Volunteer story: When someone you once knew dies

Phoebe is a Cruse Bereavement Volunteer. Here, shares her story of experiencing the death of an old friend.

March 23, 2021

At Cruse, we spend a lot of time reading and talking about how to cope when someone close to us dies. But what happens when someone dies who we were once close to, but not anymore? How ‘should’ we feel?

Coping when a friend from the past dies

I recently learnt that my best friend from my late teens into my early 20s died. We hadn’t spoken for 20 years, but once upon a time she was one of the most important people in my life. She was like a sister. She was with me through some life changing events and some devastating times. We shared some amazing adventures. She was thoughtful, kind and full of life. But she was also tricky and difficult. As time wore on, our friendship wasn’t healthy or sustainable. We eventually drifted apart.

She’d often pop into my head over the years. I’d wonder how she was – I hoped she was happy. She avoided social media so I failed at any social stalking. We didn’t have any mutual school friends, so I didn’t know she had cancer. I didn’t know it had spread. I didn’t know it was terminal. Until I was told she died.

The emotion that hit me was totally confusing and unexpected. How could I be this upset about someone I hadn’t spoken to for 20 years?


What is it like to lose a childhood friend?

In the hours that followed hearing the news, I couldn’t think or focus or stop crying. I had to cancel a meeting. I felt like a fraud – it wasn’t like she was still one of my best friends. Was I be ‘allowed’ to be upset?

Then I remembered my training – it’s okay to feel whatever you are feeling. And I was feeling every emotion. I was also flooded with memories of her. All the crazy fun we had, all the teenage drama, all the pain. Then finding our way as adults.

I had always hoped one day our paths would cross naturally. We would grab a drink and hear how our lives had turned out. I had often wondered whether she was happy. What career did she choose? Where was she living and with who? Within a few hours of hearing she had died, I finally found all this out. And I was full of regret. Why hadn’t I just contacted her? Why hadn’t I reached out to tell her, that despite everything, I still hold many wonderful memories of her?

Then an interesting thing happened. As the shock wore off, so did the regrets. In fact, within a few days there were no regrets. Just some sadness. There was actually no unfinished business.

The funny thing about death is how final it is. We hear this so much. We are advised we must pre-empt regrets by telling those we love how much we love them. We need to make peace with people who have wronged us. But for me, I learnt that it’s about making peace with the past and being sure of your choices. So when a bereavement comes knocking at your door, it’s okay to feel however you feel. For me, it turned out to be grief for what I’d hoped for. And her death meant that possibility, however small, was now gone.

So how ‘should’ we feel when someone we were once close to dies? Whatever you feel is okay.

Tips for coping with the death of an old friend

  • Know that any bereavement can trigger feelings and emotions.
  • Reach out to friends or family that might have known the person that died. Often we want to connect with those that knew the person. But not everyone feels the same so take their lead.
  • Write to the person who died. Then put it away, burn or delete it. You don’t have to do this just once – do as many times as you feel the need to.
  • Go through old photos. Acknowledge and treasure the good times.
  • Call our helpline if you are struggling to process your feelings. We can help talk through these emotions.
  • Above all be kind to yourself. It’s often a shock, whoever dies.