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A Best Friends’ Guide to Communal Grieving

After a friend’s suicide during the pandemic, a group mourned over Zoom. The solace was not entirely as expected.

It was a Friday morning in July 2020, and in Guerneville, a small rivertown in northern California, the groves of redwoods trees didn’t know their own metamorphic height, didn’t know how their branches planked the sunlight in stripes of light, didn’t know the calm they brought humans like me.

It was the first time in five months that my family had left home since the pandemic hit, and I couldn’t escape Berkeley fast enough. The walls of our railroad apartment–where my small children swung through doorway pull-up bars and monkeyed over couch cushions—had finally begun to cave in on me. On my way out of the apartment, in the backyard, I snapped a picture of our newest additions—a gaggle of chickens—and sent it across the country to my college roommate and best friend of 20 years. “Gorgeous! The eggs are gonna be so good!” she replied. She was sorry she was out of touch, she said, having a hard time, very anxious. I got it. Of my delightfully neurotic friends, she was the most hypochondriacal, was recovering from a miscarriage, and we were in a pandemic. “I’m so sorry you’re struggling,” I wrote. “I love you and I’m here when you’re up for talking.” I’m grateful I wrote that to her. Now in the middle of the night the rocking chair of my heart comforts me: I told her I loved her, I told her I loved her.

Psychologist William Worden, author of Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, outlines four essential tasks for mourning.

 

MOURNING TASK ONE:

To accept the reality of the loss.

“Part of the acceptance of this reality is coming to believe that
reunion is impossible, at least in this life…”

 

On a Friday morning a few days later, as my children uncharacteristically slept in, I opened a novel in bed and read for one luscious hour. Is the universe going to let me get away with this? I remember thinking.

The generations of Jewish superstition inside of me replied candidly: No, there’s a price you pay for a too-perfect hour. What if I had warded off the evil eye, spat “Pu pu pu” like a raisin-faced bubbe? What if I hadn’t read that novel, but had wrestled a tantruming child? When you are raised by generations of superstitious matriarchs, these are valid questions. Later that day, I learned that this reading moment was when it happened. How could I have been on my back, passively reading, believing I was getting away with something? If I had known, I would have found a way to catapult myself 3,000 miles into my best friend’s bed, rocked her, held her anxious hopelessness until it engulfed me, and then I would have absorbed it, because that’s what you do when you love someone that much.

I was at the kitchen sink when my best friend’s brother-in-law texted me, “We met at the wedding, please call me.” I told myself he must be calling about couples therapy for his brother, my best friend’s husband, because I’m a couples therapist, and because the brain tries to make sense amidst the senseless.

As I sat on a hammock under the redwood trees, he told me my best friend was gone. She had taken her life.

I said no. No because we had texted three days ago about the chicken eggs. No to the moments she would miss with her three-year-old son and utterly delight in him, no to every single moment he would miss her for the rest of his life, NO. No for her husband, for his single-parenthood and ended marriage, no for him, the one I rooted for her marrying, the one I read a wedding speech to just years before, sitting next to her at their wedding table. (If I tell you our wedding seating arrangements, will that convey the size of this loss?)

No because this was final, and we still had half a life to live together. No because I had, yet again, forgotten her birthday, her 40th, and I still needed to grovel and be forgiven. No because who would be the holder of my college years, when we dressed as a pair of breasts for Halloween? Who would hold the entirety of my queer coming-out process, she who wiped my tears through it? Who would remember the night before my wedding day when we shared a bed; I drank Nyquil, unable to fall asleep, as she exclaimed, “You can’t drink Nyquil the night before your wedding, bad one bad one!” No because of every inside joke. And no, because of the way I knew her body, its angles, its jaunty movements, the way you know a best friend’s body when you are dream-filled and young, when you cuddle and whoop, when you dance as a daily bonding, as another language. We owned each other’s bodies without romance, and yet with adoration that was its own romance.

