When I picked up my four-year old grandson at preschool, Kenny was proud to introduce me to his new friend.  Even at a young age, we begin the life-long process of making friends.  If Kenny’s lucky, he may even keep some of the friends he makes in these early years.  I still have a friend that goes way back to third grade.

Friends are an important part of our life.  They keep us grounded and shape our identities.  We trust them with our secrets.  Our friends are not thrust upon us — we choose them.  Some of our favorite films, from Thelma and Louise to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or television shows such as Friends or Will and Grace, celebrate the gift of friendship.

Despite the important roles that friends play in our lives, they are oft neglected in times of death.  Rarely are friends mentioned in the eulogy or obituary.  Little support is extended to them.  Sympathy cards are rarely sent to friends.  At best they are expected to stifle their own grief and as a final act of sacrifice attend to the family of the deceased.

The loss of a friend then is another example of disenfranchised grief or the grief that results when others do not recognize a loss.  In effect when we lose a friend we have no socially acknowledged “right to grieve.”  No matter how close the friendship, for example, few places of business extend time off to mourn a friend.

Yet, as friends, we too grieve.  Grief is not a function of family ties, lines of descent.  Rather, grief follows attachment.  When we love someone — as parent, as child, as spouse, or as friend — and that person dies, we grieve.

When we lose a friend, it is important, much as we strive to support family members, that we acknowledge and recognize our own loss, our own grief.  We need to understand as well that each loss is different.  We have unique connections and distinct meanings attached to every friendship in our lives.  We interact with our friends differently.  Some friends are part of our weekly or daily routine.  We regularly speak and spend time together.  The death of these friends leaves a great and obvious void.

We may have other friendships too that are less intense but no less vital.  While we may see them irregularly at best, they remain important in our lives.  Lynn is one such friend.  We talk a few times a year but she remains as a critical connection in my life.  She befriended me in high school transforming my experience in what had then been a large unfriendly place.

Understanding the unique quality of each of our friendships helps us to appreciate the inimitable sense of loss.  We can then recognize the singular nature of our grief.

We may find it essential to attend funerals and memorial services.  The very best of these may be inclusive — clearly bringing friends to the center of the circle of mourning.  When a dear colleague, Catherine Sanders died, I appreciated that the family chose three people to eulogize her: a daughter, a professional colleague, and a personal friend.  I felt very included to hear a colleague speak of the Catherine that I knew even as I was delighted that other eulogies touched on different aspects of Catherine.  I felt very included in that ceremony.

Because all rituals are not that inclusive, we may need to find our own special places and ways to mourn a friend.  Tom did that when his friend, Mark died.  He decided to go back to the ball field in the old neighborhood — a place where he and Mark shared so many good moments.  There he offered a silent prayer for friend, and quietly grieved over the loss of his long-time buddy.

Originally published by Hospice Foundation of America’s Journey’s newsletter. Reprinted with permission. To susbcribe to Journeys, visit www.hospicefoundation.org or call 1-800-854-3402.

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Ken Doka

Dr. Kenneth J. Doka is a Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. A prolific author, Dr. Doka’s books include Counseling Individuals with Life-Threatening Illness; Living with Grief: Children and Adolescents, Living with Grief: Before and After Death, Death, Dying and Bereavement: Major Themes in Health and Social Welfare (a 4 Volume edited work), Pain Management at the End-of-Life: Bridging the Gap between Knowledge and Practice, Living with Grief: Ethical Dilemmas at the End of Life, Living with Grief: Alzheimer’s Disease, Living with Grief: Coping with Public Tragedy; Men Don’t Cry, Women Do: Transcending Gender Stereotypes of Grief; Living with Grief: Loss in Later Life, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow: Living with Life Threatening Illness; Children Mourning, Mourning Children; Death and Spirituality; Living with Grief: After Sudden Loss; Living with Grief: When Illness is Prolonged; Living with Grief: Who We Are, How We Grieve; Living with Grief: At Work, School and Worship; Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents and Loss; Caregiving and Loss: Family Needs, Professional Responses; AIDS, Fear and Society; Aging and Developmental Disabilities; and Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies for Practice. In addition to these books, he has published over 100 articles and book chapters. Dr. Doka is editor of both Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying and Journeys: A Newsletter for the Bereaved. Dr. Doka was elected President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling in 1993. In 1995, he was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Work Group on Dying, Death and Bereavement and served as chair from 1997-1999. The Association for Death Education and Counseling presented him with an Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Death Education in 1998. In 2000 Scott and White presented him an award for Outstanding Contributions to Thanatology and Hospice. His Alma Mater Concordia College presented him with their first Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 2006, Dr. Doka was grandfathered in as a Mental Health Counselor under NY State’s first licensure of counselors. Dr. Doka has keynoted conferences throughout North America as well as Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. He participates in the annual Hospice Foundation of America Teleconference and has appeared on CNN and Nightline. In addition he has served as a consultant to medical, nursing, funeral service and hospice organizations as well as businesses and educational and social service agencies. Dr. Doka is an ordained Lutheran minister. Dr. Doka appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart“ to discuss “Dealing with Grief and Loss.” To hear Dr. Doka being interviewed on this show by Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley062807.mp3

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