It’s been nearly two years since one of my dearest friends, Natalie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, the news hit hard among my close-knit group of girlfriends who date back to high school. The thought of losing our loyal, funny, fashionable friend was unthinkable — an instant tear-jerker, a pit in our stomachs that kept us each awake at night wondering what we could do.
So, without any script or rule book to follow, my friends and I threw ourselves into gestures we hoped would make a difference.
Our friend Chrissy, a stay-at-home mom with four very active children, cleared her schedule for a full day each month so she could sit with Natalie at chemotherapy appointments. She’d bring coffee, bagels or VHS tapes of high school talent shows that made Natalie laugh hysterically — even as toxic and frightening chemicals dripped into her body.
Anngie, Natalie’s younger sister, took a week off of work to be with her after her mastectomy. She babysat Natalie’s two young daughters, polished her toenails and lovingly helped her into the shower for the first time post-surgery — never batting an eye at her sister’s scarred and changed body.
And I and other members of our tribe took turns dropping off meals, going to her house to fold laundry, and calling and texting her with uplifting messages, which felt like paltry gestures compared with the pain and fear our beloved friend was feeling.
But two years later, as Natalie enjoys being back to good health, and spent this Breast Cancer Awareness Month encouraging Facebook friends to get mammograms, she says the support she got from her female friends when she needed it most was unforgettable.
It’s a bond I’ve been thinking about lately, in the wake of my father’s death, as the women in my life have rushed to my aid with visits, meals and fun activities planned for us and our kids to keep my spirits lifted.
I don’t know how any woman could get through life without girlfriends. The ones who cry along with you when you tell them your sad news, share the 1,000-calorie peanut-butter chocolate cake with you after dinner so you feel less guilty and remind you of how brave and wonderful you are — even when you feel the complete opposite.
One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias,” adapted from the play, which just like its title, captures the strength and beauty of female relationships. The scene that gets me every time is at the end, when Sally Field‘s character is so overcome with grief over the death of her daughter, she exposes her raw heartbreak to her three best friends who, still in their funeral attire, walk, listen and cry along with her.
“I just want to hit somebody until they feel as bad as I do! I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard!” Field’s character screams, to which one of her girlfriends brilliantly reacts by grabbing another girlfriend and shoving her in front of Field.
“Here, hit this!” Olympia Dukakis’ character deadpans, both acknowledging her friend’s pain and breaking up the moment until they’re all laughing through tears.
It’s the emotionally perfect response that only a girlfriend could administer on the spot, in the midst of her own heartache.
And research shows that female relationships are not only biologically inherent, but good for our health.
“Women innately have a need for emotional expression,” said Ilene Kastel, a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Next Step Counseling in Chicago. “Women having a social network of other females that they closely trust is pivotal to things that impact women — like their self-esteem, getting emotional validation, getting support, feeling a part of one’s community.”
Kastel, who runs women empowerment support groups, said studies show that female relationships lead to noticeable decreases in health issues, from high blood pressure to anxiety and depression.
At the start of support groups, women often seem timid and unsure, she said, but by the end, they are exchanging phone numbers and making plans to attend each other’s life events.
This is why I’m not surprised by a new tribe of female friends that seems to be forming on my block in Elmhurst. After years of construction of new homes, our street is finally intact, which we celebrated earlier this month with our first annual block party.
The party — including barbecue, beer and a bouncy house — was organized by the husbands on the block. But since then, it’s the women who have kept in touch and been making plans for future gatherings.
I sent an email out to gauge interest in forming a mom’s group — for girls’ nights out, organized play groups and holiday gatherings. Within days, every single woman on the block had enthusiastically replied, and our first get-together was planned.
No one could ever replace Natalie, or my core group of besties I’ve known since I was young.
But if I’ve learned anything from my heartbreaks through the years, it’s that you can never have too many girlfriends.