This is what I denied. As I sat on the chasm of a sharp new reality, phone still to ear, my wife knelt beside me, holding my hand, knowing without knowing. My therapist, who likes to stop traumatic moments and focus on the small supports, reminds me of this: “You weren’t alone, your wife was holding your hand.”

 

MOURNING TASK TWO:

To process the pain of grief.

“It is necessary to acknowledge and work through this pain or it can manifest itself through physical symptoms. The negation of this second task of processing the pain results in not feeling. People can short-circuit…”

 

The days that followed felt like sitting firmly atop a diving board over an ocean. For the most part, I could understand intellectually what had happened, and I could go about my day because I was in shock. I told myself this was good because I had a lot to do. I called others who would want to know. I co-wrote the obituary. I organized and led the memorial service on Zoom, doling out poems and passages, singing the Hebrew songs her husband requested. I sent food and checked in with him. I felt effective, useful, and numb. Once in a while, I slipped off the diving board into the endless frigid ocean of loss beneath me, and its cerulean depth threatened to swallow me. So I climbed back, stunned, to the safety of my perch.

I stayed on my diving board above the abyss of pain whenever I could, until I got a reminder of the reality that she was gone, and I would sink under until I could barely breathe and could find my wife (who, luckily in a pandemic, was only in the next room) and let it all out. As much as I wanted to avoid the gravity of my loss, it was there, always waiting for me. I wanted to ignore it, even as my therapist-self, head-shook: Impossible.

What finally began my journey towards facing the loss was something wholly unexpected: a new and likely lifelong connection to a group of my best friend’s best friends.

I was not my best friend’s only bashert. She had a mighty circle, though we had always been kept distant from one another. In our group text, we called ourselves a sisterhood. We already felt we knew each other intimately; although our mutual friend had kept her close-knit friendships separate, she had always shared the details of each of our life journeys with some of the others. Though many of us had barely spoken before, we were minor celebrities to each other.

A few of us, in particular, began sending more emotional messages on the group chat: our dreams of her, our sadness. We formed a smaller group of four that could reach out in the intensity of distress—a vivid dream, a difficult day—and receive a soothing response minutes later. We decided to begin weekly Zoom calls, often with one of us holding a child. One of my best friend’s hallmark traits was giving pet names to those she loved. When the four of us in our small group finally came together to share our shock and our sorrow, everyone called me the nickname she used for me (Lani or Laniloo), and I felt not only a welcome and a familiarity, but almost a recreation of her presence.

We were all Jewish, so we met on Sundays. For many months we met strictly, every Sunday at 8 AM on Zoom—I at my therapist desk in my double-locked bedroom door. (The lock was to avoid having children barrelling into my therapy sessions, but I used it now to keep those children protected from my pain.)

We are a varied group. B, a teacher living in South America with two children, was the best friend from middle school days who cried freely in our Zoom calls. There was A, who was a high school friend, now completing her Masters in Early Childhood Development. I had heard about her wedding in Israel, her journey towards more observant Judaism. She would share her child development perspective on how to support our best friend’s little son. Her tears were always on the surface, too; she sometimes even wore a locket of our friend’s with a baby picture of her in it. C is a therapist living near me in California, loving, open-minded, verbose, casual, and meandering, a grief dream and the farmer’s market scraps she fed her backyard chickens described in the same breath. C was, in a way, the rival college best friend to me, both of us close to our lost friend, but not to each other. Nowadays, we embrace as if we had always been that close. When I want to call my lost best friend, sometimes I call C instead.

And 10 months later, we still meet Sunday mornings a couple of times a month. We share the hardships and joys of parenting in pandemic life, child milestones, a new relationship, a parent’s diagnosis. Sometimes, in our sorrow that we cannot share life news with our best friend, we do impressions of her imagined reactions. “Waait—he’s such a good one! Suuuuuch a fan of the new guy!” There is a bizarre joy in the recreation of her, as we all do our best to mimic her words and intonation. I used to be self-conscious that we were doing dead-best-friend impressions. Now I see it as honoring our love for her.

