Of Death, Dementia, and Dear Old Friends

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How we find our old friends. Image via Wikipedia

I learned yesterday that an old friend of mine — someone I haven’t seen since the late 1980s, and haven’t even spoken with since 1997 — is alive but in advanced dementia. I had lost touch with her, and someone had told me, erroneously, a few years back that she had died. I’m happy to learn that my friend lives, even if under the cruel sentence of the loss of memory and reason. I’m going to write her a letter and basically introduce myself to her and say that her friendship meant a lot to me. Even if it doesn’t affect her, perhaps it will please her daughter, with whom she now lives.

It’s been a recurring theme in this blog that I’m not very good at staying in touch with old friends. Then somebody dies, and I feel perhaps an even more acute sense of loss, magnified by my loss of contact with that person. At this point in my life, I have quite a catalog of old friends with whom I’ve lost touch. Facebook has put me back in touch with literally scores of such people, ranging from classmates in kindergarten to old girlfriends (!) from college, to work associates from only a decade ago. It’s nice to have these folks as Facebook friends; I can check in with them from time to time, and they do the same, which is probably about all our matured friendship requires. But that’s so much better than getting word about the passing of yet another person with whom I haven’t communicated in years.

I suppose some people might read this and say “well, get in touch with all your old friends that you’ve lost contact with, already!” But is that such an easy task to accomplish? If someone is not readily visible online, tracking them down the old-fashioned way might take a considerable investment of time. For a formerly close friendship that was unhappily lost and for which I would gladly move a mountain, that would make sense. But the kinds of friends that I’m talking about here are those what were of a more casual nature, people I got to know and whose company I enjoyed, but who were never true intimates of mine (well, except for maybe some of those old girlfriends, but we won’t go there). At the risk of sounding cold, it seems that triage applies even to the algorithm of maintaining relationships over time and space. Some, it seems, are simply best left behind (or, consigned to the infrequent contact of social media).

I believe so much in living in the present, and especially with my daughter and my father both living into (and dying from) their own serious illnesses, it seems like the present is all I have time for. But the shadow side of that is the ghostly claim of the past, a ghost that rattles its chain whenever someone else crosses the threshold separating time from eternity. For the most part, I have no regrets about my life: whenever I get into a funky space (usually about education, like “I should have gone to seminary” or “I wish I earned a doctorate”), I quickly remind myself that as happy as I am now, how can I be sure that changing even one detail of my past would have made for a better life? It’s just as likely that the road not taken could have led to disaster. So I appreciate the present, and leave it at that. But I wish more of my old friends were on Facebook. That might make for less moments of sadness when I learn of yet another loss.

Concerning Sheep, Goats, and the Unconditional Love of God
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Social Media... and Silence
Seven Lessons I'm Learning on the Grief Journey
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://babydea59.wordpress.com babydea59

    Living the key word here, if the rolls were reversed and it was YOUR daughter taking care of YOU as you suffered from dementia, wouldn’t it be nice to know or at least think that one of YOUR friends would make themselves available, not only to play farmville, but to be a human being that cares enough about that friend to care about the daughter, and what they are going through, and probably alone. You don’t risk sounding cold, you ARE cold.

  • http://dearexgirlfriend.com dearexgirlfriend

    ive recently found power in letter writing, so even if it affects no one (your friend, or her daughter), i think it will have a powerful effect on you…so i suggest no matter what, write it.

  • http://www.thedailyawe.com Lindsay

    Definitely write the letter. My grandmother had dementia. A letter like that – from anyone – would’ve made her happy (even if only temporarily) and it would’ve touched my Mom’s (her caretaker) heart deeply. Facebook, I’m afraid, doesn’t really enrich relationships. It makes people get lazy.

  • http://crystalspins.wordpress.com CrystalSpins

    I’ve had similar experiences except my friends aren’t dying…they are getting married and having babies and for some reason they haven’t bothered to invite me to the weddings or let me know that they are having children. I feel left out — and if I were to get married I think I would track down a lot of my friends just to let them know. But maybe I wouldn’t.


  • http://lifeintheboomerlane.wordpress.com lifeintheboomerlane

    Write the letter. Now.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    It’s interesting, but people seem to be under the impression that I was only thinking about writing the letter. But, no, as I said in the post, “I’m going to write…” and, in fact, I just mailed the letter about half an hour ago.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/psoucheray Phil Soucheray


    One could worry oneself sick dwelling on all the shoulda, woulda, coulda’s in our lives. As it relates to how we connect with old, casual relationships, I have decided that where Facebook and LinkedIn don’t suffice I will rest in the knowledge that when I think of those people from the past I will say a prayer linking our angels and spirits. And if I happen to be lucky enough to cross paths with them in a moment-to-moment encounter, I can be joyful in the reunion.

