Monday, January 4, 2010

“When a Best Friend Dies”

Best friendships are arguably the most underrated of all intimate relationships. And yet, research has shown that close friendships act as a kind of “behavioral vaccine,” as two female researchers wrote. Strong social supports improve an individual’s sense of happiness and overall well-being. Conversely, loneliness and lack of social supports are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infection, and higher mortality rates.

My big sister Julie’s best friend died on Christmas Day. Bev had been hovering near death for ten days before she died at 91 in hospice with her six children gathered around. Nearing eighty herself and a widow, Julie had never before had a best friend. Oh yes. She had coffee klatch friends that typically are found in small towns across mid-America. And church basement ladies with whom she had served countless after-funeral lunches. And friends she saw at work or in her volunteer activities. But never a best friend. Until five or six years ago, when she and Bev became chums.

She had proudly introduced Bev to me twice. And she told me stories of their trips to visit her friend’s daughter in Florida. And of excursions to the Wal-Mart in the next town. This is the kind of hanging out that female best friends enjoy. So I knew when I received the first e-mail from her saying that her friend was gravely ill, this would be significant and difficult for Julie.

I began e-mailing her daily. And on Christmas Eve, I called her. Normally, Julie likes to exchange basic information while on the phone and finish the call. That day, however, she talked for over 35 minutes, reminiscing and worrying for her friend’s safe passage. I felt complimented that she would let me take care of her, rather than the reverse as she had done so many times throughout my life.

Even before Bev died, Julie began using the past tense in referring to her, as though she was already dead. I thought that was curious, so I mentioned it to my best friend, Karen, when we spoke. “She has lost so much, so she is used to experiencing the death of loved ones.” Indeed, she already was preparing herself to deal with Bev’s absence.

I wondered and continue to do so what it will be like for Karen or me when one of us has to bury the other. And my other best friend as well. I have already asked them to make certain their partners notify me if anything happens to either of them. I suspect that, because both Karen and Faye live in different cities, it will be easier for one of us to be left behind. It also will be easier for us to remain in denial, with our minds playing tricks on us to blunt the loss. If so, that will impede our recovery.

I know this much is true. I am blessed by all of my friendships, particularly those to whom I can tell all my secrets -- my best friends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What is a best friend anyway? In my life I have traveled around a lot and at each stopping place I have acquired a close circle of intimate friends. While in that location we were as the saying goes thick as thieves. Over a period of years we would not go more than a few days without seeing each other and would never shy away from talking about what was going on in our lives and how we felt about situations we found ourselves in but once relocated to a different place that friendship would terminate and no future contact would be maintained. At the time we were together were we "Best Friends"?