ASK AMANDA #3: How Do I Overcome the Sadness of a Lost Friendship?
Welcome back to Ask Amanda, Dear Readers. Please feel free to share your own stories about lost friendship and heartbreak in the comments below. We are reading, and we love you.
How can someone overcome the sadness of a friendship lost?
There is a lot of advice for “relationship” breakups, but I recently lost a friend who I loved who just ended up hurting me badly.
I am still angry for the wounds he made, but I miss him all the time, and I don’t know if others understand because no one ever speaks about overcoming a broken heart when it comes to friendships.
I opened my home to him thinking I could help him and protect him, but he had a lot of demons mostly from addiction, and in the end his demons won, but I still feel sad that he is gone and guilty that he is probably not okay, and yet don’t feel comfortable (safe!) to reach back out.
Thank you for reading,
Someone who wears their heart and soul on their sleeve
P.S. If you have an opportunity to answer this and are moved to do so, I would prefer to remain anonymous. I think my lost friend might read your column, and I wouldn’t want him to feel upset that I think his addiction was stronger than our friendship.
A few years ago, I lost a friendship very suddenly. I was incredibly close with this person; we’d traveled and worked together. It was a brutal and sudden cut.
The feeling of loss was overwhelming. The blade went in so sharp and so deep that I didn’t even feel the wound at first, or process what was happening for a few days. I was in absolute shock.
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I’d only been friends with the person for a few years, and something still strikes me as remarkable about this episode: it happened right around the same time that my marriage with Neil — we’d been married for years at that point — hit an extremely rocky patch. But the brutal ending of this friendship wound up bothering me more acutely than the problems in my marriage. That, in itself, astounded me. This lost friendship obsessed me. I lost my sleep and peace of mind. I felt anxious during the day. My thoughts spun. I could not stop thinking about it, ruminating, trying desperately to fix, mend, and — as you say — overcome the sadness.
I’d been ghosted, and even after reaching out a few times every couple of months with an olive branch, it appeared irreparable. It took more than a year before I could really let it go. Before I noticed that a week or two had passed and I hadn’t thought about the lost friend.
So, dear Someone, out of the hundreds of questions I’ve read over the past few days, this one hit a nerve.
Truth be told: I have lost, grieved, and rebuilt many, many friendships over the course of my 45 years on this spinning ball of dirt, and I’ve spent many moons conversing with many friends trying to untangle these particular matters of the heart.
And the pandemic? Holy shit. These past two years have been a friendship inferno. I’ve never witnessed more friend (and family) breakups, misunderstandings, cancellations, blow-ups, and ghostings. From vaccine disagreements to the topsy-turvy redefinitions of what it means to be in a digital/Zoom relationship, the whole thing’s been a disaster.
You said: “There is a lot of advice for ‘relationship’ breakups, but …” Let’s start off by reminding ourselves that a friendship is a relationship. End of story.
And you’re right: friendships aren’t as acknowledged — in our culture, at least — and valued, as romantic relationships. But anyone who’s been through a friend breakup knows the truth. A friend breakup can cut even deeper than a divorce. In fact, the most devastating thing about going through a friend-divorce is exactly what you mention: there isn’t a box or a Hallmark card for this kind of grief.
It’s common knowledge that almost 50% of marriages in America end in divorce. But who’s running statistics on friend breakups? Moreover, many of us have a fundamental belief, however ill-advised, in the durability and reliability of platonic friendships, versus the shaky and unpredictable nature of relationships with sexy/romantic partners.
I think we tend to assume that sex-and-lover relationships will, sadly, come and go. Y’know, there’s a billion songs about it. I’ve written a ton of them myself (see: the entire first album by The Dresden Dolls).
Breaking up is hard to do.
But we assume that friendships will be the predictable haven; the soft, welcoming, and unwavering sandy shore on which we will land when our romantic-heart gets broken. The couch on which we will reliably crash when we find out that our sex partner has been hiding an affair with their hairdresser.
We figure our friends will always be our friends. There are a hundred million romantic breakup songs out there, but if you’re close to my vintage, we were well-schooled in this belief system by a diet of ’80s TV theme songs and hit singles.“For good times and bad times, I’ll be on your side forevermooore! That’s what friends are for! Thank you for being a friend! Traveled down a road and back again! Your heart is true! You’re a pal and a confidant!” … NEED I CONTINUE? This makes it even harder when a friendship collapses. It’s like: What the fuck? These aren’t the relationship problems I’m supposed to be dealing with.
