Her Friend Has Left

How to help your tween deal with loss

Nancy doesn’t want to go to the party. It’s a whole class event, at an outdoor activity centre that Nancy loves, lots of assault course action and a camp fire tea, perfect for a September Saturday afternoon. The card is written and the present is wrapped but Nancy is sitting hunched over on the sofa with her head down, looking at her toes, and her toes aren’t moving towards the door. I’m looking at Nancy, trying to read her, and she’s looking at her toes and giving nothing away and going nowhere.

Tick tock goes the clock. It’s the only thing that’s moving forwards. I don’t know what to do. Make her go? Cajole, push, guilt trip or cuddle her to the car? She’s never done this before, she is fit and well, there has been no talk about friendship problems…

Ah. Wait a minute. There has been no talk about friendship problems because there has been no talk about friends.

I try a new tack: Have you heard from Ella? Now Nancy’s toes are scrunching up and her hands come up to her face and I know we aren’t going to get to the party today.

Nancy’s friend, Ella, moved away over the summer, relocating with her family. Nancy has other friends, so I was disappointed but not unduly concerned to see this one go. We don’t support a BFF culture, we don’t put undue emphasis on one particular friend over all others, we have home friends as well as school friends in out attempts to keep melodrama out of the melting pot of tween friendships. Frankly, we thought we’d been rather good on this one. But Nancy and Ella were good together. If we have, in fact, guided Nancy away from the over-dramatised tween friendships that are more about the drama than the friendship, perhaps we need to recognise that her friendship with Ella was the real thing, that true friends can come along at any age, and that it is always going to hurt when we have to lose them.

September brings changes in the lives of our tweens. The school year starts anew, people come, people go, and that Auld Lang Syne feeling comes four months earlier for the tweens in our lives. Sometimes a friend has changed classes, or schools, or moved away completely; a change of teacher can be hugely unsettling; sometimes our Nancys find that someone they thought they knew has changed over the six to eight weeks of summer experiences and the friendship they had once enjoyed is just no longer there. Maybe your tween expected to get back in the swim team and didn’t; or the school show audition didn’t cast them when they truly thought it was in the bag, and the term looks very different with the loss of a rehearsal schedule. Loss has different definitions.

On the day of the unattended party, Nancy and I had a chat about Ella. I had missed noticing just how close these two had become, precisely because they didn’t over-dramatise, they didn’t fall in and out of friendship in that much blogged about tween way, they were just good friends. They talked about stuff. They laughed a lot. The sweetest thing that Nancy told me about Ella was this: they would read the same book together in their library lesson, reaching the end of the page at just the right moment to turn over together. The saddest thing was this: “Mum, whenever I looked at Ella I smiled, but now I don’t know where to look and I’m not sure I can smile.”

I needed to have a think about how to support Nancy through this loss of her friend. I sensed that the experience of loss could teach her something that she would have to learn at some point, that loss is a part of life.

My own thoughts turned towards my Gran, we were very close, and when she died I missed her sorely. Loss brings grief. There is plenty of information about grief available, and many introductory pages about grief said the same thing: loss of a job, a person, a pet, a goal, is still loss, which can bring about a period of grief. Losing my Gran was obvious grief, but when I look back to a failed goal, a much-loved job that I had to give up, I can see that different experiences of loss have amounted to a similar period of grief.

So back to Nancy. She misses Ella most when she is doing things that they used to do together, so for now she is taking a break from climbing, and enjoying the singing lessons that have begun with the new term. Nancy is finding it hard to be in a friendship group that doesn’t include Ella. This is tricky, I don’t want her to be alone in the crowd at school, so I have spoken to her teacher and Nancy is going to be the buddy for the new girl, giving her a new person to focus on in a new role. Giving Nancy a job to do enables her to focus on practical things, which might give her a break from her emotions, so she is also doing a lunchtime stint as a librarian. Home friendships help, as they exist on a different tack to school friends, and I’m so glad we have kept up with old NCT friends. In different families, cousins may be a good support right now. Loss can make our tweens vulnerable – watch out for them.

When Nancy was little, we used to read Dogger, by Shirley Hughes. Dogger is the beloved cuddly friend with fur and stuffing that gets lost, and oh, how that loss is felt. Nancy used to leave the room as I read the ‘lost’ pages. But she would return, to hear how Dogger is found, and all is well once more.

Nancy is older now. She has outgrown Dogger, although she still holds her own cuddly friends dear. I don’t want to teach Nancy to avoid loss. I want to teach her to deal with it. We can get in touch with Ella, on Facetime or email from the family Ipad, but in reality she has gone, and she isn’t coming back. Maybe loss is like losing a tooth. At first the gap in your mouth is all your tongue can think about. With real loss, the tooth never grows back. It is an adult emotion, in an adult set of teeth, and our tweens are growing towards adulthood all the time. But in time, the tongue gets used to the gap, it is still there but it is no longer red and raw. It’s part of the mouth, part of life.

I phoned the school Mum who had organised the party. I could have said Nancy was under the weather. It was a close call. But I gave her the gist of the truth. She was really nice about it.

Daddy is taking Nancy to the outdoor activity place next weekend. They like doing high ropes courses together. Nancy is looking forward to it. So is Daddy.