[Reviewed and updated August 25, 2023]
What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us. ~ Helen Keller
A reader writes: One of my very good friends died from lung cancer. We live far apart and I hadn't been in touch with her recently and I learned a few days ago that she passed away two weeks ago. I missed the funeral and I'm having a very difficult time dealing with her death.
I didn't know how sick she was, I would have done things differently if I did and I feel very left out for not being told until now and guilty for not being more involved. I can't seem to get over the shock of it. I've been having these fits where it hits me full force that I will never see her again. I try to just forget about it as much as I can during the day just to get through each day. I have never had to deal with the death of someone close to me and I don't know where to start.
My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the death of your friend, and I can certainly understand the mixture of feelings you're experiencing now, including shock, anger and guilt.
Since you weren't notified of your friend's death right away and missed her funeral as well, you had no opportunity to visit her one last time or to view her body after she died (which ordinarily would have served as your "moment of truth", allowing for no denying of the reality of her death).
Even if you had known two weeks ago, personnel policies in most places of employment rarely allow enough time off for someone to travel some distance to attend a funeral, and airlines don't include friends on their list of acceptable grievers. We have words in our language such as widow, widower and orphan, but there is no term to describe a friend in grief. In effect, as grievers, friends have no identity, no role recognition, and no function with respect to the deceased.
If you identify closely with this friend, when you learned of her illness and death you may have found yourself thinking that "it could have been me" and at the same time feeling relieved that "it wasn't me" ~ and then feeling very guilty for thinking and feeling this way. But feelings aren't always rational and logical, and I hope you won't be too quick to judge yourself for having the same reactions most of us would have if we were in your shoes.
Since you live far apart from your friend who died, any display of emotion on your part (crying, expressions of sorrow, anger or guilt) may be discouraged or misinterpreted by others, leading you to feel very isolated and alone. So it is not surprising that you find yourself in such a state of uncertainty, not knowing "where to start" or what to do with your grief.
I hope you will find someone you know and trust to talk with about all of this, my dear, so you can begin to make some sense of what you are feeling. I hope you'll do some reading about loss and bereavement, so you'll understand better what is normal in grief. The articles right here on this blog are a good place to start.
When you feel ready to do so, it may help to write a letter of condolence to your friend's family, sharing with them what you remember best and treasure most about her. Or you could write a letter directly to your friend, saying all the things you wished you could've told her before she died. Find a special place and have your own memorial ritual for your friend, perhaps lighting a candle, then burning or burying the letter you wrote to her.
Whatever you do, find a way to say goodbye to your friend and give honor to her memory ~ even if that means going on to live a good life in her honor.
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