[DIARY OF A MEMOIRIST] When a Friend You Love is Ill
Contributor
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
March 2014
Contributor
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
March 2014

Right now, I am at my desk preparing my seminar for tomorrow, but my thoughts keep straying from Holocaust testimony―this week’s subject, as it happens―to the fate of a close friend. My friend is in the hospital recovering from surgery, but probably not recovering from the cancer that made the surgery necessary. It is not all that strange for me to be thinking of her as I try to concentrate on work. I’ve just taught one of her essays, an essay on the use of metaphor in literary texts representing the Holocaust. You may know the author, but I don’t want to violate her privacy by going any further. The singular identity of this friend matters to me, of course, but that is not my subject. Nor is the essay she wrote, which I have always loved.

In his work on friendship (friendship between men) Derrida writes somewhere: one always leaves before the other. (Every once in a while Derrida says something stunningly simple and true.) When I read his text, thinking about friends I’d lost, I realized that I had never confronted that truth. I expected my parents to die; one does, even in this era of increasing longevity. And if we are coupled, we worry, when we make our wills, about who, in a spousal dyad, will go first. Typically, neither wants to be the survivor. But in the matter of friendship, even if you are old (and I am), we tend not to foresee the loss of a contemporary―give or take ten years. It does not seem part of the contract. We are unprepared in addition to being bereft.

One of the strange features of friendship, I’ve learned, is that a pair of friends, no matter how intimate, rarely forms a single couple. What I mean is that the friend I lose is not only mine to lose. There are others who mourn the loss of relation to her―intimacy, laughter, solace. At a memorial service, you discover just how many people loved your friend. You are not a solitary mourner, you are part of a community―friends of your friend.

When I first observed this phenomenon, I felt a kind of shock seeing my bond diminish, spread across a room, oceans, geography. But now, as I’m becoming more accustomed to the community of loss, I realize that there is a peculiar comfort in sharing our dread, sadness―it sometimes takes the edge off extreme loneliness.

Still, I don’t want to lose “my” friend; her essay can’t fill the place in my heart.

Let's be friends

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Comments
  • Strange that my experience is the opposite for a friend of mine. She passed away suddenly from an intense illness...very fast and unexpected. My friend's family might have tried to contact me but could not reach me and did not leave a message, so one day I dropped by the place where I knew she worked to say "hello" and was informed of her death by her former co-workers. This was very sad for me, and I would have attended a memorial service for her and expressed sympathy to her family for her loss if I was given the opportunity.  I am glad that she had the chance to meet my daughter while she was still alive. That means it's been almost 10 years.

    I do take comfort in the fact that I know that her sister is a fellow writer, with whom I am in touch with each other via social media, though we have never met in person.

  • Mardith Louisell

    We all want to think we know a person well, even best, I think. Even with a parent or a spouse, it's a little unsettling to hear how other people saw him or her and to  find out I didn't "know them best." Or completely. I  found great comfort in hearing from all the people who loved my mother (which is what I think sympathy cards are for - to show the bereaved that the loved person meant something in the world). But in the case of a close friend, though I had flown across the country to see her twice before she died, I decided against going to the memorial. A very large part of that was not wanting to share her with all those people whom I thought didn't know her the way I had. And I didn't want their grief intruding on mine, in some way I thought it would dissipate my grief and take her farther away from me. Even then, I thought it was strange how I felt but there it was. Thanks for the post, Nancy.