The headlines blared, “Woman Dead in Flat for 3 Years.” I stopped in my tracks to read it again. That couldn’t be possible. I read the rest of the article, and it was a while before I realized the tears streaming down my face. How did she die? How many deaths had she died before she actually took her last breath? Three years? Thirty-six whole months? One thousand and ninety-five days and no one, not a single person, had cared enough to seek her out? How does that happen?


It transported me to an Autumn day in New York City. I was fresh out of law school and had moved to New York City to pursue a dream. I was going to work on a packed A train when a man began coughing uncontrollably and foaming at the mouth. People immediately scrambled away from him. He collapsed on the floor of the train just as we pulled into a station. I, too, was sacred. I watched people step over him to get off the train. Some medical personnel showed up and began working on him as I exited the train. No one wanted to touch him. Maybe he had AIDS, I heard someone say.

I was so traumatized by the image of this man sprawled on the dirty floor alone and gasping for breath that I ran out of the subway station and flagged a taxi I could ill afford to head not to work but back to the efficiency I rented in Bedford Stuyvesant. Being alone in a medical emergency could be my fate, too. I found myself solo in the bustling heart of the “Big Apple,” a Black woman navigating the city without the comfort of family or long-time friends in close proximity. Despite my reserved nature, I relished my own company. Although I had managed to forge a couple of connections in this vibrant city, I frequently failed to maintain those ties.


I was so rattled that I couldn’t bring myself to call into work; I just didn’t show up. The journey back to my place is a blur in my memory. Other tenants occupied various efficiencies and rooms in the three-story brownstone I called home. I remained a stranger to them, and they, to me, our names shrouded in mutual anonymity.


It was dark outside when I heard a knock on my door. I had neither eaten nor slept so wound up in my grief for the unknown man and a loneliness that had wrapped itself snuggly around me. There was the knock again. No one knocked on my door. I looked through the peephole and saw the face of a colleague. I opened the door but did not let him in. We often rode the Staten Island ferry together to work. He was a professor at the college where I worked as an administrator. He said he was concerned when he did not see me on the ferry. My assistant, who knew we were friendly, had sought him out to inform him that I had not been to work and had not called in either. He got my address from her and assured her he’d check up on me. He did not have my phone number. I didn’t even give my address to my family, who all lived in other states.


We walked out to the street, and standing under a streetlight, I told him about the events of my morning. I may have cried. I thanked him for checking on me and assured him I was okay.


Still shaken, I returned to work the next day. I have never forgotten the look on the face of the man on the train. I have often wondered if he survived and if any loved one came to his rescue. I wish I had dared to do more than watch him and call 911. At that, I was just one among strangers, a black woman. Is that what happened to Joyce Carol Vincent? How does a person die, and no one notices for three whole years?


An Igbo proverb says, Onye nwere mmadụ ka onye nwere ego. That loosely translates as one who has a friend is more prosperous than one with material wealth. In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates recognized the importance and value of relationships when he wrote, “I didn’t always have things, but I had people – I always had people.”


At a young age, I understood the importance of having people, of having people you could count on. Without reading any philosophy books, I knew that if I wanted caring, loyal friends, I must be a caring and loyal friend. As an introvert and one in the public eye at a fairly young age, I had enough sense to know I did not need or want many friends. I just needed one or two people who had my back and whose backs I had, too. It was time to re-evaluate how I was living. It was time to recommit to nurturing my relationships.


My most extended friendship has spanned four decades and two continents. This friend has seen me at my best and my worst, and through it all, she has loved me, and I, her. While many of us may realize the importance of friendships, building lasting friendships takes work. Many of us can share harrowing tales of broken friendships, betrayal, and pain. The fact that you deeply care for a person does not mean it will be reciprocated, but that is a risk you must be willing to take to find those people you can rely on as you go through life. It is also noteworthy that having various levels of friendship is perfectly fine.


I am confident some people did not feel I was a good friend to them. There are many reasons a friendship may not work out. I recall a relationship I built with a great lady over a couple of years. She was full of life, loving, and fun; we shared some common interests. Our children enjoyed each other’s company, and there was never a dull moment with her. Being her friend was exciting. So, what went wrong? I did. More specifically, my inability to match her time and energy ultimately caused us not to maintain as close a relationship as we previously had. We all have different ideas of friendship and what it entails. In the final analysis, I could not sustain the output of energy she required. I enjoy people’s company, but I also need solitude to recharge. Sometimes, she felt closed out, and I was overwhelmed by what felt like the constant need for attention. Although we are not close friends today, we know we can still count on each other in a pinch.

I share these stories to buttress the importance of building and maintaining meaningful relationships. Understanding yourself is the first step in deciding who to trust and build friendships with. The more honest you are with yourself, the more natural and authentic you can be in your relationships with others. Sometimes, in our quest for intimacy, we may present ourselves as what we know people want us to be versus who we really are. But that is rarely sustainable in the long run.

If you struggle to make and sustain friendships, consider whether these challenges apply to you. You wait for the other person to make the first move. You meet someone you would like to get to know better, but if the person does not initiate a deeper conversation or other opportunities to get together, you do not reach out either. You miss out on a possible connection. You are closed off and need to be more readily open to people. How do people get to know you if you refuse to share anything about yourself? You must be willing to share something personal to form connections with others. You

You may have the opposite issue where you talk and share too much and essentially suck the oxygen out of every encounter. Most people would be wary of trying to forge a relationship with such a person. It is also imperative that you allow time for friendships to grow organically. I have had women who immediately wanted to be my BFF (Best Friends Forever), and we barely knew each other. When people seem to go from zero to 120 in a few days, the discerning person will be running in the opposite direction.

There are other challenges to building and sustaining friendships; most are tied to balance and reciprocity. Friendships can be negatively impacted if there is an imbalance in compassion or the expression of such or in time and energy. If you are always available to your friend, but your friend gets back to you whenever it is most convenient for them, that changes how you feel about your friendship.

Examine how others may perceive you. Are you known to be judgmental? Do you gossip about others? Do you tend to put others down? Do you express jealousy when others are being celebrated? Other challenges to friendships include:

Ineffective communication.

Betrayal of trust.

A need for control.

Being a know-it-all.

Lack of empathy.

Geographical distance.

Differences in affiliations, lifestyles, and expectations.

Poor conflict resolution skills.


What I know for sure is that all the challenges of authentic friendships are worth it. My friends and I have seen each other through romantic breakups, academic challenges, marriage, divorce, childbirth, miscarriages, illnesses, deaths of parents, career changes, mental health challenges, child-rearing, and more. We have laughed, cried, and shared our joys and our sorrows. Our friendships work because we are aligned in our values; we understand and respect each other and how we show up in the world. We have fun, communicate honestly, and are authentic in our interactions.

I have friends I speak with and see more often than others. We understand what binds us. We respect the demands of our time. We know and have proven that though we may only sometimes be available, we will be there when it counts most.

I cannot imagine going through life without forging these intimate relationships. I would not trade my friends for all the wealth in the world. Because their friendship matters to me, I nurture and protect those relationships. I am to them what I want in my life, and it is always my goal to share my love with them in a way that honors who they are.

If you struggle with establishing and maintaining authentic and nurturing relationships, take a personal inventory and examine the patterns in your past friendships. Consider contacting past and current friends and asking them for feedback on your relationship with them. There are a plethora of books on creating friendships. You can also work with a Life Coach to help you sort through any underlying issues that impede your ability to connect with people in the manner you desire. The invisibility and tragic death of Joyce Carol Vincent, amongst other things, is a cautionary tale. For a woman who, it appeared, lived a whole life including jobs, engagements, and interactions with celebrities including Gil Scott-Heron and Stevie Wonder, the fact that no one missed her enough to check on her in at least three years is sobering. The time to plug into or create a loving community is now. For more articles and to book Aya for your event or podcast, visit


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