Eva Holland is the author of the new book Nerve: A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear.
There’s a moment, after the most acute, immediate period of grief has passed, when you’re no longer consumed to the near-exclusion of everything else. You break the surface, take a breath and look around at the world – and your place in it – with new eyes.
For me, that moment came a few weeks after my mom’s sudden death from a stroke, in the summer of 2015. In those early days after we’d had her taken off life support, I had lived in a narrow tunnel of anger, exhaustion and overwhelming sadness. But now I gained enough space to look beyond my immediate loss – and I did not like what I found.
I was 33, single, childless, and an only child. I had, I realized, one remaining biological parent – only one person in the world who fit the typical definition of “immediate family.” Suddenly I felt like an astronaut on a space-walk in a Hollywood movie: dangling precariously in the endless void, tethered to the rest of the known world by a single fragile thread. It felt embarrassing to admit how alone I seemed to be – like I had failed in some crucial task. Wasn’t I supposed to build a new family of my own before the one that raised me started to vanish? I remembered, years earlier, watching my dad and my uncle huddle together in a hotel bar to plan what they would say at my grandfather’s memorial service the next day. They were sad, but they were together, and as I’d watched them then, I’d known: When the time comes, I will have to do this alone.
These were self-pitying thoughts, but there was a truth to them, too. Our society elevates certain kinds of relationships above others: blood is thicker than water, we say; family is what really matters; marriages – at least aspirationally – last till death do us part. Even in an era when fewer and fewer of us live in multigenerational family homes beyond childhood and adolescence, when “Friendsgiving” is so ubiquitous it has entered the dictionary, bonds of blood and marriage still reign. There’s something terrifyingly vulnerable about moving through the world with fewer or none of those bonds.
I had been, perhaps, unusually close to my mom. For the last six years of her life, I lived three time zones away and we saw each other only once a year, twice at most. But we talked on the phone three or four times a week, on average, about almost everything that mattered. She was my first call, for good news or bad or anything in between, and at one point after she died I described her to a friend as “80 per cent of my emotional support network.” There’s a cruel irony to losing the person you need most when things go badly in your life: The only person you want to talk to about what’s happened is the person you can never talk to again.
I grew closer with my dad, in the aftermath, and with members of my extended family, too. But in the first few months after my mom died, it was my friends I leaned on most heavily. They were the ones who sat with me in a local sports bar, watching the Blue Jays’ playoff run and making stupid jokes. They checked in to see if I’d showered lately, or if I had ventured out of my Whitehorse apartment. A couple of my close friends had each lost a parent already, and they became valuable sources of wisdom – time travellers from a future where my life made sense again, where I had experienced a terrible loss but was no longer, myself, lost.
I needed those voices. My mom had lost her own mother when she was only 10 years old, and her father less than a decade later. I had grown up hearing stories about these two strangers, my maternal grandparents, and from a young age I was keenly aware of the devastating impact of their losses. I understood that there were things in my mom that had been broken, maybe irreparably, by the deaths of her parents. I had learned to fear that same brokenness coming to my own life. Somewhere along the way, losing my mom had become the thing I was most afraid of.
It was after I’d come through the worst of the grief that I started to think about fear and my relationship to it. It turned out that I was not broken by my mom’s death – for many reasons, not least because I was not 10 years old and it is no longer the mid-1960s – and now, I realized, I had survived my worst fear. Conan O’Brien once said that “there are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized,” and he was right. I felt empowered, emboldened. In the months and years after my mom’s stroke, I decided to see if I could confront, and survive, and maybe cure, some of my other greatest fears, too.
My friends, again, were crucial to what I thought of as my “fear project.” They took me rock-climbing when I wanted to defeat my fear of heights. They reacted calmly and kindly when I would burst into tears behind the wheel, or in the passenger seat, after a couple of ugly car accidents left me with flashbacks and panic attacks in icy winter driving conditions. They were patient, on hikes, when I was forced to crawl on hands and knees across steep, exposed terrain, and once, one of them drove me 14 hours to Alaska in mid-winter to catch a plane, because (thanks to those accidents) I couldn’t manage the trip myself.
I was and am so grateful to all of them. But my sense of vulnerability, of terrifying exposure, lingered. Years passed and even as I built a new life around my mom’s absence, I remembered that feeling of dangling at the end of a single thread. It’s a scary thing, to rely on people who might not rely on you in the same way – might have spouses, siblings, parents and children who, in the crudest terms, will always rank ahead of you.
