The love you feel for a close friend is different from a love relationship but it is not less meaningful. Unfortunately, in our society today the love for a best friend does not have the same value and support as for romantic love. Losing a lover through death or divorce fits within our understanding out loss and grief. But the loss of a best friend, through death or divorce - that is, a permanent falling out - has no socially accepted guidelines.
"Linda and I have always had a long distance relationship," explains Carla. "We talk at least once a week, sometimes more often. She's on the West Coast and I'm here in Cincinnati, so we are always working around the time change. It takes some effort, but we've been doing this for the 11 years since she moved to Seattle. We make a point of getting together 3 or 4 times a year. I love my husband, but loving Linda is a different kind of love. "She was the first person I called when Terry asked me to marry him, even before I called my mom and sister. Whenever he and I are at odds, she is always there to listen to me vent about Terry, to help me see the situation more realistically, and to walk me through the mess with him. "We used to joke what would we do without each other." Carla's voice breaks. She takes a deep breath, as if gulping in air would ease her pain. "I guess I'm finding out. Six months ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a quick decline. She was dead within three months. "What makes me so mad is that if it were Terry who had died, I'd get time off from work; my friends would be calling on me, offering me sympathy. But Linda is 'just a friend.'Boloney. She's my best friend, my soul, my stabilizer, my special other half, in a way Terry - as much as I love him - can't be. But she's just my friend, so life expects me to carry on."
We live in a world with rigid ideas about love and affection. We have work place rules and social etiquette rules. The inflexibility of these rules, though, ignores some realities. Carla would be able to get time off from work, or a reduced price plane ticket, for the funeral of her sister, even though they haven't spoken in decades, but not for her best friend Linda.
In many communities, when there's a death, friends and neighbors come with the proverbial casseroles and pies. The bereaved gets company, food, sympathy. Carla, though, did not have any of that. Most people don't think about the depth of the loss when it is a non-family member.
The same lack of understanding occurs when best friends have a permanent quarrel, or to put it another way, when best friends divorce.
"Mary just dropped me; I don't know any other way to put it," bemoans Laurie. "Although this was 10 years ago, I still get teary thinking about it. I have no idea why she just stopped talking with me, stopped returning my calls. We had been such good friends for years. After several months, I wrote her saying she at least owed me an explanation. Boy that was a mistake. She wrote back tearing me to pieces." Laurie's eyes water as she goes back a decade in her memory. "I don't know what was worse. Hearing all the things she didn't like about me or having no one to talk to about losing my best friend. You know, if Laurie were a Larry, everyone would understand why I moped around for months, but you don't get sympathy for breaking up with your best friend."
Carla and Laurie understand the power of best friends - having them and losing them. There are rituals for dealing with the death of a spouse and a family member, but there are none for the death of a best freind. People know how to respond if a friend gets divorced, but they have no idea how to respond if that friend gets divorced from a best friend - even though the pain can be just as intense and the loss just as big.
n fact, many people believe that finding a new love relationship is actually easier than finding a new best friend.
"I've never had problems making friends," says Mike. I've moved a lot, but I'm an easy-going guy, so making friends is not a problem. But there's a difference between friends and a best friend. Lenny and I had been friends since elementary school. You can't replace that. When he died, a part of me died with him. Oh I don't want to be dramatic; I still love my wife and my girls. But, Lenny knew the little Mikey who broke the school window with the home run hit that won our city's championship. "My boss let me take the day off to go to Lenny's funeral, but he sure didn't understand why I was so unproductive for the next few weeks. If it were my wife, he certainly would have understood. How do I explain losing a best friend is like losing a part of myself?"
Chances are Mike's boss has had a similar experience because losing a best friend is not uncommon, it's just not often acknowledged, and the pain is rarely discussed.
There are many different ways you can lose a close friend -- through death, a quarrel, changing interests or growing in different directions. When couples split up, their friends may drift away, not wanting to choose sides. No matter how you lose a best friend, it always hurts and leaves a hole in your life. The loss needs to be respected and given the same credence as the loss of any loved one.
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis has over 39 years' experience in family therapy. She is author of numerous books on relationships, including her most recent, Why Donít You Understand? A Gender Relationship Dictionary. In addition to her private practice, for 16 years, Dr. Lewis has run Unique Retreats For women Ė with specific retreats for single women and adult siblings.