I’ve written maybe 17,000 versions of this essay, trying each time to make something pretty and reasonable out of an experience—breaking up with a friend–that is very much neither. I tried writing it about the friends I’ve lost to time and distance, about the ones I’ve lost to the isolating nature of illness, about the ones I’ve lost when forced to take sides, and the ones I’ve lost while walking down separating and eventually completely different paths. I’d get through about half of the essay and burn out, unable to finish, or to even make sense.
My husband noticed: “You’re having trouble with this one,” he said, as I built my ninth “friend breakups” playlist to try to get my brain going. All of the songs I’d assigned to the feeling of losing a close friend, I later came to notice, were love songs. Broken hearts, best wishes, the kind of songs that say, “I know it’s over, but it was really something, wasn’t it?”
When you mention a romantic breakup to someone, they immediately understand what you mean: two people who used to be inseparable are now separated. But you can’t really describe the loss of a friend in the same way, even though the description totally fits. Maybe it’s because romantic breakups are different, slightly: there’s a fairly standard protocol for getting over love, and there’s always a looming possibility while you’re dating someone that the relationship could end. You’re programmed to understand that romantic love can often be doomed. But platonic love is supposed to be forever. There’s an entire tacky two-part necklace industry that says so.
Anyway, by the time I got around to this, the 17,001st draft of this essay, I realized I was having trouble writing it because it was too hard to talk about. I missed some of these people too much, and in some cases, it was too painful to recall how everything went wrong. I kept getting stuck because I didn’t know how to talk to you about it without admitting that it’s really effing hard to talk about. So I guess that’s a good place to start: friend breakups are hard, and they suck, and even the olds don’t have the answers, even though we will sometimes try to feed you bullshit about hearts and doors to make you, and ourselves, feel better.
Loss is something you’re taught very early on in life: death comes in picture books, in goldfish swirling down the toilet, in confusing funerals filled with black-clad whispering adults. Friendship is another early lesson; you’re taught to share, be kind, and play well with others. Any lesson combining the two is usually centered on death or moving vans. “Sometimes you just stop being friends and it really hurts” isn’t typically a part of the elementary school playbook.
I was 11 when I encountered my first friend breakup. It wasn’t mine—it was Stacey McGill’s in The Baby-Sitters Club #51, Stacey’s Ex-Best Friend—but it felt like it belonged to me, as it dumped a bucket of sadness and dread on my heart and opened my mind to a possibility I had never really considered: that friends could become strangers.
I was so distraught over Stacey’s breakup with her former best friend, Laine Cummings, that I made my mother take me to Waldenbooks at every opportunity so that I could load up on BSC books and look for signs of the pair’s reconciliation, which, as far as I can remember, never came. A few years later, I actually had the chance to ask the series’ creator, Ann M. Martin, about the breakup via a Q&A section of an ancient BSC site. I can’t remember her exact response, but I do remember that it was something along these lines: sometimes people just grow apart, and it’s not because either person is bad, or that they did anything wrong, it’s just that life is taking them in different directions, and it’s time to move on. I remember feeling a little let down at the time—I wanted her to say, “They’re still friends! Watch out for BSC #89: Laine’s Apology!” It took me many years to understand how perfect her answer really was.
There can be many reasons for a breakup, including and not limited to: relocation, age, jealousy, significant others, taking sides, illness, addiction, cruelty, boredom, violence, irreconcilable differences, lack of common interests, being taken advantage of, growing apart, being emotionally manipulated by the distribution of candy canes to the point of cracking, etc. Some friendships will burn out quickly, others will take years to untangle, and some will fade out in a quiet way. It may come as a relief or a kick to the stomach, depending on the circumstances. But it’s never particularly easy, mostly because you’re making a decision that involves leaving a version of yourself behind. Somewhere in suburbia, there is an inside-joke graveyard haunted by the ghosts of former selves, desperately trying to connect over forgotten secret codes and half-remembered stories.
It doesn’t always have to end, though: if you’re lucky, you’ll meet people who will perpetually shed their snakeskins with you, who will go through awkward phases and beautiful phases and horrible phases and amazing phases and keep their hand wrapped in yours. And it may be that most people hit these phases and drop hands with a friend somewhere along the way, but that doesn’t mean that another hand won’t swoop right in and hold on for whatever comes next. For every ex-best friend, there’s a new best friend. I wish I could go back to my 11-year-old self and erase the panic, to let her know that she’d lose some friends but make new ones, that things would work out. “Just remember how Stacey McGill got through it,” I’d tell her. “Laine Cummings may have broken her heart, but Claudia Kishi was there to pick up the pieces, which she probably then used to fashion a pair of green flamingo earrings that perfectly matched Stacey’s geometric-print leggings.”
I would also warn 11-year-old me not to look up pictures of impetigo in the encyclopedia after reading about how Stacey gets impetigo at camp in Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #2: Baby-sitters’ Summer Vacation, because it will totally gross her out and give her the phantom itches for weeks to come. ♦