Grief is a complicated state. We all carry parts of ourselves from different ages trying to understand how someone so loved can be here one moment and gone forever the next. How do we make sense of it all?
Age 6: My beloved grandfather dies. Mom calls me and my nine year old brother into her bedroom to tell us the news. My brother wails, “Nooooo!” while I don’t get it, not really. But I take it personally. I’m offended that Pop died. “Well fine,” I huffed, stomping back to my room. “I never liked him anyway.” At the funeral my grandmother consoles her grandchildren and I find myself crying but I don’t really comprehend. We throw rocks in the water to let Pop know we’re there and thinking of him. I just don’t understand. I decide, in my head, that it’s better, maybe, that he never existed. No hurt, no pain. I pretend it didn’t happen. Months later Granny tries to talk to me about how all the family is together, over the holidays, but it’s sad that we’re not all together. I feign ignorance because in my head Pop doesn’t, never has, existed. “We’re not? Who’s not here?” I play dumb. I scamper away from her, wanting to avoid the conversation. Maybe I’m too young to understand death, but I understand its finality and I understand that it is sadness I do not want to feel. If anyone tries to talk with me further, I don’t remember.
Age 10: I adopt a kitten in April of 2000. I begged my parents and I am cute and tenacious and my parents find they just can’t say no– as long as she is my full responsibility. So I commit to being a cat momma and name my baby April, since she is my birthday cat. I am her mother. After a few months, though, April seems unwell. Her kidneys never fully developed and they were shutting down. She is weak, and thin, and dying. I know she is going to die. I go to Florida with my mom in February 2001 to visit family. April took a turn for the worse before we left and I know I won’t see my baby again. My dad brings her to the vet to be put down on February 26, 2001. He calls me on the phone and I sob for hours. Mom and I go to a dolphin show two days later and the host announces the star dolphin’s name is April. I see in my periphery the family giving me sidelong glances, assuming I must be upset. The pain feels like too much and I shut it off. I swallow and show no emotion when the April Dolphin Show begins. We return from Florida and my dad hugs me, asking if I want to have a funeral. I shake my head because I can’t let people see me cry, see me break in so much pain. I tell two friends at school that April has died, and then shut her out of my memory for twelve years. No pain, no hurt. Gone.
Age 14: One of my brother’s classmates kills herself by driving off a cliff. All I can think of is how much pain she must have been in. The obituary says she struggled with anorexia, bulimia, and depression. I just don’t get it. A part of me empathizes, but that part is also confused.
Age 15: A classmate’s father dies of a heart attack unexpectedly. I have no idea what to do and feel so helpless.
Age 15: Another classmate’s mother dies in a car accident. I don’t understand. I feel so helpless.
Age 18: A classmate dies in a car accident on a beautiful May morning. I wish I were the one that got killed. I don’t understand the world.
Age 19: My on-again-off-again-boyfriend-of-five-years is shot and killed overseas. It’s a horrible, horrible situation and everyone is upset and sad, but I find myself more angry and in shock than anything else. A year before he deployed we had a huge argument. Then we slept together. Then we had a huge argument. Then we were at a New Years party and I said no but he did things anyway. I felt helpless and didn’t really stop him– besides, I had said yes so many other times. But it was Not Okay and I was pissed off and told him I was done for good. I was done with him. He’s dead and I am so angry about that night. And he was a great friend. And he was killed in awful circumstances. I cry a little at the funeral but don’t actually feel sad yet. I distance myself from the family and close friends out of shame and fear of the sadness and pain and confusion over the anger. Two years later I break down and sob. I still feel ashamed and confused and being both so sad and so angry is hard to reconcile. I try to focus on the good, but the anger still flairs up once in a while.
Age 23: A childhood family friend takes his own life. I go to the funeral with my mom because I don’t want her to go alone. He was my fifth grade boyfriend for about two months. It’s so sad. I am glad I choose to go to the funeral. A magical thinking part of me thinks he died because he was my boyfriend for two months. I fear, briefly, that other people I have dated will soon die, because this seems to be a pattern. It’s sad and we don’t know what led him to end his life. I am grateful he was my friend and we remain close to his family.
Age 23: My fourth grade student is shot and killed by his own brother. Our school goes into trauma mode and I try to take care of everyone. Ten days after it happens I fall apart, checked out, feeling helpless. I spend a long weekend with my parents and watch the Olympics. My dad tries to get me to go out for a walk but I feel stuck, frozen, paralyzed. I am in a role model position at work and I try to not let my emotions get in the way of being present for others’ grief. So I shut them down. I swallow more helplessness and tuck it away. I find I am grateful when the insanity of school picks up again after a couple weeks and I have a stressful job to focus on as a distraction.
Age 24: My 17 year old cat dies. My mom doesn’t call to tell me until two days after it happens because she knows I was working on a huge presentation for work. I am devastated. She was my sister. I have been expecting her to die for a couple years, but this shock is awful. I collapse in the shower crying, and then call a friend and cry some more. I hold on to my 3 year old cat and am so grateful I have him now. I visit with my parents a few days later and refuse to talk about our cat. I can sense that I am on the verge of tremendous tears and I have learned at this point that I can’t feel these feelings in front of my family. I swallow the sadness, again, though it’s hard to keep down.
Age 24: I come home from a long weekend away with friends to find my 3 year old cat dead on the floor next to my bed with piles of vomit around the apartment. I go into shock. — I can’t say a whole lot more about this one. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. We were supposed to be together for so long. He was my best friend and biggest emotional support. Intrusive images creep in. I lose a lot of functioning for a few days and then try to compartmentalize because work is so stressful. I’m successful at doing this for about three weeks and then things get rough. I put on a good show of being okay and most people, who don’t know me that well, think I’m okay. I think a lot about April. This event prompts me to return to therapy after a few months because I stop eating again. I let myself cry through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which is healing. I have his ashes in a box in my desk and I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve written about my grief on this before. It is so hard to be present and write about him right now. I find it hard to be around other friends’ or neighbors’ cats. I feel scared to be close to anyone. I blame myself, even though in my head I know this is Magical Thinking. I can’t help it. I work through it. I am working through it.
Age 24: A coworker is shot and killed. She is the unintended victim of gang violence. At the candlelight vigil I cry but am also crying for so many people and animals and myself and I don’t know which way is up.
Age 24: My uncle dies this weekend. I am unable to go to the funeral because of severe weather. His death is expected, yet sad. I want to be there with my family but understand that it is just not in my control. I feel confused. Every death brings up past deaths.
“Everyone dies,” my dad says on the phone. I interpret his tone of voice as worried. I do not have a healthy track record of coping with loss– although, who does? Everyone dies. I understand today a little bit about why we celebrate life at funerals. I think about why I keep so much sorrow inside me and struggle to share it with others. I go to therapy today. I tell her about Age Six. I’ve never told anyone that story before. I still feel ashamed but I know my six year old just didn’t understand. She still doesn’t understand.
Death is such a mystery, I want to tell her. Even adults don’t really understand it. We don’t know why some people live long lives and some don’t. We don’t know why some people choose to end their lives and why some die by prolonged illnesses, or sudden tragedy. We don’t know why our pets, our beloved, beloved, furry confidantes, sometimes live long lives and others die too young. Life is a beautiful mystery and it is very sad sometimes. But, I want to tell her– but it also hold so much joy and goodness. Be brave. Find courage inside you to face the pain of what you’re feeling– when we let ourselves feel the enormity of our sorrow, we also open ourselves up to feeling all of the joy, too.
Find the courage inside you to be fully alive.