Elizabeth Edwards and the Intimacy of Friendship
By Linda Lowen
It's surprising, although perhaps not unexpected, to see the swell of responses to the news of Elizabeth Edwards' death. It's nearly impossible to identify another woman from the world of U.S. politics in recent years who has been so universally admired and respected. (Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, admirable in their respective albeit vastly different ways, both have their haters.)
Everybody's coming up with their tributes and their grand summations of her life and her legacy. But what we loved about Elizabeth wasn't the epic nature of her struggles -- the death of a child, a diagnosis of cancer, and an unfaithful husband -- which numbered among the worst tragedies a woman could face. What drew us to her was an intimacy that few women seem comfortable sharing these days, let alone with strangers. She was the woman you might meet through the friend of a friend -- someone you like upon first introduction, want to get to know better, and hope will become your own good friend.
She seemed to make time for all the right things -- putting aside her own career as an attorney to focus on her husband's political aspirations and the raising of a family -- as if she knew far in advance of her cancer diagnosis that life was short and that she'd better give of herself to those she loved as much as possible.
Of the many recollections of Elizabeth Edwards being published this week, the one that best captures the sense of shared intimacy is a piece by Julia M. Klein at Obit-mag.com based on her interview with Elizabeth in July 2006 for an AARP magazine article. Arriving late at the Edwards' beach house near Wilmington, North Carolina, due of a huge rainstorm, Klein spent 2 1/2 hours with Elizabeth and afterwards felt a lasting connection:
It was only an afternoon, but that single professional encounter made me feel as though I knew her, at least a little. I left with her e-mail address and cell phone number. Once the story was published, I didn't pursue the relationship; reporters generally don't. But Elizabeth's later travails - both the metastasis of her breast cancer and the infidelity of her husband - struck me with special force. So did her death on Tuesday morning, at 61. Like many women, even those who never met her, I felt as though I had lost a friend.
Is this why so many women I know have been deeply moved by her passing? Does Elizabeth Edwards represent the universal Everywoman Friend, the woman we've shared joys and sorrows with, the confidante whom we've lost all too soon?
Earlier this week I wrote how the news of Elizabeth's final days brought back memories of my friend Dana's life and death. Debba Haupert, founder of the website Girlfriendology, found herself responding in the same way. Debba shared her feelings about Elizabeth and the bittersweet first anniversary of her friend Dana's death, also due to breast cancer.
The significance of women's friendships is undeniable as Haupert previously noted in an earlier article for About.com Women's Issues. But society doesn't extend to women the same level of acknowledgment of loss and pain that it does when we lose a husband, a child, a parent or family member. Friends are "just friends" and some see the connection women form with other women as an interchangeable one. You lose one friend, but you still have many others.
Most of us know that this is a very superficial assessment of female friendship. The friends we treasure and rely on most are the ones we have history with. There's a mutual imprinting that goes on between women who have spent years together and have experienced life's major transitions together. When things big and small happen, friends like these don't require you to explain everything from the ground up. There's a common basis, a shared understanding, and the knowledge that when you turn to this person you'll receive unequivocal support and compassion. And when it's your turn to offer up that shoulder to cry on, you'll give as good as you get.
When Elizabeth Edwards passed away Tuesday, for many of us the passing of a single admirable woman brought back memories of equally admirable women we knew personally and lost all over again. In stressing that we not mourn her but celebrate her life, she nudged us into recalling and celebrating the lives of female friends we may have incompletely mourned -- especially friends who passed away at this time of year, so packed with hustle and bustle and pressure to be "in the holiday spirit" and allowing no pause to let sadness run its course.
Falling just one day before the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's equally untimely death -- another person to whom an entire generation felt a similar connection to -- Elizabeth Edwards' death heightens our awareness of impermanence and loss. She reminds us that in the midst of grief we should not lose sight of the joy in knowing one another, and gave us all permission to embrace both.