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The Forgotten Mourner: The Pain of Losing a Friend

By: Tzivy Ross  

On September 11 thousands of innocent men and women lost their lives; with the devastating terror attacks occurring with alarming regularity in Israel, hundreds of Jews have been killed, leaving tens of thousands of mourners behind. Each and every man, woman or child lost is a life that touched many others: a father or mother to children left with no one to soothe their pain; a son or a daughter to parents faced with the horrifying and unexpected reality of surviving the life of their own child; or a sister or brother to siblings left cruelly deprived of their family bond. And undoubtedly, a friend, colleague and companion to many, leaving behind unidentified scores of mourners silently bearing their grief. 

What becomes of the friends, the individuals who have lost a loved one, in some instances a loss as deeply felt as that of the family members? Lacking the official status of a mourner, the friends are often unsure how to handle their grief and are not convinced of their own “right” to mourn. 

One young woman described her feelings about the loss of her friend in the following way: “I was as close as a sister to her, but there was nothing I could do to show how horrible I was feeling. I had just lost my best friend in the world, but I couldn’t even take off an extra day from work. I used to speak to her on the phone several times a day, I could barely believe that she wouldn't be at the other end of the phone like always. But I felt selfish to focus on my own suffering, because I kept thinking that her family’s pain was so much worse that I didn’t feel that I had a right to my own.” 

Complicating Factors 
There are several factors which can compound the difficulty of friends who are mourning. They can include the following: 

- Friends are not accorded the official status of “mourner” with its accompanying rituals and guidelines that can provide the mourner with much needed structure, validation and support. 
- Friends may have also had their own unresolved issues with the deceased, and like other survivors may be filled with guilt or regret over not having been a better friend or other perceived slights against their loved one. 

Friends are often uncertain of the parameters of their ongoing relationship with the deceased’s family members, feeling their presence may serve as a painful reminder to the family yet also hoping it can provide the family with comfort and support. This issue can be compounded when the deceased is part of a couple and the surviving friend is of the opposite gender of the mourning spouse. The friend may not want to abandon the mourning spouse yet also must adapt to the changing equilibrium of the relationship and the need to maintain appropriate boundaries. 

Finally, the loss of a friend, especially of the same generation, can often raise issues of one’s own mortality, leading to a larger spiritual crisis or quest to find meaning in the loss. 

The Nature of Grief 
There is no easy or “right” way to mourn a loved one. Grief is a process, not an event with a set beginning or end. The grief process takes a considerable amount of time and is revisited continuously over the course of one’s lifetime. Grief requires one to manage and diminish the pain but never to totally eliminate it, and to adapt to the reality of the changes in one’s life. Grief requires one to internalize the image of the deceased in a way that is meaningful so as to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of keeping the deceased with you always while at the same time letting him or her go. 

Taking Care 
There is no shortcut through the painful process of mourning the loss of a friend. It is important and helpful to allow oneself permission to grieve, acknowledge one’s personal loss and relax expectations for oneself during this period. 

At times, the loss of one’s friend will be keenly and painfully felt. Other times, one may feel little disruption in one’s daily schedule and a great desire for a return to normalcy, which may in turn induce feelings of guilt. These feelings are normal and adaptive and do not detract from the loyalty, caring and depth of the connection one may have shared with the deceased. 

Maintaining a Connection 
Maintaining a connection with the deceased’s family members and sharing in one another’s grief can be a great source of mutual comfort and support. Some individuals, in their effort to take some action after their friend’s death may become overinvolved with his or her family, neglecting to care for themselves. Conversely, some other individuals may withdraw from their friend’s family, feeling their presence may cause them undue pain. 

One young man, who lost his best friend as a teenager in a car accident, withdrew from his friend’s family after the loss due to his awkwardness and uncertainty of their desire to stay in contact with him. He regretted doing so years later when he met his friend’s father who expressed great happiness to see him and admitted his feelings of abandonment and sadness when he lost contact with his son’s friends after his death. He reported that he had lost not only his son and his relationships with his son’s friends, but also the laughter, spirit and social nature of his household. This left both him and his son’s friends bereft and alone, depriving them of the opportunity to be a source of mutual support and consolation to one another. 

If one is unsure as to the extent that the family of the deceased wishes to stay in contact, follow their lead, assess their ongoing level of comfort and ask them how they are feeling at different intervals as appropriate. Acknowledging the awkwardness and change necessary in redefining the relationship with the family can ease the tension and deepen the connection to one another. 

Finding Meaning 
The search for meaning, especially in times of great tragedy, is very personal and unique to each individual. In the time of one’s greatest sorrow, it is difficult to be comforted or to find meaning, as the Mishneh wisely says, do not try to comfort the mourner as long as the deceased is before him. Yet in time, one is often able to find enormous reserves of strength, creativity, sensitivity and character despite one’s most painful experiences, or perhaps precisely because of them.

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