I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death. It’s strange to write that sentence, but it’s true. The way I think about the fragile division between life and death is like a curtain. We shouldn’t see behind this curtain too often or too easily. When it becomes permeable, we begin to lose our essential grip on life. I don’t know how else to describe it. The past year, I’ve lost my grandpa, my cousin Sarah, and my friend Kaitlyn. They all passed away within the span of a few months. It felt like a precious barrier between life and death had begun to disintegrate in the midst of their passing. My friends and family were dying and I was still here.
It’s an incomprehensible reality to grasp, and I still struggle with it regularly. If you’ve lost someone dear to you, you know what I mean. It gets easier, then it gets harder again. The anniversary of Sarah’s death is coming up soon, and I can sense a fear growing inside of me that I won’t be able to handle it. I’m afraid of going back to where I used to be; to the tragic, chaotic sense of loss that underscored her passing. I’m afraid to remember her. (How hard it is to write that…)
I wish I got to know Sarah better. A lot better. When she passed away, she was only eighteen, and she was just becoming her own person. I can recall the last conversation that I had with her over Skype. I was living in France and chatting with my mom, who’d been on vacation with our extended family. Sarah had overheard our conversation and popped over to say hello. We talked about study abroad and college and how her life was only beginning. I distinctly recall telling her not to worry, that high school is terrible for everyone, and that college would be totally different. I told her that the next four years would be full of amazing memories and life changing experiences. “Trust me,” I said emphatically. I believe she did.
I remember getting “kidnapped” from church while I was on vacation in California by a car full of my cousins. Sarah was driving. She’d taken the car out without asking (a decision she answered to later on) and announced that we were all embarking on an impromptu trip to the beach. I slid into the backseat and we drove off towards the highway. The windows were down and the wind was slapping my face. I closed my eyes and listened to my cousins laughing. It was sunny.
This last memory always rises to the surface when I think about Sarah. I was alone, driving down Germantown more than year ago. I’d just had a conversation with my dad about the many difficulties Sarah was facing. I hadn’t been aware that my younger cousin was dealing with such serious issues, and I mulled this over while I drove down winding roads that day. I didn’t know Sarah extremely well at that point, but I wanted to connect. She was family and I cared for her. It was simple. I wondered about how I might be able to help without being overbearing. I slowed to a stop at St. John’s Bridge and considered the (seemingly inevitable) likelihood that we would deepen our relationship throughout the coming years. I looked forward to that time. The light turned green. I kept driving.
These are the moments, though there’s so many more. The crushing news of her death being delivered by phone while I was visiting my sister in Chicago. My heels sinking into the ground as I walked across the yard that day in March at her funeral. Frantically writing down my thoughts on the short flight home to Portland. And later, peeling open my journal to read aloud the sad words that stained page after page.
While these aren’t easy things to remember, it feels so much better to acknowledge them than hide. When someone dies, we all have our own unique reaction. For me, I spent months thinking about what I believe and what I don’t. I cried and tried to write and when I failed at that, I forced myself to go out and continue living. I seemed to find peace in the places I least expected it. Unlike many of my family members, I didn’t find solace in religion or late night rosaries. For me, I found peace at the end of a long run, as I came to a stop at Skyline Cemetery, bent backwards to the sky and thanked whoever’s up there for this day and this moment and all of the memories that Sarah inspires me make. I’m at peace when I’m writing truthfully about what’s painful and why. I’ve come to realize that the moments when it hurts the most to remember are the moments when I need to the most. That’s exactly why I’m writing this.
I’ve been reading a lot of Cheryl Strayed recently. Last night, I was going over some of her writing when I found this quote: “There is a way forward.” To me, this sentence points towards something untouchable and sacred. It quietly acknowledges the hollow darkness we feel when we’ve hit rock bottom…when we’re stuck, with no discernible way out. But there is a way forward. This small acknowledgement restores my faith in what tomorrow may bring. It peels open my eyes to the wonderful mystery that surrounds my life. Loss is enormous and difficult, but I also believe it to be one of the purest, most beautiful expressions of our shared humanity that I’ve ever witnessed.
There are so many special ways we can continue forward after losing someone. I wear a necklace with three charms around my neck most days. The charms read ‘S’ (Sarah), ‘K’ (Kaitlyn), and ‘J’ (Jack, my grandpa). I feel empowered by this necklace. It’s my own way of saying a silent prayer throughout the day. I look down and remember, and I grow stronger. I have tons of pictures that Kaitlyn took tacked up on the walls of my room and even at my office. On the back of one I’ve written what she added to the image when she first posted it to Facebook years ago. It says, “Life is beautiful, it just depends on how you look at it.” There’s a curve in the road that I pass on my commute to work. Everyday, I look out at the spanning forest and fog and the rising sun that’s breaking like a yolk across the sky and I think of her. Sometimes I’ll pull over impulsively and snap a few pictures, or simply stand there, breathing the cool air into my lungs. Breathing in, breathing out. There is a way forward.
There isn’t one clear path to acceptance. Your grief is yours. Own it. There is no peace to be found in hiding away from our memories or in avoiding life. Instead of succumbing to fear, I choose love. I recognize that the pain I feel in the wake of my loss is a reflection of a deep and irrevocable love that cannot die.
“Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.” – Cheryl Strayed