Two months ago I wrote about the power of connection with others and its value in living a good life. But what happens when you lose close friends later in life when it’s harder to meet new people? Friend dating, as Lindsay Kavet, one of the Friendship Dialogues storytellers, realized, can be essential to moving on after the loss of a lifelong best friend. In Lindsay’s case, her best friend of 11 years Polly Mae Tolonen died in a car accident in 2008.
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The Science of Making Friends.” The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, noted that she’d been going on friend dates recently and offered some words of advice that I think are worth repeating.
First of all you can’t be casual about this, you need to go about finding new friends with intention. Bernstein says, “Just as you would when looking for a mate, you need to look for someone who has something in common with you, and who is emotionally available.”
Bernstein offers a number of nuggets of wisdom about finding a friend:
Don’t expect too much too soon
Share something of yourself emotionally
Follow your interests
Consider rekindling an old friendship
It’s been awhile since I’ve intentionally gone out to make new friends. It’s not easy to do this. Your circle of opportunity narrows as you get older and you are less likely to meet new people. So it may mean joining new groups with which you have shared interests. Sometimes it means working harder on relationships you already have, to deepen the ties.
Have you made new friends recently? What’s worked for you?
It really irks me when Donald Trump accuses Hillary Clinton of playing the woman’s card. What is the woman’s card anyway? Being a woman and being supportive of other women? And it’s not as if being a woman has been much of a help in the business or political world. How many women CEOs head up Fortune 500 companies? 22 as of October, 16, 2015 or a little over 4%. How many women are in Congress? A little over 100, just under 20%. So when The Donald makes the woman’s card sound like an unbridled asset he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Nicholas Kristof, op-ed writer for The New York Times, wrote about how worthless the woman’s card tactic really is in his May 1 column. Kristof cited research showing the obstacles that women face in the workplace and the unconscious bias against women that exists among both men and women. He noted that a patriarchal attitude is absorbed and transmitted by men and women, which is “one reason women often aren’t much help to other women.” Esther Duflo, an economist at M.I.T. who has studied gender issues told Kristof, “Women aren’t particularly nice to women.”
The key obstacle, as Kristof points out, “is that it’s difficult for women to be perceived as both competent and likeable: If they’re seen as competent, they’re grating nags, while if they’re perceived as nice, they’re airheads. There’s no such trade-off for men.”
So what does all this talk about how women are perceived have to do with friendship? Well it’s my contention that some women and girls gravitate towards the men and the boys with power, hoping it will rub off on them. They perceive themselves and other women as weaker and look to male friends and mentors to give them a boost. As a result they may unconsciously avoid deep and lasting friendships with women. They may deny that sexism exists in the workplace or the Washington power corridors. But they are wrong. And they are also missing out on the extraordinary benefits that having a close female friend brings to women. A female best friend has your back and is there to help you when your life is in shambles or cheer you on when you are victorious. She’s there in the middle of the night if you need a shoulder to cry on. She understands your need to talk. She doesn’t judge. She listens. She’s just there for you. If that’s playing the woman’s card count me in as a card-carrying member.
The pain from losing your best friend is very real to me. Not only did I lose my best friend Madeleine thirteen years ago, but five months later Lynn, another close friend, died from cancer. I’ve spent years absorbing the reality of life without a treasured sister of the heart at my side.
Since launching Friendship Dialogues I’ve had some revealing conversations with women who don’t have a female best friend. Some lament that absence in their life, some seem content to have many girlfriends but not one special female confidante, and others bond with male friends more readily than with women. One friend captured the mixture of emotions about friendship well when she wrote to congratulate me on launching the website:
“I don’t have a life-long best friend in the same way you and Madeline had for each other, so when you speak and write about your wonderful friendship, on one hand I feel a sense of relief because it is one less deep loss I won’t have to bear, but much more deeply I feel jealous that you have had something in your life that I have not had, not in the same way anyway.”
As hard as the grief is from losing my lifelong friend, the pain of her loss is offset by the joy I had over the 40 years we were friends. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It’s hard for me to imagine going through life without a best friend. I’ve always gravitated to that one special female friend. At age 6 it was Carol. At 12 it was Elyse. At 18 it was Madeleine. She, of course, has turned out to be my last best friend since I know there will never be a replacement for her.
I don’t know why some women seek a close connection with another female and others don’t. Is there something in our makeup that leads us to bond tightly with a female friend? Or perhaps we’re just lucky that another woman turns up in our life with which we can be ourselves, share our innermost thoughts and receive wise counsel and unconditional love in return.
What’s been your experience? Have you been a one-best-friend kind of woman? If so, why do you think that’s the case? And, if not, why not?
At the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand two female elephants bonded. Now I’m not an expert on elephants and whether or not they have the ability to mourn, but the park recently posted an article about Jokia, a female elephant who stood guard over her friend Mae Perm’s body and wouldn’t let the park workers take her body after she died. When they finally succeeded in removing Mae Perm’s body, the park reported that Jokia cried and moaned and refused food, choosing to seek out her best friend instead.
