A Different Kind of Grief

Oct 24, 2020 | Op-Ed

Mourning the loss of an imaginary friend

Sometimes, we have to let go. Just as Facebook introduced us to “Friend” as a verb, we are learning to “Unfriend,” and even as it breaks our hearts to do it, it brings peace of mind. And freedom.

For years, we have agonized over cutting ties with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors over their problematic social media posts. It would be unloving, unkind, and overly harsh if we cut people out of our lives every time they make a mistake, or say something thoughtless or unkind. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…

I don’t believe that social media makes monsters of “nice people,” though. It often reveals a side of us that we’ve not been taught to conceal, online, as if “online” were an imaginary country, populated by imaginary friends. Like Vegas, what happens online, stays online.

But that’s not true, is it?

Real People

I know people who claim they’ve received death threats over anti-racist and anti-misogynistic posts they’ve made on LinkedIn. I believe them.

I know people who can no longer suffer in polite silence at the dinner table, and who probably won’t be attending the annual family holiday gatherings, because they have come to realize that the people they thought loved them unconditionally really do believe that gay people — like them — are aberrant and ought to die.

I know people who sincerely believe that, when it comes to police brutality, it’s just “a few bad apples” on the police force, and we ought to show unquestioning support for the police. Yet these same people think all Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs, rioters, and looters. They cite that one Black friend who pretends to agree with them, for the sake of peace, as evidence that they are right.

I know people who think women are to be cherished — until they open their mouths to contradict a man or to have the audacity to tell him, “No.” Then it’s open season to condescend to them, to berate them, to make their lives hell on the job, online, or at home, or to beat them into submission.

I know people who believe strongly in freedom of religion. Unless you’re Muslim. Consistent with their view of Black Lives Matter protesters, these people are incapable or unwilling to distinguish between the faith and theology of Islam and the radical terrorist organizations springing out of theocratic, Islamist nations like Saudi Arabia or Iran. In truth, terrorism rarely springs out of something as simple as religious ideology, and it is never universally supported by the people of any nation. Phil Price, writing for Homeland Security Today, summarizes some of the findings in “Terrorism and Ideology: Cracking the Nut by Donald Holbrook and John Horgan”:

The authors argue that rather than being a direct, intellectual and theoretical basis for a terrorist’s commitment, ideology paints a bigger picture. It creates a climate and feeds a narrative where social and personal issues can be harnessed, such as anger at some perceived injustice, a sense of identification with a group — real or fantasy — and a belief that a particular organization can deliver results or salvation — political, collective, or personal.

It seems logical to assume that if people, and nations, felt heard and cared for by other people, and other nations — if they believed that anyone truly gave a damn about redressing their grievances — we would not have so much conflict and terrorism in the world.

I know people who are angry and belligerent when they are required to wear masks during a pandemic — despite the fact that their mask protects others from a potentially deadly disease, and others’ masks protect them. Many of these same people, though, think it’s their business — if not their God-given duty — to control women — in everything from how they dress to when and how they can obtain birth control or reproductive healthcare or abortions. Some of them blame women who seek abortions for engaging in “irresponsible sex” and would not lift a finger or agree to their tax dollars supporting her and her child(ren) after she gives birth.

What they may not realize (or conveniently choose to overlook) is that many of the women seeking abortions are married and have one or more children that they are struggling to support. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “Some 75% of abortion patients in 2014 were poor (having an income below the federal poverty level of $15,730 for a family of two in 2014) or low-income (having an income of 100–199% of the federal poverty level).” Still, few are willing to consider that the best route to decreasing the abortion rate is not to criminalize a woman’s reproductive choices, but to make changes in society that would make abortion seem unnecessary in all but the most dire medical circumstances.

Politics and Morality

“Let’s just agree to disagree.” That works — if what we’re disagreeing over is whether pineapple or anchovies belong on pizza. You eat pizza your way; I’ll enjoy mine my way. If we have to share the pizza, we ought to be able to compromise — perhaps to agree that, for now, we’ll skip the pineapple and the anchovies, and just enjoy a cheese pizza and good conversation. That’s resource allocation and diplomacy.

But the central issues of the day run deeper than a difference of opinion. They’re not about whether to paint the police station burnt umber or café au lait.

A good friend of mine once said that she believed politics was “religion manifest.” Politics speak to our core values. And no political party is perfection; each side speaks to the values of the like-minded, but 330,150,668 people will never sing in unison. The best we can hope for is harmony, and peace.

There is no “perfect” candidate. No candidate of ideological purity. No candidate that represents us, and our opinions, all the time. And if there were, we would never vote for them in sufficient numbers to elect them to the office of President.

We choose the best we can, with the information we have at hand. And we judge one another for that choice. Sometimes, too harshly. Sometimes, not harshly enough.

I would urge everyone to vote — but before voting, to research the proven track record, not just their pretty, ideological words or the mud-slinging accusations lobbed at their opponent. What have they done that is consistent with your core values? Does it reflect their own claims, their pretty words?

I would urge everyone to vote in accordance with their values, not with the “herd.” Ignore the polls, the statistics, the speculation on the odds. What does any of that matter when you mark your ballot? Just vote.

Loss of Our Imaginary Friends

I believe the sadness we feel over alienation from family, the loss of friends, and the severing of social media connections isn’t grief at losing the person. They haven’t died. What’s died is the notion that they were ever who we believed them to be. We see the layered veneer peeled back — we see the whole self they’ve not brought to the office. And it hurts, sometimes.

