What to do about old grief?
February 7, 2021 2:26 PM   Subscribe

I find myself unexpectedly missing an old friend who died nearly 20 years ago. What on earth do I do with this?

I often think of him at this time of year, maybe because I live in a place he would have loved that's especially pretty in winter. We weren't especially close, although he did mean a lot to me. He looked out for me when I was vulnerable, and he was kind to me without expecting something in return. He was creative, compassionate, and made his own path through the world. He was a lovely person.

I've stayed in touch a bit with his mom, so I've sent her a letter. What else can I do to shift this sudden and puzzling sadness? Are there rituals that are good for this kind of thing?

Also, any insight as to why this would pop up? It's been actual decades, so it doesn't really make sense. My life is generally fine considering the current state of the world. There's no reason for this to be bubbling up. I just keep wishing my friend was still alive.

I do have a therapist and will check in about this; just looking for some insight in the meantime. Thanks for any ideas.
posted by bighappyhairydog to Human Relations (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Write a story about this. I believe that everyone is alive as long as we remember them. Cast your memory into words. It may be difficult, but it could bring you closure.
posted by SPrintF at 2:46 PM on February 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My one immediate thought would be to not fight it or see it as something to be eliminated: welcome it. It is a part of you saying, "I miss my friend," and it is okay for that part of you to be in your being right now. If you don't fight it, and give it a seat at the table, then it will not fight for its existence and be overly loud. As for what set it off, it's possible it could be any one of a hundred million triggers that your subconscious mind associated with your friend. A smell especially (they have strong connections to memory), but someone's expression, etc. - anything might've set it off. My take on it at all, at least.
posted by metabaroque at 2:46 PM on February 7, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You can just feel the feelings, identify if any of it needs processing, and otherwise observe them and let them complete their course.

There doesn't have to be a "reason" - we spend our entire lives re-contextualizing the things we have experienced in the past, that is normal. Grief cycles, and you may find that it cycles harder as you get older and more aware of your and everyone's mortality. This is normal too.

What is NOT normal is this past year, and even if things for you personally are fine you are still operating under an increased cortisol load because of circumstances, as we all are. Things hit harder, and stranger, and when there are big strange events in your life your thoughts may turn to the fact that they missed this, and that their thoughts about it would be interesting to you.

You may be surprised to find that there are new lessons to be learned from the experience of that loss, now that you are 20 years older than when it happened. It may be a lesson about being 20 years older, with little to do with the original loss except that it happened a long time ago and you are probably very different than you were then. It's a landmark in your life.

The feelings will likely pass whether you do any processing or not, but I find there's always value in that processing.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:49 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Considering the current state of the world" seems key here. There's so much free-floating grief for the way things are and the way things used to be, but that feeling is so huge and impersonal it can just become part of the landscape. Grief for a particular person gives you a way to crystallize and approach your sadness.
posted by yarntheory at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Write down everything you can remember about the person. It doesn't need to be a coherent narrative, just write down every moment, every feeling. In another 20 years, you (and/or someone else) may be grateful for the written record.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:13 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Chiming in to say this sounds perfectly normal, especially In These Times. Most of us have had time and occasion to think about a lot of things over the past few months.

I've been experiencing something similar about someone long gone, and came across this quote by Jamie Anderson:

“Grief is really just love. It's all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

It gives me a lot of comfort to think about it this way. In my case, I had been thinking of the lost person as the personification of a lot of things, including not just virtues but also certain ways that I was seen, and saw myself, in that relationship. I've been finding it helpful to find ways to honour those qualities as I think of this person.

Maybe it's worth a try?
posted by rpfields at 3:19 PM on February 7, 2021 [22 favorites]

Best answer: That you are thinking of your friend after all this time is not surprising to me. Just go with your feelings; they validate friendship, love, and the connections of humankind.

Some rituals:
Light a candle in a window.
Eat a meal or have a drink that your friend enjoyed.
Connect with a song, a natural element, or whatever makes you think of your friend.
Pay back what they gave you to another person in some way...

Not to be gruesome, but I have used these experiences to contemplate my end of life.

Peace to you.
posted by rhonzo at 3:21 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a similar situation that has made me think that the grief will always be there ("as long as we remember them") but maybe the downtime of the pandemic has opened up some space in your field of attention that lets it slip through. I've certainly been entertaining a wide range of thoughts about the past as my ability to create new memories during lockdown has been stunted, and my missing-friend grief has been a substantial presence in it all.
posted by rhizome at 3:22 PM on February 7, 2021

Best answer: Seconding others to just feel what you feel and maybe write it out/channel it into something creative. I still grieve for people and pets randomly but as time goes on it feels different, lingers for less time, and I am fine afterward. If it becomes something that lingers and interferes with your life, work, and/or relationships it may be grief therapy time. But grief and sadness, like all emotions, isn't inherently bad for you.
posted by Young Kullervo at 3:31 PM on February 7, 2021

Best answer: The best analogy for grief that I've heard is that it's like a button in a box with a ball in it. At the start the ball is big and hits the ouch button all the time. As time goes on, the ball shrinks and doesn't hit the button as often, but sometimes will ping it out of the blue.

