I can’t get past how empty I feel since my best friend died | Ask Annalisa Barbieri

Grief is a massive emotion that can take years to process, but you can and will grow around it

Last summer, my best friend died. I wasn’t able to fly to the US for his funeral. Mike (not his real name) was the brother I wish I’d grown up with. We met when I lived in the States for three months. When I proposed to my future husband, I wanted Mike to be my best man. We used to go to the same church and when I realised that a life of celibacy as a gay Christian, denying who I truly am, wasn’t going to work, Mike was one of the few church friends who stuck by me.

I don’t know how Mike died. He struggled with painkillers and alcohol, as well as mental health at times. Since he died, I’ve been in occasional contact with members of his family but can’t bring myself to ask the cause of death. I’m wondering whether I could ask – and if so, how to frame the question sensitively – to get a sense of closure. Is this appropriate?

I miss Mike all the time. I miss that he won’t be at my wedding in July. I’m sad that no one will get to hear his best man’s speech and that we won’t get to see him tear up the dancefloor with his dad moves.

I’m struggling to get past this feeling of emptiness because I no longer have a “best mate” to shoot the breeze with. It’s not a space I expect my fiance to fill; I think it’s healthy for us to have our own friends to be authentic and share concerns with. Will I ever lose this sense of emptiness, or can I grow around this?

I’m so sorry for your loss. To have a friend who sees you and accepts you for who you are is truly special. One of my closest friends died (of a drugs overdose) and I became obsessed with how she died. Looking back, I realise I felt that if I knew every detail, I could have gone back in time to stop it from happening. But I was also trying to get control of a situation which was totally out of my control, and I wonder if maybe that is happening for you. Also, you are having to come to terms with the fact that there is this huge detail about your friend that you do not know.

I went to UKCP registered psychotherapist John Cavanagh. He wondered if you might consider “imagining the sort of speech Mike would have written, maybe with help from his friends, and writing it out and putting it in your pocket so it’s close to you.” Or you could write a letter to Mike and tell him what he meant to you and keep that in a pocket. I used to pooh-pooh writing “letters that are never sent” but they can be amazingly cathartic.

You didn’t say anything about your family. Cavanagh wondered how accepting they’d been of your sexuality and if Mike “represented an approving male figure you otherwise didn’t have in your own family”.

In terms of asking Mike’s family about his death, Cavanagh says, “I’d like to invite you to think about Mike the way you knew him and not let his battles define him. I would also think carefully about what you might expect the answer [how Mike died] to be. The answer may not match your expectations and can cause more stress or more ‘searching’.” And I’d like to add: do not let the way he died define him.

But if you build a relationship with them, you might find it comes naturally to ask one day. Although bear in mind that if they are religious and there is any perceived shame in the way he died, they may not want to share it.

Mike will always be part of your life. Grief is a massive emotion that can take years to process; it’s very early days and of course you feel his loss. But you can and will grow around it – I call it folding it into your life. I was told a wonderful analogy by a bereavement counsellor which is that life is a glass and grief is a yellow ball. Sometimes the ball is so big it threatens to break the glass: sometimes it’s so small you can hardly see it. The yellow ball never changes size, but the glass – life – does.

You may find the grief podcast I did helpful. And you might also want to look at bereavement counselling.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

• Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

• The latest series of Annalisa’s podcast is available here.


Annalisa Barbieri

The GuardianTramp

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