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The Loneliness of Losing Shared History

Two leaves left on tree
Two leaves left on the tree — Ron Lack on Pexels

When my elderly aunt with no children died, we, the nephews and nieces close by, hosted her memorial service for her friends in the nursing home and the city. She had outlived many of her contemporaries, so it was a small service. Nevertheless, we received the softly voiced condolences, “So sorry for your loss.”

It did not feel like I experienced a loss, frankly, because the death was expected, and her last years had been difficult. It was a relief, as death sometimes is.

But it was a loss for her friends. A small contingent of friends came from a particular time and location in her life. They were there to relive their experience with her and to relive that time in their lives, too.

Now, I’m approaching that age, her final age. I’m beginning to experience the loss of shared histories. I lost one person who shared a lot of my stories. I don’t have anyone who remembers the mime in Florence, the red snapper at the beach restaurant, or the many just-between-us jokes.

My aunt and other family members — my parents — who could answer the questions that accumulate with age aren’t available. I have so many issues I would like to ask them about life and growing older.

No one prepares you for growing old.

There are no mentors left for this stage of life within my family. I can look back at my parents as young adults, and middle-aged adults, and realize they may not have known what they were doing. I didn’t. You make it up as you go along.

Maybe that’s what makes the loss of a friendship difficult, even when I might be the one who moved across the country, who stopped communicating after so many months, or who attended the celebration of life.

One woman said she had two memorial services on the same day this week. It’s that time in our lives. It’s not weddings, or baptisms, anymore, it’s funerals.

It gets lonely.

It’s not the kind of lonely where I can go to Target and interact with the clerk and a few people randomly and feel like I’m in the world. It’s not the kind of loneliness that has me keening in my wine and sobbing into my pillow.

It’s the kind of lonely where I think I should call her, and then remember I can’t. It’s the kind of lonely where I wonder where her adult daughter is now, and what she is doing, or what the stories are about her family.

I stalked the Facebook pages of a relative just to learn that the adult daughter was doing fine, got married, had a baby, and moved away. My friend talked about her for so long, I wondered what she was up to. I’d never met the daughter so I couldn’t call her out of the blue and say, “I stopped hearing updates about your life when your mother died.”

Good friends tell each other the casual news of what’s important in their lives. What’s the latest episode in your life? What’s the latest book you read? I always respected your taste. What do you think about this in-the-news event? I can imagine what you’d say, although maybe you’d surprise me.

We’re mourning them. But we’re mourning for ourselves. Our pleasure is diminished a little bit. Our world is smaller, a little bit. Our sources of opinion-making have shifted a little bit.

Friendships and Books

I’m writing a historical novel, and the key to the research is finding the friends. Sometimes, the person I’m writing about shows up in the friend’s biography or contemporaneous accounts.

Maybe we’re our only influences, the people with whom we surround ourselves. The trick is not to be a social climber or manipulator but to choose well.

If I had one major choice I’d make, it’s to let some relationships go earlier and to nurture some more carefully. When I was young, I thought relationships just happened. I didn’t seek them out as thoughtfully as I do now.

I enjoy laughter (who doesn’t?) and value friends who make me laugh. I’m reminded of Alice Roosevelt’s embroidered pillow that said “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anyone, sit by me.” It’s not that I would mean it, but it makes me laugh.

Similarly, I love Dorothy Parker’s bon mot when challenged to use horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.” I want people who make me think.

Some of my best friends live in books, but the conversation is one-way. Nevertheless, they are always available. Shared beloved books are another bond. I used to judge people by their bookshelves, but now that I listen to most of the books I read on audiobook, I can’t justify that bias.

Finding many overlapping titles between their bookshelves and mine gave us a foundation of perspectives, points of view, and thoughtfulness about different subjects.

Mostly, though, it’s shared history.

I have some friends from childhood who I seldom see, but we share sixty-plus years of memories. A few of those friends might have developed very different political outlooks or religious outlooks, but those are no-go areas when we are together.

We can talk about dressing the cat up and wheeling her around in the doll buggy.

We might send bereavement cards to friends who have lost a relative, even if that’s only a nominal relationship. But we don’t know about the loss of friends, generally. The chipping away at our hearts, our identity.

It’s a little like removing the stanchions of a bridge, one by one. I don’t want to be a bridge going nowhere, an arc in the sky without supports.

When I researched the grief of losing friends as we age, I came upon the usual advice for handling grief. However, losing friends at an older age is different for a variety of reasons.

We won’t replace that bond of shared history. We are a tiny bit diminished. Losing long-time friends is not publicly recognized, and may not be known. It is a private grief.

It’s not that the greeting card industry should invent a new category of sympathy cards. But maybe we need to acknowledge the loss to ourselves and others. “A good friend of mine died. I’m grieving. My world has shrunk a bit.”

The feeling will probably be known and shared, and support extended.

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3 Responses

  1. Edith
    | Reply

    Well said…

  2. Debbie Okerlund
    | Reply

    Thank you for this, Sharon…❤️

  3. Debbie Okerlund
    | Reply

    Thank you for this, Sharon ❤️

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