There are three things I can’t change – the past, the truth and you. Anne Lamott
A few years into my first job after college, I got into a heated exchange with my boss while defending one of my coworkers. At one point in the conversation, I straightened my spine, raised my chin and announced with the arrogance of the young that unlike him, I liked to look for the best in people. He smiled, leaned back in his chair and said, “I prefer to see people as they are.”
I dismissed his comment at the time, feeling morally superior about my determination to give people extra chances, the benefit of the doubt, time to come around. I hadn’t yet been through anything truly hard – an out-of-order loss, the deaths of both parents, the betrayals of close family members. When one close friend wasn’t available or neglected to respond to a voice mail, I had others to turn to for help and advice.
It took Jimmy’s death from brain cancer thirty years later for me to examine my friendships through my boss’s lens. To see the ways some were out of balance. To recognize what I was tolerating, overlooking or refusing to see.
I don’t mean to imply that these off-kilter friendships were unkind or unhealthy. They weren’t. They were just one-sided. I wasn’t as important to the other person as they were to me. We spent time together, stayed in touch, knew each other well. But when Jimmy’s final decline and death had me needing more, these friends wouldn’t make the time.
I got confused about their place in my life in part because these friends did show up initially. Cards and casseroles. Frequent texts or emails to check in or send encouragement. Kind, helpful and comforting gestures. What got me into trouble was believing they meant more than they did. That I meant more than I did. It was only when my situation didn’t resolve quickly and the sadness didn’t pass off that the gap between my need and their efforts came into focus.
All friendships can be one-sided at times. A dear friend discovers her partner is cheating on her; one of you loses a job, a marriage, an elderly parent. The focus naturally shifts to the one who’s unhappy, struggling, in pain. The other friend gets what she needs elsewhere so she can be there for the one who needs her.
Some friends are amazing when the house is on fire. Your acute distress is like a siren call that has them rushing in with meals, groceries, offers to drive carpool, invitations to go for a walk or get a cup of coffee. These first-responders will show up at 2:00 am or when all hell has broken loose, the ones you call after getting life-altering news or while dealing with the immediate fallout.
It takes a different kind of friend to show up when the crisis becomes chronic. These friends are willing to show up for the long haul. They’ll reach out, get no response and reach out again and again and again. They make specific offers of help but will also take requests. They’ll come to you and are content to sit in silence or listen to you rage or despair.
What hurts most are not the friends who get busy with their own lives and stop making you a priority. It’s the ones who act as if you matter when you really don’t. The ones who check in regularly, saying “It’s been so long; we need to get together” but just can’t seem to find a time that works or ask you to keep making the 45-minute drive to a location that’s convenient for them. The ones who offer you an hour in between the yoga class they can’t miss and lunch with another, more important friend.
Real friendship is like a teeter-totter. Sometimes you’re down and need your friend’s help getting back up. Sometimes, she’s the one who needs the boost. Then for a period of time, you might stay in perfect balance, until life knocks one of you down again. No one position is permanent, and most of the time, one person needs more than the other. What’s key is that the pendulum shifts back and forth.
Imbalanced friendships can explode like a firework in the face of harsh words and smoldering resentments. They can dissolve like sugar in a warm cup of tea. And some you release as if blowing on a dandelion. You close your eyes, wish them well, exhale gently and let them go.
Death has a way of stripping the veneer off relationships, exposing what’s real and what’s not, giving you clarity about who matters and who doesn’t, what you’ll tolerate, and what and who you no longer have time for. You see people more clearly, and you stop kidding yourself that your missing-in-action friends will start making you the same priority that you make them.
Grief is a thousand paper cuts, and every one of them bleeds. It wasn’t easy to face the truth about some of my pillar people. But it hurt even more to keep trying.
There were only a handful of people I walked away from after Jimmy died. They’re good humans, loving and kind. We just weren’t equally important to each other. It was painful to face the truth, but freeing at the same time. I had long felt the imbalance, but had overlooked it in the hope it would change. That I would get cooler, become more worthy of spending time with. That they would come to value steady and true over shiny and new. That they would carve out space for my sadness along with their own. That they would remember all the times I had been there for them and decide to reciprocate.
I still miss these friends. Our broken connection doesn’t negate the past, but the space has allowed me to appreciate what was and recognize that when I needed them most, they were going through things, too. The slight wasn’t an unwillingness to show up, it was pretending they were going to. It was a harsh lesson that took me a long time to learn, but there’s peace that comes from knowing it now.