outbursts in their grief that she herself does. She questions the closeness other survivors claim to Stewart and is outraged when they participate in a “peaceful parting ceremony” ritual that she believes Stewart would have found ludicrous. Certainly, Wren is not an easy protagonist or thoroughly sympathetic character – but she is wholly believable.
Like many people who lose a friend, particularly suddenly, Wren is shown as experiencing shock in addition to being ill-equipped to navigate or make sense of the loss. Survivors of friend loss are often isolated from those deemed “primary grievers” and as such, do not have access to the same validation of their grief experiences as blood or marital family members. And, as my long hunt for a text on this subject suggests, there is a significant dearth of cultural representations of survivors of friend loss.
Wren terms Stewart’s other friends “vultures” and steps delicately around his mother, feeling that she does not have the right to share her own grief with a woman who has lost her son. She is quick to see competitive grieving in the people gathering in the days following Stewart’s death, yet through most of the novel, she is blind to the ways she is engaging in competitive grief herself. Zelevansky – who lost a close friend in 2017, shortly after his 40th birthday – identifies the balancing act she experienced and witnessed between private grief and performative grief expressions as the inspiration for this novel.
Something that struck me repeatedly through my reading of this text is that balancing act – the challenge we experience in managing our private grief within public spaces, especially when our grief is not being validated or supported by others. I’ve sometimes observed a type of aphasia of grief within these situations, an inability to speak of the shape and weight of one’s unique grief when feeling overwhelmed by the many personalities seemingly jockeying for attention following a death.
In an interview for Parade magazine, Zelevansky observed: “Any time you can stumble on something new about somebody you've lost, it’s almost as if you're getting a few more minutes with them. I think that's such a beautiful idea and a conversation that really needs to be had openly.”
Beneath the understandable cynicism and competitive grieving that are Wren’s primary coping mechanisms are profound sorrow and bewilderment over the death of Stewart. Ultimately, she seeks answers to the question of “why?” that so many of us have echoed after losing a member of our chosen family. The conclusion of the novel suggests that it is only in giving up the competition of competitive grieving and, instead, sharing and listening to stories with and from other survivors that we can learn more about their life and our own loss.
Podcast Episode: Grieving the Death of a Friend: A Conversation with Dr. Sara Murphy
Blog Post: The Death of a Friend, by Dr. Sara Murphy
About the Reviewer
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and an affiliate faculty member in the Thanatology Graduate Program at Marian University. She conducts workshops on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups. Dr. Murphy is also a bereavement and suicide consultant and the author of the booklet, Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of Your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a free resource available to grieving families and helping professionals published by the Funeral Service Foundation. She can be reached at SaraMurphyDeathEducator@gmail.com or through her website, www.deathdoc.com.