Friendships and Our Emotional Capacity to Sustain Them

I see you. I remember. I still care.”

Making new friends and keeping the old is a lifelong process. In this season of my life, I am learning to allow this ebb and flow to happen with more understanding and grace. Thanks to social media, we can connect with people from all areas of our lives. We can even count how many “friends” we have in our virtual world, yet that number does not accurately reflect who we would invite over for dinner. Close friendships require more than liking posts and sending emojis. While technology keeps us up to date, maintaining real friendships requires the ability to honor our emotional capacities.

Some people disappear from our lives quietly. Without any wrong-doing, or hard feelings, the last time we spoke with someone is unknowingly forever the very last time. Other times, we hear from someone we knew 20 years ago, and we pick up where we left off as if time stood still. I have friends who connect only once a year through holiday cards. I have friends who interact frequently on social media, but we never see each other in person. I have friends who meet for coffee and long walks, yet they rarely see my posts online. Each one of these friendships has meaning in my life. I am doing my best to nurture them.

Sustaining meaningful relationships and learning to recognize our mutual emotional capacities takes patience and forgiveness. We all have boundaries for varying reasons. They are the result of our life’s circumstances, whether we are struggling or soaring. There are times when we’re unable to meet another’s expectation and definition of friendship. Or, conversely, we feel alienated by someone else, and we wonder if we did something to offend. As friends, we owe it to one another to be gentle with ourselves. We do not need to apologize for creating or keeping our distance. Let’s stop using self-shaming language like, “I’ve been a horrible friend.”

I have been reflecting on friendships and emotional availability more profoundly as I navigate through my breast cancer journey. New friends entered my life, and bonds with old friends strengthened. I am grateful for the support and kindness. However, while focusing on my own health and healing, my circumstances created personal limitations, causing me to possibly neglect others’ celebrations and hardships along the way. I also acknowledge and respect that some friends have kept their distance from me for their own reasons. Perhaps they were protecting their emotional limitations and grief triggers. Or, they questioned their level of friendship with me, not wanting to overstep an assumed and unintentional boundary.

Acknowledging emotional capacity is especially important when someone in our connected community dies. The loss punches us in the gut and rips the fabric of our close-knit community. Sometimes we experience feelings of regret as we think about the last time we talked to that person. Why didn’t we get around to returning their messages, or making that lunch date we always mentioned?

As we explore our regrets, we may also question where our level of grief fits when we have lost touch with that person, or their family. Ignore the assumed bereavement hierarchy – if there is such a thing. The ability to grieve is a gift that belongs to each individual. While our tears come from a place of sadness and empathy, our tears also remind us of the impact a person leaves on our lives. No matter how close we were, or how briefly we were friends, that connection is our gift to mourn.

On April 18th, 2022, my friend, Claudia died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50. Two days later, a childhood friend of my daughter’s took her own life after celebrating her 17th birthday. These two losses are unrelated to each other. Yet, our families and mutual friends are intertwined through school and shared experiences.

Claudia and I met when our kids were in the second grade. We instantly became friends. Within minutes of talking with one another, we learned we were in the same hospital, on the same day, giving birth to our children who had naturally become friends as well. Even though our children grew apart, Claudia made the effort to stay connected. We shared laughs, beers, spiked lemonade, and we exchanged supportive texts. In recent months, she stepped outside of social media and took the time to call me directly. She was on my list of people to see in-person once I am fully recovered. Claudia always ended our conversations by telling me she loved me. Now she is gone. I am left feeling like I did not reciprocate enough. A few weeks before she died, my last text to her said, “I will call you soon.”

My daughter’s friend and her mom have always held a special place in my heart. I remember lots of giggling when the girls were together for sleepovers, parties, and carpooling. I also gained a friend in her mom. We had lunch and coffee dates. We celebrated a few special occasions, including New Year’s Eve. I appreciated our conversations about motherhood, and we helped each other through some difficult moments. We saw each other less as our girls drifted into other friend groups, and we both started new jobs. They moved away two years ago, resulting in more disconnect. I meant to reach out to see how their new life was going, but I relied on social media posts and pictures to tell me that instead. I regret that I have not been in touch more directly.

These lives are connected to the nostalgic time from when my children were in the small pond of elementary school. Not only are these fundamental years the foundation of childhood bonds, it’s a time when adults are given the opportunity to make new friends again. It feels like we are back in school ourselves, trying to figure out who we are as we search for acceptance. The class parties and school functions allow parents to connect socially. As women, we find ourselves in new groups of “Mom Friends” through book clubs, luncheons, coffee dates, and happy hours. We have heartfelt chats on the sidelines of games and on class field trips.

The years go by, and school friendships can change for students and parents. We have fewer opportunities to connect. Life gets busier and complicated, commitments change, and time works against us. Some are swimming effortlessly through parenthood, others feel like they are drowning. These factors push our emotional capacity into overload. Consequently, we grow apart. Then one day, we see each other in a larger sea at high school functions. We greet each other with a brief wave or a smile from across the auditoriums, recognizing simpler times. For me, these comforting gestures say: “I see you. I remember. I still care.”

Friends emerge and others drift away. We cannot be everything to everyone all the time. Weeks turn into years. “Next time” never happens. Be patient with ourselves and others. No matter the season, each connection is a gift deserving consideration, grace, and forgiveness.

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