A blue-walled loft bedroom in an old church converted into condos. A wide leather couch, piled with blankets, in a cramped but comfortable house. A two-level, wood-floored apartment filled with abstract art, dried rose petals, and light. And a cozy guest room in a college town that I still think of as home.

Most friendships involve a balance between space and attention, with both parties weighing the needs of the friendship against the other obligations and people in their lives. During the winter and spring leading up to my divorce, several friends gave me the gift of space in a very particular way: opening up their homes to me, whether they were physically present or not.

Frankie was the first to make the offer, when I called her sobbing after my marriage—or the half-truths we had been telling ourselves about it—collapsed spectacularly on a cold February night. Instead of a planned romantic getaway to New York City with my husband, I slept on a friend’s pullout couch so I could catch an early morning flight from Boston to west Texas. Bleary-eyed and heartbroken, I spent the weekend soaking in the peace of Frankie’s house: sitting with her as she folded laundry, working a puzzle at the card table in the front living room, eating home-cooked meals in the kitchen with Frankie and her husband, Monty. I flew back to Boston having solved nothing, but feeling somehow steadied, and more ready for whatever was coming next.

Lauryn was the next one to give me a house key. After returning from Frankie’s, I went home only long enough to empty my suitcase and repack it with clean winter clothes. I dragged myself back through the snow to East Boston, where Lauryn had left a key under a loose brick near the front entrance, and spent six days staying alone in the apartment she shared with her husband and children. I slept in the loft and raided Lauryn’s tea stash in the mornings, a vase of daffodils adding a splash of cheer to the kitchen windowsill. I walked down snowy streets in the morning to catch the train to work, trying to adjust to this new wrinkle in my universe, unsure if anything would ever be the same again.

Chrissy and I went for a walk at the end of that week, bundled up against the cold winds whipping off the harbor. Her blue eyes, piercing and kind, met mine above her purple down coat, as she listened to me trying to make sense of my new reality. She invited me to stay the following weekend while her husband was away for work, insisting she could use another adult presence in the house with the kids. “You’d be doing me a favor,” she said. I packed a weekend bag and turned up on her doorstep, as agreed, helping with the dishes and admiring her daughter’s crayon drawings while I talked to her nearly teenage son about superheroes.

That spring, Chrissy put me in touch with Carolyn, who welcomed me into her spare bedroom for a couple of weekends. I slept under a puffy white duvet, waking to pink skies over the nearby airport and making friends with Phoenix the goldendoodle, who liked to steal my socks. One night, curled up in a cream-colored armchair, I spilled the complicated story of my marriage and how it might be ending. Carolyn listened with quiet attention, her luminous blue eyes taking in my every word and gesture. When I tried to pull back, making the sort-of-apology so many women do for taking up so much conversational space, she waved me off: “You have no idea the processing that’s happened in this room!”

That spring marked a turning point for me: not only facing the fissures in my marriage, but deciding to walk away from it instead of trying to mend what was left. Concurrently, it became the beginning of a life I chose for myself, independent of the past decisions I’d made or the models I’d always followed. I thought often of Birdie, Jean Stapleton’s character in You’ve Got Mail, telling Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life!”

That was the gift my friends gave me: the gift of space, room to breathe, time to set down all that had happened and look at it from every angle, and envision something new. Sometimes they were there to examine it with me, as when Frankie and I took a rambling walk through her neighborhood on a warm February day. Sometimes the imagining happened in solitude, as when I later spent three weeks dog-sitting for Carolyn and living solo in her apartment. Every morning I woke up and tried to picture it: what if I lived here? What if this were my life?

I appreciated the literal space, of course: the distance from my ex at a time when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue living with him or not. But the gift went beyond the physical: it was a gift of imagination, at a time when the containers that had previously held my life were breaking apart or shattering into pieces. These women gave me new rooms to inhabit, the chance to ask questions and try new ideas on for size. They gave me space to mourn what had ended, and to dream about what might happen next. As my definition of myself and the role I played in the world was changing drastically, they gave me the chance to simply be who I was right then—however messy or unformed on any given day. 

It felt vulnerable to accept such a gift, and I wished I had something to offer them in return. It was humbling to acknowledge the depth of my own need, and to simply say “Yes” or “Thank you” when they offered their houses or spare rooms. I knew I couldn’t make it up to them, and I knew that wasn’t the point. They are my friends, and they gave me their space. And in so doing, they helped me conceive of and eventually create a new life.

Katie Noah Gibson is a writer, runner, flower fiend and Texas transplant based in Boston. She does communications work for a small nonprofit, reviews books for Shelf Awareness, and squeezes in yoga when she can. You can find her online at http://katieleigh.wordpress.com, or on Instagram and Twitter at @katiengibson.