From across the concourse underneath Rockefeller Center, I heard a high pitched screech. My eyes scanned the crowd and there, amidst irritated businessmen hustling past Starbucks, was my friend, Beth. I ran towards her and we devoured each other into a hug while jumping up and down screaming, as normally nonplussed New Yorkers stopped to see what the fuss was all about.
Having met online several years before, Beth and I were finally getting to meet in person. She was in town to visit me and several of our mutual friends, and we were off to a great start.
We spent the day doing touristy New York things and eventually wound up in a pub in downtown NYC. We listened to a jazz band, drank Bloody Mary’s, and laughed until our cheeks hurt. At one point, I looked around at the table and saw the joy on my friends’ faces and my heart sank a little. Our perfect day had a dark cloud hanging over us that none of us wanted to face: Beth was dying and her cancer was progressing fast. There wouldn’t be many days like that in NYC for us in the future.
Her hug that day remains the best hug I’ve ever received.
And since Beth’s death last year, I think often about how it felt to hug her. If I close my eyes, I can feel the scratch of her short hair on my cheek, the warm of her voice in my ear and the feel of her strong arms holding me as if she’d never let go. Friends who go “all in” with hugs are hard to find. Beth was a rare gem and I know I’ll never meet another woman like her.
While my friends and I knew Beth was dying — she had prepared us of this dire fact with her typical smart and quick-witted humor and amazing grace — nothing prepared me for the feelings of loss and grief that would come with losing a friend. When the final moment came, the moment we’d all steeled ourselves against, the tears flowed and didn’t stop for three days. And the feelings of profound loss are still there deep in my heart.
The pain of a friend’s death is like no other grief I have experienced.
When a friend first tells you she’s been diagnosed with a serious disease, your first instinct is to deny it. You want to protect her, shield her and stand between her and the panic she feels so you downplay the seriousness. You act as her cheerleader, you lift her up in any way you can and you don’t let her see your panic. When your friend is gone, you replay those moments in your head and pray that you were what she needed when she was scared.
When your friend is going through the process of treatments, procedures and painful testing, you spend hours online trying to understand her disease. You don’t want to burden her with questions but the panic that you could lose her forces you to read all you can to find proof that she won’t die from her disease. You hang on to every shred of hope and push the rising panic away. When your friend is gone, you feel angry that research for her disease was underfunded and that there wasn’t enough information to save her.
And then the time comes when you know she’s had enough. When the exhaustion of her disease is deep in her bones, the fight is starting to ebb from her soul. You read between the lines of her Facebook posts, you see the fear that the end is coming in her eyes. You cry helplessly into a dish rag in your kitchen because you know your time with her is finite. Losing a friend makes you realize that good people are taken too soon and it’s fucking unfair.
You find yourself praying the end will come quickly and you feel guilty for thinking such thoughts. You go from hoping your friend will make it to another holiday to praying that the end will be merciful and on her terms. You try to tell her how much she means to you, but the words just don’t seem adequate. When the vigil by her bedside begins, you simply sit with your sadness and you hope to God you made her feel like she was loved and valued. And you cry hot tears of injustice because no one told you that friends die sometimes.
And then your friend is gone. Just like that. Expected yet unexpected in so many ways.
I wasn’t ready. None of us were. We still don’t believe it.
A beautiful light snuffed out too soon and I am left to wonder how her children will ever know the magnitude of what she brought to this earth.
You watch as her family lays her to rest and you try to honor her with meaningful gifts and gestures. But you get to go home, back to your family, while your friend’s spouse and children start their new journey into another kind of hell. A life without your friend hurts you deeply, but for them — your friend’s family — a life without their mother and wife will rob them of everything they’ve ever known to be true.
In the days after her death, you wander. You cry. You hug your friends and reminisce. Facebook slaps you in the face with reminders of days in New York City and you stop short when a memory crashes over you in the grocery aisle. Losing a friend is unfathomable. Only this is reality: she’s really gone.
There’s nothing you can do, except remember her, cherish your memories, and fight for the cause with the knowledge she left in your hands.
But it doesn’t seem to be enough.
Losing a friend is hell.
And it fucking sucks.