When Friends Die Too Young
Rachael and I lost a good friend last week. Our neighbor Tammie passed away suddenly a week ago today after falling sick over the weekend.
Tammie wasn’t married, had no kids or family in the area, and lived alone. So when she got sick, it was Rachael—who had been Tammie’s friend for almost twenty years—who drove her to the hospital.
Two days later, she was gone. She was just fifty-four years old.
To say we are stunned is an understatement. Tammie was more than a neighbor; she was part of the family. Being that she lived just two doors down from us in our townhouse community, we saw her pretty much every day—heading off to work in the morning in her car; coming home again in the evening; taking out the trash; shoveling the snow.
We saw her at the gym that we belong to. We saw her at neighborhood get-togethers and dinners. We saw her on holidays when Rachael would invite her over to exchange gifts. Tammie often would pop over on weekend nights to play Scrabble with us. She was good at Scrabble and beat Rachael and me just about every time.
We had just played a game with her a couple weeks ago. We watched some of the Philadelphia Phillies’ recent playoff games with her. We took her to an Allentown Iron Pigs baseball game for her birthday. She came to a recent book signing of mine.
Now she is gone. Just like that.
Losing anyone close to us is hard, but it’s especially hard when those people are young (and someone in their fifties is young, in my book). We expect our elderly family members and friends to pass away. It’s a natural part of life, something that we can prepare ourselves for, at least to a certain degree.
But there’s no preparing for losing someone young. When it happens, we search for reasons why the natural order of things should be broken, and there aren’t any. We are left with only a gaping hole inside and the feeling that the person who has passed away has been robbed, and we as well.
Over the years, I’ve lost a couple of close friends who were in their prime. My high school classmate Edward was just twenty-seven when he died in a car accident. Another very good classmate friend, Matthew, who was in my wedding party, died of an undetected heart condition at the age of forty-three while playing a pickup basketball game.
The best word I can think of to explain the feeling of losing a young friend or family member is “surreal.” The word “surreal” means strange, not seeming real, like a dream. And that’s precisely how it feels: like we’re walking in a dream and when we wake up, things will go back to normal. Tammie will walk through the front door again any moment now. We’ll turn on the Eagles or Flyers; break out the Scrabble game; have a few beers.
The thing about losing someone who’s young is that in addition to going through all the normal stages of grief, we also have to process that feeling of unreality. And that takes time. Eventually, the reality sets in that the person who should be alive will never walk into our lives again—at least, not in this world.
It’s really hard for our logic-seeking minds to process that. In my case, hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about my lost friends Matthew and Edward. My brain is still trying to figure those losses out. It always will be. I suspect the same will be the case for Rachael when it comes to her good friend Tammie.
So what do we do to heal the wound?
Well, I’m no expert, but in my experience, there are three things that are helpful in dealing with the loss of a loved one who’s left us all too soon:
1) Find solace in our faith. While there’s no explanation that will satisfy the rational mind about losing someone before their time, we can, and must, attend to the needs of our souls. We do that by connecting to something greater than ourselves. Getting through the losses of this life requires deep reservoirs of faith--faith that we will see our loved ones again. How we take that leap of faith is personal to each of us, but it’s essential if we want solace for our grieving souls.
2) Seek out connection. The worst thing we can do in times of loss is to withdraw from society. The best thing we can do is seek out the company of our close friends and family members.
Rachael did that recently by going away for a weekend with her high school friends. She came back still devastated by Tammie’s loss but bolstered by the strength of her other friendships.
3) Be thankful for what you added to the departed person’s life, and what she or he added to yours. Enough said.
4) Find ways to keep the memory of your lost friend alive. With Matthew, for instance, I have held onto a few things he gave to me many years ago—a letter he wrote on the birth of my first child; a tee-shirt he gave me one day when I sweated up my own tee-shirt after a basketball game. I take these items out now and then and look at them. It gives me comfort knowing that my friend’s hand once touched these items. It brings him alive for me.
Life goes on. Tammie—Scrabble will never be the same without you. If I had the letters, I would spell it out this way: S-U-R-R-E-A-L