We return to the trauma, reprocessing the final texts and phone calls, looking for clues. Replaying softens the blow. We play detective as we try to piece together what I have come to believe was a sudden undiagnosed postpartum psychosis that led our best friend to tragically, quietly, and spontaneously take her own life.

Gathering together has become for us not only a way to process her death, but also be closer to her life. As we spoke, we came to learn that some truths she kept with only one of us, out of a desire, we believed, to protect us. In those moments when one of us realized a huge part of the story was left out but learned that another one of us could fill it in, that somehow created more wholeness and more relief. We realize she gave us all of her heart, but not all of her time (she was phone avoidant) or the full story. Like quilters, we patched together the narrative, one of us filling in pieces for the rest.

Our Jewish sisterhood has become an alternative minyan, a portal to our pain that we didn’t have to apologize about or make smaller for someone else’s comfort. She blessed our dreams, and in the mornings it was an awful new reality we awoke to again and again, but we did it together. As awful as the reality was, I felt more able to face it together. And as tenuous as the healing process was, I felt a depth of healing and soothing in the presence of our sisterhood that I couldn’t access alone.

 

MOURNING TASK THREE:

To adjust to a world without the deceased.

“Death can shatter the core of one’s life purposes, and it is important to discover and invent new meaning in the face of loss…”

 

I wanted to tell this story as the achievement of four levels of grief. But as I write, I realize I am not through the grief at all, but in-process, aware that while I am able to identify the loss and have begun to process the grief, step three—adjusting to a world without her—befuddles me. I have found new bits of meaning, largely in connection to the sisterhood, but also checking up on her husband and son, sending Hanukkah gifts, doing Facetime calls and introducing her son to my children’s stuffed animals. I’ve resolved, as long as I grace this planet, to be an auntie he can rely upon.

I adjusted to my missed birthday this year, where I didn’t get her call and homemade card (though the best friends all reached out), but I am still learning what adjustment to loss looks like. There are days I want to call her, funny stories to share. Sometimes I call one of the sisterhood friends, and this is enough, and sometimes I call no one, driving on an empty road, imagining what would happen if I called her, and if she picked up, and whom I would share the miracle with first.

 

MOURNING TASK FOUR:

To find an enduring connection with the lost loved one while beginning a new life.

“The fourth task is to find a place for the deceased that will enable the mourner to be connected with the deceased but in a way that will not preclude him or her from going on with life.”

 

Because I haven’t yet been able to visit the cemetery on the East Coast, I had a stone engraved with her name and who she is to me: my best friend, my sister, my love. I meant to put this in a garden box in the backyard, but found I couldn’t bear to move it from my dresser. Each morning I swirled my beads and jewelry around the stone to make it pretty, feeling nearly adolescent, and yet so comforted. In the last month, the wildflower garden I planted in the backyard has sprung to life in every shade and variation of flower. When I noticed my morning routine at my dresser was too searing of a reminder of her death, I cautiously moved the stone to the flower box, hidden now by stems and flowers, and when I want to be with her, I go to that flower box. I talk to her there, and sometimes curse at her because she’s gone and sometimes apologize that she had to be in pain and leave too soon. I know that she would feel touched to know her best friends are still meeting.

I think back to that grove of coastal redwoods that surrounded me when I heard the news of my best friend’s death. Families of redwood trees grow from the living remains of the stumps of fallen redwoods, and form in a circle. Despite the heights they reach, redwoods’ roots are shallow, only five or six feet deep. But the width of those roots can extend 100 feet, interweaving and binding with other roots, granting them strength, support, and foundation in the face of floods, high winds, and fire. There is teaching in the redwoods: how they form new families from lost life, and how they withstand the harshest of conditions through interconnectedness.

Last week, our small sisterhood all purchased our first plane tickets in nearly two years. The plan is to be together on her birthday this summer on the East Coast, to visit the cemetery together, to keep her husband company, to bond with her son, show him aunties who will reflect back to him the details of who his mother was. The plan is to keep remembering, rooted in an intertwined communal grief that can face harsh conditions because it is not alone.

Ilana Kramer is a writer and therapist in Berkeley, California.