Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
Two days ago I received a phone call from a friend in another country who usually writes me by email, so I sensed something was wrong right away. He told me that a very dear mutual friend of ours in that same country had been on the telephone with him the night before, complaining about stomach pain, when suddenly the line went silent, and then a stranger’s voice came on the line and told him that his friend had just fell unconscious in the street. They called the EMTs, but by the time they arrived it was too late. Later the doctors said he died of an aortic aneurism, which is sometimes called the “widow-maker” because it is so swift and deadly.
I’m writing because my friend and I had spent countless hours together across more than 25 years, and I don’t know how I should feel in learning of his sudden death. As a man, I guess I’m kind of stoic and realistic about most things, but yesterday and today I’ve found myself sort of quiet and reclusive, not really feeling depressed or tearful, but just sort of muted. It’s like some of the color has gone out of the world, and I find myself looking back at photos of the many times we spent together exploring foreign cities, or visiting one another’s homes. Somehow, things just seem less real, including his death.
I’ve told a few other people about my friend’s death, and they usually respond sympathetically but briefly, with “I’m sorry to hear that,” unless they were also mutual friends, and then they usually share some memories of him too. But in the end I guess I was just a friend, not his wife, brother or mother, and so I don’t know if I’m really entitled to grieve, or what that would even look like. It’s all a bit strange, because he was already cremated today, so I can’t even go to his funeral.
I’d appreciate any thoughts you have about what I am experiencing, or what I should do, if anything.
Along with sibling loss and pet loss, the death of a friend may be among the most “disenfranchised” forms of bereavement, in the sense that we’ve lost someone important to us, but our loss goes almost unnoticed by the social world. Sometimes we ourselves minimize its significance, and with it that of our friendship with the deceased. As your words suggest, we might not even know if “we are entitled to grieve.” Let me assure you that we, as true friends, are, and that grieving for a friend can take any of several adaptive forms.
One of the reasons we might question our responses to the death of a friend is that our grief may play in the background of our lives like a melancholy song on the radio turned to low volume, almost out of hearing range, but not quite. But as with literal music, tuning into it softly rather than loudly doesn’t make it less real. Acknowledging the feelings that are there–the strangeness of an unanticipated phone call, the sadness of imagined future visits to cities just a little more empty as a result of your friend’s absence–is a way of claiming the legitimacy of the loss, and his importance in your life.
The suddenness and recency of his death might also be a factor to consider, as suggested by your comment about it all not seeming “real.” Integrating a loss that blindsides us takes time, and often people will experience stronger feelings a few days later as the reality of the loss seeps in. Adopting a compassionate attitude toward yourself if this happens would be important.
Finally, your description of the response of your social world–brief acknowledgement combined with “moving on”–suggests that you might seek a fuller audience for your grief in correspondence with other friends who know you both, whether by writing or speaking with them, sharing a memory on Facebook or on a memorial site constructed to honor him, or taking some kind of action in remembrance of him, like visiting a cafe you once frequented and lifting a glass in his memory, or even joining with others to make a contribution to a cause that mattered to your friend. Writing him an AfterTalk letter could also be a way of reviewing what he meant and still means to you, and give you a way to express gratitude for the man he was and the gifts of time and caring that you generously exchanged with one another.