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Fifty Shades of Grief: Mourning a friend at midlife

Mourning is never easy. But when the person gone is a friend, from our same generation, the feelings hit extra close to home.

They say when you lose a loved one, you go through five stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When I lost my best friend, just over a month ago, I went through those five stages in the first 24 hours — and about forty-five more since then. Despair, gratefulness, love, sadness, fury, loneliness, fight, empowerment — they have all been part of my grieving process.

Of course, when I see them listed, they may seem like all of the same, but to me they have been very precise, very specific nuances of different emotions. 

At first, I saw myself as unable to go on. It simply seemed too difficult to put one foot in front of the other. I avoided Richard’s memorial in Paris, not because I would feel emotional there, but because I couldn’t imagine getting to the funeral parlor from the airport. A trip I’d already made before to go visit my friend, seemed full of insurmountable obstacles. Admitting it here now makes me feel ashamed…

Then I pleaded, to trade me with him, or take anyone else around me. Why couldn’t so and so go too soon? I could have dealt with mourning him/her. Why did it have to be Richard, my darling friend, confidant, mentor and supporter? I mean, I’m from his same generation, over fifty, not half as useful to this universe as he was, with his endlessly great energy and the cultural work he did. I could have easily traded places.

I realized my inability to go on was growing to new heights.

Then I went into remembrances. “Of things past” as Proust wrote. I caught myself smiling at the memories of our times together. When people would think we were husband and wife and we’d giggle at that in private. One day in Locarno, where we had gone for the film festival, a girl at a restaurant asked about our relationship. “He’s your husband, right? You two are so good together.” Well, you know, he plays for the other team, I answered. “Yes but you could still be married,” she said, sure of herself. And I remember thinking yes, yes we could. I smiled and feigned embarrassment but in fact, after her kind comment, I’d often thought Richard and I could retire together, have our separate lives and yet find a common place to live. We shared so much, our years in NYC as club kids, our love of meaningful cinema, our journalism background. And our passion for clothes and designer shoes.

You’ve left some impossible shoes to fill, my Friend

That’s when anger took over. I was mad at him for shushing me every time I asked him about his illness. I also argued out loud with his spirit because he didn’t take care of himself in the last few months. And I felt shame that I made him angry at me because I wanted him to live. Anger I’ve found to be the most useful of my emotions. I could feel rage and somehow that meant I didn’t feel lost anymore. Rage made it OK to go on. Rage gave me something to rail against.

Not a day goes by that I don’t cry for the loss, but also for the gap it left in every aspect of my life. I realized after he died that in the last year, I’d been writing for him. For that little heart he put next to my posts on Facebook. For his retweets and likes on Twitter, and the private messages he sent me saying what a great job I’d done on a particular article. “I want to know you in many different cities,” he wrote on WhatsApp to me, near the end. I didn’t know it was coming to his last days on this earth and that message started me dreaming of our next destination, our future travels. We’d been to Cannes, Berlin, Rome, Paris, Venice, Locarno together and were planning Marrakech, even Taormina when he left this world.

In between anger and sadness, I have thanked Richard for the countless lessons he has taught me — and most specifically how he changed my views on what a man, even a male friend, would be able to bring into my life. As the daughter of a very stingy and selfish father, Richard taught me that men can be generous, with and in every aspect of their life and being. He treated me to delicious meals — I always made sure I returned the favor! — he bought me perfect gifts for my birthdays and, most importantly, he gave of his time. So much of his precious time, which is what I found most touching. Here was a man who could make or break a film with his work behind the scenes, and yet he always found the energy and the right moment to talk me through my latest pity party. When my father died, he knew the right things to say to help me forgive and forget him — “write his name on a piece of paper then put it and him in the freezer, Sweetie” — and I’ll admit that losing my dad was nothing compared to losing HIM.

Even through his illness, he was there for me. In fact, in the midst of his treatments, he showed me his Paris. It was such a perfect journey that I doubt I’ll ever be able to go back there again, without him. 

In these last weeks, I’ve avoided thinking about him and I’ve thought about him incessantly. I found stars that reminded me of his light, Sirius is the brightest and I’ve renamed her “Richard”. And every little bird that has rested on my window sill since the 15th of November, I imagined it was him visiting me.

These days I’m finding myself angry at him again. I think I’m finally through the debilitating sadness, the kind that made me feel like putting one foot in front of the other to go out and buy groceries was just too much for my body to bear. It’s good that’s gone, I have people around me to take care of and I know he would not have wanted me to shrivel up and disappear in my grief. He fought so hard not to do that himself, even while battling the big C.

But this latest bout of anger is strange, apart from being mad at his absence, I’m reminded of our few fights, and the kind of mean things he could say in the heat of the argument. Especially in the last few months, he did that a couple of times. Maybe it was his way of weaning me away from him. To help me to survive once he’d be gone. I know those are all moments I need to process and work through, because they will help me to heal. Hopefully. 

I’ll admit that I still can’t see that light at the end of this tunnel, but I feel a warm breeze coming through, and my experience is that where there’s air, there’s light.

Why did I want to share out loud this glimpse into my inner thoughts, during this time of mourning? Because no two people are alike, though the blood that runs through our veins is always undoubtedly red. And I’ve realized that there is no right or wrong way to mourn the loss of a loved one. You just have to find your path, as I’m attempting to find mine, through the wonderful memories of lunches spent together, the precious moments you shared, the magic of their being, or the reminders of their humanness. 

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