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How you can cope with the death of a friend

The death of anyone close to us is sad and upsetting, but when a good friend dies it can feel like there’s not much support for that type of bereavement.

Although there are plenty of ways to get help when a partner, parent or child dies, the death of a friend can be left out of the conversation. But ‘friend bereavement’ can have just as big an impact on our lives and wellbeing.

Why is friend bereavement often seen as less significant?

Experiencing the death of a good friend is tough at any age, but the age you are when you lose your friend may affect how you feel – and how others think you should feel.

For example, many young adults in their late teens and 20s may be closer to their friends than family members, but the death of their friend may not be viewed as important as the death of a parent or grandparent.

‘Young people can feel disenfranchised when a friend dies; there’s lots of emphasis on bereavement support for parents and families but not so much for friends,’ says Andy Langford, clinical director for Cruse Bereavement Support. ‘Their grief is considered less – or not considered at all.’

If you lose a close friend later in life, there’s a belief that your grief is somehow less than that of their immediate family: children, siblings, husband or wife. But your loss is significant and shouldn’t be put at the bottom of a mythical list of ‘who deserves to be upset’.

Dr Jessi Parrott is a host for Let’s Talk About Loss, a series of meet-up groups across the UK for young people coping with grief. They say this gap in our understanding of grief comes from the fact we don’t have the language to describe what happens when a friend dies, whatever age we are when it happens.

‘When your parents die, we have a word for what you become. When your husband or wife dies, we have a word for what you become. But when your best friend dies, there’s no word,’ says Dr Parrott. ‘We don’t give friend bereavement the same significance, but it can have just as big an impact on your life.’

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Your emotions after losing a friend

Your emotions following the death of a friend will be similar to that of other bereavements: grief, anger, sadness, fear, guilt. You might be surprised at the strength of these feelings if you’re grieving the death of a friend you haven’t seen in a while, but this is because they may represent a part of your past that’s now over.

Your feelings can also take you by surprise if you haven’t been friends for very long. But you may have imagined building a stronger relationship with them and those opportunities are no longer there; you’re grieving for a future that no longer exists.

Feeling a loss of connection when a friend dies is very common. ‘When you’re younger, you plan your life together, discussing your future and what you hope it will be like,’ says Dr Parrott. ‘But if your friend has gone, you can’t talk to them about how it turned out, and whether you’re happy about that or not.’ This loss may feel stronger during milestone events, such as graduating, getting married or having children.

If you were friends for a long time, you can feel a loss of connection to your past. Andy says, ‘The person you shared memories with, who was a source of laughs, support and comfort, is no longer there and that loss can be incredibly painful.’ They may also have been the only friend ‘left’ from your past, so you could feel very lonely after their death.

Ways to remember your friend

One way to deal with friend bereavement is remembering the person you’ve lost. You could do this in a number of ways, at any age and stage of life:

• Create a photo collage – you can do this in a picture frame or set up an online tribute page and ask others to contribute

• Make a memory box – fill a box with all the things that remind you of your friend, even small items like cinema or train tickets

• Do something special on their birthday or the anniversary of their death – cook their favourite meal or watch their favourite film

If your friend was part of a large social group, you could do something together, like take a walk to one of their favourite beauty spots or have a meal in their favourite pub. ‘It’s important to talk to other people about them, to help keep their memory alive,’ says Andy. ‘That social support is essential for all of you, too.’

If someone doesn’t want to join in, remember that everyone will react differently to your friend’s death and may be grieving in their own way.

And don’t feel you have to "get over" your friend’s death. Dr Parrott says, ‘There’s a sense that it’s "just a friend", rather than a partner you would see all the time. But you might grieve for them every day; we don’t "move on" from their death.’

It’s also worth knowing that although your friend may be gone, your relationship with them hasn’t ended. ‘Although they’re not here in body, they’re still in your heart,’ says Andy. ‘That friendship is something you will carry with you throughout life.’

Where to go for more help

• Call the Cruse Helpline on 0808 808 1677 or see their online advice

• Find your local Let’s Talk About Loss meet-up group

• See our bereavement support guides for coping with many different types of loss