When I tell people about Tess—which is rarely—I am asking for the near impossible in return.
The last time I spoke to my friend was July 14th of last year. She had popped up on my phone to say hello; I was mid-interview for a big story I was working on and I said, “let’s talk soon, I’ve missed you!” It’s been a little over six months since anyone’s heard from her and last we knew, she was recovering from COVID. The director of grief group told me this is what is referred to as ‘ambiguous loss’—the grey space where people just disappear, leaving behind no clues as to where they went or, worse case scenario, if they’re still alive.
I am not trying to be unkind when I say I am not looking for suggestions on what to do next or how to feel better or what it all means and represents.
When I tell people about my friend, Tess (who was as close to me as any person could be), I am not asking for advice or platitudes. Perhaps this is what has been hardest about speaking openly about loss—it’s unsettling to witness plainly and only contrarians go off-script when it’s in front of you.
Well-meaning friends have offered their condolences and advice and each interaction has only widened the wound. Imagine I am carrying a boulder on my back and there is half a dozen people pointing at it, telling me to “make the decision to put it down” or “it’ll get less heavy over time” or “of course you’re struggling, you’re carrying a boulder on your back!”
None of this neglect the fact that it is heavy and it is mine. I realized after three of these conversations that the only person I wanted to talk to about this particular loss was Tess herself. She has always been able to make sense of these knotted strings of feeling without making me feel foolish for being jumbled up in the first place. And what she would’ve said would have been something along these lines: I know it hurts. And it’s okay that it does.
There are a thousand and one reasons why she’s incredible, but one of the most extraordinary feats about her was her ability to just hold space for someone. Do you know how rare it is to find someone who can look at pain unflinching? Do you know how selfless it is to have someone love you without condition of you surrendering to their idea of wholeness?
I used to start our conversations with, “I know it’s stupid, but…” and she would always tell me: No, it’s not. She never trivialized, never minimized, never tried to make a metaphor out of a mess. She lets hurtful things just be and she never let me feel alone in feeling it.
I don’t talk about Tess much because I am also embarrassed. Intimacy of any kind has this affect on me, particularly when it’s gone. I am embarrassed by how much I love her, how much this friendship has meant to me, and how transformed I am by one person. I long to be cowardly and indifferent so I can pretend that this is a loss that washes right off me. I am constantly trying to undermine the intensity of our friendship now that I am the one left shouldering it.
The possibility of going the rest of my life without speaking to her again is unfathomable—my mind refuses to wrap itself around it, stubbornly insisting that she was just someone I used to know and don’t people come and go all the time? I think it is just trying to get ahead of the grieving process. I don’t know. I just know that sometimes I try to reread our old conversations and I knee-jerk them close instead, all that fight-or-flight kicking in when I near something that wants to collapse on me.
There is not a day that passes where she’s not on my mind. I rehearse, all the time, what I would say if/when she resurfaces. I want her to know that I am trying to hold space for her too, even when she’s gone. For as ambiguous as this loss is, the love left behind is clear. It wouldn’t be this agonizing if it wasn’t.
Wondering if I wrote this myself actually? Dealing with an extremely similar My Brilliant Friend experience — except switch July out for March of last year — and this is the closest I’ve felt to someone understanding it. It doesn’t help the situation, but you’re not alone.
I am sorry. What a beautiful way to talk about your relationship with her. I hug you from Spain.