The end of a friendship

Someone I was very close to has just died.

She has been dying ever since I met her, almost 6 years ago. It’s probably a miracle (combined with excellent medical care) that she lasted this long. I have always known she would die, but that doesn’t help. Not as much as I thought it would. Hardly at all.

I met her at what has now become my work, where I joined as a website volunteer alongside her. We didn’t get on all that well at first. I was probably competition, in a way. I got the paid job and she stayed as a volunteer. I thought she’d resent me for that, but I didn’t know how ill she was, even back then.


Over time, we began to respect each other. We grew to like each other, became friends. Though we never socialised much outside of the office, there was a bond between us.

She told me about her birth, to a German mother, in Amsterdam in 1944. She almost didn’t survive, the doctors told her father that it would be “better to kill her now.” How wrong they were.

I’ve seen her grow enormously in her volunteer work, which she was determined to do, no matter how sick she was. “I don’t want to sit at home behind the geraniums,” she’d say. So I let her work, and stifled my feelings that it wasn’t right somehow, to let someone so ill to do so much.

In the last twelve months she’s worked harder and harder, even taking work home to do on weekends. Maybe she had a sense of diminishing time, but if she did she never said.
When the news from the doctor wasn’t good, I tried to prepare myself for her death. But it didn’t help. I’ve spent 3 or 4 days a week with her for six years. In the last couple of years, I’ve probably seen more of her than I have of my partner.

It was bound to be difficult – I shouldn’t get too attached. I knew all this in my head. But the heart goes its own way and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The last time we were together, she gave me the strangest smile, and I had a feeling that this was no ordinary goodbye, it was a final farewell. I almost expected her to stand up and hug me. I could see that she wanted to, but it would have been odd and awkward on a crowded tram. Anyway there was no need, she was leaving on a 3 week holiday, not forever. And she never hugged easily, though sometimes, when she had bad news, she’d suffer my arm around her shoulder.

It’s hard to watch someone die slowly, over a period of years. But harder still that her final exit was so fast.

A week ago she was on a boat in Alaska watching whales. A few days ago, we were making plans for her return, she was jetlagged, but thinking about the future.

On Friday I phoned her at the hospital and she told me she’d given up. Now I can’t get my head round the idea that she’s not here.

Ina Breman 20 January 1944 – 25 June 2006



  1. We’ve spoken about this situation a number of times Debra but you’ve summed it up beautifully in just a few paragraphs. If in the future a friend should think enough of me to write something like this then I would count myself exceptionally lucky.

  2. Thanks, Marco. I wondered if it was a little self-indulgent to put this on my blog, but now I see it in another light.

  3. very moving, debra. especially about the goodbye, maybe ina did have an inkling somewhere that it could be the last time.

  4. Thank you for sharing this woman’s grace and courage with those of us who never met her. I will remember her words about not staying home and hiding behind the geraniums.

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