One of my lifelong close friends died recently, which provoked an intense sadness in me. I’m sure you have also experienced this same sense of loss, as this is not unusual as we get older. I’ve been thinking a lot about close friendships.

We humans are a social species, and we have a strong need for close friends. We feel more grounded when we have a sense of “Belonging,” of being deeply appreciated by people we care for.       

"People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” Barbra Streisand sang memorably in 1964, years after Cole Porter wrote the hit song “Friendship” in 1939. Carol King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” were major hits in the 1970’s.

These are all wonderful melodies and voices, but it was the lyrics about “friendship” which touched deep emotional chords in the listeners.

Close friends might have similar values and traditions, or can come from different backgrounds, but the bonds they share are meaningful and firm. Intimate friends share experiences, and in some ways inhabit each other’s lives. They participate in the milestones and changes in life, the successes and setbacks, the highs and the lows. 

Good friends exchange caring, celebration and solace. When people feel blue, they often reach out to old friends for support and counsel. Close friends can be counted on to “be there,” to make time available, changes in their schedules, and meaningful sacrifices for each other.   

By the same token, people without friends often experience the pain and vulnerability of loneliness. Close friendships enhance our moods and functioning, as well as our emotional and physical health.

Those of you who have long-lasting friendships are fortunate souls. Some of my closest friends have played an important role throughout my entire life. A major Harvard study has shown that the most salient element determining the quality of one’s life is the presence of close, long-term friends.

Social media supposedly enable people to make new friends via myriad sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc). But online friendships are more “virtual” than real, and many of these “cyber-bonds” are anything but meaningful. They can ironically be a way of not engaging deeply with others: In the guise of generating friendships, the Internet can keep people apart. Social media cannot replace the authenticity and intimacy of face-to-face interactions.

Close friendships may seem natural and “organic,” yet they have to be cultivated and nurtured to be meaningful over years. Like long and good marriages, they take special caring, sometimes tolerance, and yes, conscious effort.    

Good friends are open, genuine and honest with each other. They tolerate each other’s frailties, appreciate their differences, and honestly criticize when necessary.

Over many years, friends participate in each other’s celebrations and marriages, and in their children’s and grandchildren’s milestones. They are always “present” in spirit if not in actuality. They might be separated by thousands of miles and yet their voices and words are appreciated during celebrations, and deeply helpful during illnesses and setbacks.

After many years of friendship, some are invariably left to mourn the losses of their dear old friends, almost as a loss of a part of themselves. While they are grieving and mourning themselves, they give meaningful solace and emotional support to the families of their intimate friends.

You realize that many experiences you shared with dear friends during good times and sad are among your most cherished memories. In Stephen Sondheim's touching song, "Old Friends," one old friend says to another, "Here's to us, who's like us?"   

Cherish your close friends…Simply put, good friendships are some of the best stuff of life.

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