How My Friends Helped Me Grieve

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My high school sweetheart died unexpectedly a few weeks before our senior prom. He was seventeen.
Ten days later, my grandmother passed away after years of prolonged and unbearable suffering. If I thought I was drowning before, suddenly I was without water, without air, without will. Without elemental consciousness. That suspended numbness, nostalgic for any sort of feeling, is no cliche. The two fractures in rapidfire broke me. I feel a little broken, still.

And yet, only four years later, the grief has changed, become a character rather than fastened narrative. I can breathe again.

By the grace of loved ones who were there for me unconditionally, I survived, and continue to survive, every day that feels meaningless without them.

I write this in celebration of those friends -- chiefly among them CL, who was immediately by my side and reminded me that though I felt abandoned, I was never alone. And another, who showed up again and again, with no expectation that I would ever thank her enough. And others still, who offered me silly luxuries like compliments on my lipstick. Or, in meeting me for the first time, “I can tell why he loved you so much.”

I could try to tell you how to live through it. But anybody who suffers unimaginable loss knows that the only way forward is to find not a purpose, but a way to make do without one. You will lose the ones who give your life color, who give you hope, whose very gravities you orbit. And onward, you must still go.

But as you do, I hope you have friends like mine to light your way.

They never told me everything would be okay.
Because it wouldn’t ever be, not in the way I expected. And the last thing I wanted was for my expectations to be decimated yet again. When the loss is sudden and new, to promise a future that is “okay” is to prematurely introduce a condition that is, for now, unbearable. I’m not asking anyone to play along with delusions and denial, but never underestimate how freeing it is to hear, “no, everything is not okay. I am sorry things turned out this way.”

They were patient.
I wore my grief loudly and badly. If someone accused me of being performative (and they did), I could not deny that some part of me needed desperately for someone to acknowledge that I was in pain. I got a tattoo. I published letters to my dead boyfriend. Some people just need to have the depths of their grief validated, for people to see what cannot be articulated or better shared. To be in love with a ghost was no badge of honor, but I didn’t know better and I couldn’t do better. I had no other way of affirming that what I felt was okay, that it was a normal, albeit horrible rite of passage. My friends were patient. They were kind. They thanked me for sharing, for insisting they bear witness to my loss. And in this, without fear of criticism for how I was coping, I coped.

They stayed, even when I lashed out.
Before I finally sought grief therapy, I dealt irresponsibly with my grief. I’d all but dropped out of high school following my grandmother’s funeral, and then relocated directly to a different state for college as my classmates walked the stage at our high school graduation. During what is supposed to be the most difficult transition of young adulthood, I was doubly vulnerable. I hid my strange new relationship status for a while, but then held it as a gatekeeper for new friendships. Nobody was allowed close. My first and dearest friend pushed his way in, sat with me at the first and second anniversary of their deaths, and stayed throughout my endless tantrums. Though we are no longer close, those moments have earned my eternal loyalty to him. On behalf of everybody who has lost their way, I am sorry we are sometimes mean, often cruel, and seemingly thoughtless. When the ground reappears beneath our feet, we promise to be back. Until then, if it’s alright with you, please stay.

They didn’t offer to help. They just did.
Grief made me feel like a terrible burden. I wasn’t interesting in conversations, I lost focus in school, I neglected a lot of the responsibilities and relationships important to me. I felt so undeserving of understanding and attention beyond cordial sympathy. I believed I had no right to ask for favors, especially when I needed so much. I needed someone to hold my hand at his wake, to sit with me at his funeral, to explain to my teachers that try as I might, I could not summon the courage to come to class. My friends, unprompted, did all this and more. I cannot and did not thank them enough. Years later, I barely remember a single conversation, a badly phrased question. But I remember their presence, their determination to participate in my sadness. I am forever grateful.

To the loved ones in my life, old and new, you have saved me so many times and in so many ways. Though I wish you infallibly happy lives, I hope I can one day do the same for you.

With great love,

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