You can also read this piece in Hindi now, brought to you by our wonderful Hindi translator Akankasha Choudhary here.
Last year, my daughter’s best friend died in an accident. She was eight.
What followed was months of crying, raging, nightmares and the worst of all – questions. On life, death, reincarnation, heaven, hell, karma, fate, safety, stars, universe, sadness and ageing.
No matter how much I read up on the topic of helping children cope with grief, it was never enough. Being there for her frayed my insides – staying by her side through her tears and anguish while fighting off my own need for rest, watching her return from school with a vacant expression because the absence was too overwhelming – no one to steal her eraser, tie her shoelaces, waste time during washroom breaks, teach her a new insult…
Their bond was more about allegiance than sweetness, constantly engaging in petty arguments and emotional blackmail. Nearly every week I would hear “I do not want to be her friend anymore!” and then not long after, “Can you check with her mother if she is free for a play date.”
Since her death, I have grown to understand the nuances in their relationship. Perhaps to help assuage the loss, my daughter recalls the nasty bits about her friend. “You know she used to call me fat?” “I was her only friend – no one liked her.” “She lied a lot.” “Do you think God punished her because she was mean and naughty?”
Imagine a child facing such conundrums.
After asking us for the hundredth time if we were sure that her friend was dead, she furiosly collected her memories, pictures, and objects. The fear of death subsided, giving way to the fear of being friendless. In class, she sought a replacement, someone who would be as committed, whacky and accepting.
While she has had little luck with classmates, on the bus, she has grown closer to a girl in the next grade. This appears to be a healthier relationship, grounded in maturity and trust. My daughter has anchored herself to this friendship now. Although I am relieved that she has found a nurturing companion, the zealous nature of their attachment worries me. The two of them are already planning life as adults – to live together as roommates, have at least two cats, stay single, and order in every night. “You know mama, she gets me. She is my soul sister,” she says happily.
While I am grateful that she can cope with her grief through the gentleness of sisterhood, I find it difficult to separate the cynic from the mother in me. I want to fight her innate need to have a bestie – someone who will stand by you no matter what. At an age where she hurls the word NO like grenades, demands reasons before pledging obedience, she needs a space without us – her parents – in it. But I am fixated on the risk of hurt that comes with depending on one individual too much.
As a girl, I had my share of best friends too. Shelved in my memories are the images of various phases; the desk mate with whom I caught and released specks of floating dust, the family friend I hung out with most weekends because we were always bored with our siblings, a neighbour whose dog I adored more than her.
In grade five, I made my last best friend. Our shared awkwardness, love for Nancy Drew books and complementing personalities made us inseparable. She was quiet and shy, responsible and cool, beautiful and neat. I desperately wanted to be like her, so I gave her all my time and secrets, and she gave me hers. When she moved to another city, a part of me broke so profoundly that even today, I cannot listen to the song ‘Missing’ by Everything but the Girl without tearing up a little.
Adult-me finds it easier to navigate through a circle of close friends – not best, only good. I have learnt some tough lessons on how quickly expectations and boundaries can go haywire, especially over time when things change, and you evolve (like you’re meant to). The notion of a ‘best friend’ puts too much pressure – on me, us, and the relationship. Someone is always giving more, taking less, staying quiet to keep the peace.
Also, I like having different spaces to hold various forms of love without needing to unload it all onto one person. I have the friend I drink and sing old songs with, the one I share my insecurities about my marriage with, the one I barely talk to but retain a connection with based on shared trauma from high school, the one I can talk feminism and politics with, the one I share my writing with for honest feedback. Instead of ‘best’, I seek and hold true friends.
I don’t think we can be prepared for how the role of friends in our lives shifts so drastically from childhood to adulthood. As kids and teenagers, we seek definition and validation. Friends are a medium to process the big, bad, complicated world; the music we listen to, the books and films we enjoy, the kind of slang we use, fashion sense, what we care about – all of these are influenced by close company we keep. I see how my daughter’s laugh changes, imitating the way her closest friend laughs. As adults with more well-formed interests and desires, we use friendships to fight loneliness.
I would be lying if I said I am not envious of those who do have adult best friends – a single person outside of the romantic relationship or marriage who knows the sum of you, not just fractions. The definition of ‘best’ becomes about unconditionality, a source of stability no matter what the turmoil. There is also something flattering about being a go-to person for someone, being the most reliable in each other’s eyes.
Perhaps I am envious of my daughter’s capacity to invest all her love in a best friend. The blossoms of faith that come with girlhood make my wisdom and hurt feel insignificant in comparison. Being pragmatic, choosing authenticity over unwavering loyalty, honesty over fun, boundaries over necessity – these are choices I make now to protect myself. The indelible impressions left by those who once inhabited my ‘best friend world’ linger on, infused in my affection for Nirvana, glow-in-the-dark stickers, chips and Coke, the sitcom ‘Caroline in the City’, stationery shops, and countless other things anchored to a time when my knowledge was more limited.
Edging close to forty, my circle of trust has a shrinking radius. I am prepared for the day that this could become a dot – just me. Even that requires courage, right?
When my daughter’s friend died, we bought paper lanterns to light and release into the night sky. But every weekend, she made excuses to avoid it. She wasn’t ready yet.
The packet of flattened, coloured paper orbs sit on a shelf in her room as she talks fondly about her past and current best friend. This is how it is, the ultimate cliché – life goes on.
Sangeetha is a writer, mother, birdwatcher, always learning. She is a blahcksheep that can fit in and stand out where it matters. Her fiction and non-fiction works have been published in Out of Print, Kitaab, Arre, Himal Southasian, Livewire and Women’s Web. She lives in Dubai and Bengaluru. You can follow her on Instagram @simple_sangee_writes