The Healing Power of Female Friendship

by Kathleen Duhamel

Last summer, my BFF and I took a road trip, an entire week carved out for ourselves away from spouses, kids and the pressures of work. Imagine two graying baby boomer women who’ve known each other since junior high school and still haven’t run out of things to talk about. Thelma and Louise revisited, my husband called it. Except we didn’t kill anyone.

Granted, it wasn’t supposed to be a pleasure trip. My mother was in the hospital in Oklahoma City, suffering from renal failure, and I worried that at 95, she wouldn’t pull through.  I live in Virginia and Diane lives in the Denver area, so getting together even under the best circumstances is difficult.

“Fly to Denver,” she urged me, “and we’ll drive to see your Mom together. I’ll go see my cousin while I’m there. You don’t need to do this by yourself.”

We’re not talking about a leisurely drive. From her house it’s a 1,300-mile round-trip trek requiring an overnight stay both ways. During the hottest part of the summer. To Oklahoma, of all places, never high on our list of must-see destinations. If you ask me, making that kind of offer represents true friendship.

Off we went in her sleek little Volvo, packed with clothes and makeup, cell phones, a laptop computer and a basketful of CDs, mostly vintage stuff.  We rocked out to ZZ Top and waxed nostalgic over Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. We stayed in decent hotels and treated ourselves to good dinners and libations. The highlight was seeing one of our favorite bands, Steely Dan, in concert in downtown Oklahoma City. I couldn’t afford it, but we went anyway. Life is getting shorter all the time and sometimes you just have to cut loose.

I spent my days in the hospital waiting for the latest word from Mom’s doctor while my BFF worked out of our “guest cottage” at my mother’s assisted living facility. Fortunately, Mom got better. By the time the two of us headed back to Denver, the crisis had passed. She was scheduled to be released from the hospital and sent to rehab.

I’m not sure how I would have handled the stress without my bestie. But that’s the thing about female friendships that makes them last. We’re available for each other, if not physically present, always there in spirit. Sometimes it’s about encouragement, other times a shoulder to cry on. Or just to say, “Yeah, I know how you feel,” because at our age, chances are we’ve been there before.

In my novel, Deep Blue, the lifetime friendship between Claire and Denise is one of the story’s central elements. Claire, who’s all but given up on love, meets the man of her dreams but she’s apprehensive about his controversial past and his lifestyle as a touring musician. Denise is the person she goes to for support and guidance. When, early in their relationship, Rob makes an unfortunate remark about his late wife being “irreplaceable,” it’s Denise who gives her friend an objective look at the situation and helps her realize the extent of his grief.

After Denise’s long-term love relationship crumbles, she finds consolation with Claire (and a chicken pot pie), who promises her she’ll move on and “fly higher.” And she will.

They’re fully aware of each other’s flaws and shortcomings. They make allowances for each other. They are each other’s family in the truest sense of the word, with none of the pettiness and bickering that ruins many less mature relationships.

Scientific research tells us that friends help us live longer and better. A Harvard study found that the more friends women have, the less likely they are to develop physical impairments as they age, and more apt to be leading a happy life. Not having close friends or confidants, the researchers concluded, is as detrimental to health as smoking or being overweight.

I know the study’s findings have been true for me. When Diane and I returned from our road trip, we both commented that we felt revitalized, despite the stressful circumstances. I think it’s because we bring out each other’s best self.

As many of us have discovered, when you’ve passed the halfway point of life, time becomes your most precious commodity. There’s none of it left to waste with people you don’t care about. When I sold my novel, my BFF was the first person I called with the happy news. “I knew you were meant for this,” she told me, as if it were pre-ordained. Those few words of encouragement kept me smiling for the rest of the day.