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Coping With the Death of Old Friends and Siblings

As we age, the losses come more frequently. We need to give them their due.


In our family, my dad used to say we’d all be partners till the droppin’ off place. Growing up as the only girl with six brothers in a one-bathroom house, I have to admit there might have been times  when I looked forward to a few of them dropping. But then a funny thing happened. We grew up and became friends.

Now we’re approaching the other end of life and the view is so much different from here. We don’t talk about how someday we’ll have to say goodbye. I suspect that’s because we can’t even bear to think about it. Yet, the inevitable sad truth is that time is marching on for all of us whether we like it or not. And we’re getting pushed to the front of the line.

But it’s not just brothers and sisters, because there are others in our lives who we also consider family. You can’t grow old friends, an old friend likes to remind me, and she’s right.

These are people you knew in third grade, who remember your first bad boyfriend or girlfriend or when you wore bangs. You don’t have to explain your world view, because they were around to help you shape it. In her book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, author Anna Quindlen captures the significance of these relationships. “The thing about old friends is not that they love you but that they know you,” she writes.

The Natural Order of Life

On an intellectual level, I know that part of life is death, yet I struggle to reconcile this unfair, if inherent, consequence.

“In the second half of our lives, we experience more losses,” says Alan Wolfelt, an author, grief counselor and founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. “With aging comes the inevitable deaths of those we love. It’s hard, yes,” he adds, “but it’s also a time of opportunity to live, love and mourn as fully as we can.”

It’s important to understand that for some, the loss of a friend can be more impactful than if it was a family member.

— Molly Ruggles, psychologist

These losses run deep, in part because the relationships are formed over a lifetime. Wolfelt says that even though we take on different roles as we move through life, we never lose our initial identity as the “child of” or the “brother/sister of.” And I would include the “friend of.”

Wolfelt points out that one of the essential needs of mourning is to explore the change in our identity when these dynamics change.

Acknowledging Our Loss

I wonder if the world understands that these connections aren’t secondary, especially when I hear someone say how alone he or she felt when suffering this type of loss. There doesn’t seem to be much research on the subject, either. And where are the books or support groups for adults who have lost a sibling or lifelong friend?

“We call it a disenfranchised loss, which is one not recognized as important by others or society,” says Molly Ruggles, a psychologist at the Center for Grief, Loss & Transition in St. Paul, Minn., a program of FamilyMeans. “But it’s important to understand that for some, the loss of a friend can be more impactful than if it was a family member.”

“Certain kinds of loss are often minimized,” says Wolfelt, “and the result is that we can end up as what I call forgotten mourners. We’re grieving inside, but people don’t seem to notice or appreciate the depth of our feelings.”

What can make it even harder for boomers, Ruggles says, is that this may happen at the same time we’re experiencing additional losses, like retirement, kids leaving home or saying goodbye to a beloved pet. Being in the midst of other losses can intensify grief symptoms, she says.

Moving Forward

What’s the hardest part of getting older? It’s not aches and wrinkles. Not even close. When Quindlen asks that question at the end of her book, Meryl Streep gives the simple but profound answer: losing friends. But even though we can’t stop any of this from happening, we’re not powerless, either.

For those of you who have already been dealt this blow, make sure to honor your loss, regardless of whether it’s recognized by others. Wolfelt suggests starting by sharing what you’re feeling.

“Tell someone. Write a letter to the people who died or to someone else who loved them. Cry openly. Find a grief buddy, one that’s also grieving a significant loss ,and agree to support each other,” he says.

If you don’t have a support system in place, work on getting one. Ruggles says that’s what allows us to better adapt to adverse situations and is a primary factor in our psychological resilience. Also, take care of your relationships. “Don’t leave unsaid how you feel about those in your life,” she adds.

We need to acknowledge, befriend and express our thoughts and feelings each day, recommends Wolfelt. “If we practice living authentically in this manner, not only will our lives take on greater depth and meaning, but we’ll also be better equipped to encounter grief,” he says.

Taking Care of Each Other

And when our turn comes to be supportive, Ruggles reminds us, reach out.

“People need someone they can talk to,” she says. “Grief can be such an isolating experience.”

She also advises to be available to a grieving person for however long you’re needed. “Grief doesn’t magically resolve or go away just because the loss was a year ago,” she says. “It can mean a lot for people to know that others in their life are aware that they’re hurting and that they are cared for.”

It’s true that, as we get older, the droppin’ off place isn’t as far off as it used to be. But there’s still time for us to re-examine what’s important if we need to. Maybe only from here can we start to see just how short life really is.

It’s also only from here that I can look back on a lifetime of laughter, regrets, growing pains and the wonder of how I ever survived with just one bathroom and all those brothers.

I can’t change the inevitable, so I won’t spend this fleeting time on the sadness I know someday will be heartbreaking. But I will renew a promise to myself never to waste a chance to share a conversation or a campfire with my family and friends.

“Every day is indeed a gift, even when we’re feeling normal and necessary grief,” Wolfelt says. “If we remember to express ourselves and reach out to connect with others, we can find meaning and purpose through it all.”

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By Debbie Reslock
Debbie Reslock is a freelance writer who specializes in aging issues and the 55+ market. As a former caregiver, she's also an advocate for aging-in-place whenever possible and person-centered long term care when it isn't. She's on the board of directors for the Colorado Culture Change Coalition and lives in Evergreen, Colo.

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