A close friend of mine, named Ant, died this year completely out of the blue. Well, in my mind his death was out of the blue. He had been ill earlier in the year, but he was — to my knowledge — on the mend. So when he collapsed and died in a few shocking days, I refused to believe it was true.
Even as a grief therapist who has worked in the bereavement field for 25 years, I am not immune to grief. His death hit me hard, like a physical punch. Emotionally, I felt as if I was going mad. “How could this happen?” I shouted at the moon. “Please come back!” I missed him physically. I longed for his hugs, longed to hear his voice, his infectious laugh. I sobbed while scrolling my text messages and photographs looking for him. Even though I know how important it is to not have regrets, I deeply regretted not visiting him while he was ill. I was guilty and furious with myself for not making time in my busy schedule to see him. And, ridiculously, I was angry with him for dying before he made a trip already planned to visit me.
The grief therapist in me knows that a new loss reignites the thoughts and physical feelings of previous losses, so, inevitably, Ant’s death has brought back the memory and pain following the death of another close friend, Princess Diana. I remember clearly the shock I’d felt when she died. The pain and subsequent fury of missing her and wanting her back. My confusion when millions of people who didn’t know her were sobbing hysterically in the streets. The heartbreaking image of her young sons, bereft, walking behind her coffin in silence. I had a photograph of Diana and me on my desk, and sometimes I would stroke it and smile at the lovely memory. Other times, I’d put it in my sock drawer, too angry that she was gone. I both hated looking at the newspapers covering her death, but also could not resist looking at her beautiful face, those soulful eyes. It took months for me to really believe she died. My grief over her death is less intense now, 20 years later, but it is not gone.
After two decades of studying grief and working with hundreds of grieving people, I know that my experiences then and now, following the loss of my friends, is normal. I also know that in order to move healthily through the grieving process, I need to heed the same advice that I deliver to my clients. I get fresh air. I exercise, knowing from experience that increasing my heart rate will help diminish the fear that masks as grief. I continue to focus on Ant’s memory and allow myself to cry, even to exhaustion. I speak about him endlessly to my husband and call other friends to talk and cry together. Sometimes I question the legitimacy of my grief: Am I allowed or supposed to feel this much sorrow about a man who was a good friend, but not a partner, a parent, or a child? The support of my friends eases my insecurities. We meet for coffee to share our stories and our questions. We cry and hug each other. It’s healing to find the words for my feelings and put those words together into a narrative that I can come to terms with.
Sometimes, I’ve gone against my own best advice and fallen into avoidance and other negative patterns of behavior. I’ve binged on sugar and tried to numb myself with internet wanderings. Not surprisingly, the sugar makes me feel lower, and the numbness feels worse than the pain, because I feel disconnected from myself, as well as those around me. I’ve seen with so many clients that when we try to find ways to avoid our pain, we only cause ourselves further harm. This has been the case for me, too. I know I need to support myself through the pain, instead of avoiding it. Love is the only thing that can heal us when love dies. So, I stick closer to family and friends, receive hugs, have long talks, let myself be comforted, and refuse to let myself feel guilty for the attention and support I need.
Just as Diana lives on in my memory, I know that so too will Ant. My husband and I are going to plant an oak tree in his memory. It will be the place we can go to be sad as we miss him, and a place we can go to celebrate the gift of his friendship — a gift that will never die.