I understand how she felt. Elephants are known for their family connections so why not grieve a best friend? Now the park is trying to help Jokia make a new friend. They walked her around the park so she could meet new elephants. The plan seems to be working. This week they reported she met Yai Bua, an old lady elephant who was a recent addition to the park. The two used their trunks to touch and hug each other. And at night, Yai Bua stood guard over the younger Jokia. The park is hoping the two will bond. I’m hoping they will become friends too, but I can’t help wonder if elephants can replace a lost best friend? You know the saying, an elephant never forgets, and while as a human I do forget, I also know I’ll never find a replacement for my best friend Madeleine.
I read today of Harriet Shorr’s passing at the age of 76. I didn’t know Harriet, a painter and teacher, but I read that she was known for her realistic still-life paintings, writing and poetry. She was beloved by her husband, two daughters, three grandchildren and her brother, but what was unusual in her New Times Times obituary was that it said she was “remembered with pride and love by her childhood friends Roberta, Simmie and Linda.”
I read the NYT obituaries often, but I can’t recall that much notice being paid to the friends of the deceased before. Somehow I feel that public recognition of their grief was a step in the right direction. It’s not only family that suffer gravely from the loss of a beloved person, the friends are mourning too. While I don’t know Harriet’s friends and I don’t know anything about their friendship with Harriet, I do know that their grief was noted in her obituary and, therefore, they must have played a significant role in her life. So I would like to offer condolences to the friends and family of Harriet Shorr from FriendshipDialogues and me. I’d also love to hear their friendship story — I’m sure they have wonderful memories.
A friend of mine, who knows of my work on the loss of best friends, sent me the article. As I read the post about Isabella, a woman dying of cancer, and the impact her loss had on her best friend Naomi (the therapist’s patient) and on the therapist as well, I choked up. The words that really struck me were those said by Naomi to the therapist. “I lost Isabella. She will never come back,” said Naomi. The finality of that statement gripped me. While I certainly don’t expect my best friend Madeleine, who died thirteen years ago, to return or my Dad for that matter who died when I was 13, still the finality of the word never felt like a harsh blow.
As I read on the essay moved into surprising territory. A new patient comes to see the therapist. He is also grieving a loss and, as it turns out, it is for the same woman – Isabella. Only she is his lover. I was unprepared for that twist, but after pondering it for a while it reminded me that everyone has secrets. Often best friends share those secrets, even if they don’t tell anyone else. Now I can’t help wondering if Naomi knew about Isabella’s secret and if she didn’t, how would she feel to find out about it now.
So I’m wondering, do you share all your secrets with your best friend? Do you hold any back, even from her?
When I pictured old age, I imagined my best friend Madeleine and I sitting on a porch in comfy chairs talking as we always did throughout the day. Perhaps we’d be talking about our children or grandchildren, perhaps our husbands if they too made it to old age, or we’d be reminiscing about events in our lives we had shared over a friendship that lasted 60, 70 or even 80 years. Sadly, we got to have just 40 years together. While I’ve learned to be grateful that we had those 40, I surely would have loved a few more decades on that porch.
Recently my friend Marty sent me a clipping from the Washington Post about four women who will all turn 100 this year who have been friends since childhood. The women grew up together in Southwest Washington. As girls they played jacks and jumped rope. At one point, two of them lived in the same house and three of them had babies in 1933. Through the ups and downs of their lives their friendship endured. As the article notes, “They can still send each other into hysterics. And they share memories of places and people no one else remembers.”
Sharing memories is an important part of long-time friendships. You can’t recreate that with newer relationships. Judith Schmidt talks about her old friend Shirl as her “old country” in her Friendship Dialogues story about her two best friends who died from cancer—Shirley Glickman at 65 and Nina Liebman at 50. Old friends know your past and they know the people you have loved who are no longer alive. This connection gets more important to you as you age when there are fewer people around who knew you when.
You can read more friendship stories at Friendship Dialogues and share a friendship story or photo of your own.
When I started this friendship storytelling project a year ago I had no idea where it would lead. I just knew that I wanted to talk to other women who had enjoyed a close, loving relationship with a woman friend and find out how their lives had changed as a result of losing her. I knew that after 13 years, I still missed my best friend Madeleine, especially at intense moments of happiness or sorrow in my life when I yearned to share my feelings with her.
I wasn’t surprised to discover the joy other women felt from their female friendships. Often the relationship was described in similar ways—their friend was beautiful, they had fun together, they spent hours talking about everything, and no one really got them the way their best friend did. Likewise, the grief they felt after their best friend died was deep. Many went into a slump and were depressed. Some described being in a cloud for a year or more afterwards. And regardless of whether their friend died recently or decades earlier, they still missed her.
The other common element was a feeling that our society does not recognize friend grief. While mourning rituals are clear when a parent, spouse or child dies, people may not even know how close two women are. Moreover, your boss probably understands if you take a week off from work to mourn a close family member, but just try taking that time if your best friend died. That type of grief is not recognized by society; it is called disenfranchised grief. This could also refer to the loss of a pet, the loss of a home or a miscarriage, among other types of losses.
