When Your Best Friend Dies

How to grieve and minimize the feeling of loss (Photo credit: Adobe Stock)

By Gary M. Stern for Next Avenue

Josh Koplovitz, an attorney based in Woodstock, N.Y., communicated with his best friend Lester Fensterheim nearly every day. They first met in 1999 and connected over their love of tennis. The two played tennis together and occasionally poker, socialized with their spouses and developed a strong bond. On Aug. 1, 2017, 74-year-old Fensterheim felt a pain in his face, suffered a minor stroke and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died three months later on Nov. 4.

Koplovitz misses Fensterheim terribly and feels a void over his death and the loss of their friendship. “I was drawn to Lester, and he was drawn to me and the friendship developed,” Koplovitz said. Fensterheim was a “magnetic personality,” said Koplovitz., adding: “When you came into his presence, you felt an unmistakable connectivity, as if he was saying to you, ‘You are a special person.’ He taught me to be more accepting of people than I otherwise would have been. He had a basic love of humanity.”

When Fensterheim took ill, Koplovitz visited him frequently at home and provided considerable emotional support. He did everything he could to help his best friend as he started to suffer from his illness, which helped ease the pain of Fensterheim’s death. Now, Koplovitz focuses on the “the good times and the relationship we had, not that he’s gone. It makes me sad, but I’m grateful for what we had.”

The Challenges of Grieving When a Best Friend Dies

Recovering from the loss of a best friend can be thorny, complicated and difficult in ways that are different than the death of a spouse or parent. The death of a best friend strikes one’s mortality, making you realize that death is unavoidable and inevitable. Moreover, there’s no accepted way to recover from the loss of a best friend, and there are few support groups or grief circles offering assistance.

“When we lose a best friend, we are losing someone who gets us, someone who is witnessing our life, so it’s a huge loss,” explained Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendship for Lifelong Health and Happiness. “Best friends offer rewards. We get positivity, empathy, joy, memories, a play partner and a conversation partner.”

The effect of losing a best friend is “devastating,” Nelson noted. In fact, it can be harder, in some ways, than losing a spouse. “When we lose a spouse, we sit at the front row of the funeral. We get cards and are listed in the obituary,” she said. But when a person suffers the loss of a best friend, there are no sympathy cards and no validation for the loss.

Minimizing the Loss of a Friend

Jackson Rainer, a Decatur, Ga.-based clinical psychologist and author of Life After Loss: Contemporary Grief Counseling and Therapy, said grappling with the loss of a dear friend is complicated because “there’s no place for the bereaved to put their grief. A best friend’s relationship is very personal, but different from family or a spouse.”

Moreover, there are expected ways to accept sympathy and solace for the loss of a parent or spouse, but a best friend’s death is “idiosyncratic, eccentric, contained between the two. It’s not something publicly acknowledged or understood,” Rainer said.

It takes time to deal with the grief that stems from the death of a best friend. “Grief has its own timetable. Grief isn’t quick; it’s a slow process,” Rainer added.

Nelson recommends these three tips to help minimize the loss of a best friend:

  • Contact other friends who attended the funeral and organize a get-together every year on the day of the best friend’s death to honor the loss.
  • Share with other close friends what the loss of your best friend means to you; don’t keep your feelings locked inside.
  • Jot down thoughts in a journal about memories of your friend, which can help you work through your feelings and grief.

If your grief doesn’t subside, the loss can trigger depression. “You know you’re depressed when you’re numb to experience and feelings,” Rainer said.

And there’s no magical elixir to end the depression. “Put one foot in front of the other, stay in motion, say what you feel and find someone who is willing to serve as witness for your loss,” Rainer urged.

Honoring the Friendship

Grief comes in waves, but if the sadness turns into depression, it could be time to meet with a therapist to talk these feelings out. Talk therapy, Rainer suggested, helps a person come to grips with the depression and loss.

One trap in grappling with the loss of a close friend is the expectation that other people will acknowledge or appreciate the loss. Often, that doesn’t happen.  “The relationship of a best friend is so unique that it’s hard for others to understand it,” Rainer said.

“Give yourself permission to realize what a huge loss this was,” said Nelson. Take an entire year and turn it into a grieving period, where you gradually accept what this loss means to you.

Creating rituals honoring the loss of an intimate friend can soothe the pain.  Anything that reminds you of the friendship — a photo or a ring, perhaps — vivifies the friendship and may help ease the pain.

“None of your other friends can replace the friend you lost. But this loss is an invitation for you to keep deepening other friends in your life,” advised Nelson.