The next time you turn on the radio or your favorite playlist, I suspect it won’t be long before a song comes on about love. Think of the greatest songs ever written in any genre. Got a few in mind? What are they about? Love. Love of some sort, and likely romantic love. The loss of romantic love brings an acute kind of pain, pain that is lamented in poetry and song.
But there is another acute kind of pain that doesn’t get the airtime it deserves: loss of a friendship. When a friendship fizzles out, dies, or (heaven forbid) implodes from a betrayal, the grief can be just as debilitating as the loss of a romantic relationship. For most humans, friendships outnumber and outlast romantic relationships. If a 20-year friendship ends, it may well cause more hurt than a year-long romantic relationship, and rightly so. Yet, as a society, we don’t often recognize the importance of friendships in our lives or the grief that accompanies their loss.
There are a number of reasons why a friendship can end. We may grow up and apart. The friends you had in one season of your life maybe aren’t present anymore in another, either physically or emotionally. Some friendships are like annuals—there to bloom for a certain time period or season of life only, and then they die, returning to the earth like annual plants do, having lived their time in the sun. These friendships can feel so alive, sharing much in common, through an intense season in life (e.g. roommates while you were in college or working a particular job). When the circumstances of your life change, so does that friendship. Sometimes the friendship ends. Some friendships just die out slowly. Nobody did anything wrong, it just ran its course.
Other times, as we grow and become more of ourselves, we find we don’t share the same interests or values anymore with those we once considered close friends. Perhaps there’s a difference in convictions and worldview due to differing life experiences. You find yourselves inhabiting very different worlds than when you were close. The things that matter to you now don’t matter to them, and you no longer relate in the same way.
And still other times, geographical distance is the cause. Someone moves away, and the ease lent to the friendship by virtue of being in close proximity to one another dissipates. The physical distance separating you now makes friendship difficult. It’s an art to keep a friendship alive while spending little time together. Certain friendships flourish in spite of distance, like perennial friendships that bloom again and again. Others are more like annuals we let go after they’ve bloomed and withered.
Or worst of all, perhaps there’s been some betrayal, some rupture of trust between you. You can’t trust one another in the same way any longer, and so the friendship ends. Betrayal is always painful.
If both parties in the friendship sense that the friendship is fading or moving toward a demise, be in conversation about it. A willingness to invest in working to heal the friendship may allow a friendship to survive, grow, and flourish once more. But like any relationship, if the interest and investment in continuing is not mutual, it’s a difficult and futile road to fight for a friendship that is finding itself at the end of its life. We don’t often go to therapy for friendships like we do for couples or family, though perhaps we should. Friendships usually get worked out between the friends in question with perhaps an additional friend functioning as an intermediary. Guiding friends through their relational struggles is difficult. It takes wisdom, discernment, and vulnerability to recognize if you should continue a friendship or let it go.
It may be sad, but friendships are allowed to end. It can be a bit jarring to realize even the most devoted, longtime friendships can die, but nothing is guaranteed after all. Frankly, when a friendship is ending, it will do so whether you allow it to or not. If you resist it, that may cause a lot of additional suffering for yourself. Allowing a friendship to end takes a lot of grace. Recognizing the loss it brings you and allowing yourself to grieve enables you to metabolize the loss so that you can integrate it into your life to move forward without bitterness.
When a friendship ends, recognize and name any grief you may feel or hold in your body over the loss of that friendship. Where there was love there in the friendship, so the losing of it causes pain, loss, and grief. Grieving is appropriate, necessary work for healing. If you allow the grief to move through your body and do its work, one day you can hopefully look back on that friendship, remembering the good times with gratitude and affection, instead of just the pain of the loss.
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Sometimes loving a friend means letting them go, sometimes it means freeing yourself from a relationship that is no longer healthy. Honor someone you have loved as a friend by remembering the good times you had together while understanding your paths have diverged, and letting that be okay. Choose to be grateful for the time you had together, even as you move forward on separate paths. It is a beautiful thing about life—friendships are sweet. May you always be blessed with friends waiting for you and your light to share with them, as they will share theirs with you.
Rev. Deb Koster
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra