Losing a Best Friend: Lessons Learned From a Decade of Life, Love, & Loss

Cassie Wilkins
7 min readMar 22, 2021

“Life is short. Life is short. Life is short.”

One of my favourite photos of Charlie & me — back in the days before camera phones

Those words take me right back to a little beach in Cambodia circa 2014, when a friend of mine would get up on stage at the open mic night and perform a moving ode to the beauty and brevity of our time on this earth. Listening to her speak, with the sounds of the waves in the background and a sense of freedom and optimism drifting on the sea breeze, everything felt right in the world — in a way that I’d never expected it to feel again, at least not since I’d lost one of my best friends in a car crash just three years before.

Then, at 24, I was older than he ever had the chance to be. His short life had come to a devastatingly abrupt end at the tender age of 22, on the 22nd March 2011.

I can’t remember the exact date I met Charlie, but I remember how he made me feel. I can’t recall his laugh, but I remember it was one of those great ones — those ones that make everyone else around smile. He was in the other school in town, where most of my friends went. I hated school, so I’d escape as soon as I could, walking the mile or two into town to catch up with them instead. As a crew, we’d spend our evenings and weekends in the park or the skate park, or commandeering the comfy sofas in the town’s coffee shop, watching the laughter and warmth inside fog up the glass so much we could draw faces in it.

He was a core member of the gang — but someone I also connected with on a deeper level. Perhaps it was our shared experience of depression. Perhaps it was the desire for something more, perhaps it was a love of photography — of documenting moments, of telling stories. Perhaps it was because he had lived in Australia, and I knew deep down that I couldn’t wait to leave — to maybe even visit his adopted homeland, a place a world away from the stifling spot where I’d grown up.

Either way, he was one of my favourite people in the world. One of the few that I didn’t lose touch with when I went to university to pursue my dreams, one who always had faith in me, that I’d make it in the world, and that I could do and be whatever and whoever I wanted.

When I got the news that he had passed away, I felt my world shatter. Before that, my life was ascending along a planned trajectory: school, university, career, family. The idea of it all being cut short and never actually having a chance to LIVE had never crossed my mind.

It’s amazing how immortal you feel when you are young — with your whole future stretching out ahead of you.

Of course, I’d lost loved ones before — grandparents, great grandparents, much-adored family pets. But, this was different. I’d never been faced with my own mortality before. Looking back, I had plenty of run-ins: the time I almost drowned in the ocean after I got caught in the tumbling waves and kept getting smashed onto the rocks and dragged back into the swell; the motorbike crash when I was solo backpacking through Southeast Asia; the dodgy hitchhike where I got picked up by someone who tried to assault me in the woods — to name a few of many lucky escapes. Before then, though, they were just experiences on this journey we call life. To be honest, they’re still experiences on this journey we call life (and have added to the huge pile of lucky escapes), but now they’re framed differently.

So, I guess that brings us to the lessons.

Life is short

None of us are immortal. Life is breathtakingly beautiful in its brevity — but brief it is. Even those days that feel like they drag on forever come to an end, and with them, the weeks and months also come tumbling by. I ended up spending nearly four years calling that beach in Cambodia home, but, looking back, it still feels like the blink of an eye.

Collect little moments of happiness

There is something to be said about appreciating the little things. Even when we’re in the midst of our grief and we feel like we’ll never smile or laugh again. Even when it feels like the world will never be the same again. Well, spoiler alert, it won’t be — but that’s okay too.

Life is constantly changing and evolving, and we are too. But even through the floods of tears and the heavy haze of grief, there are still moments of beauty that shine through the darkness — illuminating the wonder of nature and of life itself. Try to focus on them, even if they’re few and far between.

To live is a gift. To love is a gift. To lose is… definitely not a gift, but the lessons it can teach us are, even if it’s just to appreciate the little things and stop sweating the small stuff. To start living again and seize that moment — to do the things we can for the others who cannot. In my humble opinion, there’s no better catalyst to kickstart us into creating and living the life we want, rather than just letting the days pass us by. Though saying that, I’d take Charlie back in a heartbeat if I could. This isn’t about changing the past though — it’s about learning from loss.

Let things go

Honestly, life is far too short to hold grudges. There are so many things it would be easy to get angry about or to hold space for, but the only person they’re really affecting is you. So, give yourself the freedom to let things go, and focus on what you love and what means the most to you. It’s amazing what can happen when all this other stuff isn’t weighing you down.

For me, that came from learning to let go of the survivor’s guilt that I was left with after Charlie passed. It was illogical, yes, but it was real. I looked at how much everyone was suffering and just wished I could do anything to help ease the pain. I’d done so much stupid stuff in my life — on purpose! — so how was it fair that everything was stolen from him in a split second in an accident that wasn’t even his fault?

I carried that with me for far too long. I learned to live with it and embraced it as a part of me. But, eventually, I shifted it into a need to live. To push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the unknown and exciting in new ways — because he’d never had the chance to. Ultimately, it was one of the most beautiful things that could have happened.

Do the thing

So, do the thing. Seize the moment. Live. I actually got a tattoo way back in 2010 after that aforementioned motorbike accident that reminded me to live in the moment every day, but it wasn’t until Charlie died that it really sunk in. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Control what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Fully embrace the now. Well, not the right now — as we’re still in the middle of a pandemic — but you know, don’t just let your dreams pass you by. Take action, set achievable goals. You’ve got this.

Life is in the journey

When you think about it, life is just what happens to us in between achieving our goals. Suddenly, before you know it, those months and years have flown by, and you’re still waiting for those dreams, plans and goals to manifest. Let yourself surrender to the ride instead — you’ll be surprised what magic can be found in the most unexpected places.

Plans never quite go according to plan

After Charlie died, I decided that all I wanted was to leave the UK and travel. I’d never really fitted into life in the UK and it didn’t feel like somewhere I wanted to spend the rest of my days. I used my passion and experience travelling to get a job as a RTW travel agent which equipped me with the skills and know-how to build up a career as a travel writer and freelance trip planner — although I didn’t actually realise that until much later.

At the time, I just saved up some money, booked a one-way ticket to New Zealand via Sri Lanka and figured the rest would just fall into place along the way. In fact, it worked out better than I ever could have expected and I cancelled my flight to New Zealand and ended up calling Cambodia home instead. Funnily enough, even after leaving Cambodia, I’ve still never actually made it to New Zealand — even after seven and a half years — but I know I will one day. Though I know it won’t be the end of my journey — it’ll just be the turning of a new page.

For now, I’m in Australia — Charlie’s adopted homeland — and it feels like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.

Nostalgia is a beautiful thing

I treasure every single memory I have with Charlie — and, to be honest, every single other memory I have too, especially at the moment. I love the nostalgia that floods over me when I think back on days gone by, when I look over old photos and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ — of which there have been many. Of course, a lot of them are tinted with sadness, but it’s happy sadness.

I guess that’s what nostalgia is. Memories of moments that make up life — the good, the bad, and the ugly. And in my case, it’s a life fully lived. A life lived for two. A life that will always have existed because of love and loss.

A life that only exists because of Charlie.

--

--

Cassie Wilkins

Writer, adventurer, dreamer, recovering wanderer. Currently embracing slow, sustainable living, inner journeys & taking time to smell (and grow) the roses