When we were younger (in our twenties) my best friend and I talked about the unimaginable horror of being without each other. Now that we’re older, and the idea of folks our age dying is no longer as unthinkably shocking as it was back then, we barely talk about it—it’s too frightening, too awful, and too possible a thought.
Nevertheless, when we did talk about it, we’d wonder why there wasn’t a name for having your closest friend die. Who was the one left behind?
There is widowhood.
There is being orphaned.
We hear that someone has lost a sister or a brother and our hand flies to our heart in sympathy. We blink back tears at the thought of losing our own sibling. And, the phrase is almost impossible to write, that greatest of horrors, losing a child, those three words connote such horror, simply using them brings forth the images which turn our innards icy.
What is the word for the awful loss of a best friend, that friend who you can call daily, multiple times daily if the need arises; who is not only there for emergencies, but is willing to chew over the most mundane details of your day and listen to the details of your tooth extraction in excruciating detail?
How do you describe the death of that person who you can tell anything—absolutely anything—and know that not only will they still love you, but that your pain will not send them to a therapist, because they don’t swallow it in the same way as might your family. Family feels responsible for our pain, wondering if perhaps they caused it, or if they will suffer because of it—in the way that a child’s pain will trigger one’s own. This friend is family who doesn’t need to worry at same genetic fabric together.
The friends we love, the family of our heart, family we choose—we have no customs for mourning that loss. No leave from work. People don’t come to our home to sit shivah. Casseroles don’t show up at our door.
Gail Caldwell writes about this grief in Let’s Take The Long Way Home. She shows us the friendship she shared with Caroline Knapp (the author of Drinking: A Love Story) and then takes us through the heartbreak—as rending as the loss of any loved one—of Caroline’s terminal lung cancer.
The details of dying are sad and grinding: breathing and waiting and breathing and waiting. The body, brilliant machine, knows how and when to close up shop. But Caroline was so strong, and so determined, that even in this final task she moved toward the end with bracing force. I had watched her on the water for years; now she was in the midst of what Anne Sexton had called the “awful rowing toward God.”
Gail Caldwell writes with simple elegance of the love she and Caroline Knapp shared. I felt the joy of their connection, remembering similar moments with my closest friend. The circumstances were different, the blazing friend-love the same. Reading this story allowed me the same shock of recognition one feels when reading of a love affair that matches the depth of one’s own romantic love, and though Caldwell and Knapp’s story is eventually soaked in grief, reading their joy makes it worth the pain of going through their sorrow.
Experiencing the bleakness Caldwell faces, suddenly alone after having found the perfect partner, the most satisfying of friends, I felt I received more than was on the page. The writing is so finely rendered, that it seemed to provide vision beyond the words on the page.