A friendship of over 30 years has come unwound. My friend Mona and I both got married in our mid-forties for the first time; and she moved to a couple-orientated social world, taking early retirement from a prestigious job. Then tragedy struck; her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died last spring. I tried to support her, but felt like I was being rebuffed. I was sole carer for my mother from the age of 25 for nine years until she died, which had a profound impact on my life, and Mona’s attitude shocked me: she told me caring for my mother was very different than caring for a soulmate, and that I had little to offer her. My husband’s view was that Mona saw me as a younger sister, and her retirement and husband’s illness had changed the balance between us. I loathe Mona now. I feel for her, but looking back at our friendship, I realise how much she was using me. I’m disgusted with myself for hating someone who’s had a bad time, but hate myself more for believing in our friendship, when it turns out it was only valid while I kept in my place. What can I do? Carolyn
This sounds like a toxic swamp of emotions, and I hope we can find a foothold of kindness here, even if the friendship is over.
I will start by saying that I simply don’t recognise the concept of deliberately using another person. If it does appear to be the case, then I believe that it comes out of confusion and damage, and deserves patience and sympathy. Both love and grief can make us behave in ways that would count as madness outside that context.
There is enormous sadness at the heart of what you feel – in chronological order, your loss of your mother, Mona’s of her husband, and now the loss of the friendship. It’s sad that after more than three decades, something has come to a head less than a year since another death.
I can understand that, feeling rebuffed, you have grabbed for the lifeline of your husband’s view. It’s enormously valuable to have someone who is on our side, knows a lot of the background, yet has a slightly different perspective. This is just one of the aspects that your friend has lost: the main person who helped her to make sense of the world.
When you said you truly loathed your friend, the speed and ferocity of the transition surprised me – from friendship, to hurt, to anger, to loathing. I was shocked, and felt that I must have missed something in my reading.
This is where I enter dangerous ground, where you have not directly asked me to tread. I wonder if Mona’s loss spun you back to your mother’s death, and whether you, perhaps inadvertently, said or implied: ‘I know how you feel’. I hope anyone reading this will remember that to the bereaved listener, those words can sound like: ‘Ask me. I’m the expert; it’s all about me’.
Your mother’s death had a profound impact on you, and you might need to be careful about your own limits when something brings those feelings to the forefront again. Would you be willing to explore, with gentleness, what you want the legacy of that experience to be in your other precious relationships? Please be kind to yourself, as you grieve this friendship.
Photograph: Kristiane VeyJump fotoagentur/Corbis