    I am a firm believer in the St. Francis de Sales approach which encourages being our best selves in this moment.


  • http://lolofire.wordpress.com Lauren

    Very well written. I stated almost the exact phrase last night to my youth congregation about how awesome it is to have FB to get in contact with old friends that you haven’t seen in years.

  • http://evelyngarone.wordpress.com Evie Garone

    It’s good you wrote the letter, I’m sure it will bring some peace to both of them & yourself. My Mom has dementia and it hurts day in day out. Any outside sympathy/empathy is a nice thing. It is hard work to keep in touch with people and at times it is a struggle to decide whether it is even worth the time and energy, only you can make that decision. After my bout with cancer I lightened that load, especially from people where I was doing all the work…God Bless You


  • http://notesfromrumblycottage.wordpress.com notesfromrumbleycottage

    I, too, have let old friends and acquaintences slide away when I should not have. The good thing about Facebook is that it lets us take the first step in re-connecting. What you do after that is up to you and the other person. Loved your post and glad to hear you wrote that letter.

  • http://sdliving.wordpress.com The Simple Life of a Country Man’s Wife

    Interesting post! This comes at a good time, since this morning I received a FB message from an old friend I had a falling out with -and we’re not FB friends. It was such a blessing to hear from her, and I feel like I have had some closure to a big part of my childhood, as we grew up a trails-width apart from one another. Don’t get too down on yourself; somethings are meant to be left alone.

  • http://dorkydeb.wordpress.com/ Debbie

    I can tell you from personal experience that people tend to “forget” about those that have disabilities or cannot get out and do the things that they used to. Not that they do it on purpose, but they do not choose to purposely stay in your life either. Other things take priority. Even those that do, tend to fade away with time. It is easier for people to stay in close contact with those they see on a regular basis, so that is what they do – what is easy.

    Thank you for stepping out of everyone’s generalized “comfort zone” and reaching out to her. If she has a clear-minded day (as many with even severe dementia do) then the letter will mean a great deal to her. If she does not, then it will matter to her daughter. It means a great deal to not be forgotten.

    You don’t realize how lonely it is being homebound, until you are mostly homebound. I know if someone from my past cared enough to write me a letter or even a more lengthy email (and not just a “friend request” on Facebook) it would mean a great deal to me.

  • http://josephinestone.wordpress.com jelzmar

    I don’t think its cold of you to not look up every acquaintance that you’ve ever had. After all they aren’t looking you up either. I’ve lost touch with a lot of friend of mine from when I was younger. Even though I did go to the trouble of finding them and trying to maintain contact with them, it didn’t get anywhere. Our friendships had a time and place and we lived through them and past them. We are very different people now that live very different lives. Its not the easy going friendship we used to have and felt too forced. So yes we are still ‘friends’ on facebook and when they say something interesting I will reply. Though I never get a reply back. It is important to live in the now. The past was great, but you can’t recreate it.

    babydea59 : I think your comprehension skills need a little work. I some how doubt you would pay money and research to find that girl that sat behind you in physics class twenty five years ago.

  • http://glomph.wordpress.com glomph

    What does it cost you? Get in touch.

  • http://avaaston.wordpress.com Ava Aston’s Muckery

    Carl – I have found many old and new friends on Facebook and also here in this blogosphere. I say write the letter, you won’t regret it!

    Many Blessings,


    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed

  • keisen

    You’re doing the best you can. You are being present for those family members who are alive in your present and that is absorbing all your energy. Don’t beat yourself up over the friends and acquaintances you can’t keep up with.

    I would also add, if the place your mind goes when you’re in a funky space is “I should have gone to seminary” or obtained your doctorate, that’s what you need to be thinking about. Allow yourself to think about these things and ask yourself why you’re thinking about them.

    The present you’re living in is centered on immediate and important needs of dying others. But you’re not dying. Don’t immediately cut your ideas off as “The Past” simply because you passed over them in the past.

    Choosing not to take a road in the past, is not proof that we should never take the road in the future. The core of who you are and what you’ve the potential to become is always pretty much constant. But there is a timing to everything.

    In really stressful periods, studies have shown dreaming about relaxing on tropical islands doesn’t help. Embracing the core of who you are does. Maybe a PhD is exactly what you should be thinking about now, because that’s your core, and this is finally the right season for starting on this path.

  • http://bothsidesnow.info Elihu Edelson

    This is somewhat off topic, so not particularly for publication. Two of your short pieces appear in the current issue of Both Sides Now, so you are entitled to a subscription. If you wish to accept this, please send snail mail address.

