For Sonderman, Hebner’s death was devastating. The women had envisioned one living near each other in Alaska, where the two of them had met, and where Hebner longed to return day. Now Sonderman had none of that to look forward to. For six months after Hebner’s death, she kept earphones in when she went to the grocery store. She couldn’t bear talk that is small.
Sonderman found it hard to translate her grief to others. “Most people don’t understand. They’ll just be like, ‘Oh yeah, I had a friend from high school who died’ or something and try to relate. But it doesn’t really resonate with me.” In other cases, people would impose a salacious and inaccurate story line onto their relationship to try to make sense of it. Because Hebner was bisexual, Sonderman said, some people believed that they were secretly lovers, and that Sonderman was closeted.
To Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Rice University whose research focuses on marriage, love, and sex, Sonderman’s experience is not just tragic but unjust. The law perpetuates the norm that friendships are less valuable than romantic relationships because friendship is outside the realm of legal protection. This norm, in turn, undermines any argument that committed friendships deserve legal recognition. But if, for example, the law extended bereavement or family leave to friends, Brake believes we’d have different expectations that are social mourning. People might have understood that, for Sonderman, losing Hebner was tantamount to losing a spouse.