I’ve always maintained that one of the best things (saving graces) about Facebook is that it allows us to get in touch with long-lost friends—friends from elementary school, summer camp, high school—with whom we have lost touch and when you reconnect it often feels as if no time has passed (although in some cases, after we get past the initial pleasantries, we might run out of conversation. Awkward.).
But reconnecting with old friends has a downside—it brings into stark relief the friends we have lost. Buddhism has a lot to tell us here with its teachings about impermanence. If everything in this world is impermanent, including relationship, then it is inevitable that all relationships will end at some point, either by death of one of the members of that relationship or by dissolution, mutual or nonmutual.
Robert Stolorow (2012) recently wrote a review essay on Jacques Derrida’s The Work of Mourning,” a book in which Derrida memorializes 14 of his deceased friends in separate texts. Stolorow says that, “For Derrida, fidelity, finitude, and mourning lie at the heart of friendship” (Stolorow, 2012). Stolorow also refers to an earlier work of Derrida’s—Politics of Friendship—where Derrida articulates a “law of friendship” that states that all friendships have an a priori structure where one of the friends will die first, leaving the remaining friend to mourn.
How many of us have dealt with this experience firsthand or through our clients?
A few weeks ago, for the first time in 20 years, I did not mark with a card, gift, or greeting of any kind the birthday of one of the dearest friends I have had in my life. This is a friend who saw me through many life transitions—leaving my job and career to shift into one in psychology, moving to England, moving back to the United States, weddings, funerals, relationships, and day-to-day living.
But sometime around two years ago, this friend suddenly stopped returning calls and emails. Intermittently, I made some attempts to open a dialogue—to find out what happened and to see if any reparations could be made. The final attempt came last February, on the occasion of this friend’s birthday, with an old-fashioned snail mail birthday card—one of the most beautiful handmade cards I could find—in which I wrote a simple wish for a Happy Birthday with a further wish to reconnect. Sure, it wasn’t as quick and easy as clicking the “Like” button on Facebook, but a “Like” does not constitute dialogue.
Since I’ve yet to receive a reply, I have been pondering these ideas of impermanence and mourning as they apply to friendship. Recognizing the impermanence of all things—even friendship—is strangely comforting. It allows me to recognize that perhaps this friendship, despite its 20-year duration, was really unique to its particular time and place, and needed to end when it did, even if I may never know the reason why it ended. This stance enables me to recognize the beauty of the relationship itself without tarnishing it with the brush of the terrible, unreconciled ending.
I don’t think that my experience with this friendship is that dissimilar from what many people go through with close friends they have had at various points in their lives or with divorces. We hear phrases bantered about such as “we grew apart” or “our lives went in different directions.” Women’s friendships may change when one gets married or has children while the other is single or childless. In these last few years of recession, it is not unfamiliar to hear about friendships or marriages deteriorating over one member’s long-term unemployment or changes in economic fortune.
But how do we come to grips with deteriorating or dying relationships, or in turn, how can we be there for our clients who are mourning these relationships in their own lives? Stolorow (2012), who has written at length about the emotional trauma of loss, the exploration of which arose from his own experiences, says that the existential stance of being-toward-death—what Heidegger calls the acceptance of the inevitably of death as part of life—“always includes being-toward-loss” (Stolorow, 2012).
I may never talk to my friend of the last 20 years again. And that to me is very sad. A year ago I was very angry about it. But now I’m just very sad. I feel like I understand what Derrida, Heidegger, and Stolorow are getting at with these ideas of being-toward-death and being-toward-loss. A year ago I might have looked at this friendship as something that was “supposed to last forever”—i.e., friendship as an existential given—and that I had to do everything I could to resuscitate it. Now, I see it as part of the impermanence of life. A loss, and a painful one to be sure, but with time, I hope to be able to see with even more clarity the beauty of the friendship.
What I have learned from this to really treasure and honor my time in the here and now with friends and family. Because part of the beauty of friendship comes from its impermanence.
— Sarah Kass