The Language of Losing Friends

Preserving friendships: Knowing when to work hard and when to let go — that’s the difficult part.

watercolor a single daisy in a field with gray clouds in the background
Image Created via Midjourney

We have a lot of words to describe how relationships end. Divorce. Breakup. Death. Each has a distinct connotation (for better or worse).

We don’t have a similar vocabulary to describe the end of a friendship — at least, none that paints such an obvious scene in our minds. Perhaps friends simply “drift apart.” Or perhaps the friendship ends tumultuously with a specific fight, but we don’t call that a “breakup” in the same way we refer to couples that call it quits. If asked, we may respond, “Oh, we’re not friends anymore” but the phrase lacks the ceremony that romantic relationships are afforded.

These relationships often transcend family and marriage. We voluntarily show up day after day, week after week, year after year. But still, friendships can dissolve. And when they do, we’re often left with an ache, a hole where that person used to be… and no one else that can really understand the void. Because the friendship was a unique collaboration between two souls, sharing part of life’s journey.

I remember one of my first friendship breakups, and it was devastating. I was in middle school — rejected by a friend who decided I wasn’t “cool enough.” I remember watching her on the school playground, chasing after the Cool Kids, desperate to be accepted. It hurt because I loved her for who she was and to the Cool Kids, she was just a fan, not a member.

I went to an extremely small school, which made the end of our friendship even more obvious. In addition to missing our friendship, I was embarrassed. It was a public dissolution, one that garnered whispers from the other seventh graders, I’m sure.

She and I went to different high schools. In hindsight, our friendship may have ended anyway once proximity got in the way. Email and AOL Instant Messenger communication were only beginning to blossom so without the daily interaction of school, we probably would have drifted apart. But that likely would have stung less; after all, it would have been understandable.

Years later, we found ourselves at the same college, with the same break in our schedules that brought us to the same cafeteria spot a few days each week. We began to have lunch together, chatting together for several hours each week. But by that point, we were very different people. She was still striving for some type of societal acceptance that I never understood. And while I enjoyed her company, it never rose to the level of friendship we’d had more than a decade earlier.

When my oldest son was born, I was very lonely. I was 25 and the first of my close friends to have a baby. I experienced the “drifting apart” with one college friend in particular who couldn’t understand (or adapt) to my new baby-centered lifestyle.

I had to make new friends. And I did, through a mother-baby group sponsored by one of the local hospitals. I formed bonds with about ten women and their similarly-aged infants. We hosted playdates, took our babies to the park, and escaped to restaurants for a child-free Mom’s Night Out.

Then after about a year, my husband got a new job that forced us to relocate to a different state. I was heartbroken. I was in a private Facebook group with these women, but it wasn’t the same. I was the outsider. They’d continue with their plans and I wasn’t there. A few times, I drove 2.5 hours to join an activity but the bond had frayed.

My “mommy friends” had sustained me as I learned to navigate life as a new parent. I set out to find new friends — and I did. I joined several Meetup groups and met some amazing women. Some of whom I’m still friends with today. Others have faded over time… especially as our kids got older, went to different schools, and our lives got more busy and complicated.

But those enduring friendships have extended far beyond parenting support and commiseration. My friends have been there for me through grief, marriage ups and downs, difficult decisions… along with the celebratory best of times. I need and love my friends in much the same way that I need and love my family.

One friend faded away during the pandemic. Relationships were strained across the board: we were all exhausted from at-home learning, isolation, and general anxiety. I tried to keep up with people via text message, but we were all barely hanging on by a thread.

Yet this one friend’s absence from my life was different. It was about a year into the pandemic and she abruptly stopped responding to texts. I found out through the grapevine that she was getting divorced. I wondered why this would cause her to pull away. Was it something I said? Did she feel that she couldn’t talk to me about the end of her marriage?

Finally, I decided that maybe it wasn’t me. Her divorce was likely absorbing so much of her energy. I didn’t want to give up on our friendship. After all, she was one of the women I’d met through a Meetup when I’d first moved to the area — so we had been friends for more than ten years.

Every few months, I’d send her a text. Usually a photo of both of us from “on this day” in years prior. I’d say something like, “This popped up, made me think of you. Hope you are well.” No reply.

Then one day… she responded. She said, “You reaching out means a lot. I’m not ready to talk, but knowing I have you in my corner is everything.”

It had seemed like our friendship was over. Certainly the length of time that had passed would leave most people to believe that we had “drifted apart.” But I kept trying. I thought that our friendship was worth the effort.

In 2021, I left a job I’d been at for 15 years. Along with that change, I left some people — some that I’d known for the same amount of time. I embarked on an entirely new career journey and, while scary at first, it was clear to me that I’d made the right decision.

I kept in touch with a few of my former colleagues. Then, out of the blue, I was harassed by one, via text. It wasn’t altogether surprising behavior, since I’d seen his wrath toward other employees before, but it had never been directed at me while I was at the company. But, I was no longer beholden to the decorum of a work environment. I sent a scathing reply and then blocked him.

I texted a former colleague to let her know what I had done. At a small company, I knew she’d find out anyway. She never replied.

I was beyond shocked. First, that she would give up on our long, long friendship over a single incident. And second, because I wasn’t sure why. Did she disagree with how I’d handled the situation? Was she angry that I’d left — that I now had the freedom to speak my mind, when she couldn’t? Dozens of different scenarios played through my mind, none surfacing as the obvious answer.

A few months later, her dad passed away. I sent flowers and a card to her house. I debated sending a text to let her know that I was sorry but then hesitated. Unlike my friend going through a divorce, I didn’t have a good explanation for the fracture in this relationship. I didn’t want to force myself on her — especially while she was grieving. I thought to myself, “If she wants to reach out to me, she will. I opened the door by sending flowers.”

A generic thank-you card arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Nothing else.

At that point, I gave up. There are still times when I wonder what happened. And there are still times when I read something on the news or something happens with one of my kids, and I wonder what she’d have to say.

Recently, another friend inquired if I’d ever reconciled with this former colleague. I told her that I hadn’t. And it’s a hole, because after leaving that job, I’m doing so many different things now — things that make me so happy. I would have loved to share them with her. But I am mindful that talking about all of the changes I’ve made would have emphasized that I’d moved on from a work situation that I consider toxic. And she was still there.

The friend who inquired said, “Maybe this former friend doesn’t fit into your new life.”

It was sad to think of it that way.

I read an article in The Atlantic by Jennifer Senior entitled “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.” In it, she writes,

It’s the friendships with more deliberate endings that torment. At best, those dead friendships merely hurt; at worst, they feel like personal failures.

As I’ve reflected on the friendships that have ended in my life — many more than I’ve written about here — there is an entire matrix of understanding, acceptance, confusion, and hurt. I understand why my childhood friend decided to end our friendship; the reason was clear. I accepted that some friendships fade as the result of life circumstances.

It’s those that fall into the “confusion plus hurt” category that continue to sting.

Mary Schmich wrote a commencement address for the class of 1997 that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (later turned into the song “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” released by Baz Luhrmann). In it, Schmich says:

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Knowing when to work hard and when to let go — that’s the difficult part.

You can support my work as a writer by buying me a coffee.