I Feel Guilty About My Friend’s Death

The morning after Christine’s accident the girlfriend of one of her brothers came up to me at my locker. She and I barely knew each other so when she stood in front of me crying, I just sort of stared back, confused as she tried to formulate words. When she finally spit them out: Christine had been killed in a car accident the night before, I laughed. To this day I don’t know why I laughed. I think part of me thought she was kidding or playing some fucked up sick joke; while the other part of me that feared it to be true laughed because that’s all that could come out of me in that moment. I thanked her for the information, which I still didn’t believe it, and went to the library to find our friend Cortney.

Cort sat amongst the stacks of art books trying to locate something before classes began (the morning bell had yet to officially ring), and I told her what I had just been told. I’ll never forget the way she looked at me. She stared at me and kept repeating: “But we can go see her in the hospital, right? She’s in the hospital so we can go see her right now if we want, right?” It was at this point that the librarian, who had obviously been made aware by the school earlier that morning, came over and escorted us to the school counselor. By that time the room was full of our friends who had already found out the news in basically the same way we did. It was June 2nd, 1994; Christine had been taken from us the night before on June 1st.

Before the accident things had changed within our group of friends. We had always been so close since grammar school, but now that we were in high school, our friendships became strained as we started to grow apart and into different people. If we were to compare it to My So-Called Life, which was very popular at the time and a reference point we always used, Christine, Holly had remained Sharon Cherski, while Cortney and I had gone the other route of Rayanne Graff and Angela Chase. We were all still friends, but the changes that were happening were becoming harder and harder to ignore. It was also the source of arguments, and lots of them that I won’t even bother addressing. But what it came down to was that Cortney and I were changing, and hanging around people with whom neither Holly or Christine were impressed. We were 16 years old. We were fucked up, confused and trying to find ourselves and people who were like-minded. We weren’t trying to cast Holly and Christine aside, we were just trying to make space for new people in our lives.

A few days before the accident we were all in the gym trying to sign up for our classes for the following year. It was chaos, as it was every year, as hundreds of kids stood in line to get a class at a certain time that ideally was full of their friends. As I tried to make my way toward the sculpture class that I’d been eyeing since freshman year, Christine came up to me and wanted to get into some verbal altercation. You could tell she was looking for an argument.

“You’re being a real bitch lately, Mandy,” she said instead of the usual greeting of “hello.” To the best of my knowledge I hadn’t done anything so I rolled my eyes and tried to walk away, but she continued: “Holly told me you’re thinking about buying the same shoes she has and that’s fucked up.” I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but I do remember that she was trying to fight with me over some stupid shoes, so I just rolled my eyes again, told her I needed to add the art class before it was full and walked away. “I’m not talking to you until you stop being a bitch!” she yelled out at me. I shook my head, knew it would eventually blow over, as it always did, and laughed a bit that it had something to do with shoes — of all things. Three days later, Christine was gone and that afternoon in the gym was the last time we had spoken. She had just turned 18 years old the week before the accident.

Christine was buried on one of those perfect spring days without a cloud in the sky, and I remember that being the saddest part about the funeral. Not only was she gone, but the perfection of the day almost seemed to be mocking us all. Of course, the priest explained that it was Christine smiling down on all of us, but my lack of faith and religion doesn’t believe in such things. All I knew as I stood there staring at the brand new headstone, the one her heartbroken parents were forced to pick out just the day before for their daughter, the one that was so polished that it reflected the sun in a blinding way, that there were absolutely no words for the devastation they were feeling or the major loss we all experienced that day and every day that has followed.

Although I know that eventually our tiff that day over Holly’s shoes and me turning into a “bitch,” would have gone by boards, it still, and always will bother me that we weren’t speaking when she died. As the months that followed and the police investigated the accident, the fact that there were little to no brake marks led them to believe that maybe it hadn’t been an accident at all. In addition to that, other friends also revealed that right before the crash Christine had also pulled away from them, too. Even as recently as just this past Christmas when a bunch of us were in town, that possible theory came up again. However, I refuse to believe it or partake in conspiracy theories when it comes to the life of an 18-year-old girl being cut so short and so tragically on a windy back road, the same road we used to walk down as kids to get ice cream at the convenient store that is no longer there.

Although it was a lesson I learned too late when it came to Christine, I have since made it a point to never leave even the slightest argument unresolved with anyone I love. There are some things you just can’t take back and when the other party is taken from you, that regret and guilt never, ever goes away.

