Death of a Friend by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

Tuesday, 23 Jul 2013 03:04

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I breathed a song into the air

It fell to earth I knew not where,

For who has sight so keen and strong

That it can follow the flight of a song?

And the song from beginning to end

I found again in the heart of a friend.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, From: “The Heart of a Friend”


We cannot choose our family.  We can choose our friends.  That is a great privilege.  It is a pleasure.  It is a necessity.

Close friends are often family extenders.  Sometimes they are all the family we have.  Sometimes we wish they were all we had.  We are free to choose, and we usually choose the close ones well.  Children search for them.  Adults also treasure them.  It is a friend’s job to be there to support, especially when all else fails and everyone else flees the scene.  A friend is the dependable human being in the midst of joy or disaster.  He is a first responder.  He is a risk manager.  He is a social safety net.  He usually knows what most others can only guess, all the secrets too intimate and painful to reveal to the wider world.  Trustworthy.  Reliable.  Irreplaceable.  The death of a close friend can easily take on the feeling tone of a family member loss.

An old adage tells us this: a friend knows all your flaws, overlooks or forgives them, and loves you anyway.  It sounds repetitive, but it is also valid.  Think about it.  Read it again and then judge.  So it is that friendship, connection, transcends time and space.

I have an old friend whose brother is difficult.  They don’t get along well.  Never did.  It is not my friend’s fault.  The brother is cold and remote.  Over a delightfully long and gifted lifetime, my friend has gathered her circle of friends.  Two of those people have been slowly and carefully selected as “best.”  Those two are her surrogate siblings.  It took two to replace one.  It is quite satisfactory, though.  Friends matter.  They filled a need and soothed a loss-by-choice.  They helped the healing.

Another of my friends is an only child.  Friendship is quite a serious matter for her.  Her friends are specially special.  They are the sisters and brothers she never had.  One of her closest friends died 15 years ago.  She still cries when she talks about that very important person.  Bereavement can be a lengthy process, and the grief work may take a lifetime.  Nothing wrong with that.  All flowers do not bloom at the same time.

The death of a friend makes the mourner particularly vulnerable.  The standard social responses are insensitive and disrespectful.  After all, it’s just a friend.  Snap out of it.  She wasn’t your family.  Imagine how the family feels so much worse than you do.  You have so many more friends, so never mind this one.  You’ll be fine.  Don’t worry about it.

Stop, thief!  Don’t steal my grief!

The responses are worse than wrong.  They injure.  They hurt and outrage.  They are isolating.  They drive the bereaved friend inward, alone with grief.  They diminish and minimize the feelings and the whole process of grieving.  They make the process deeper and longer.  The reason is that grief must be shared with living others.  It must not be marginalized.  All the usual worries and anxieties of normal grieving apply to the bereaved after the death of a close friend.  They do include nightmares, daytime anxieties and guilt, sadness and loneliness, sense of helplessness, fear of insanity, and the fear of one’s own death.  These worries and grief can be incapacitating when the mourner is forced into social isolation.  The aloneness becomes a sense of living a double life, a “real” inner self and an outer life of self-pretending.  That real inner self feels rejected and misunderstood by the whole available social network.

In the circumstance of friendship loss, the sharing of grief feelings is generally shunned by the social environment.  “Get over it” is the prevalent view.  “Hurry up!  Don’t look back.”  How odd.  Friendship is so important until the death of a friend.  Then, suddenly, the friend is “just” a friend, “only” that, not an all-important family member/relative.  Not a treasure for life.  Not an indispensable companion.  Cold, tactless, and senseless are words that come to mind.  Paradoxical.  Ironic.

The ancient scholar Hillel the Elder is reputed to have said: “Do not say unto others what you would not have them say unto you.  The rest is commentary.”  That was called the Ethic of Reciprocity.  What would you want someone to say to you?

There are a few decidedly useful answers.  “I’m sorry” would be a good start.  Let common sense prevail.  It opens a conversation.  It dignifies death.  It permits further comment.  It respects an important relationship without intruding on unexpressed feelings.  It allows attention to remain focused on the bereaved friend, not the commenter.  That is fundamental.  It invites the bereaved to ask for support and company and caring – and yes, even for friendship.

“Tell me how you are feeling, if you want to” is another helpful statement.  Prepare to listen (otherwise, don’t say that).  Listening well is a true gift to the bereaved friend.  It encourages talking, so important for relief and growth.  Also, the talking is part of what is usually missed most in the lost friend.  Remember that every death changes us.  We need to watch how these changes are occurring, inside us.  We need to have a glimpse of who we will become, later on.  Talking about the death, taking time to process its effects, is essential to proper healing.  No need to rush.  Take time to feel the feelings and rely on the kindness of chosen others who know how to listen well.  Others who welcome talking.  Others who graciously give time and empathy.

The loss of a close friend makes the remaining friendships all the more precious and meaningful.  The appreciation is increased along with understanding of loss and fear of more losses.  The mourner is compelled to find connections.  Perhaps this is a biological imperative, necessary for survival.  It is certainly a psychosocial force.  The transitional course of grieving makes the bereaved friend ultimately a more generous friend, a wiser parent, a more tolerant and patient employee.  After acute grief for what is lost comes the slowly emerging celebration for all that remains.  While life is not always fair, it is still good.

All of us seek balance and equilibrium in life.  It is the human condition.  Balance is most of our emotional net worth.  The search is sometimes painful, as in bereavement.  However, it is also natural, inevitable, and elegant.  The life of the mind is a continuous source of wonder and amazement and awe.

Tragedy is not defeat.  Suffering can be transformed.  Life events are open to interpretation.  The mind welcomes reframing of the definition of loss.  Penetrating insight into self and others is a fringe benefit of grief work.  The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: the door to happiness opens outward.  We can add that the door to healing and growth opens outward toward other people.  It opens toward reaching out, to give to others and to receive in return, to strive for harmony.  It opens toward caring for and about others.  It opens toward heightened sensitivity to others and deepened understanding.  It sharpens the meaning of loyalty, constancy, and durability in relationships.  It highlights the grace, the power, and the beauty of connection.

A song in the heart of a friend.  Bereavement brings awakening.  Inside every goodbye is a hello.  That is also strength and growth.

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12 thoughts on “Death of a Friend by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

  1. Pingback: Death of a Friend by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD | It’s OK to Die | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

    1. Rea

      And thank you, Julie! Your book has been the real and tangible gift for so many. Even free for a time! NICE! And so thoughtful. Keep writing!

  2. Dave Savage

    You referenced Hillel in his famous saying, also know as the Golden Rule.
    Treat others as you would like to be treated.

    I prefer the variation, Treat others as they would like to be treated.
    Sometimes they are very different. You have to ask in direct and indirect ways.

    Dave Savage – co author

  3. Pingback: Death of a Friend by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD | It’s OK to Die | Loss, Grief, Transitions and Relationship Support

  4. Lashawn

    “Death of a Friend by Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD | It’s OK to Die” was indeed a fantastic blog. If merely there were much more sites similar to this one on the online world. Well, thanks a lot for your precious time, Kaylene


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