OVER MY LIFETIME I’ve had many opportunities to learn about grief. I’ve lost a lot of close family members: one brother, four grandparents, one son, two uncles, two parents and a mother-in-law, one husband.

When a family member dies, there are all those departure-from-life tasks to be attended to, most immediately the care and disposal of the body: Embalming? Traditional burial? Green burial? Cremation? Keep or disperse the cremains? Funeral, memorial service, non-traditional ceremony, or none at all? This decision-making can feel onerous, but in fact it is a welcomed, if temporary, diversion from grief.

There may be a glut of sympathy cards. Does one keep them in a pile? For how long? Or put them in a scrapbook to be reread over the years? Or does one angrily rip them into shreds because the pre-printed sentiments don’t begin to address the reality of grief’s pain?

Then there are the sale/disposal/transferral of personal belongings, real estate, financial holdings, accounts needing to be closed and bills to be paid. Even when my 13-year-old son died and there was no estate, and few financials besides medical bills, it still seemed as if there was a lot of paperwork. And one must “be strong” and keep up a good front to attend to all these things. Mourning can come eventually, but not now.

Even with the best advance planning, and the decisions already made, the ”plan” still has to be implemented, and the bulk of grieving can be postponed until “later, when things settle down.”

BUT THIS WEEK I learned something new about grieving. When a dear friend dies, there are seldom any sympathy cards. There is no official role for a friend to play, no tasks that occupy and hold grief at bay. There is only raw mourning, and the tender empty hole inside, a dismally dark hole because the light of my friend’s life has been extinguished.

Because we were both wise, my friend and I had said our goodbyes, each time we were together. Together we’d considered the fact that one of us would die first, and that the remaining friend would miss that one dreadfully. We’d always said, “I love you,” even in his last conscious moments before he was too weak to mumble much more.

So there were no loose ends to be tied up when my friend died. No departure-from-life tasks to distract me. And there are no more dinner dates, no more silly spontaneous limericks, no more fretting over politics, no more swapping stories and sharing village concerns.

Now there are only the severed cords of our no-longer-being-together. They dangle, fraying, swaying in the damp gray winds of October.

Oh god, Leo, we were right. This one who remains misses you dreadfully.

Leo E. Baldwin July 23, 1920 – October 22, 2018

Photo by Christin Chaya



1538953234_59b4799eab_m_frankensteinA dinner guest the other night (this photo is not she!) said that she wished she had more friends. Our lively group around the table grabbed that word, and we were off, launched into yet another interesting conversation for the evening.


My contribution to our talk was that “friend” has a particular meaning for me; I consider very few people to be my friends. Someone said, “I hope you consider me to be one of your friends.” There was a too-long moment of hesitation, after which I replied, “Well, actually . . . no.  I have only three, or maybe four people that I call ‘friend.’”


And now we got into the heart of the matter – how does each of us – even Dr. Frankenstein’s monster –  define “friend”?


I have many acquaintances, and it’s a pity that word seems and sounds so awkward, or it would solve my dilemma. But “friend” is easier to use. So much easier, in fact, that all you have to do is hit a button on Facebook in order to become a friend. Because of social media, “friend” has even become a verb in the past ten years, and “friend” as a noun has become seriously devalued when one can have hundreds, even thousands of “friends” online. Another media diminishment of the word “friend” is in contrast with “lover,” usually paired in a script or manuscript with the word “just,” as in “can’t we be just friends” or “I want to be more than just your friend.”


I guess I need to accept that changes in the word “friend” are part of the ongoing evolution of American English words. And in that spirit I have now chosen a new word for the special category that my “three, or perhaps four” friends comprise. Philosopher/poet John O’Donohue chose anam cara, meaning soul friend, and that sounds right. (Some online discussions among Celts declare that anamcharae is the plural, should one be blessed with more than one.) That leaves me free to use “friend” much more liberally.


The ones who are my anamcharae seem to have appeared in my life and resonated in a soul-deep way that has increased over time rather than fading away again.


But I’m impatient, and I can’t expect any one person (even, and perhaps especially, a life-partner or a soul friend) to expand to meet all my needs. So the variety of gaps in my life that yearn for the energy of another person must be filled by a variety of people: my friends. I need a community of friends, and that doesn’t just happen – I have to go about creating it deliberately.


First I need to name what my yearnings are: do I need more humor in my life? Do I need a sympathetic ear? Do I want someone to embolden me into adventure, or into traveling when I might not go solo? Or someone with whom to share the pleasure of a hobby or movie-going/popcorn-eating or writing poetry or tasting wine or attending the ballet? Once I know what I want, then I can ask specific people to fill those gaps and bring me closer to living a well-rounded and satisfying life.


I’ve made a list of whom I need in my community of friends. Understanding that each person may fit into more than one category, I need:


Confidants – non-judgmental, non-advice-giving listeners who can hold me, either in person or from a distance whenever I call on them – this might be a wearying position, so I try to have at least three confidants.

Intellect-Stretchers – people who think differently from me, who are curious about things I never thought to wonder about, who can bring me up short in my assumptions about “how things work.” I want at least two of these, each quite different from the other.

Playmates – these are friends who are always ready to have fun, always aware of opportunities for play: going to movies or concerts, packing spontaneous picnics, cooking from an exotic new cookbook, taking a day trip, staying at a funky B&B, trying out a new skill that neither of us has ever done before.

Prayer Partners – I always have at least one reliable person who, when they say, “I’ll be praying for you,” will actually DO it. This person is preferably connected to a prayer chain, to get more bang for their prayer buck.

Chicken-Soup People – these are the ones who, when they find out I have a cold, or am just feeling morose, will show up at my door with whatever they know feels like “love” to me: chicken soup, or chocolate, a CD of gypsy jazz, a twisty new murder mystery, a bowl of mac and cheese, or a bottle of wine. It’s good to have two of these friends.




Sometimes it’s hard to ask for this help, but most of my friends, and my anamcharae too, are delighted when I specifically ask them to fill one of these special roles in my life, when I ask them to be aware of connecting with me in these ways that meet my needs. In your own life, most likely you’ll find other, different categories that you yearn to have filled by friends. That’s good. It means you’re thinking about what you really need.



In the coming year, may you listen to your needs.


May you become convinced that you are worthy of having them met.


And may you have the courage to create a community of friends whom you can ask for what you need.


“Friend, good!”