Whenever I’m in my hometown, I always stop to visit her grave. I kiss her stone and leave her flowers. Although I’m leaving those flowers for Christine, I’m also doing it for her mom, too. The moss has grown up over the base of the headstone and the way the marbled shined the day of her funeral has faded tremendously thanks to the harsh New England winters, but I figure if her mom shows up and sees flowers there that she didn’t leave the last time she went to visit her only daughter, then that alone will have been worth it. I don’t ever want her mother to think that the rest of us have forgotten her. I want her to know that we’ve never stopped thinking about her either.

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    • the WASP

      I admit to reading this piece with a chill in my spine because this same scenario happened to me, in May 1996. I still haven’t forgiven myself. It’s impossible to reconcile the immature BS from then with the life I lead today. I’m an attorney, twice-married with two beautiful daughters. I run, I drink, I go on vacation, I sing at the top of my lungs in the car sometimes. And my best friend — a guy — doesn’t. He’s been dead for — Jesus, it’s been 16 years next month.

      To this day, I never leave arguments unresolved. Ever. I always tell my husband I love him, even when he’s being a douche. I ask friends and family to text or call when they arrive at their destinations. I’m a cautious driver. I take anti-anxiety meds. But I never leave things unsaid.

      My story, the short version, goes like this:
      My high school boyfriend was being a jerk to me and had unceremoniously dumped me (again), in large part because I wasnt good enough for him. My bestie, a guy, was giving me lip about him, including to slam my choice of sleeping with said boyfriend. Bestie at the time had a VERY serious girlfriend and unbeknownst to me, had told her he was a virgin when they first got together. The truth, that I did know, was that he’d actually screwed some skank who by then had a few kids. No joke. In front of a room full of people, in late April 1996, in response to the Bestie busting on the (now-ex) boyfriend, I said something to the effect of, “at least I didn’t give it up to the Skank.” Again, I didnt know his untruth about virginity, so there was quite a lot of shock when that bomb dropped. I sincerely didn’t mean the content of my words to cause any trouble. I was trying to get him to back off, so I chose to push a button; I just didn’t know the button was secret. He stormed out that night, right then, and I never saw him alive again. Fast forward to Mid-May. It was my birthday and a bunch of us were going out for trendy pizza (and drinks, likely) to celebrate. My parents had given me my own phone line ages before, and I had my own Speed Dial set up. I accidentally dialed him (speed dial 1) instead of my other friend (speed dial 4). When he picked up, I was confused. I said “bestie?” and he said, “what.” all jerk-like. I explained the mis-key, and he said “well, don’t let it happen again.” And then he hung up. He died six days later. He was 17. Some drunk broadsided him in the early evening, having had too many at happy hour. Bestie was leaving his part-time summer job. He broke his neck instantly. They claim he never even saw it coming.

      Anyway, this sort of this is a profound, profound loss. No chance to say “I love you,” or “I’ll miss you,” or even “I’m sorry,” carries with you forever. Like you, whenever I’m in New England, I visit his grave. My older daughter has also been, as has her father, my ex-husband, the same guy that the Bestie warned me about. I Should have listened.

      Good luck with your reconciliation. If you ever find the roadmap to Peace in this situation, please share it. Best wishes.

    • NotThumper

      I’m so sorry for your loss Amanda. I can’t imagine losing a friend that young. I’ve lost friends along the way (one of my high school friends was murdered) but they weren’t as close to me as Christine obviously was to you.

      I admit to crying while reading this. No matter the reason a young life cut so short is devastating.

    • Maggie

      I’m so sorry for your loss Amanda. Losing a friend is one of the most horrible things to go through; I had a similar thing happen when I was in high school. One of my best friends started having trouble at home and at school, so he started drinking and doing drugs. I tried to stand by him but after I found out he started using meth, I confronted him and told him I couldn’t stand by and watch this happen to him anymore. A few months later, he died of an overdose. I’ll never forget how guilty I felt for not standing by him. It’s hard to get over that feeling that maybe if I’d stood by and helped him get clean rather than leave him to deal on his own, he’d still be here.

      One thing that has helped me get through this is that I know he knew I cared about him. If it’s any consolation Amanda, it sounds like you and Christine had a good friendship before your last fight, so regardless of how you left things, I’m sure she knew you cared about her, and I don’t think she would’ve tried to confront you like that if she didn’t care about you too! It’s incredibly painful to lose a good person so young, but doing right by their memory, as you are, is the best way to cope.

    • Nicole

      Amanda,
      First, I am sorry for your loss.

      Second, I want to thank you for posting this, even though it was probably very tough. I, too, feel guilty about a friend’s death. A few years ago, when I was a freshman in college, a close friend and I were arguing and weren’t speaking. We ended up at the same party one night and he approached me. We ended up hashing it out and forgiving each other that night. Later, as I was leaving (I was sober) he was in the back seat of my car – I told him that I would drive him home. At the last minute he decided to stay at the party and told me that he would just crash there. It was the last time I saw him alive. He ended up getting into the car with a drunk driver, who lost control of the car and hit a tree, killing both of them. And the eerie part – I called him to see if he was home at 1:10 am. The police said the crash happened at 1:11 am.

