Monday, January 21, 2019

Death of A Friend: A Disenfranchised Grief

[Reviewed and updated February 24, 2020]

Some people come into our lives and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never ever the same.  ~ Flavia Weedn   

A reader writes: A friend of mine died last month. I have been struggling to cope since then. We met only a few months ago when I did some work at the theater where he was based. We knew each other a very short time and I realize that if you've lost someone you've known for years this may seem so selfish and silly, but we really connected and I miss him so much.
          He was only 26. He had cancer. He told me three months ago that he was dying and then a few weeks ago he told me he had two weeks left. I didn't know that he had passed on until his mother responded to a text I had sent him a few days after he had died by telling me he had passed.
          There wasn't a funeral. If there was one, it was a family only affair. I have no contact with anyone else who knew him. We argued before he died. He wanted more from me than friendship. He told me I was his fantasy girl, that he cared about me a lot and that his last wish was to sleep with me. I said no as I have a long term partner. I hadn't seen him for several weeks before his death. Even tho we didn't part angrily, and we had said goodbye in a manner of speaking, I feel like I am missing a limb. I feel like I hadn't said what I wanted to. I feel cheated of a friendship that mattered to me. Even tho I am glad he isn't in pain anymore. I feel so unhappy and miss him so much.
          One moment I am fine, the next I am crying. It makes my partner very unhappy too as he knew my friend wanted more and I don't think he quite understands why I am so upset. I don't understand either.
          Everything reminds me of him. I feel like if I go back to the places that we were together in it will hurt worse than anything.
          I guess it just comes down to missing my friend.
          I just need to talk to someone who might understand.
          I don't know what to do.

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of the death of your friend this past month; please accept my heartfelt sympathy for your loss. You say that you don’t understand why you are so upset about all of this, and your long-term partner doesn’t quite understand either. I’d like to offer some thoughts that I hope may help to clarify.

Oftentimes the death of a friend falls into the category of disenfranchised losses ~ those instances in which grief is an entirely natural response to loss and yet, because the loss is not openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly shared, the mourner is deprived of the catharsis and relief that shared grief can bring.

As you say, when your friend died, no one in his family notified you of the death, and if there was a funeral or a memorial service, you were neither invited nor included. It is as if, from his family’s perspective, you did not exist in this man’s life ~ and yet, you know that you mattered enough to him that one of his dying wishes was to be physically intimate with you. In addition, the people in your own circle (other friends, family members, work associates, etc.) do not regard you as a person in mourning, so you are left with no support and comfort at all. 

As Harold Ivan Smith points out in his lovely little book, When Your Friend Dies, the death of a friend is often considered to be a less significant experience than that of a family member. As a result, the friend left behind feels shunted aside or marginalized in the grieving process. You may feel as if you don't have permission to grieve ~ which can make it even more difficult to come to terms with your loss.

I just want you to know that the pain you are feeling is real and worthy of your grief. We don't grieve deeply for those we do not love. I encourage you to acknowledge the significance of your relationship with this person, and honor your grief as a measure of the love you feel for your friend. Even if it is not justified (feelings aren’t always rational), you may be feeling guilty for depriving this man of his dying wish to sleep with you, at the same time feeling disloyal to your long-term partner for even considering it ~ and angry with your present partner for passing judgment on you for something you didn’t even do. On one hand you’re grateful that your friend is no longer suffering ~ on the other hand, you are now the one who is suffering in silence with the sorrow of missing him. One moment you’re feeling okay, and the next minute you are drowning in tears. These are the conflicting, ambivalent feelings of grief, my friend, and they are normal under the circumstances.

You say you “feel like I hadn’t said what I wanted to” and you feel cheated ~ but it’s never too late to say whatever you feel a need to say to someone who has died! It’s just a matter of finding a way to get those words outside of your head and your heart, whether it’s onto a piece of paper (or onto a computer screen) in the form of a letter, or simply having a heart-to-heart (or heart-to-spirit) talk with your friend, silently or out loud ~ whatever way feels comfortable and right for you. What’s getting in your way is what we call unfinished business, and it can help immensely to find a way to finish whatever business is left undone (or unsaid) between the two of you. You could write a letter to your friend, saying whatever it is you need to say. You might even try having your friend write a letter back to you, putting down in writing whatever comes through to you from him. (Some counselors suggest writing the letter from you with your dominant hand, and the letter from the deceased person with your opposite hand.) Set aside some quiet, private time to do this, when you know you will not be disturbed. Put some soft music on the stereo, turn off your cell phone and don’t answer the door.

Although you didn’t attend your friend's funeral, you still can plan and hold your own private ritual of remembrance. You are limited only by your own imagination. Go to my site’s Memorials ~ Funerals ~ Rituals page to find some very creative ideas for doing this, and see my article, Grief Rituals Can Help on Special Days.

I want to refer you to some other resources that may be helpful, too. Knowing what normal grief looks like and feels like can make you feel less crazy and alone, and can give both you and your long-term partner a better understanding of what you can expect in the days and weeks ahead. See especially the articles listed on my Articles page, as well as the sites that are listed on my Death of a Friend page. I've also listed a number of other supportive links on my Counseling / Support page

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. Please know that I am thinking of you and wishing you peace and healing.

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