I remember the evening very clearly. I arrived home from the airport. I had been away on a trip for about a week. I landed in Pittsburgh, PA to blowing snow and icy temperatures. It would prove to be a particularly bitter night for me.
Arriving back home, I began the process of settling in. While sorting the mail that had accumulated over my time away, the phone rang. It was then I learned that my friend Rick had died that day.
Rick had been sick for the last year. I knew it was just a matter of time before he would pass. I was as prepared as I could be for the call. But the news hit me hard. The news of the death of a loved one is often described as something physical. I remember feeling as though someone punched me in the gut. I hung up the phone, put on my coat and boots, and walked till late at night in the blowing snow of that winter night.
Rick had become my best friend. We met fourteen years earlier. As the friendship grew, we became much closer. We spoke almost daily. In our late-night phone conversations, we’d share the funny stories from the day past, our frustrations, and our secrets. With his illness, I had lost that companionship. A few months before his death, he left Pittsburgh where he was teaching and moved in with his family in Chicago for hospice care. While we spoke by phone, the relationship was quickly changing. My companionship with Rick was fading away.
That was twenty two years ago. Rick wasn’t the first friend who had died. At that point in my life, he was the closest friend to die. Of course, as I grow older, the loss of friends continues. In this past year I’ve learned of the deaths of other friends. The recent losses were friends with whom I was close at one time in my life but the relationships faded as our lives took different paths. There was one childhood friend with whom I went to school. I’m not sure if I saw him since his wedding. There was another friend and colleague who served with me as a hospital chaplain when I first began my professional career. This list of friends and colleagues, both younger and older than me, who have died continues to grow.
There’s very little social support for us when friends die. There are no days off from work, no sympathy cards, and often no roles for friends to play in the funeral rituals. Whether they are close, intimate friends, like Rick, or friends at a distance from our day to day lives, the grief we experience is largely unrecognized. Yet, even though it’s unrecognized, it is a very real part of our experience.
While it would be easy to make statements about the need for society to change and become more sensitive to issues of loss and grief, the reality is that we live in the culture as it is right now. Yes, changes come, but cultures evolve slowly. As sociologist Ernest Becker noted decades ago, ours is a culture that denies death itself. We hide from it and act like it isn’t there.
In the midst of this denial of death, I find it more helpful to consider how we as individuals acknowledge and recognize our own experience of grief and loss. For example, over the winter holidays, I thought about a friend from earlier in my life when telling a funny story from my past. I later went online to see if what I could learn about his life today. It was then that I learned he died in a car crash a couple of months earlier. He stayed on my mind over the next few days as I remembered the friendship we shared years ago. It was then that I took a few minutes to write to another friend who knew the person who died. The three of us were close years ago. In a short letter, I shared my sense of loss and wondered if they had stayed in touch with each other. I wrote about a few antics from the old days. Less than a week passed between my mailing my letter before a response came thanking me for writing. The friendship between these two old friends had endured. My brief letter helped me to honor the memory of an old friend while also providing support to another, something I didn’t quite expect.
My religious background provides me with prayers and rituals to memorialize those who have passed from this life. Sometimes, I find it helpful to draw on those prayers to remember the friends who have passed from my life, “Eternal rest grant to Rick, to Jean, to Bob, to my lost friends and companions. May eternal light shine on them.”
Perhaps most helpful are the times when I sit alone, close my eyes, and remember them as they were. In such moments, I thank them for the friendship we shared and for the gift of memories that I continue to savor. In those moments, I wish them well and wish them peace.
The night when I learned that Rick had died was a very bitter cold night for me. I’ve experienced a similar kind of bitterness in my gut on learning of the death of other friends. But as I take time to remember, to mourn their loss, and to celebrate the memory of my friends who have passed from this life, I’m left with something far different than bitterness. Through my private rituals, I come to a place where I experience deep gratitude for their presence in my life. For the way my friends shared themselves with me, I can only say, “Thank you.”
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.