We feel grief at realizing they were fictional characters in our heads. That they were not “better than that.” And that those fictional characters, our “imaginary friends,” have died. We want to believe that we can rewrite them, fix the flaws we only just now realized they had. We can’t.

I fully believe that without the space to screw up, to apologize — sincerely, to make amends, to be forgiven, and be allowed to try again, people will not bother to grow and change for the better. We don’t kick our children to the curb every time we’re angry with them. We shouldn’t do it with people we care about, either. They’ll lick their wounds and find validation and acceptance within their echo chamber. But no one is owed unconditional acceptance of the unacceptable, just because we like and admire other things about them.

Sometimes, we have to cut each other loose, and mourn what never was.

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Kathryn LeRoy

    Holly, you put words to deep feelings and the constant assault between real or imaginary loyalty. We struggle to belong in our families and communities and, at the same time, live in our values. For myself, I have learned that the current discourse has given legitimacy to bullying, ridicule, and hatred. Naively, I believed we, as a nation, as humans, had moved the needle on racism, discrimination, and bigotry. In the past five years, I have witnessed the unleashing of the deep-seated belief in the superiority of the white, male, and privileged.

    We can do better, and we must.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I believed that, too, Kathryn – that we had not just “moved the needle” but rendered racism, discrimination, and bigotry that minority position – not the norm. This is my “wokeness” such as it is: That we are NOT “better than that.” To BE “better than that” remains an aspirational goal and an inspirational message from those who hope to lead. I used to tell my daughter that if you scratch the surface of any adult deep enough, you’ll find the tantrum-throwing toddler lurking within. Oh, how depressing it is to see how right I was about that.

      Now, “moving the needle” isn’t enough. The objects of bullying, ridicule, hatred, and systemic discrimination have waited LONG ENOUGH. Women have waited long enough; how much worse has it been for women of color? But the thing that really gets me is how wasteful it all is. Remember those UNCF commercials: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”? All my life, I’ve been seeing those. And we’re still wasting them.

    • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

      I think now that we should have noticed that even eight years of a wonderful president was not enough – with the Republicans in the Senate, under the hand of McConnell, refusing to do their job. If only Obama had known that he needed to do everything in his first few months in office! But then he expected some civility from the opposition, not that submerged constant hate that left 400+bills ignored.

      It won’t be better until no one is afraid to vote. And Black mothers and fathers don’t have to give their children ‘the talk.’

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Unfortunately timely topic, and true.

    It does seem to show that people have never been who we hoped they were.

    But when I have said, “Putting children in cages is unacceptable,” the answer has not been “Yes.” It has been “Obama did it FIRST,” which is patently not true.

    This is the response for every unacceptable behavior presented from the top down. “It’s okay because…”, when it clearly isn’t.

    I don’t know how these people are ever going to be friends again – they are only there when their privilege is not exposed.

    I used to be afraid to speak out on so many topics – because “we’re making some progress” was the reply. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogynism have never been okay, in my opinion – but I was hesistant to express that opinion, especially growing up in Mexico (do NOT make waves, and stay in your woman’s place), where we were like the Victorians, with servants handling the inconveniences of the home (females) and the outside of the house (males), and where if you were middle class you could hope to have this.

    No one else spoke with me – and I learned to keep my opinions to myself. I basically voted with my feet, by not going back after college (my whole family still lives there, and they have a much more life-of-ease existence than I do (but not to hear them talk)).

    But I kept my head down, pushed against male privilege by getting a PhD in hard science, and being a working adult, and trying to live the American version (where there is still privilege but it is more expensive).

    I’m glad now that I’ve found there are many people who think Black Lives Matter, and women should not have to bear unwanted children, and transgender people are just people. But it’s still hard, and the fact that the problems have been papered over even longer makes them even harder to solve.

    I thought being brought up Catholic and practicing it as an adult was supposed to mean loving everyone as we were taught; it doesn’t seem to, a lot of the time. I still try, but there is a lot of unexploded ordnance out there.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Write a good book, they saidMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      “…a lot of unexploded ordnance out there.” Oh, isn’t that the truth?

      I’m the first to admit that I struggle with “loving everyone.” But I care and wouldn’t even want to see horrible people suffer. I just want them to be put where they can’t damage others, not in positions of power and authority. I want everyone to have their basic needs covered, so they can live without constantly worrying whether they’ll have food, clothing, and shelter. I want us all to have clean air and water, and health care when we need it. I can’t understand the cruelty of those who would deny others these basic things, or not extend to all the things they, themselves, consider to be their “rights.”

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        We don’t understand the fear that leads to the cruelty.

        But we have to do something about not letting it run rampant.

        It’s time. Time for universal healthcare. Time to be more socialist – so that everyone has some of the privileges now reserved for the 1%. Time to take the taxes on the rich to where they pay their fair share for the MANY advantages they’ve enjoyed.

        Time to make it true that any child in this country – including the girls, and anyone who is not binary about sexual identity – grow up with enough food to develop properly, enough education to live well and develop their gifts, and freedom of religion and freedom from fear. So they can aspire to be president, too. And have a real chance. We are wasting way too much of our intellectual capital, as you’ve said. Too many of our minds.
        Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Write a good book, they saidMy Profile

  3. Bindilal

    Hey Dear Holly,

    I just found your blog and found every article that I read very useful and informative. In future I will read all of you latest useful and informative posts.

    Thanks for great post!
    Bindilal recently posted…Things That Parents Should Know About Their ChildrenMy Profile


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