Earlier this year, I complained lightheartedly to my dad about how my entire year was planned around celebrating other people’s life events. Baby showers and bachelorette parties and children’s birthdays. Most of my people are together in the same place and I’m elsewhere, bumbling through the start of a new career, booking flights and making asynchronous lesson plans and gassing up for the 7 hour drive. And I know, I know. How lucky that I can do that! I’m grateful to have a home somewhere else while still being able to be there for the events along the way that bring everyone together. I wasn’t really complaining because I knew I had nothing to complain about. I was just being annoying.
“Enjoy it,” Dad said. “In ten years, it will be funerals.” Then we had a nice morbid laugh, the way you do when you’re already having a dark, difficult year.
A week later, my best friend from high school died in a car accident. I can think of no other word for it—I am bereft. Dad called me to apologize for what he’d said but I told him, don’t. Remembering that comment was somehow the first thing to make me laugh, even through my tears. You know who would have laughed at that? Mark. I could practically hear him, his head thrown back, hand thrown across his belly.
The first week, I cry every single time I am alone. Between classes. Every car ride. I feel inexplicable rage when someone says “I’m sorry for your loss,” even though I know they are trying to say the right thing, to be kind. Don’t they know this is all of our loss? I listen exclusively to songs that will remind me of his passenger seat. I compulsively collect anything anyone has to say about him. I did through my boxes, my sentimental things hoarding. I find letters, handmade cards, tumblr posts, detritus. I think of almost nothing else. When I catch myself thinking of something else, I feel guilty. In the beginning, the tears are like a collapse. They eventually become more businesslike. Efficient. My body knows how much time I have allotted to let it out and acts accordingly. The wound is ripped open over and over again.
But I don’t want to write about mourning. I just want to remember one day when I look back how confusing it is to work through grief in a time of growth and joy. It’s been two months, now. A lot has happened. I spend time with his mom and brothers, thinking how normal it felt to make the drive from Legends to his house on a sunny Rancho day, how each of his brothers resembles him in a slightly different way. I write a tribute for his funeral on the plane ride back to my hometown, and lesson plan on the flight home. I reconnect with friends I’d lost touch with. I collect memories of him and share warm, sad moments. Along the way, there are baby showers and bachelorette parties and performance reviews and weddings. There is war. There is unrest. I make some unbelievably happy memories. I have perfectly ordinary days. I feel weird posting anything about my life as if nothing is different. I feel stupid for even thinking about that. Everywhere, there are reminders of all the compounding tragedies I keep collecting, not quite ready to deal with yet but unable to ignore any longer. I lose track of things that are important to me and the people who matter. I don’t know how my heart expects to hold on to all of this, but it goes right on beating.
I am now capable of having a happy day, even if that day has moments that bring me to tears. I miss him so fucking much, but finally, thinking of him makes me both happy and sad. This was the island I was swimming for when I couldn’t see the shore. I guess this is healing? It feels wrong to heal. I don’t ever want to miss him less.
The grief of losing someone young unexpectedly is complex and selfish and all-consuming. I am sad for his absence in my life and in the world. I am sad for myself for having to live the rest of my life without him. I am hyper-aware that I will either die or outlive every person I love, that these have always been the only options.
In those moments of despair, a gift—A dear friend shares the only thing that has helped through everything. Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainier Maria Rilke. Letter 8 offers the single most perfect description of grief I’ve ever seen:
“Borgebygard, Fladie, Sweden
August 12, 1904
I want to talk to you again for a little while, dear Mr. Kappus, although there is almost nothing I can say that will help you, and I can hardly find one useful word. You have had many sadnesses, large ones, which passed. And you say that even this passing was difficult and upsetting for you. But please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad. The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of. If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.
It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, — is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate; and later on, when it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to other people), we will feel related and close to it in our innermost being. And that is necessary. It is necessary — and toward this point our development will move, little by little — that nothing alien happen to us, but only what has long been our own.”
This is… a lot. But I can’t describe what happened to me, reading this description of the black hole that entered me and how it felt as it disintegrated into me. I kept coming back to this feeling that terrified me—All of these hard things I have been going through, they’re going to change me. They’re going to make me different. I am already becoming different. And it’s true! It is. But I am becoming, too.
The day after the funeral, I sat in my sister’s backyard, drinking coffee and listening to a song I remember him singing, that I quoted in his tribute, “Generator, Second Floor” by Freelance Whales. I drank coffee and I wept. It felt, for the first time, total. There was nothing that needed to be done to distract me. It felt like the first day of my life without him. I sang and I cried and I texted my sister “The backyard smells like Nana’s house.” “Orange blossoms,” she said. How hadn’t I noticed? I was noticing things again. I have to keep noticing. Collecting. I want to have so many things to tell him, one day when we meet again. So I’ll picture him that way, singing “Don’t fix my smile. Life is long enough.” I hope it was.
God, I hope it was.