Recently, though, I found the beginnings of a cure for that lingering fear. Lydia Denworth’s new book, Friendship, is an in-depth look at the science of our platonic connections. The book explores “the extraordinary power of life’s fundamental bond” – a tagline that raised my eyebrows. Life’s fundamental bond, singular? Really? But Ms. Denworth is persuasive. She introduces us to the scientists studying forms of friendship in primates and other large mammals, and how those connections seem to strengthen them. She looks back at a then-controversial 1988 paper, published in Science, which argued that the strength of a person’s social relationships was as significant a factor in their overall health as the presence or absence of cigarettes or high blood pressure. (The paper was “a public health version of Paul Revere’s ride,” Ms. Denworth notes drily: dramatic, fraught, and guaranteed to raise a ruckus.)
The science of friendship is one side of a coin; on the other is the science of loneliness, and its development is woven through the book, too. Both are inseparable from the science of stress: Put simply, loneliness exacerbates our stress, while friendship eases it. That seems intuitive, but it’s an area of relatively recent understanding: scientists are still working out the deep connections between our physiological health and our emotional state. One example: a study of physical changes in women who were serving as caregivers to relatives with dementia – an inherently stressful task – found that small wounds punched in the skin of their arms took, on average, nine days longer to heal than wounds on non-caregiver controls. Their emotional burdens appeared to literally slow their body’s healing. And the study participants showed other signs of immune-system dysfunction and cardiovascular disturbances, too – but caregivers with greater social support came out better.
“At its best, friendship makes you feel valued and supported,” Ms. Denworth writes. “It stretches out a net when you need to be caught.” Her book helped me to understand: I was never dangling from a single thread, or even a bare handful of threads. I was always held up by an entire web.
I started writing this essay before the novel coronavirus yet existed – before it had made the leap from animals to humans, before it had circled the planet, silenced Italy’s streets and New York’s subway, killed tens of thousands and sent hundreds of millions of us into physical and social isolation. It seemed to me there was something powerful in the themes I wanted to pull together: fear, loneliness, friendship, community. I saw friendship as a cure for loneliness and a cure for fear. But I knew that friendship could be a source of fear, too, for those of us who depend most on it, and worry that our dependence on our friends won’t always be seen and validated in return.
The world has changed so much since I started turning over these ideas. The hand-washing poster meme that circulated in the early days of the virus’s arrival in North America feels like a relic from another lifetime; the unthinkable “new normal” is border closings, shelter-in-place orders, cancellations of events and gatherings that once felt like permanent features of the landscape. We’ve been separated from our friends and loved ones, with no timeline for reunion – as I write this, I’ve received one contraband hug in the past 49 days – and many of us are already confronting the cruel reality of facing our fears and our losses alone, without the possibility of gathering together to grieve.
I want to suggest that friendship is at least a partial antidote to all of this. Yes, my reliance on my friends has frightened me at times, made me feel exposed and fragile – but that was because I feared that no one else valued those bonds the same way, or with the same fierceness, that I did. If we all embrace “life’s fundamental bond,” as it seems this crisis is forcing us to do, we’ll all be better off. Stronger, happier, less lonely and better able to care for our families through the hard times ahead, too.
And the truth is that, despite my fears, my friends have never let me down. They have been there again and again, when I’ve needed them. Even if one has been tied up with other things, another has been free to step in. To strain that web analogy a little: If you’re sitting in a hammock, you don’t fall to the ground just because one or two spots get frayed.
We are all a little frayed now, and that won’t likely change in the coming weeks and months. One way forward, as Ms. Denworth puts it, is to “choose friendship – embrace it, invest in it, work at it … You cannot afford not to.”
The past few years, I’ve tended to spend Mother’s Day with my friends. It’s a painful holiday for me, so I try to stay away from screens and social media, and to take my mind off the day. One year, I tagged along to a birding festival; another, an early-season camping trip. Last year, I went to a bar to watch the Raptors’ game – it was the night of Kawhi Leonard’s iconic four-bounce buzzer-beater to send Toronto to the next round of the playoffs, and for a few glorious minutes I forget about Mother’s Day entirely.
Avoiding the event will be both easier and harder this year, I guess. There will be no Mother’s Day brunches to dodge, but no sports bars or campgrounds to hide out in either. One thing will stay the same, though. If I need to, I can always call a friend.
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