Offill, Jenny, and Elissa Schappell, eds.
The Friend Who Got Away
New York: Doubleday, 2005
We're stuck with our families, but we get to choose our friends. And although it's hard to pin down the formula for creating friendship, we all know the magic of friendship when we're lucky enough to find it.
But we also recognize the pain that results from losing a friend, no matter what the reason. The formula for how friendships dissolve is hard to pin down, too. Twenty professional writers try to describe the process of losing a friend in this book, whose subtitle is Twenty Women's True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away.
Only one of the book's contributors discussed a friendship that ended with the death of the author's friend. That writer went on to describe a relationship that formed between herself and the mother of the girl who had died. Soon after the girl's death these two survivors united in their love for and remembrance of her. But eventually their bond, which had originally provided solace for each of them, turned into a painful reminder that prevented both of them from moving on. The lost friendship the author focuses on in her essay is this later one between herself and the mother, a friendship that gradually faded away.
Why so little discussion about friendships that ended with the death of a friend? Probably because the death of a friend doesn't have to end the friendship. Sure, death removes the friend from our physical presence, but not from our memory. In memory, the friend and the friendship live on. We may lose friends to death, but we don't therefore lose their friendship.
No, when we talk about losing friendships, we are talking about the relationships that die out for some reason other than death--reasons such as money or misunderstanding, changed circumstances or a failure to communicate, or perhaps a life-altering event that fundamentally changes one of the people in the friendship.
These are the kinds of losses the essays in The Friend Who Got Away tell us about. There's the story of a woman whose several miscarriages alienate her from two long-time friends who become pregnant and deliver healthy babies; an essay about the dissolution of a life-long friendship because of a disagreement about money; tales of betrayal by a friend who seduced the author's boyfriend and of a former friend who tried to usurp the author's identity by wearing the same clothes and assuming the same mannerisms. In an interesting pairing, two women, who were both close to their mothers, each gives her perspective on the breakup of their friendship when one's mother got cancer and then died.
Perhaps the most poignant story in the book is novelist Ann Hood's description of the painful ending of a 35-year friendship. When Hood's 5-year-old daughter died suddenly of an infectious disease in 2002, this long-time friend never contacted Hood in any way to offer condolences. At the time when Hood most needed her friends, this woman abandoned her.
What makes a person abandon a friend at a time of such grief? Perhaps it's a form of magical thinking known as "magical contagion"--the irrational belief that we can "catch" bad luck from someone who has it, as if misfortune were a contagious disease.
I think, though, that more often the reason is that we simply feel awkward and don't know what to say; afraid of saying the wrong thing, we stay away and say nothing at all. But nothing at all is exactly the worst thing to say at a painful time. Almost anything we might say is infinitely better than saying nothing. If this other person is our friend, surely we can talk to her. We can say, "I don't know what to do for you. Please tell me what you need from me right now." Or we can say, "I can't imagine what I could possibly say to you right now, so I'm just going to sit with you for a while and hold your hand." Even if our friend asks us to leave her alone, at least we have made an effort to communicate and have not abandoned her. And once we've made this effort, the avenue for reconnection later will be open, as it will not be if we have stayed away and said nothing.
The essays in The Friend Who Got Away demonstrate that, just as there is no one magic formula for creating friendships, there is also no generic formula for how friendships end. This volume shows how our truly lost friendships, those whose ending we either mourn or rejoice over but whose existence--no matter how fleeting--has touched us, leave us forever transformed.
© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown