When my sister died I was 14 and I thought I’d have to marry someone I already knew.
Let me explain: I was overwhelmed at the thought of creating a life eventually with someone who hadn’t walked with me through the hardest times. I thought my only life-long, tried-and-true friends that I would ever have were the ones showing themselves in the mess of grief that year.
The ones who walked around the hospital halls with me in the moments after her death. The one who called me from his military assignment and said the best thing that someone could say to me at the time: “Talk to me.” The ones who ditched classes with me to stare at the sun or walk to the cemetery and talk about the depths of pain, or talk about nothing at all. The ones who knew me, and who walked with me while I grieved.
Four years years went by, I left my hometown for college, and I began to share myself with the people around me (because, if you hadn’t realized, that’s who I am). As I did, I started to realize that my new friends, while new, seemed to be compassionate and understanding. They seemed to be able to grasp, mostly, who my sister was and what she was like through my stories that I slowly shared.
At some point soon after, I was no longer concerned about needing to marry someone who had known my sister or walked with me in my grief. I was my own person enough, and I’d lived enough life after death to not be concerned about it anymore.
I was still skeptical about if my “new friends” — these fun college hall mates and classmates — could ever become as close to me as my friends and people from home were, though.
While these new friends were wonderful and seemed supportive, they hadn’t been there for the worst parts of my life. They were incredible, but a part of me seriously doubted if they could ever be as close to my heart as the ones who’d been there through “it all.”
Later, after college had ended and I’d still stayed close to these college friends, I had accepted that they were true, even if they’d never been tried. They had never proven it to me (never had to… I only had one sister and hey, she’d already died, so they missed that boat). But their constant friendship, love, and lack of judgment led me to believe they were there for me, for better or worse.
In January 2013, my life changed tragically overnight for the second time, and I was exposed, left sitting alone, humiliated, hurting, and grieving. But, I was left with a supportive net of friends literally around the world.
My “new friends” from college (who at that point I’d known for at least 5 years) stepped in.
One drove to me immediately to sit with me through the initial blasts as we watched my community grieve and watched my life change. One sent me a care package from Germany. One invited me to visit him and cry in a bar in Kansas City as we talked about it. One wrote to me from Korea. Two called and texted regularly to check in from San Diego.
It’s hard to explain the hard things in our lives. And after the dust had settled from this second life explosion, I was left with no “new friends” — they were all grandfathered-in if they stayed. Not all of the “new friends” stayed. Frankly, not all of the “old friends” stayed, either. But some did, and some is more than enough.
As I started to move on again in life this second time, I moved to new communities, and I again found myself closed-off and skeptical about how I would make new friends who could possibly know me and support me like those who had “been there through it all” once or twice now.
I found that as I opened my heart to the possibilities, though, I’ve met some of my favorite people who I believe are made of that tried and true friendship material that sticks.
A couple of my best friends now are people who haven’t actually “been there through it all” for me, but I’m learning to accept that that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have been, doesn’t mean that they can’t be there for me now, and visa versa. And I’m learning that just because people are there for you, doesn’t mean you have to be best friends, either.
I think I’m learning that sometimes grief binds us — sometimes in ways that enhance healthy relationships, and sometimes in ways that keep unhealthy ones going. Sometimes the only thing you have in common is that you have been there through it all. And while that’s valuable, I don’t think you have to hold onto that forever, either. Life changes. We change. And sometimes, those relationships should change, too.
I’m starting to believe and uphold the idea that just because I have many good friends who have bound themselves to me in the throws of messy life, it doesn’t mean that the new people who come into my life have to do the same to have the same caliber of friendship.
At the end of the day, I want healthy relationships. And some of those will be with people who have been there with me through it all. And some will be with people who merely hear the stories of “it all” and accept me as I am now. And both of those are perfectly good and as they should be.
When you’ve been through life-altering events, it’s hard to open yourself up to new people. But I still think it’s healthy and worthwhile to do so. Even if it takes a while.
To all of you, old and new, who are my dear dear friends — Thank you and I love you.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
Other places are
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