      I am so grateful that I got the chance to make things right with him. I feel like if I had just insisted he stay in the car, he would still be alive today. I feel as though his death is my fault.

      I can’t imagine how you feel, never getting the chance to resolve things. I want to offer my sincere apologies. And I really thank you for writing this fine piece and sharing it with us.

    • ae

      I’m in my early 20s and have exprienced the loss of 3 very, very close friends: one from cancer in high school, another from a severe asthma attack, one in a freak accident [a falling tree limb during a hike.] We were all on the best of terms so I don’t feel guilt on that end but the one who had had the freak accident had been trying all day to call me– I kept putting my cell on silent because I was in my own world, upset about something totally unrelated and trivial. He left a voicemail on that last call and within the next few hours was dead. I don’t allow myself to feel guilt over it– these losses are tragic but none of them had anything to do with us or our behaviors or pettinesses. None of us are big enough to have prevented any of these tragedies from happening. What is there to feel guilt over? Someone lost a life, which was tragically cut short, a parent lost a child, other friend’s lost him/her– if anything, the guilt, is selfish. This loss isn’t about any of us– it’s way bigger than thinking we could have done something different. Accept that you and your friend would have made up, accept that your friend made the choice to ride with a drunk driver, and forgive yourselves. Accept that they knew[and know] they were surrounded by love and had the promise of life in front of them but that , for whatever reason, things unfolded differently.

    • Brit

      What a beautifully-written, poignant story. You channeled your heartache into some great work.

      When you mention leaving the flowers both for Christine and for her mom, I teared up. It’s a lovely gesture and I’m sure they both appreciate it.

      I’m so sorry for your loss.

      • Amanda Chatel

        Thank you, Brit.

    • Juliana

      I feel so bad for you that this happened. I had a similar experience.
      One of my best friends had a guy friend I hooked up with once. We hung out casually on weekends but nothing ever came out of it and he was planning on moving out of state shortly after.
      Right before he moved, my best friend and me and him all went out and had drinks and said our goodbyes. I was sad because I had a crush on him but he was leaving so there was no point in telling him.
      A few days after he moved, he called me and confessed that he too had feelings for me. While I was happy about that, he had already moved so there was no point in trying to start a relationship so we let it go.
      He got in a really bad car wreck shortly ever. He survived but was bed ridden for a year and would text/call me occasionally telling me how much life sucked and he was depressed, etc. I listened and did what I could but I was across the country and couldn’t really help him out all that much. Eventually, I stopped taking his calls because I couldn’t handle it.
      About a year after his accident I got a few calls from his number within a couple days but kept ignoring them, because I honestly didn’t want to deal with them. I just kept making up excuses why I couldn’t pick up and promised to call him back soon.
      One day, about a week after all the calls, I got another one and decided to answer. It was his mother, she was calling all the people on his phone he communicated with to tell them that he had been in another accident and this time he died. He was driving home from work and swerved into the lane of oncoming traffic and hit a truck dead on.
      Although it was never said, me and some other friends think he did it on purpose. There were no brake marks, he was sober, it was the middle of the day, and he was severly depressed.
      I blame myself all the time for his death. If I would’ve just picked up the phone, if I could have just talked to him one more time, if I would have just listened to him instead of being such a self involved asshole, then maybe I could have saved him.

      • Amanda Chatel

        Juliana -

        I realize your situation is much different from mine, but as someone who suffers from severe depression, I can promise you that even if you did pick up the phone and had listened, if he crashed his car on purpose you could not have saved him. You could have quelled the pain for a moment, but when you’ve put your mind to ending your life, no person, no thing, nothing… can change your mind. Trust me on this one.

        So as much as it hurts to have lost him and the guilt that comes because you didn’t get a chance to make it right before he passed away, ultimately, you could not have saved him from himself. I survived a suicide attempt, and I promise you there’s nothing anyone could have done or said to stop me from doing what I did that day.

        I hope that provides as least a tiny bit of solace.

    • Amanda Chatel

      Thank you to all of you for your kind words and sharing your own personal stories. xox.

    • Jess

      This is beautiful and I am so sorry for your loss. A close friend of mine passed away in a car accident as well in 2010. It had been months since we last talked and we were not on good terms. There hasn’t been a day since he died that I haven’t felt guilt for not fixing things while I had the chance.
      It’s always nice to hear that I’m not alone in feeling like this.
      Thank you.