Fathom Mag

A Particular Grief

The decline of a friendship can feel as unexplainable as it is unrelenting.

Published on:
November 2, 2021
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4 min.
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The last few years have been painful. I don’t know whether they have hurt permanently or not. Certainly they have changed me. I would have been stone if they had not. I hope they have not taken too much away from me.”

—John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel

It is late October as I write and once again Earth’s celestial companions are on the move. Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter march toward the horizon, a brilliant trio burning a path across the early evening sky. I’ve observed this dance a few times. Several years ago I stood on the Gulf Coast and watched them follow the Sun beneath the waves. Last winter, my wife and I took our children to the top of a ridge to watch Saturn and Jupiter pass as close as a kiss. 

Limiting experience to what’s permanent is safe and is also a cold existence.

In the 13th century, John of Sacrobosco described the universe as “machina mundi.” The clockwork universe is an “idea in the mind of God.” Orion appears in the evening sky each year as the air turns crisp, a faithful companion and a herald of the coming winter. Polaris draws my eye north, as it has for millennia drawn the eye of navigators in search of the security of home, the promise of freedom, or the mystery of an unknown shore. Even a total solar eclipse, which for thousands of years has terrified unsuspecting people with its evil portent, is now as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise.

The night sky soothes me, its rhythms are familiar. It is predictable, stable—permanent. 

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In many ways, my life can be described as a search for permanence. I am calmed by things that have always been, and always will be. The stars and the orbits of the planets—mountains, rivers, and the sea. The regular waxing and waning of the seasons. A psychiatrist might say this is a consequence of being a child of divorce. I might say it’s a consequence of being human.

Unlike my daughter who is immediately best friends with every person (and most animals) she meets, I have never had a lot of friends. I’m sure part of the reason is my need to trust someone before I’m willing to invest emotionally. But, I’ve also just never felt the need to expand the circle of friends I describe as “close” to more than the few folks I’m most comfortable with. The unspoken bonds my soul tells me will endure.

Limiting experience to what’s permanent is safe and is also a cold existence. It is a cruel twist of our humanity that we are relational beings in a world where relationships are almost universally broken. And yet, without other people to share it with, life isn’t truly worth living.

Writing for Image Journal, my friend Aarik Danielson asks: 

What other choice is there? I have seen what hardness produces. Hardness manifests itself in non-apologies . . . Give me softness at the end of the world, the knowledge that I went out the way I came. If I go in a bang—of someone else’s making, a bang I didn’t see or hear coming—let me go tender and meek, not calcified. Taken advantage of more than I have taken advantage. More vulnerable and open to wonder than closed off.

The first tentative steps humankind took toward understanding the heavens confirmed the view of a clockwork universe. Stars and planets appear on schedule, and constellations retain their familiar forms. The sun burns, the moon glows, and the tides inexorably rise and fall. It is therefore ironic that as humankind’s knowledge of the heavens has grown, we began to notice the night sky’s impermanence. 

In early 2020 Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in our sky, dimmed and astronomers across the world wondered if a stellar explosion was about to cost Orion his shoulder. Closer to home, the Moon slowly drifts away from us, weakening the bonds that tie us together.

It is a cruel twist of our humanity that we are relational beings in a world where relationships are almost universally broken. And yet, without other people to share it with, life isn’t truly worth living.

If our civilization makes it to 50,000 or 100,000 years, the heavens will look completely different to our descendants than they do to us now. The sky remains the same only in the context of our species’ limited presence in the deep well of time. Over the millennia, our position in the galaxy changes, shifting the outline of familiar constellations until they are obliterated altogether.

The slow dissolution of a friendship is a particular grief. The decline can feel as unexplainable as it is unrelenting. Wounds often remain unrevealed as people who love each other begin to drift inexorably apart. Bonds that once felt unbreakable, providing comfort and strength are now severed, their absence intensifying the feeling of isolation and loss.

Whereas romantic relationships that don’t endure often come with a defined end, I’ve learned that many times friendships end without explanation. And death, as devastating as it is, often strengthens the ties between those who share a common love for the one who’s gone. The grieving share a bond and experience that knits them together and gives them an understanding of what each other endures. 

Friendships often end in isolation, weakening—or severing outright—mutual relationships. Intensifying isolation at the worst possible moment. Even if the relationship stabilizes, it remains diminished—laced with the memory of what once was.

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
          my companions have become darkness.

Psalm 88

I’ve lived long enough to experience my share of grief. I’ve had dear friends taken too soon, and a father who decided to leave when I was very young. I’m not sharing this in an attempt to rank different types of loss. That impulse is misguided at best and deeply hurtful at worst.

The loss of a friendship is painful in a way that is unique from other types of grief. Like chronic illness, I’ve found it can cause anxiety and isolation for months or even years. It turns spaces and gatherings that were once safe havens into places of discomfort and sadness. Secrecy and whispers haunt mutual relationships that were built with bonds of love, and home is suddenly alien and disorienting.

In the past, when I’ve tackled writing about difficult topics, I’ve done so with the benefit of some distance, trying to make sense of events I’ve often spent years contemplating. I’ve found that writing from within an experience is often maddening. Attempting to wring insight from wounds that are still raw is a task for a writer of more incision and clarity than myself.

The past months have been among the hardest of my life. A time when foundations I thought secure have shifted, and I no longer trust the structures that are built upon them. Like Steinbeck, I hope they have not taken too much.  

John Graeber
John B. Graeber is a writer living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose work has appeared at Curator Magazine, Christianity Today, The Blue Mountain Review, and Ekstasis Magazine. His poetry has also been featured on Chattanooga's NPR affiliate. He is a contributing editor at Curator Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jbgraeber.
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Cover image by NASA.

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