Old grief is still grief, honour it as you would honour grief. Crying is ok. Reaching out for support if you need it. Comfort rituals.

Internet hugs on offer if you want them.
posted by freethefeet at 4:08 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When this kind of grief hits me -- my best friend died a few years ago -- I use that as a cue to talk to her. I mean legit talking -- nobody else has to hear it, but in the rules I made up, it has to be vocal for it to get to her, wherever she is. It does make me feel better, I have to say.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:58 PM on February 7, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: There's some kind of thing where our brains don't quite, fully, deeply, understand the concept of permanence. My father has been dead for many many years now, and given my general philosophical outlook I do believe he is entirely gone, not in an afterlife somewhere. But once in a while I will think to myself, "Would have thought he'd be back by now." Like Fry's dog in Futurama, a part of me is just always subconsciously expecting him to return.

Nowadays the level of emotion isn't that distressing (possibly because everything else is so much MORE distressing) but when it used to pack more of a punch, I would just do the usual grief rituals. Look at photos, write down some thing I remembered from his life, maybe put a thing up on social media to get other people to share their stories and feel less like I was the only person having him on my mind.

This happens most often when I'm doing something he would have been a part of, or watching something I'd have wanted to tell him about, and so forth. You say you're living somewhere your friend would have loved, especially now. It makes a lot of sense, with maybe the volume of all your current friendships turned a bit down with quarantine and such, that your brain would cast back.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:18 PM on February 7, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: One thing you can do when the memory hits is to say to yourself, "Oh, I was so lucky to have known..." If you can reframe your experience as something that was not expected to last, and remember the good of it, it may be less painful. For example if you went to university and had a great time while you were there, you still only expected to be there when you were a student, and the memories of that time are more apt to focus on what was good, rather than wishing you were still there. You may be able to think of your friend from this angle, less pain but more pleasurable nostalgia.

There may be certain things and feelings that you associate with your friend - a sense that someone out there cares, of possibility, a sense of humour - things like that. Then when you experience that feeling - maybe after a good customer service experience or when beginning something, or when something makes you smile, you can tell yourself that you are enjoying that sensation of closeness with your friend. You hear a joke he would have liked and you smile because that was his type of joke, not just because you enjoy the joke itself, but it reminds you of him and being happy.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:49 PM on February 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As for why it might be coming up more strongly now, you said He looked out for me when I was vulnerable, and he was kind to me without expecting something in return.
Given the state of the world, maybe a part of you is feeling a little vulnerable and in need of kindness. Not necessarily in a big way, the way you did before, but just feeling a bit vulnerable and a little yearning for more simple kindness. Certainly the social isolation and sense of increased distance that comes with pandemic would make those feelings make sense. If it feels like it fits, then maybe think who in your life today (including yourself) could give you just a little of bit extra of what is missing.
posted by metahawk at 7:44 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, I really feel the kindness and care coming through in these responses. Reading these brought me to grateful tears, as though I could feel the kindness of my friend sent through all of you. I've burned a candle for him and spent some time writing, and I'm feeling better about missing him.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share and connect. Much gratitude to you all.
posted by bighappyhairydog at 8:30 PM on February 7, 2021 [23 favorites]

Best answer: I thought of two great poems written to mourn friends (there are many more, I know): Tennyson's In Memoriam
I sometimes hold it half a sin
   To put in words the grief I feel;
   For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
   A use in measured language lies;
   The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
   Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
   But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.
and Millay's "Elegy"
On and on eternally
Shall your altered fluid run,
Bud and bloom and go to seed;
But your singing days are done;
But the music of your talk
Never shall the chemistry
Of the secret earth restore.
All your lovely words are spoken.
Once the ivory box is broken,
Beats the golden bird no more.

posted by clew at 2:24 PM on February 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What else can I do to shift this sudden and puzzling sadness?

Accept it as a completely natural, completely reasonable, absolutely normal and not at all problematic consequence of grieving for the loss of your friend.

Despite the blandishments of the advertising industry there is nothing the slightest bit unhealthy about experiencing states other than happiness when sad things have happened, and grieving doesn't come with a time limit. If you sometimes need time to grieve, even 20 years on, take time to grieve.

Anybody who ever attempts to tell another person they're doing grief wrong can be politely instructed to fuck the fuck right the fuck off.
posted by flabdablet at 2:33 PM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

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