When I was twenty years old, my mother and grandmother died within three days of each other. I remember feeling almost incredulous. This didn’t happen in real life, this was like a story line from the soap operas I watched so religiously in high school. This didn’t happen to real people. Except it did, and it happened to me.
As an only child who lost half her family in the space of a week, with a toxic father and no other family living in state, my grief was overwhelming and debilitating. I spent the next six months living on a couch smoking cigarettes and pot, inhaling junk food and throwing it back up again. I slept through the days and cried through the nights. I dropped out of school and lived in an off campus basement apartment. I received some therapy, but found little relief from it, so eventually stopped going. I bought hundreds of dollars worth of books on grief and loss from Barns and Noble on a credit card in my mother’s name that hadn’t yet been cancelled. Just like therapy, I found little comfort in those pages. Eventually, I stopped trying to find comfort anywhere. My grieving was a gaping black hole, sucking the light out of me and everything around me. I couldn’t pull out.
One day, I ventured back onto campus – I don’t remember the reason why now. I ran into one of my professors, who had seen me spiral from afar the past few months. She grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. No polite greetings were uttered, she got straight to the point. “Listen, I know this is hard, but girl, it isn’t the end of the world. You have got to pull yourself together.” She stared at me hard, as I stared back, shocked and speechless. And completely lost. Was that something that could be done? Just like that? Wake up one day and pull the scattered pieces of my soul back together?
Now, years later, I understand what she was trying to say. She was trying to say ‘I’m scared for you’ and ‘You’re killing yourself slowly’, and ‘There are other ways to grieve besides these self-destructive ones’. But at the time, I didn’t understand that. I only heard ‘You’re doing it all wrong. Grief is wrong’. I walked away from that short conversation having learned that my grief was my greatest shame.
Grief was a feeling. Feelings were too dangerous for me. Other people could handle emotions, but I couldn’t. Other people had loss in their lives and they didn’t do the things I did. They still got up in the mornings. They still kept responsibilities. They still laughed and felt joy. Something was wrong with me, fundamentally at my core. I didn’t know what it was, only that I couldn’t fix it. Couldn’t overcome it. So if I couldn’t contain my grief, I had to kill it.
Over the next decade, I tried many different methods to kill the pain while still being able to function as a productive person in society. My favorite was a discovery in my mid-twenties – little white pills. They were prescribed for physical pain, but swallowed for the emotional kind. It worked wonderfully until it didn’t anymore. Eventually those little pills brought me to my knees. And on my knees I crawled into recovery, and a different way of life. By that time, so many things had happened, so many hurts collected, my mother’s death wasn’t even on the radar anymore.
One late summer evening when I was nine months sober, I arrived at my favorite coffee shop. My best friend Caryn was already there, waiting to introduce me to her new roommate. “This is Annie,” she said and the new girl and I exchanged smiles. “She lost her mother too.” For the next hour or so, Annie and I chatted, getting to know each other and sharing our stories, touching briefly on the struggles. I could talk about my mother without feeling any kind of emotion now, something I was oddly proud of. Yet something nagged at the corner of my brain. I didn’t pay attention, brushing it aside. No emotion, you won’t get to me today.
Later that night, at home, I picked up my phone to check my text messages and I noticed the date. It hit me, what that nagging feeling all night had been. That day was the anniversary of my mother’s death. I hadn’t put it together. The day had come and almost gone and I had completely forgotten, even while actively talking about her passing away. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I considered texting Caryn the irony, but then put my phone aside instead and let the moment pass.
That, I decided, must be healing.
On March 24th, 2017, three days after I turned 33, Caryn killed herself. That is something I will write more about later. But for now, what I want to focus on is the aftershocks of that loss. I had lost another person I loved very deeply. But because of the support system and healing tools I had been practicing, I did not fall into the black hole of grief that enveloped me over a decade earlier as with my mother’s death. It has been a process with many twists and turns, that can not be summed up in one paragraph, but one of the things I learned was how to grieve in a way that didn’t destroy myself.
This afternoon a friend picks me up to go to a drive through coffee shop this. It is cloudy and drizzling and I am a mess. My attire reflects it – leggings, an oversized sweatshirt, unbrushed hair and dirty glasses. She looks at me and laughs softly. “How can you see anything out of those?” she teases gently. She encourages me as I fumble, trying to wipe them on my sleeve. “Blow onto them, like this” She ‘hah!’s as an example and I follow her it, ‘hah!’ing on the lenses and rubbing it. “There you go.” she says satisfied and pulls out into the street.
We park after getting hot coffee and sit in the car, talking. I am vulnerable and raw, she listens. I am having feelings bubble up that I don’t understand. For a time, I thought it was the first year anniversary of Caryn’s death that I was struggling with. But as the anniversary passed and my struggle continued, I realized that there was something else there. Something I couldn’t see, so I couldn’t acknowledge. After some time trying to follow the thread of feelings through the caverns of my soul, I found a knot.
Loss, my soul told me. I was frustrated with my soul. What else have I been doing this past year, other than dealing with loss? I’ve been doing the work! Earlier, my soul replied.
It turns out, grief can’t be killed, it can only be postponed. All the time I spent deferring my mother’s death has caught up to me, and now that bill is coming due.
I don’t believe in things happening for a reason. I don’t believe Caryn’s death happened in order for me to grieve my mother. But the thing is, I now believe it’s up to me to define what lessons I will take from the events that happen in my life. And one of the lessons I am realizing, is in that learning how to grieve Caryn has opened me up to be able to learn how to grieve my mother in a way I haven’t been able to do in thirteen years. And that is part of my next step. I don’t know what it will look like, I don’t know what to expect. But that’s okay, because I know what it WON’T be now. It won’t be a slow suicide through food, drugs and fear – I can grieve now without tearing my entire life apart. My grief can be more than a gaping hole, it can become healing. Real healing, not just suppression. I can heal.
And that, my friends, is hope.