I feel like the best way to describe the odyssey of grief I’ve been on since my mom died nine years ago is that it’s like how it felt to drive from Pittsburgh to Austin and back that one time. Or how it might feel to build a treehouse. Tedious. Somehow both sleepy and sharp-edged. But not impossible, because I had directions. A path. Of course, there’s no one way to grieve. There are wrong ways, but no right ways. But most people have either experienced a parent dying, or will eventually. And witnessing how other people deal — plus the slight but still real comfort of knowing you’re not alone — is a template.
It helped that I had platforms to work through my grief by honoring her and contextualizing her death. Facebook statuses. An essay for Esquire. A chapter in my book. But there was a point reached last year, I think, where this sort of public remembrance no longer felt necessary. I wasn’t grieving as much as I was retraumatizing myself with the memory of grief. So I just stopped doing that.
Grieving death is almost the same dynamic as grieving the end of a romantic relationship. The hard parts are a bit harder, actually. Especially if you still want to be together. (Especially, especially if you still want to be together, but they choose to be with someone else.) But then sometimes it just stops itself. One day you wake up and it’s just done. It’s weird like that. It works like an inverted hurricane. If you can withstand the eye of the storm, you’ll have sun in your eyes soon. And if you need help on how to deal, or maybe just some community to feel less alone, there are movies and songs and paintings and plays all about that type of heartbreak.
You could also just lay in bed for a week. Or write “Layla.” Either works.
But what happens when you lose a friend you loved — and maybe still love? The person is not gone; They’re still alive and presumably well. But the relationship? Dead. What are the mechanics of grief there?
The construction of that question makes it feel rhetorical. Like I plan to spend the rest of this essay building toward a pre-discovered epiphany. But no. This is a plea. None of the best-practiced pathways for grieving seem to work very well here.
It’s not like the finality of death, where you have no choice but to move on. Or the equilibrium shift of the end of a romance, where things mostly end because one person in it has decided to free themselves of it. But while most romantic relationships are sexually monogamous — or, rather, exist under the veneer of monogamy — there’s no governing the number of friendships you’re able to have. Sometimes friendships are cleared and refreshed so that a person can spend more time with newer, better (for them) friends. But mostly you can keep both the old and the new. It’s optimal, even, to have a healthy mix of people from different stages of your life. Some will take up more space than others. But space shifts, and there can be room for everyone. Which means that when a person decides to end a friendship with you, they’ve decided that even the smallest bit of you on the peripheries of their life is too much for them. It is the cleanest form of rejection.
This is a plea. None of the best-practiced pathways for grieving seem to work very well here.
The rejection also unlocks a new level of vulnerability. But not the type of vulnerable you might have been with them. It’s different. It’s like — I don’t know. It’s like you showed them the you-est possible you, and they decided, after seeing it, that their life is better without you in it. Which just makes you scared about what they saw. You can’t see what they see. You can’t have that perspective. But you know what they did after they saw you. What they saw, for whatever reason, scared them away from you. How can that not scare you too?
Maybe it’s not all about you, though. Maybe they still love you. Maybe you just represent, for them, a time or a place that makes them feel less like life and more like death. Maybe it was for your own good, to protect both of you from what might happen when you’re fused together. Maybe it had nothing to do with you.
You know, sometimes the process of writing about a lack of clarity on a situation has a way of clarifying things for me. I think the mechanics of writing, for me, can be a landscaping service, removing the weeds and debris out of my brain. But with this, with learning how to mourn the end of a friendship, I’m no closer to an answer than when I began writing. I was hoping I’d figure it out by now. Was sure I would, actually.