I went to a friend’s funeral last week. A dear friend, whom I’ve known for almost 30 years.
Steve Ringler. He had been my veterinarian for many years—no small feat! I have, in the past, been what I sometimes call an animal “collector.” At one time, I had four dogs, thirteen cats, two bunnies, two turtles, three tanks of tropical fish, and a guinea pig. (I used to volunteer at a few animal shelters in Westchester County, N.Y., and somehow several of the oldest, sickest, or most ornery of their “residents” ended up coming home with me—often right before they were scheduled to “get the needle.” I just couldn’t stand the thought of them being “euthanized.”)
Steve was funny—so funny. He was loved by many and will be deeply missed
Steve and his wife Susan ran a neighborhood veterinary clinic in Dobbs Ferry. (You can still find Susan working at Dobbs Ferry Animal Hospital with Dr. Gary Mendelsohn.)
Steve was a wonderful clinician with a huge heart. He was funny—so funny. He was loved by many and will be deeply missed.
Life got in the way, and we fell out of touch
When my first husband died, Steve and Susan drove two hours to the funeral (We had moved upstate a few months before). Later that summer, I spent a wonderful, healing weekend with them at their summer home on the Delaware River, where Steve enjoyed many hours engaged in one of his many passions—fly fishing.
Steve was already ill by then. His condition deteriorated dramatically over the next several years.
Time passed. Life got in the way, and we lost contact. Steve passed on March 15.
I wish we had kept in touch. I wish I had been a better friend.
The power of friendship
Friends. They nurture and encourage, challenge and console. And while, they certainly cannot heal all, friendships do add to our overall health.
Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University analyzed data collected in over 100 studies on mortality rates as they relate to social relationships. Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships” (https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316).
The risk of weak social relationships was found to be “comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption.” Weak social relationships present an even greater risk of mortality than does obesity.
Friendships help us feel supported, which, in turn, has been correlated with “lower blood pressure, better hormone function, stronger immune systems and possibly lower levels of inflammation.”
Additionally, friendships can even reduce some of the cognitive losses people associate with aging. Barbara Hagerty in her book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife cites research that discovered that “socially active people had less than half the memory loss of those who were less engaged.”
Feelings of loneliness are on the rise, a sad trend that is expected to continue in the future
Yet, even with all the physical and emotional benefits that having strong social networks provide individuals, maintaining friendships is becoming more and more challenging. This is especially true in affluent countries. Not only are we living farther apart from family members than ever before, many of us have fewer friends than women and men of the previous generation. More people are living alone today than ever before, and feelings of loneliness are on the rise, a sad trend that is expected to continue in the future.
Of particular significance are long-term friendships—the ones that have developed over time
Emily Sohn, in the Health and Science section of the Washington Post, cites some pretty grim statistics regarding the deteriorating state of friendship: “According to a long-term study published in 2006, people had an average of about three friends they felt they could discuss important things with in 1984. By 2005, the average number of confidants had dropped to about two. At the end of the study, close to 25 percent of respondents said they didn’t have anyone they could truly trust, triple the proportion from two decades earlier” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/more-and-more-research-shows-friends-are-good-for-your-health/2016/05/26/f249e754-204d-11e6-9e7f-57890b612299_story.html?utm_term=.5f56585ede78).
Still, more important than the number of friends a person has is the quality of those relationships. Of particular significance are long-term friendships—the ones that have developed over time.
We know our old friends better—and they know us. We’ve lived through so much together, seen each other through our joys and challenges; we’ve cheered each other on, grown, laughed and cried together.
We are there for each other by choice—not because of familial obligation but because we want to be. Old friends can feel like comfortable slippers. They fit like nothing, or no one, else.
But sometimes we choose to put those slippers in the back of the closet. We go out, live our lives, become occupied with the myriad of things that call to us and direct our attention elsewhere. Sometimes, we take those old friendships for granted. We believe they will always be there when we want, or need, to pull them out.
Sometimes … that proves not to be the case.
Why wait for an “occasion” to reconnect?
I saw two other dear friends at Steve’s funeral. Adriane, who is the only friend I still have from graduate school, and Joann, who also worked at the animal clinic and who had taken my Mommy and Me classes, when I taught at the JCC many moons ago. It was wonderful to see Adriane and Joann, even under the circumstances. We shared our sadness—and our comfort in slipping right back to where we had been when we had left off.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring old friends back together. Sometimes, it is another, happier event. But … why wait for an “occasion” to reconnect?
I often mention how grateful I am for this blog. One of the many joys for me is that because of the blog, I have reconnected with several old friends. Sue Matthews, whose interview posted in January (https://dianegottlieb.com/interview-with-sue-matthews/) is one of them. I’ve reconnected recently with another Sue—a friend from my days as a student at Forest Hills High! And just last November, I reconnected with Clare, when I bumped into her, her daughter and granddaughter at Chicago O’Hare, on my way back with Steven from a weekend visit with my son and daughter-in-law. Clare and I were neighbors and became close friends when both of our oldest kids were toddlers—over 30 years ago!
Time does fly. You turn around and years have passed
Susan Ringler and her kids put together a slide show for guests to watch while waiting for the funeral service to begin. It showed Steve and Susan as a young couple, full of hopes and dreams for their future. There were lovely pictures of the two of them through the years and pictures of Steve with their kids, kids he always spoke so fondly of and with so much pride.
Steve lived his life doing what he loved, working and living alongside the woman he loved.
At the service, the rabbi spoke about how during the last few years Steve was trapped in a body that didn’t cooperate. Now, he was free from that pain. I hope Steve’s family can find a little bit of peace in that knowlege.
Before Susan left for the cemetery, she and I talked. I apologized and told her that I wanted to be a better friend now, if she would be willing to let me back into her life. We have spoken since. Catching up with someone to whom you don’t have explain yourself is a most wonderful gift.
If I have learned anything from last week, it is the value of rekindling old friendships. Old friends. Comfortable slippers. I am grateful for the fit.
Is there someone with whom you’ve lost touch? Someone with whom you’d like to reconnect? What will it take for you to reach out?
Please leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Have a wonderful week.
See you next Friday!