I was in the middle of a packed night bus when my friendship came to an abrupt, whiplash-inducing halt.
Just four WhatsApp messages were enough to ring the death knell on my friendship with my best friend, a person who knew me inside out. A person who’d witnessed my least finest hours and my ugliest personality traits — but had continued to love me in spite of those flaws. Until now.
As the bus hurtled up Brixton Hill, tears pooled in my eyes until my vision was a blurry mess. I clenched my jaw to stop my face crumpling into an emotional outpour. When I stepped off the bus, I finally let myself break down. And for several days, I couldn’t shake this sense of sadness.
Days passed and neither of us broke the silence. Those days turned into weeks, which turned into four months of uttering not a single syllable to one another. Those four months were an extremely lonely time for me. I checked my phone constantly to see if my best friend had messaged me. I yo-yoed back and forth over my desire to talk to her and my own stubbornness. Constantly whirring in my mind was the question of whether our friendship had reached the end of the road.
During this period, I really struggled. Some friends were sympathetic, but had zero advice to offer about reconciliation. Our mutual friends found the entire charade super awkward and didn’t want to take sides — fair enough. I ended up spending a lot of time on my own googling “how to cope with losing your best friend.” Tragic, I know.
It’s almost comical in hindsight, but the reality was far from. As it turns out, there’s not loads on the internet on coping strategies for friendship breakups. I couldn’t find anything or anyone to help me. People either wanted to take sides or they were staying the hell out of it. I didn’t know how to interrupt the endless questions about the status of our friendship.
One morning, my alarm went off, I rolled over, checked my phone, and to my surprise, my friend had messaged me in the night telling me she missed me and wanted to know if I’d be open to talking. My heart did a little leap. Obviously I was open to talking. Over G&Ts, we chatted and eventually decided to put everything behind us and give our friendship another go.
In hindsight, I wish I’d had more resources at my disposal to equip me better during those four hellish months. Because in real life, love and loss are sadly inextricably intertwined. To love is to lose — eventually, at least. We talk so often about romantic and sexual relationships that fail, but we seldom talk about the very real — and often unbearable — pain that comes with a failed friendship.
When I asked Twitter if they’d ever fallen out with a best friend, my inbox was flooded with DMs from people feeling completely bereft after falling out with friends. Amanda Palmer — yes, the Amanda Palmer — slid into my DMs and tells me she lost her bestie 20 years ago and has since tried to reconcile with her every few years but to no avail. She craves closure and described her pain as akin to “carrying a wound that has never been able to fully scar.”
“The difficult part is that I’m a closure addict,” Palmer tells me. “I assumed that in a few years she’d come around and we could laugh about it all. And five years passed and she wouldn’t do it. Then 10. Then 20.
“I’ve made peace with every single one of my ex-lovers and partners. Every single one. I even made peace with a man who raped me,” she continues. Palmer says that she considers herself very adept at moving on from conflicts with people from her past — with the exception of this former friend. “But this one friend just doesn’t wanna hear from me and truly patch it up, and it’s so hard,” she says.
Give yourself time to mourn
Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure, says she thinks it’s vital you give yourself permission to mourn the end of a friendship.
“We have an established protocol for recovering from romantic relationship breakdowns: mine is typically eating tubs of Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream in a darkened room, listening to “Magic” by Coldplay on repeat,” she tells me.
Leaver says that this is one of the few opportunities people allow themselves to fully wallow in their emotions so that they can properly heal. But we don’t do the same when it comes to friendship.
“I think we deserve the same when a friendship ends,” Leaver says. “Feel your emotions (there’s no other way through them) and talk to people like your other friends, your family, your partner or even a therapist. Rest. Cry.”
If it helps you, do cathartic things like listening to sad songs or watching trashy TV, Leaver advises. “Allow yourself to fall apart a bit and then gently try and put yourself back together. It’ll take time, too, so don’t rush it,” she says.
Don’t fill up your schedule
Psychologist Rachel Tomlinson says don’t be tempted to fill your diary with empty activities like arranging drinks every night of the week with every other friend you don’t currently miss.
“This might be a good distraction initially, but won’t actually take away the pain of losing a friend,” Tomlinson explained. “If you do want to stay busy set goals that will challenge you in a good way; learn a new skill, set a goal to improve your life.”
Actually talk about what happened
One big lesson I learned was that people really don’t talk about their failed friendships. Being ashamed to talk about broken friendships could stem from the possibility “we’re frightened of vulnerability or don’t want to come across as unlovable,” according to Leaver.
During a friendship meltdown, it’s important to remind yourself of the fact that you are loved by a lot of people. And that no matter what, you have allies and people who will fight in your corner. You just need to talk to them about it.
Leaver believes that we should talk about friendship breakups more often — which is why she included a chapter on them in her book.
“People I’ve spoken to in my research have said the end of a friendship felt much more personal and much more painful than a romantic breakup. They said it was more like a death — this person you care about disappearing from your life and the intense sadness that follows,” she says.
Leaver tells me that in order for us to truly normalise friendship breakups we need to talk about them candidly when we go through them.
Unpack it with friends who are impartial
Blogger Abbie Tanner tells me she’s had several friendship breakups that have been very distressing. Unlike romantic relationships, you can’t just swipe right on Tinder to find a new bestie, she says. (Though you could try Bumble BFF.)
“A friendship breakup is never really spoken about and can often be just as upsetting or even more so than breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend,” she tells me.
Tanner found that having friends who were impartial helped her a lot as they could offer a different perspective. She also found that exercise provided a good distraction. “I joined a gym which helped me just sort of switch off from all my problems and focused on struggling through a spin class, I pushed myself a bit more and got out my comfort zone,” she says.
Learn from it
Ultimately, there’s always a reason why a friendship doesn’t work out. Leaver tells me it’s sensible to try and understand what went wrong.
“We crave closure and our brains love a narrative, so try and figure out what went on between you and this estranged friend so you can at least neatly package it away or learn from it,” she says. “Talk about it, think about it, even write about it if you find it helps.”
Don’t be afraid to establish clear boundaries with new friends who come into your life. Tomlinson says you should take the opportunity to learn where these boundaries are. “Be aware of what caused the relationship to breakdown in the first place so that you know in the future what behaviours and actions you will accept in friendships moving forward.”
Accept that some people leave your life
During my own friendship breakup, I kept flipping through fallings out I’d had with other former friends. It was like looking through a rolodex of personal failures and the only conclusion I could draw was this: “I’m the problem. I can’t keep friends.”
However, writer Rachel Hawkins raises a point that really resonates with me. “Sometimes I think people need to leave your life,” she tells me. Accept that people and friendships evolve and sometimes you’re no longer good for one another.
Leaver says that friendships end and that’s a natural, normal, and inevitable part of life.
“All types of human relationships are messy and fallible and many of them just have expiry dates,” she says. “Look at the success rate of romantic relationships — a huge number of those break down.”
Sometimes in life, friendships come to a cataclysmic close. Sometimes we say unforgivable things that we live to regret. Sometimes we behave in ways that bring us shame.
But, at the end of the day, we’re all imperfect human beings. Be kind to yourself, don’t blame yourself, and remember that loss comes hand in hand with love.