What it's like when a close friend dies

30th November 2017

Loss is something we all have to deal with, sometimes early on in our lives or sometimes much later. It’s not something that is not taught in school so you’ve probably had to figure it out for yourself. In some cases it remains a distant experience, looming over us but not quite reaching us. You may only see snippets of it through the media’s frantic rush to be the first to report on celebrity deaths. Although they are emotional and upsetting accounts, they soon become forgotten as the demands of everyday life take over.

For others, loss suddenly feels more real when a close friend dies. A gap once filled by a loved one becomes empty. The vital support system is snatched away and people can find themselves needing a new friend to offer advice.

I don’t think any of us that young really had the tools to know how to deal with it

Peter, whose close friend died by suicide at the age of 23, says he’s still haunted by some of the advice he gave his friend, which he now realises might not have been helpful. He’s glad that in the present day the media is becoming more open to addressing mental health and raising awareness. “My friend had struggled with depression for a long time, but I don’t think any of us that young really had the tools to know how to deal with it,” Peter says.

Kate had a similar experience when her friend died by suicide, after suffering with depression and anxiety. The feelings of denial, hurt and shock made it feel almost impossible for Kate and her friendship group to move on. For many people, it’s harder when a friend’s death does not seem to fit the usual pattern and expectations we all have about growing old and dying.

When you’re sixteen, your friends are just not supposed to die

She says it was different dealing with the unexpected death of her friend compared to when her grandfather died. “When you’re sixteen, your friends are just not supposed to die, what could I feel other than shock?”

For many people, with the grieving process comes hearing the incessant drone of the same-old phrases that don’t actually help anyone. “They did everything they wanted”, “they would want to see you happy” become empty words without meaning.

Kate found that honesty and talking were the most helpful things. “Others recognising the abnormality of the death helped justify the way I was feeling and talking to my other friends and family reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my grief,” she says.

She highlights the joy that her friend brought to their life, rather than being forced to only think about the circumstances of her death. Now, Kate feels consolation and relief through remembering her friend for the humour, intelligence and kindness that she exhibited during her lifetime.

Becca had to come to terms with the death of her best friend, which occurred when she was only 13-years-old. She says it’s a whirlwind of emotions and moments that she’s still trying to sort through many years later.

I noticed that I couldn’t remember what her voice sounded like, or how she played with her hair, or how she laughed

She can recall trying not to cry in front of everybody. Her body going cold, focusing intently on the song playing in her head and then not listening to anything else that was said.

“I found it very difficult whenever I noticed that I couldn’t remember what her voice sounded like, or how she played with her hair, or how she laughed. The harder I tried to recall these things, the less I could remember.”

Becca found her own way of dealing with it by keeping a journal and filling it with messages from her friend, photos and newspaper clippings.

The guilt that comes with forgetting creates a harmful cycle of self-blame, for a lot of people. There is a desperate need to remember every single detail about a loved one and hold on to the past in every way possible.

After Natalie’s friend Sarah died of bowel cancer, she learned to deal with the grief. “I learned that people remain with you as long as you let them. They can be there in your thoughts, your prayers and your actions as a human being,” Natalie says.

Wanting to continue the way that Sarah touched so many people’s lives, her friends and family have now raised money in her memory for two hospices.

Sometimes it’s easier to disregard the importance of having someone to have an honest conversation with. When dealing with difficult situations, you are taught to conceal emotions. Opening up to people is often perceived as a sign of weakness or a selfish task that will burden others.

Just talking through things with a stranger helped a lot

Liam describes feeling different stages of coming to terms with the death of a close friend who passed away in a climbing accident. Initially, he thought that he didn’t need counselling but found it to be a massive help. He says: “Just talking through things with a stranger helped a lot. Also talk to your family and friends, they can help and support you.”

A volunteer counsellor, with Cruse Bereavement Care Leeds, says some individuals have found it easier to talk to a counsellor rather than family and friends. He says Cruse’s approach is “less clinical and more human”.

“People experience many conflicting and confusing emotions throughout the grieving process. Every emotion is perfectly normal to experience – this may include shock, stress, love, shame, anger, sadness, denial, bargaining, embarrassment and disbelief. Expect to feel both positive and negative emotions,” he explains.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve

He says Cruse use person-centred therapy, which is a particularly effective way of helping with bereavement. It allows the time and space for a person to share their thoughts, feelings and memories surrounding their loss. He says, “there is no right or wrong way to grieve – as long as you are not directly or intentionally harming yourself and others around you.”

People do not want to feel like a burden by constantly reminding others of what they’re going through. There are many signs, some more noticeable than others, that show when it’s becoming difficult to cope.

“Some have cited aggression towards others, self-harm, low mood, depression, anxiety, stress and inability to function, lack of personal hygiene, forgetfulness, lethargy and being constantly overwhelmed by reminders of the deceased through triggers.

“We are hoping to reach a level where we can openly talk about the deceased, remember the times and memories shared, but continue to live our lives – never forgetting, never to stop loving but reaching an equilibrium where it’s easier for us to cope and function on a day-to-day basis.”

Help comes in many forms

He advises that people should find options that will prove to be most effective for them. “Never be afraid to ask for help – help comes in many forms and you have the right at any moment to say ‘no, thank you’.”

The UK has started to see a gradual acceptance of openness and honesty over the last few decades, with the NHS website now offering advice to people who are grieving. There is a reducing need to bottle up emotions and instead there is encouragement to receive support.

An increasing awareness of the effects of grief and the services available to support bereaved people should mean fewer people trying, and failing, to deal with loss on their own.

All names have been changed.

30th November 2017