  • http://ekooda.wordpress.com Erika;Deg

    And THAT’S why we all have Facebook.

  • http://workingtechmom.wordpress.com workingtechmom

    Great post and thought provoking. It’s cool you wrote the letter and I am sure it will mean something to them. I agree you can’t look up all the old friends…some people come and go in our lives and show up at times you have a connection with them. Facebook does allow the quick check-in that can fit into busy lives, allow some moments of pleasure, and also support for small challenges.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed – Keep up the blogging!


  • http://meowmix32.wordpress.com Shannon

    Write the letter to her; it sounds like you both need it.

  • http://mmgoodsongs.wordpress.com mmgoodsongs

    As someone who is not on facebook I feel like I prefer the natural rhythms of life. People come and go for a myriad of reasons and I am happy with those who are in my life here and now. It doesn’t mean I don’t look back with gratitude for those in the past (both good and bad) for the role they played in the person I am today. As for the impact on your friend with dimentia. My father had Alzheimer’s disease and I know that he felt emotions even though he couldn’t always figure out why. His sense of joy was no less diminished even though he couldn’t tell you why. They did a study on this recently and the results were clearly the same. The patients had an altered mood for sometime after a visit from a loved one or after having seen an up lifting film even thought they couldn’t recall the specifics of the event. I’m glad you wrote. It sounds like a positive move for everyone involved. Great Post!

  • http://confessionsofadizzyblonde.wordpress.com Confessions Of A Dizzy Blonde

    My gran recently got dementia and it has opened my eyes up to really treasuring the people in my life whilst I can. So often every day just seem like “another day.” Yet, if you think you will have no more of those days, you despair. To really indulge in each moment is my new motto!


  • http://heatheratkins.wordpress.com Heather CJ Atkins

    It was wise to have sent the letter.. I’m sure it was therapeutic for yourself and it will certainly be received on some level by your dear old friend.

    Perhaps it isn’t wise to judge a book by its cover, but your books look positively intriguing. I’ll have to download one next time I’m in the market for new reading material (hopefully they’re available for purchase in kindle form) ;)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Thanks, Heather. Several of my books are in fact available on Kindle. Probably the best one to start with is the most recent, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. You can access the Kindle version here.

  • http://adventuresinmidlife.wordpress.com/ srwhoknows

    Thanks for the post. My dad had Alzheimer’s several years before he died. It was a long difficult journey for all of us. I’m glad you’ve written that letter – both for your friend and for her daughter.

    Facebook is great for catching up with old acquaintances! I’m surprised that a good number of people pit social media interactions against face-to-face human interactions. It’s the classic either/or (having “real friends” vs “virtual friends”) running up against the experience of both/and.

    I for one am delighted at the possibility of getting reacquainted with people whose path long ago diverged from mine. 20 years ago that wasn’t possible. Now it is. Blessed be God. Blessed be the geniuses that figured out the programming to make this all possible.

  • http://99shadesofgrey.wordpress.com 99shadesofgrey

    i used to look at facebook about the same way you do…as a way to casually communicate with people that i didn’t have a really strong friendship with. it was a good thing, or so i thought. sadly, facebook addictions tore through my family and we quickly learned that losing touch with those who arent dear to you is sometimes for the better. i now regard facebook as one of the great evils of the world. p.s. sorry for no caps…posting from phone and shift key and alt key arent working

  • http://telmcg.wordpress.com/ Tel

    I once sent a letter to someone I didn’t know personally. She was the author of a cookbook and she was from my hometown. She, through her storytelling and recipes, impacted me a great deal. After a little over 10 years of working from her book, I sent her a letter. A few months later, I received a response. It was from her daughter in South Carolina (the letter went to Kentucky). She told me that although her mother was in poor health due to dementia, my letter touched her deeply and meant a great deal to her. I vote for you to write the letter.

  • http://blueskiesovernewengland.wordpress.com blueskiesovernewengland

    I really liked your …”algorithm of maintaining relationships over time and space”. It certainly is difficult, if not impossible, to reinstate a closeness of relationship that was lost or that was just never there. For me, Facebook has had more of a Thomas Wolfian …”you can’t go home again” feel to it. However, this oddly public/yet anonymous media can reestablish a link in wishing old acquaintances well…whether in word, thoughts or in prayer.

  • http://findlaydonnan.wordpress.com/ Fionnlagh

    Nice. I really enjoyed reading that. So much of what you are saying rings true; I find it hard when people brush off good memories like it was just a happy moment in time that means nothing to them anymore. Everything has value and people shouldn’t be forgotten just because their life has changed. Every person we meet and interact with effects who we become. No matter how good, bad, young, old, long or brief.

