I’ve recently thought a lot about what it means to be a friend.
I’ve been lucky to have received extraordinary gifts of friendship lately.
My brother and sister have been amazingly supportive and present since Kim’s death.
“Yeah,” you say, “but they have to. They’re your brother and sister.”
No they don’t. Many brothers and sisters aren’t and wouldn’t be. It’s been a gift of love and friendship.
Kim’s family has been so there for me. Her parents, her brother and sister, her cousins, her aunt and uncles. So there.
Sure, they’re family too – but this was the moment that they could have said “we’re Kim’s family not yours” and instead they said, “of course we’re your family too.”
You might say that again they have to, I was married to their daughter for more than two decades, but again no.
I’ve met plenty of people who have told me that once their spouse died, their spouse’s family didn’t really have anything to do with them anymore. It wasn’t so much that it was painful for the family – it was more that the family didn’t feel a connection.
I’m lucky to have in laws who embraced me during our marriage and aren’t letting go after.
That’s family – but what about friends?
My friends near and far have been so good at reaching out and making sure I get out and do things. In the first months they called me for coffee or whatever and after the first couple of months I began to call them.
I have a friend who sends me pictures of him and his kids at just the right moment – it always makes me smile. Sometimes he and his family FaceTime me. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s just perfect.
I have another friend who’s come out to visit twice and stayed with us. His wife always tells him to make sure while he’s here that he’s not a pest. He never is.
Of course, there are friends who don’t check in. Somehow that’s ok.
I had a wonderful phone call last weekend with a woman who was afraid she’d left me hanging as she started her new business.
We’ve been friends long enough that I didn’t take it that way at all.
She had met Kim and knew how much Kim meant to me. She had suffered losses in her life and felt she should be better at saying the right thing.
I know that feeling. I’ve lost Elena and Kim and still don’t have words to help friends through their loss.
She called and it was like no time had passed. As it turned out, she checked in at just the right time to get me thinking about things I needed to think about.
This weekend I made a new friend.
A woman I’ve known a while invited me to come to her house and have coffee with her and her husband.
We’d known each other for ten years. She and Kim and I had met a couple of times a year to discuss a project we shared. Kim and I always liked her and came away from our meetings feeling better – but we weren’t friends.
After an hour in her house chatting with her and her husband over coffee I felt totally different. They each gave of themselves and shared things that friends share. Well maybe that people who care about other people share.
I think of this because I’ve met people lately who want to be friends more in the Facebook sense.
I don’t understand this.
When Facebook first used the word “friend” to describe connections, people observed that this wasn’t the correct word.
But now that we’re many years in and live in a Facebook culture the Facebook meaning has leaked into the real world.
In Facebook a “friend” can see what I’ve posted or reacted to. This often spurs them to comment. They are responding to a trigger.
In Facebook a “friend” gets notifications of life events like birthdays or anniversaries. Again, they might “like” or comment.
It’s as if they put a reminder in their calendar to check in with me on a particular date.
That’s wonderful – I have many friends who checked in with me on the anniversary of Elena’s death and on Elena’s birthday. I loved hearing from them. And it was easy to feel the genuine expression of the ones who actually cared how I was doing. They really moved me.
I’m not dismissing those who check in because a reminder popped up. They set that reminder and they followed up on it.
But I also have friends who checked in with me just ’cause they were thinking of me.
I love that.
It’s kind of like the time I was visiting Covent Garden in London and spotted pigeons walking in front of a street musician. I took a picture and sent it to Maggie because she loves pigeons (don’t ask). Around the corner from there Kim and I saw a mounted policeman patrolling the area. I took his picture on the horse and sent it to Kim’s dad who’d been a mounted policeman in Cleveland for years.
I saw this and it reminded me of you.
So what do you do when you notice someone isn’t really a friend?
I don’t know.
I have a friend who emails me now and then and we get together when either of us is in the other’s town. Her emails are filled with questions and my responses aren’t as full as they should be. I don’t know why not. I’ve known her for thirty years and in person we talk up a storm. But in emails I tend to be terse.
Not just in emails to her but in emails to anyone. I just don’t go on and on anymore.
I feel bad. I feel like I’m not holding up my end of the conversation.
I still think we’re friends but I understand that she might not feel that way.
I was thinking of that this weekend because I got a follow-up email from her when I didn’t answer many of her questions in her previous email.
The reason I know it frustrates her is I was frustrated by someone I’ve been texting back and forth with for just disappearing mid conversation. It somehow violated the rules of texting.
Several friends of Kim’s text me now and then. One texts me about sports and politics. She always makes me smile because she feels so passionately about the same things Kim did. She never intrudes, she just texts a bit and then somehow we both know when we’ve said all we have to say.
Another friend of hers texts me about end-of-life issues. She has cancer and is facing things I can’t imagine. I don’t know what to do to be more help – Kim would be there for her but it’s different for me. I don’t have fifty years of friendship with her to back it up. I try to do what I can but I’m sure I’m not enough of a friend.
On Facebook you can unfriend someone when you don’t want to be connected.
Somehow the word “unfriend” makes it feel like an aggressive move.
I think it really means not so much that I’m severing this friendship but I’m acknowledging that for better or worse we don’t have a friendship.
What about real life?
If Facebook friendships have leaked into real life, what about “unfriend”ing?
A friend told me that often people on Facebook don’t know that you’ve unfriended them. They might not figure it out for quite a while.
Perhaps that is what happens in real life. You grow apart from some people. You notice that you never set aside time for them so you have effectively unfriended them.
Maybe they won’t notice for years.
I’d like it to be more formal because there are people I haven’t really unfriended or forgotten about. I’m just not living up to what it means to be a friend.