When a marriage dissolves, there is legal process that involves steps of grieving the end of the relationship. Signing papers, although painful, acknowledges the end of years together and also signifies freedom to move on to a new life. Broken friendships, however, have no process in place. Oftentimes the ending is muddled, with confusion over what went wrong and whether or not there is any chance of reconciliation.
The broken bond can be just as traumatic as a divorce, especially if you have years invested into the relationship. It can be difficult to work through the blurry blend of emotions including regret, sadness, and anger.
Over the years I’ve grieved a handful of very meaningful friendships. Some of fallouts were devastating and took significant time to heal. Here are some perspectives and actions that helped me through the process.
1. Don’t take it personally. Because it’s not about you.
Easier said than done, of course. But if a person abruptly ends a relationship, it has more to do with their own limitations than anything you said or did. You may perceive a friend’s lack of communication as rejection, but they are simply acting in accordance to what they are capable of. There’s no need to obsess endlessly over the things that you should have done differently because no “right” behavior of yours can change their limitations or their humanness, now or later. You are who you are — a wonderful human being! — including the words and actions you may regret. A failed relationship is the product of two sets of limitations running up against each other, rather than one person making an egregious mistake.
Instead of labeling your friend as wrong or ill-intentioned, try to have compassion for them, knowing that they simply couldn’t give you what you were asking of them.
2. Create some kind of closure.
Closure is an important step to healing the end of any relationship and moving forward. However, because most friendship fallouts are muddled, you have to be creative in how you get your closure. Here are a few ideas:
- Write a letter that you may or may not send, telling your friend how much they meant to you. Express your hurt in a way that keeps the focus on you. If you need to, ask the question, “What happened?” If you decide to send the letter, do an inventory of your expectations. Make sure you are prepared for no response or for one that may be hurtful.
- Journal about the friendship, describing your mix of emotions — the anger, the confusion, the sense of betrayal. Just getting your thoughts down on paper will help your brain file the memories and process your loss.
- Create a scrapbook of your favorite memories with photos and tickets stubs.
- Visit the places that you went together and spend a moment there to grieve the relationship.
- Design a ritual or symbolic gesture of letting go of the friendship, such as doing something meaningful with a gift that your friend gave you. For example, if she gave you a charm, take it to your favorite creek. While saying a prayer of gratitude for the friendship, toss it into the water and ask for strength to let go.
3. Keep on loving.
The worst thing you can do is to become bitter and close off your heart to future friendships. It’s tempting to protect yourself from any potential hurt, but that only keeps your pain front and center. The way to move past the hurt is by loving the people in your life fiercely, by continuing to be vulnerable to the risk of rejection.
“The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper,” explained the late theologian Henri Nouwen in The Inner Voice of Love. “When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you.”
It may feel like a dead-end. But even when people stop loving you, that doesn’t mean you have to stop loving them. More promising still: the love that you once showed them allows you to love the other people in your life more deeply and authentically.
4. Concentrate on something new.
Whenever I am immersed in grief over anything — a job, a relationship, a dream — I have found it helpful to turn my attention to something new. That might be a project, such as sorting through my closet or cleaning out my bookshelves. It could be getting back to playing the piano. Or it can be devoting myself to a cause, like getting more involved in mental health advocacy and investing time into the online depression communities that I started four years ago. Directing my energy toward the service of others is especially healing, because my hurt can ultimately be of use to someone.
5. Allow yourself time to grieve.
Don’t belittle what you’re going through. Fractured friendships are incredibly painful and traumatic. Be kind with yourself and give yourself the self-compassion that you would to a friend in your situation. Allow yourself to cry and ruminate and be angry.
Hold on to what was good and right in the relationship and try to gently let go of the limitations that got in the way. Trust that time is the ultimate healer and that one day you won’t hurt so badly. You will eventually see that the relationship opened your heart to love others even more, and that its beauty lives on inside you.