“Losing my childhood best friend taught me that grief comes in many complicated shades”

Written by Lauren Potts

When journalist Lauren Potts found out her childhood best friend had passed away on Facebook, she was shocked by the weight of her grief.

Liz and I met on the first day of nursery school in 1988 when I marched over, grabbed her hand and told her to stop crying. We had the perfect dynamic – she was sensitive and kind, and I was bold enough for the both of us. But the thing that ultimately bound us was loyalty.

I barely remember having another friend between the ages of four and 10. Almost all my childhood memories feature her: sleepovers and birthday parties and building a snowman from slush. We would sit for hours on her computer after school playing Chip’s Challenge and Worms; we played make-believe dance competitions and she would award me her real-life ballet medals.

I followed her to church on Sundays not because I was interested in God but because I wanted to be where she was. At school we were inseparable – Liz and Loz – then we were put in different classes because we talked too much. I was devastated, but no more so than when my family moved four hours away soon after.

It was before the internet so it would have been easy to lose touch, yet the letters decorated with Forever Friends stickers went back and forth. In our teenage years we moved on to email, then visits to her university, where she tried to set me up with a friend. We giggled, danced and, for reasons now lost to me, developed an obsession with Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music. In spite of the separation we continued to hit silly, normal friendship milestones for years. 

But as we grew older, we grew apart. Our interactions became sporadic and surface-level, confined to memories and nostalgia. One of us would write on Facebook, “Remember when…” or Liz would send a photo she’d found of us as kids. We only knew the outline of each other’s lives but always, always wished each other happy birthday.

Then, last month, I saw she’d been tagged in a stream of Facebook posts, the wall of her profile now full of shocked and numb “I can’t believe it” messages. A cold tingle crept from the top of my head, slowly down my spine and after frantically searching for proof to the contrary, I cried like I’d lost someone I spoke to daily. The intensity of my grief surprised me – we were no longer close, so why was I so upset?

Sharon Jenkins, a bereavement counsellor with charity Marie Curie, says it’s normal to grieve a childhood friend regardless of how the relationship has changed.

“It can take us by surprise when we have these intense emotions or sadness but even though you weren’t close now, it was a bond formed a long time ago and that stays with you.

“When you’re a child and you’re experiencing new things for the first time, like going to school, it’s our friends who witness and experience our lives. Our parents record our first steps, our first words, but they aren’t with us in class.

“Liz was your very first friend and the first person you made a connection with other than your family. Even though you only kept in touch on social media in later years, you still had that something that held you together,” Jenkins explains. 

Bianca Neumann, from bereavement charity Sue Ryder, says these formative experiences are the very reason childhood friendships can feel particularly special but also makes them difficult to process when one person dies.

“Just because you no longer have a relationship does not mean you don’t grieve for them when they die [and] the death of someone important to you is a huge thing to cope with, even if you were not as close as you once were. There’s also an element that you are grieving what should have been and the relationship you wish you had, and grief can put a huge spotlight on the things you feel you missed.”

I found myself re-reading our Instagram messages, perhaps looking for reasons or verification of mutual drift. Instead I found guilt – for not replying to the last one, for not making the effort to see her recently, for only love-hearting “Love you LP!” And with my regrets came the selfish feeling that I’d not only lost a friend I assumed would always be there but an anchor to my past.

Neumann says losing a constant in your life can be hard to come to terms with. But it is also perfectly normal to grieve the person and the loss of connection to a specific time and place, adds Jenkins.

“It’s not just losing her as a person, it’s about losing her as a memory-sharer and a witness to that period of your life and the experiences you both had,” says Jenkins.

She says one way to deal with feelings of guilt might be to write a letter to the person who has died, then either keep it in a memory box or burn it. “Handwriting is better than typing because our brain processes it in the same way as saying it to someone. Writing the things you wish you’d said enables [that process] and reduces the guilt, and in some people takes it away completely.”

Feelings of regret are also natural, especially since we tend to assume we’ll have more time, Jenkins explains, but it’s not healthy to ruminate on plans we didn’t make or things we didn’t say. While there’s no timetable for grief, a useful technique can be to spend 30 minutes thinking about the past followed by an hour of doing something in the present, Jenkins adds.

On the way to the funeral, I send texts to my closest friends reminding them I love them. At the church, I slip into a pew at the back, feeling slightly fraudulent, because did I even know Liz any more? Then the eulogy references her childhood crush on Eric Cantona and for a moment my presence feels valid because I am one of only a few people there that could possibly remember this detail.

Unsure whether he’d recognise me, I decided not to approach Liz’s dad afterwards and instead write him a letter about the impact she had on my life. When his quick reply comes with its descriptions of our mischief and magic, I realise not all the shared memories have been lost.

Not only that, points out Jenkins, I’ve carried Liz throughout my life without even realising, both by marking every year we got older and by ranking loyalty above all else in my friendships, most of which are decades old.

“You and Liz learned how to be friends, you learned your rules of friendship together. All the friends you’ve made since then, you’ve found your way together [because] of her – she’s part of your life story.”

I expect I’ll feel sad when it comes but I’ll continue to mark Liz’s birthday. Instead of sending a message, perhaps I’ll make her famous Mars Bar Rice Krispie cakes, or re-read the letters we wrote 27 years ago, or raise a toast. Why break the habit of a lifetime? Love you LG.

Images: Getty

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