they did not tell me it would hurt like this
no one warned me
about the heartbreak we experience with friends
where are the albums i thought
there were no songs sung for it
i could not find the ballads
or read the books dedicated to writing the grief
we fall into when friends leave
it is the type of heartache that
does not hit you like a tsunami
it is a slow cancer
the kind that does not show up for months
has no visible signs
is an ache here
a headache there
cancer or tsunami
it all ends the same
a friend or a lover
a loss is a loss is a loss
-the underrated heartache
(by Rupi Kaur)
A number of my clients come to therapy because they are grieving a friendship breakup. They miss the quality time spent together. They feel hurt that the person made a choice to move on. Seeing their friend with new friends is salt in the wound. Feelings of past rejection are triggered, or fears of future abandonment opened.
According to researchers, my clients are not alone. In the Netherlands a study about plutonic relationships found that of 604 people, over half friendships “expire” after seven years.
Why do friendships end?
Well, a number of reasons. One scenario is when a person enters a new romantic relationship, it displaces plutonic friendships, at least temporarily. Another possibility is a change in interests, social circles, or geography. There might be an argument. The disagreement or wrongdoing is irreparable for one or both parties. Other times, people just change.
You may never know why.
A friend is a mirror of your own self, someone with whom you realize that, though autonomous, you are not alone. Friendship is a gift, but not a guarantee.
“In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.” – Aristotle
So how can we heal from the loss of a once-special friendship?
- Be your own best friend for a while and accept the person’s decision to walk away, with dignity. Respect someone’s choice to end a relationship. Once someone has announced they wish for no further contact, take them seriously. Some people are not the type to forgive, look back, or change their minds, no matter how much one apologizes. Accept someone’s firm or passive decision sadly but gracefully. Someday, it might come full circle, and you will be the one walking away from someone who wants to hang on.
- Try not to blame yourself or the other. Looks at the facts. Take responsibility. Is there something you did to harm the person? Was this a healthy relationship? Were you treated as an equal? It helps to process what happened with someone safe and objective. They can help you look at the facts and keep the emotions in another category.
- Try not to take it personally. Write yourself a letter from the perspective of the other person. Write it gently. Consider that anything that you assume happened needs further inquiry. Ask yourself if you can absolutely know your assumptions are true. And ask again.
- Feel the painful emotions that arise. Let yourself rant, cry, feel. Avoid spreading gossip about that person or venting to mutual friends. Try making art about the experience and the feelings.
- Make a plan. Will you be seeing this person at school, work, or social gatherings? Can you take a break from a shared activity to give you both space? Is there a way you can make peace, or co-exist? Maybe you want to remove triggers that remind you of the person and bring up the emotions (like photos of you two together, or gifts the person gave to you.) Instead of making a rash decision in an emotional mindset, put these old tokens away for a while in a box in the top of your closet. Someday it won’t be nearly as hard to deal with and you will have more clarity.
- Write a goodbye letter, to your old friend and think twice before sending it– do it to get closure for yourself. Don’t force it on the other person. Apologies don’t always make things better. Consider what your motives are when you keep wanting to make contact or change the outcome. Learn to accept that some friendships are more fragile than others. Perhaps you keep the letter for a few weeks and put it away somewhere, to read it again later, when you’ve had some space from the situation. Write the letter for yourself and work on accepting the reality of what is now.
- Learn from it, and become an even more awesome friend to the lucky new strangers who will have the fortune of growing closer to you.
Remember the research statistics if it gives you comfort to know that friendships come and go – it’s not just you. It’s quite common. There are a few friends you could fight for, but let people leave your life when it is time. Make room for new friendships because they will come. Get some help in processing the loss if it is too much to handle alone – You are not alone in this experience.
Affirmation: Even though I feel a strong sense of loss, I know there are lessons I can learn from this.