But they are. Platonic friendships are messy. So messy. And often messy because, unlike romantic relationships, the lack of definition around them winds up being damaging when things get complicated. Questions like Who is this person in my life? How loyal are we supposed to be to one another? What are the expectations of this friendship? What can I expect from them? What do they expect from me? are often never discussed or defined, until the friendship itself is put to the test and misunderstandings and resentments erupt.
You said: “no one ever speaks about overcoming a broken heart when it comes to friendships.”
Let me tell you something about the past few years, as I’ve navigated these issues myself. It may seem to you that no one speaks about this kind of broken heart, but I would suggest that if you mention this topic in almost any sort of company, you will see nodding heads all the way around the table. This is incredibly common, but sometimes you need to cast the first comment. The floodgates of story will open.
You ask about “overcoming” the sadness for this friendship that was lost.
They say time heals all wounds, but I think that’s not quite true. Yes, time heals, but more specifically, time allows scars to form. Those scars are still scars. You’ll always bear them.
Sometimes resisting the sadness — and wanting to overcome it too fast — can mean that the sadness digs deeper roots and lasts even longer. You’ve lost your friend. You have to grieve.
You know that your addict friend is in deep pain. (He must be, or he would not have done these things to you.) Your empathy soars. You felt his pain and wanted to help fix it.
But for a moment, you need to turn away from his pain and focus on your own. When you cut an addict friend out of your life, the cut is unbelievably painful for you. You need to make sure you step away from his pain and into yours for a moment. And, sitting with your own pain and setting his aside for the moment: you need to fully honor the grief that you’re feeling.
You want to “overcome” it. But grief doesn’t want to be overcome too quickly. Grief wants to be fully felt; and that needs your time and attention … and we are all aware that time and attention are always in short supply around here, especially in Covid times. But if it’s hurting you enough to write this letter, you wanna give this some of your precious time.
So? Find ways to express it. Write about it. Journal some free-associations about how shitty it feels; and these are not to show anybody. They’re for you. Make some cathartic art (hint: it doesn’t need to be “good”; it’s for you). Make a list of all the wonderful and shitty things you’ve gone through with this friend. Talk about the whole story with another friend or therapist. Don’t hold it inside. Get it out. It’ll help. (And if you need a motivator, email me your art. I won’t share it. I’d just love to see it. And I believe all art that helps us feel better is fucking stunning.)
You’re angry. You have every right to be fucking angry. Your friend let you down. You took your addicted friend into your home, and that’s a huge gesture of trust. You thought you could help and protect him, you tried, and I’m assuming that he broke your trust, and pretty badly at that. I’d be pissed too. I’ve been there, having had many addicted friends. I, too, have had to cut the cord on some of those close friendships after trust was broken again and again, and it pained me to my core.
The worst thing? Deep down, it felt like my personal failure. I would spend many nights tossing and turning, thinking that if I’d somehow done a better job, things would have worked out. My dear Someone: it is not your failure.
My guess is that — perhaps, to help overcome the sadness — you need to do some forgiving of yourself. You did what you could. You opened your home, your heart, your time and attention, and, if you’re like me, maybe even your bank account. It didn’t work. Your friend stayed addicted and hurt you.
And you miss your friend. Of course you do. It’s important to accept the validity of this deep missing right along with the grief, and accept the paradox. I’ve had friendships that I lost over 25 years ago that I still miss. The scars last forever. But they fade. The scar just becomes part of your path, your learnings, your imperfectly perfect life story.
There are always little bits of my thought-clouds that float off and fantasize about my own lost friendships, even the ones from many decades ago, no matter who instigated the breaking-off (and I’ve been on both sides plenty of times).
It’s like there’s a cemetery somewhere in my heart with a bunch of friend-gravestones scattered around, each of them bearing the name of a lost pal. The ones from my 20s, the old housemates who left in a fit of fury and never spoke to me again. The drug-addict friends I had to leave behind.