I spoke to Harriet Vogel, author of “Sad Is Not Bad,” and she said that the grief you feel when you lose a friend is not different from other close losses, except it is not acknowledged by society. People may think, she said, it was “just a friend,” when in reality that friend could be closer to you than a biological connection.
Harriet’s memoir is based on “Dear Jerry” letters written to her husband after his death. As a professional grief counselor Harriet knows there are many ways to process grief and had often recommended writing as a therapeutic tool. By writing, Harriet said, you connect and “keep your memories alive.” That’s why, she said to me, you got comfort from writing a letter to Madeleine years after she died. The act of writing to a departed loved one “keeps the relationship going,” she said.
In the year since I started on this friendship storytelling journey I have a better understanding of the grief process and why the loss of a best female friend stays with you forever. Harriet shared a quote with me that sums it all up. In “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Mitch Albom’s book of interviews with the dying former Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, Morrie said, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
I admit that when I started interviewing women for this project I did not anticipate the healing power of storytelling, but after doing 25 interviews I started to hear from several women about how comforting it was for them to share their story. Kathy Spirtes said that talking to me had helped her release her love and grief about Rosemary “to the universe.” It was also comforting for her to know that she wasn’t alone. Robin Lippman-Scharf told me that when she misses her best friend Ronee she comes to the Friendship Dialogues website and rereads their story. Renee Bundi told me that reading the stories from other women at our website gave her the strength to tell her story about Aggie.
My 11-year old granddaughter Maya had a language arts homework assignment recently. She chose to write a poem on Friendship. I was particularly moved by the last sentence. Here’s her poem:
Friendship by Maya Terry
Friendship what a lovely thing
It’s as bright and shiny as a diamond ring
I see friendships everywhere
in the streets, on the sidewalks and even in the square
People talking, laughing and holding hands
They even play in some bands
We have our disagreements every once in a while
But when we make up we always smile
We share all our secrets
but only our friend finds the deepest
With the insight of a wise crone, she uncovered one of the essential features of a powerful friendship: a best friend understands you so well that they can delve into the treasure trove of secrets you share with them and know which is the most consequential one.
It pleases me that Maya, who was named for my best friend Madeleine, has such a profound understanding of the meaning of friendship. My 40-year friendship with Madeleine involved the sharing of many secrets. Madeleine knew me so well, she knew when I needed to talk and understood when I was removed from my emotions and needed her to draw my feelings out.
Have you read anything on friendship that touched you?
What is it, do you think, that makes for a good life? Riches? Fame? Business success? Actually the answer is none of the above. A long-term Harvard University study of Adult Development has come up with a different conclusion. The study tracked 724 men from the Boston area for 75 years, an unusual amount of time for one study to last. Some of the men became lawyers, bricklayers and doctors and one, John F. Kennedy, even became President of the U.S. The study, which is still going on, has also tracked the wives and more than 2000 children of these men. The 4th study director, Robert Waldinger said in a Ted Talk the clearest message from the reams of data they’ve collected is “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” Social connection is good for us while “loneliness kills,” he said. The brain function of those in the study who were isolated actually declined sooner than those who were connected with others. And it’s not the number of friends one has that matters, it’s the quality of the close relationships that matter. Good relationships, it turns out, protect our brains and our health. If you have people you can count on you stay sharper longer.
So what does that data mean for us? We need to “lean in” to relationships with family, friends and community,” said Waldinger. That’s a lesson that I’ve learned too from interviewing more than two-dozen women for Friendship Dialogues. The women I talked to were nurtured by the relationships they had with their female best friends. When that friend died they knew they could not replace the treasured friendship, but they also knew they had to make an effort to avoid loneliness. They understood they needed connection with others.
One of the women, Lindsay Kavet, said she had an epiphany after her best friend Polly Mae Tolonen died in a car accident that she had to start “friend dating.” Lindsay was building a community called Expressing Motherhood and was listening to people share their stories, but she had been keeping her distance, not talking to the performers. But after she realized she had to connect more with others, she started to seek some of them out, sharing her points about their readings. That led to her texting some of them and even asking some of the women to go out with her to an event. All of this was out of her comfort zone, but it led to her making some new friends and that has been a comfort to her.
When my best friend Madeleine was in intensive care for four months, another friend invited me to join her book club. I didn’t really feel that I had the time or the desire to do that, but I knew that Madeleine was deathly ill and her time was limited. I knew how lonely I would be without her and so I joined the group knowing that getting out once a month with other women was a positive step to take. It was an affirmation of life. It would foster a connection with others. It was an acknowledgement that I would have to go on without Madeleine and needed social connection with others to serve as a small cushion after she was gone.
So that’s my message: Small steps are necessary when we experience loss. Loneliness is deadly and we need to be proactive in seeking out people and interests in our lives that can make us feel connected again.