    I sent a message over Facebook to my (now ex-) girlfriend and she misconstrued everything, I couldn’t convey through only words. Facebook has its ups, but it’s downs are irreversible to say the least.

    Live in the present moment, and respect and relish the past. I liked reading this. I want to find love and have a family of my own one day and it’s nice to know people have similar thoughts, no matter what stage of their life they may be in.

    And I do think you should “get in touch with all your old friends that you’ve lost contact with, already!” :) Realization is the first step to changing or at least learning something new about yourself. Make an effort and catch-up. Don’t assume what they might think, just do it man. Say hi.

    …And then blog about it! :P

  • http://ebreview.wordpress.com marlowesnymph

    This is a really great post. You know, it is hard for me to keep in touch with old friends too, and it is always surprising (obviously not always in a good way) to find out where they are and/or how they’re doing after a long time of no talking. For example, last year I went home to visit my family. I hadn’t been to my home town in a while and wanted to eat out at one of my old favorites. When I got there, my family hadn’t arrived yet so I waited to be seated in the lobby. Well, as I was looking around at the bulletin board they had up filled with newspaper clippings (a soccer team the restaurant sponsored, a local beauty pageant, and so forth), I saw a clip with a picture of my friend. I leaned forward in my seat to read the headline, only to fall off of it completely a second later in shock. The clip said she had died.

    I think these things happen and we always wish we had stayed in contact, done something, wondered if it would have made a difference at all. It’s human nature I guess. I also work at a retirement home, and I see how these residents’ friends and families pull away from them when their dementia gets bad. A lot of them are practically abandoned as they deal with the crippling effects of the disease. It’s so sad. So, I think it’s good that you wrote or will write the letter, and I think in some way that it will make a difference. Good for you.


  • http://www.ryoko861.wordpress.com Irene

    People come in and out of our lives for a reason. Even the old friends.

    There were three of us that were inseparable when I was growing up. Then after high school, our lives literally split in totally different directions. After 25 years, I made contact with my best friend. The other one has no interest in connecting with us (which we did through Facebook). Ok, that’s fine. But to be that close and then to let us go. She was in my life for a reason, but fate feels she did her job and has moved on. I don’t know what her purpose in my life was for, but we had great times together (maybe it was because she cleaned my house…she enjoyed doing that….who was I to stop her! My mom didn’t know the difference).

    So, although you feel you need to connect with these people, don’t feel bad that you didn’t. Remember, it works both ways. THEY can just as easily get in touch with you. People have moved on. You’re in their memories. They appreciate that and probably wonder, too, what you’ve been up to and hope you are well. If they are needed back in your life, fate will guide them somehow to you. There’s a reason for everything.

  • ~P.A.T.C. the dieselgypsy~

    I think people are brought into our lives either for a need/or blessing for them or us, there is never a chance meeting or a past friends name dropped back into your world without a purpose. So we need to be available and go with the flow that SPIRIT is guiding us in, as you are indeed doing.

  • http://loyaltothemagisterium.wordpress.com Stephen Mc Elligott

    Good post, facebook is certainly a phenomena but to be honest to much communication can be detrimental to the soul.


  • http://sayitinasong.wordpress.com sayitinasong

    I do agree with you re: Facebook, it is a wonderful tool to keep in touch with friends, especially those whom you have not connected with for a log time (I have found a lot of my college friends like that) as especially for people (like me) who have lived in many countries, it is invaluable in keepingin touch with people from all over the world.
    Yes, write your friend the letter… she may remember, if only for a moment….

  • Kathy Lewis

    Having the opportunity to connect with acquaintances from the past can only have a positive affect. God may use them to touch and enrich your life as you may do the same for them. I look at facebook as an opportunity to say the “I’m sorry’s” for wrongdoings in the past or to reconnec, share, and enrich each other’s life. On the flip side, I see some obsession coming from the use of facebook. Young people tend to spend hours of usesless chatter that could be spent in a more positive way. Some adults use it as an escape from work and their home repsonsibilies. It’s all a matter of what value you are seeking. The devil surrounds our lives yet we are given the will to make our own choices. God will guide those who are listening in the right direction.

  • http://worldmomsblog.wordpress.com Veronica Samuels

    You wrote, “I quickly remind myself that as happy as I am now, how can I be sure that changing even one detail of my past would have made for a better life? It’s just as likely that the road not taken could have led to disaster. So I appreciate the present, and leave it at that.”

    Well said. Your words reminded me of a quote from Erma Bombeck that a friend of mine posted recently on Facebook, “The grass is always greener over the septic tank”.

    Sometimes I need to hear those words! Great post. :)

    Veronica Samuels