Hey Nomi, I live in Delaware, right over the border from PA. I just wanted to ask your advice, and I hope this doesn’t cross any boundaries. My friend dated a guy since she was fifteen years old, so last year that would’ve been eight years. He was addicted to heroin and other substances and she didn’t even drink. For those eight years, her spirit faded and her light did as well. She sucked everything out of herself trying to save him. Yesterday, he was found dead of overdose.
A year ago, she broke up with him because it was no longer healthy for her and it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. She still loved him. She eventually opened up to a new guy, Christian, and they just said I love you for the first time a few weeks ago. And now she’s confused. She’s mourning the loss of her last love while trying to be in a new love. I don’t want her to feel guilt or like she could’ve done anything. Do you have any advice? I know this is a sensitive topic but I can’t see her take a step back. Especially since just two days ago, she was head over heels happy. A happy that I never saw before. I’m hoping that maybe your experience and your kind heart could lead me in a direction that could help me be the best friend to her that I can right now. – Genevieve
I am sorry for the loss you and your friend are experiencing. It’s painful when death visits the ones we know, no matter the degree of closeness, so I want to extend sympathies to you as well as I’m sure this must be difficult.
Your words are soft, cautious, and concerned. In them, I feel how you are struggling to fit yourself around your friend’s mourning, aiming somehow to shrink her sadness and guide her back towards the new, bright light in her life. I appreciate your sensitive read of the situation, the respectful nature of your question and sincere desire to do the right thing. Your heart is in the right place.
Your friend lost someone she loves. For eight formative years she experienced life, to some degree, as a part of a pair. Her story was intertwined with another’s; bound at the spine. They may have come from different places, and engaged in different activities, but they grew together. He was a part of the context by which she experienced the world. When a relationship starts that young, and lives that long, it grows roots. It’s not as simple as plucking or pruning the parts that start to go bad.
Love doesn’t die, it doesn’t fade, it forgets. And can be easily reminded.
Guilt is one of those ways to remember. If your friend blames herself, or wonders what she could have done, she’s searching for a way to feel close. Guilt is something she can hold onto. It’s something she can understand and write a narrative to. Something she can use for the many fictional futures she’s likely been imagining – futures where he’s still alive and she can maybe see him just one last time.
Guilt is a finite, actionable emotion – like fits of rage or bouts of tear soaked sorrow. It has an end. A point at which it runs out. Which is why we grip so tightly to it when someone dies. Because loss – with its undefinable edges – feels infinite. A hole inside of us that we’ll never stop falling through.
What she’ll start to understand, on her own time, is that accepting what has happened and moving on with her life doesn’t also mean letting go. When we end a relationship and say goodbye to the bad we’re also saying goodbye to the good. And that’s what is often the most challenging thing to reconcile; how this person who caused you a measurable amount of pain could also be the same one who shared in some of your most amazing moments.
And it’s confusing. It’s confusing to have moved on from someone but still care deeply for them.
And it’s confusing when that person dies and you’re so shattered by sadness, but congruently happy in the life you’ve since made for yourself. (Our hearts are our strongest organ; even when broken they have the strength to support both new love and mourning.)
No one will ever truly know what goes on between two people in love aside from the pair themselves. As her friend you are right to feel defensive of her, you are right to want to protect her. But allowing her to mourn, and letting her know that it’s completely okay to feel what she’s feeling, is likely the best thing you can do for her.
You want your friend to be happy again. I mean, no one likes a sad friend. But ‘happy’ is likely something that will look and feel forever different to her now. She’s lost a love. A significant love. And though they were separated by a year, she’ll now relearn the world as a world without him. Give her time.
Let her talk about it, and listen without judgement. Don’t assume you know the details and don’t feel the need to understand them all. Ask her questions. Don’t associate her sadness with any sort of ‘step backwards’; understand that healing is a process, and that she may be changed and scared. Just let her know you love her.