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Grief

The Profound Significance of a Close Friend's Death

"Just friends" is a gross understatement.

Key points

  • After the death of a close friend, women suffer more than men.
  • The people who socialized less often struggled more after the death of a close friend.
  • Even after four years, they were still reporting worse health, mental health, and vitality.

Our friends, including even our closest friends, are sometimes described dismissively as “just friends.” In the U.S., workers cannot take time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a friend, no matter how close that friend may be. Getting to take time off to grieve the death of a friend, or attend the funeral of a friend, may depend on the personal inclinations of a boss.

Many people realize that the significance of their friendships is not always appreciated by other people. Sometimes, when a close friend dies, they don’t fully express the depth of their grief. If they do, they do not reliably get the kind of support that someone would receive if, for example, their spouse had died. Social scientists who study this phenomenon call it “disenfranchised grief.”

Just how much does the death of a close friend really matter? A 13-year study of more than 26,000 Australians provides a compelling answer: It matters a lot, and for a long time. The social scientists Wai-Man Liu, Liz Forbat, and Katrina Anderson studied the implications of the death of a close friend on health, mental health, vitality, social functioning, limitations due to emotional problems, and overall life satisfaction. They reported their findings in “Death of a close friend: Short and long-term impacts on physical, psychological and social well-being,” published in the journal Plos One.

More than 9,000 of the participants, 36 percent, had experienced the death of a close friend within the past year. The experiences of those bereaved participants were compared to the non-bereaved. The two groups differed in important ways, for example, the bereaved participants were generally older. To study the effects of bereavement, the researchers matched the two groups on key demographic and personality variables, so that any differences between the groups were most likely due to bereavement and not the other factors.

What Happened to the People Who Experienced the Death of a Close Friend?

In every way that the researchers measured, people who experienced the death of a close friend were struggling more than those who had not had that experience. Compared to a year before their friend died, they reported worse health, worse mental health, less overall satisfaction with their lives, lower vitality, less effective social functioning, and more limitations due to emotional problems.

The bereaved people were typically struggling the most at the six-month mark. They usually improved some after that, though in most ways, they were still having a harder time than the non-bereaved even after two years. (Overall life satisfaction was an exception; at the two-year mark, though not before, the bereaved were at least as satisfied with their lives or even a bit more so.)

Women Suffered More Than Men, and for a Longer Time

On average, the women who had experienced the death of a friend struggled more than the men. Their mental health, vitality, and social functioning declined more than the men’s did. Even after four years, the bereaved women were still reporting worse health, mental health, vitality, and social functioning, and more limitations.

The men became more dissatisfied with their health and their lives over the course of the first year after their close friend died. The women continued to feel dissatisfied after two years or even longer.

The researchers suggested that the women may have suffered more from the death of a close friend because, on average, they were closer to their friends. However, the participants were not asked about their relationships with their friends, so that explanation could not be tested.

People Who Socialized Less Often Were More Distressed by the Death of a Close Friend

The researchers compared the experiences of people who differed in their levels of socializing. The less socially active group met with friends or family once a month at most. The more socially active group met with friends or family more often than that.

The people who socialized less often struggled more after the death of a close friend. Even after four years, they were still reporting worse health, mental health, and vitality, less effective social functioning, and more limitations due to emotional problems. They were also less satisfied with their lives and their health.

The socially active people struggled, too, just not as much. For example, they reported less satisfaction with their health for as long as two years.

The researchers suggested that the more socially active people may have received more support from friends and family while they were grieving the death of their friend. Perhaps it is also possible that the people who socialized less often were closer to the close friend who died, and that could have accounted for their greater grief.

Reassessing the Meaning of the Death of Close Friends

Wai-Man Liu and his colleagues offer this simple and significant conclusion: “The death of a close friend matters.” It undermines people’s health, mental health, vitality, social functioning, and satisfaction with their lives. The effects can endure for as long as four years.

They also add that their findings “suggest the need to ensure services are able to assist people who have experienced the death of a friend to develop support networks.” I think their work also indicates that policies and practices, in the workplace and beyond, should recognize the place in our lives of our close friends. Informally, in everyday life, we all need to be more cognizant of the profound significance of close friends, and get past our inclination to regard them as “just friends.”

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