Dr. Carol Marie Webster, PhD

Losing Friends

There are numerous ways to lose friends on this amazing journey we call life. When I was near sixteen, a boy whom I loved as a dear friend telephoned and in our short conversation he let me know he valued our friendship and to remember to pray for him. For years, I would privately reflect on that conversation, for it would be our last. The day after we spoke he took a gun to his head and ended his life. Months later, or maybe it was months earlier, a new friend but regular acquaintance, fell from the back of a bus. His death was publicly mourned. Community and religious leaders publicly condemned the practice that teen boys had adopted of riding on the outside of buses: standing on the back bumper and holding on to the side of the bus by grasping on to the frame of an opened back window while pressing their full bodies against the bus. It was a high risk activity that current bus designs make impossible. But at the time, it was a teen boys’ game. And, that day, my friend lost. The community rallied to celebrate his life, say goodbye to him, and save other risk- susceptible teen boys from the fate of the bus game. 

As for my friend who shot himself, mourning was silent and muted. There were words we friends dare not say to his family, to each other, or, even to ourselves. His funeral was a private family affair, with only close family members and selected close friends allowed to attend. The ceremony was heart-wrenching partly because of its dull sullenness, a contrast to the life of a vibrant friend who would arbitrarily call us with expressions of love and connectivity. We delighted in the ways he loved us and regularly told him so. For weeks I did not cry – could not cry – as my grief and anger battled inside me for territory. When I finally did cry, I could not stop. And, in some essential ways have never stopped fully crying and grieving the loss of this dear friend and the silence that surrounded mourning him.  

Now, a  long way from sixteen, I find myself similarly grieving another dear friend. Though this friend has not died, the dying of our friendship has been a creeping silence and profoundly silencing. A year ago I was informed by one of her children that my friend has been diagnosed with dementia. This diagnosis unfortunately came after she had sold her home of thirty years, had taken numerous journeys between the east and west coast in attempts to re-root herself and her life, and a year of COVID lockdown (and isolation) in a high-end hotel.  In hindsight, her prior COVID lockdown decisions and indecisions were likely symptoms of disruptions in her cognitive integrity;  but In that first year of COVID Lockdown, she lost essential parts of herself. And, though she and I spoke on the phone almost daily, it was clear that our friendship would not be enough to sustain her. On a few occasions of COVID-bravery, my partner and I walked the distance to her hotel, brought her home-cooked food, and had outdoors conversations with her. Like many, COVID lockdown gatherings, there was nothing ideal about the situation. We knew something would eventually give way. We hoped it would be something other than her well-being.  

She ended up in the hospital emergency care and then in ICU for several weeks – malnourished, dehydrated, and having missed several critical medication rituals – her body and mind were in crisis. When she was released from the hospital it was to a memory institute with rehabilitation care. I thought I had lost her;  but losing her would turn out to be far less dramatic.  

Our friendship has been short but deeply woven. We met because she welcomed my partner and me to our new apartment with a greeting card and a flower pot.  I almost cried.  It was a gesture my partner and I could not have expected, but in some silent recesses of our souls had prayed for. She offered us hope that our multicultural twosome could find community in this new space. And indeed we did. My soon-to-be friend lived in the apartment directly across the hall and over the next eight months we frequently welcomed each other home at the end of long taxing days, celebrated birthdays and holidays together, shared musical favorites, made up holidays as excuses for gathering for meals and desserts, and went out to the movies, community gatherings, and walks.  We were a motley lot of mis-belonging: simultaneously representing three religions,  racial, and ethnic groups, and age-range spanning four decades. Nothing external pointed to our belonging, but for a short time, we belonged to and with each other.  Her two years of regular travel between east and west coast did not disrupt birthday and holiday celebrations, which we did earlier or later to accommodate her travel schedule. Then, COVID lockdown.  

Now living close to her children, my friend is getting the dedicated medical and mental health care and attention she needs to navigate the cognitive and physical complication specific to her diagnosis and aging body. Until recently, we have had weekly conversations, but in the last month of 2022 and these early months of 2023 our communication has come to a near halt. Like suicide, the impact of compromises in cognitive integrity is a silent disaster that happens to  the individual as well as to their loved ones. Friends are regularly pealed away (by choice or design) from the life of the person whose cognition is unraveling, but there are few avenues for friends to say goodbye in healthy and holistic ways. There are numerous ways to lose friends on this amazing journey we call life. This is just one way: silent between the whispers of time and the withering of memory, my friend and I lose sight of each other even as our hearts remain intertwined. There will be no speeches or cards, flowers or media announcements, there is just the underwhelming sullen breeze reminding me that some losses are catastrophic because the language of silence renders losses of some of our most essential bonds unsaid, unheard, as we (by choice or design) become participants in rituals of un-presencing – the deletion – of a life. 

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