The cemetery is a permanent fixture in my heart. But it can be a dangerous place to visit. When I’m feeling tired and insecure, and my thoughts wander out of control, I visit the friend-graves in my mind; I wander around the misty plots like a woman possessed. I sit at the foot of the stones and I get angry all over again. I bargain. I ruminate. I clench my teeth. I sigh.
When I am able to take a deep breath and calm my stormy thoughts, I tell myself that, while I am imperfect, I’ve done enough. I’ve done my best — wherever possible — to keep things authentic and honest, and I’ve tried my best to make amends. With most of these graveyard friendships, I’ve left an olive branch and the door wide open. I have said (usually, texted) things like: I’m sorry I hurt you. It was really insensitive. I know it must have hurt. You know I’m always here if you want to talk it through and make it good again.
With some others, I keep in touch but I keep a very tight boundary, knowing that the floodgates of neediness or toxicity could open too fast, and that I cannot afford to get soaked. I have some old friends who are addicts, and, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I deliberately don’t answer all of their messages. I answer … some. I just try to make it clear that I love the fuck out of them but I cannot be their go-to rehab. I love from a distance.
And with some, I’m the one — like you — who is drawing the hard boundary and keeping my distance. I say things like: I love you so much and want you to be happy, but for the time being, I’m feeling incredibly hurt. I’m just not ready to talk and make the repairs to our friendship. Maybe in a little while, after things heal. Please take care of yourself…
This is an approach that I think you can use: a compassionate act of acknowledging but deferring the friendship. I know you said that you don’t yet feel comfortable — or safe — reaching back out. But if and when you feel ready, it’s possible that you could send out an olive branch and keep your current boundary.
Tell him that this lack of communication may not last forever, but for right now, you need it. Tell him that the pain is too acute and you need some time and space. Bring your whole self to that message, write it with love and firmness. Don’t let your anger take control (for instance, if you’re tempted to add “and by the way, while I have you here, you fucking betrayed my trust, you fucking fuck, and fuck you,” just, y’know, resist that urge). Leave the olive branch there to be picked up … later. It may give his heart — and yours — some ease and peace.
I will tell you this: even if you have no desire to pick up the friendship now, leaving the door open to a future reconciliation will possibly give you the peace of mind you need to overcome the sadness. It will possibly loosen some knots in your heart. Do it not for him, but for you.
Your friend may respond with a fuck-you. That’s okay. As my wise mentor Anthony once told me: “Just because a message isn’t received doesn’t mean it isn’t worth delivering.”
(If you want perfection in any relationship, fucking forget it. Just avoid relationships. Just stay at home with your cat. But likely: at some point, even your cat will break your heart.)
These friend-graves are messy. This cemetery you will tend in your heart: it is unkempt. It can be incredibly hard to accept the neat lack of closure. So often, you just don’t get a friendship that ends with a nice, tidy finale; you won’t get a coffin with a bow. That’s okay.
Don’t let this harden your heart. Don’t let this keep you from loving the next friend. Take what you’ve learned from this friendship (perhaps something about discernment, or boundaries, or red flags. There’s always a lesson in there).
But embrace the mess; it’s worth it. You’ll have to dig a new grave every once in a while, but you’ll be — for the most part — less lonely. I’d say it’s better to have an unkempt and overgrown cemetery in your heart than an empty, friendless desert.
Sending my love to you, as I try to garden my own messy little plot,
P.S. Someday I’ll write the painful sister-column to this one, about how it feels to be the canceled friend or family member, a topic many of you have asked about. All of your questions are so goddamn good that I feel like I could write this column for 10 years and just be getting started. See you all next week.
P.P.S. If anyone has suggestions for good friend-divorce songs, please submit them below in the comments. Let’s start a friend-cemetery playlist. I mean it.
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Friendship breakup songs: Dar Williams “Beautiful Enemy” might’ve been about a lovers’ breakup but it fit a severing of friendship for me so well that I must share it.
One thing that I would do that might shift some energy is to have an out loud pretend conversation with the friend. Say everything you'd want to say to them in that conversation, imagine them answering back, in however way you want. Also if you Google ho'oponopono which is a Hawaiian forgiveness practice - I've had amazing results. As for break up songs of any kind - Billy Joel, And So It Goes is mine.