What To Do When You See Your Dead Friend In The Produce Department

11/20/2015 06:48 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2016

You go to the supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner. You're just passing the Gala apples and headed toward the Brussels sprouts -- because you're an adult, and you've learned to like them -- and there she is, your ex. You were close friends for ages, you thought you'd be close forever, but the friendship is dead and so is she. You may or may not know why things fell apart, but you no longer speak; emails/calls/even hand-written cards go unanswered. It feels like a death, and you've spent lots of time coming to terms with the loss. You've grieved the death of your friend and the friendship you shared. Yet there she is, walking right toward you, preoccupied with carrots. What do you do?

Admittedly, in my case, I have no idea what happened. I have kernels -- bits and pieces of things that caused mutual pain, but nothing that ads up to the end of a friendship, that I thought would last into old age. My friend made me laugh; she understood my deepest insecurities and struggles; she was there through thick and thin ... until, she wasn't. I've reached out every way I can think of. I've dug deep for whatever role I played to cause such a breach, but I can't think of anything that would lead to a permanent severance of our relationship.

It's been a while now. Our whole family felt the hole where she had been, and I have licked my wounds and grieved long enough. As with any death, the end of a friendship demands that you grieve and move on. Moving on does not mean that you let go, but that you don't stay stuck in missing someone, and wishing things were different. Reality bites sometimes. However, unlike a real death, the end of a friendship may mean that the two of you will still run into each other; you may still have to interact.

It happened in the produce department. There she was, and there I was, holding Brussels sprouts. She hadn't seen me yet, and for the briefest moment I froze, unsure of what to do. For years, I knew that she would look up and a huge smile would brighten her face; we'd hug (we always hugged: coming, going, just because) and launch into whatever was going on. We might end up having dinner together, at their house or ours. Even if I were in a hurry, it would never have occurred to me to hide, or avoid her. Before.

However, as I saw her checking her phone, glancing at the carrots, I did just that -- I hid. I ducked behind a display, like a common thief, and looked for an exit. I watched her. She still looks great in anything; her smile as she glances at a text or something, is still brilliant. But that smile isn't for me anymore, and just as quickly as I feel its warmth, I feel the sting of loss again. Through the bread and over to the next aisle I dash, hoping that if she noticed, she only wondered if it was me, but didn't see me for the coward I now am. I've seen a ghost, and I'm rattled.

What is the protocol? How do we move forward when someone we loved but have lost is still around? I've seen these things turn ugly; I'm sure I've even been involved in ugly. It's hard to get to this stage in life and not have people come in and out of your life, and not all of those transitions are smooth or pain-free. These days, I focus on figuring out my role in a situation, and looking at ways I can change if I need to. I try to make amends, but that only works if both parties want to heal or move on smoothly.

At lunch recently, another friend said to me: "You may never know what happened," and even after all this time, her words hit me like a brick. She had lost a very close friend, many years ago, and had the benefit of having had that friend spell it out for her in a letter. My friend explained that while it was a real blessing to know what had happened, it hadn't changed the grief she felt. "She wasn't there anymore, and no explanation could make that better. It just gave me something so that I wasn't guessing. I was always grateful to her for that."

I don't have an explanation, and admittedly I was chicken when I saw this lost friend just a few feet away. No doubt, a year ago it would have been so much harder, but it still made my insides twist. I still miss her. I resisted replaying all of the possible reasons why we're no longer friends, round and round in my head again. Instead, I bought some Cheez-Its. I snuck around each corner and hoped she wouldn't be there. I snuck around a few corners and hoped to get another look. I thought about abandoning my cart and just leaving, but then I'd get home to "what's for dinner," and cry. I'd reconfirm for my husband and the three 20-something males living in my home, that I'm a mid-life hot mess, and we'd have nothing to eat our feelings away with.

I think I did the best thing possible at this stage: I finished my shopping. I took deep breaths and bought what I needed. I talked myself off the ledge and reminded myself that I've grieved this loss. There's no expiration on grief, so setbacks will happen, and seeing the person you've laid to rest, in person, under any number of situations, is just challenging. I'm not a hot mess; I'm a reasonable woman who's lost someone I loved. I'm moving on, but I stumbled for a moment. Maybe some day I'll see her in the store, or on the street, and I'll smile. Maybe we'll remember that we meant a lot to each other for a long time, and we'll say hi. Or, maybe we'll just avoid each other forever. There's no good answer for how to grieve and move on, whether it be a friend, an ex-lover, or a family member who you no longer get along with. Shit happens. Life marches on. These things are clichés for a reason. After she was gone, I went back and got Brussels sprouts; I went home, and I made dinner.

Have you lost a friend? What would you have done? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

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