Emma, it was your birthday a few days ago. It was a horrible, tough day, knowing I couldn’t pick up the phone and squeal at you on your special day, or have a shot of tequila with you, or just be next to you in the same present moment. You’ve only been gone three months but it feels like a lifetime. I feel like I’ve aged to the stage of life we were supposed to reach together. We grew up as tiny three-year-olds, were side by side throughout pre school, primary school, high school, college and beyond. We were going to watch each other grow old and laugh together about our saggy tits and still drink tequila at the age of 85. Well, I’ll still be doing that: I’ll be toasting a shot up to the sky on every next birthday of yours, even and especially on my 85th birthday.
Yes, it’s only been three months, but I still feel as devastated as the day I found out. I don’t think that’s a surprising revelation, but more on that later. I am coming to understand now that part of me will always feel incomplete, slightly empty. Things inside me always rattle a bit because a core piece is missing. I’m still trying to find the beauty in that; I’m not sure I ever will. But I suppose one day I will appreciate the things that you learn from the grieving process, by losing someone who was so deeply a part of your life, someone who was practically family, your little sister.
Grief is a process with two parts: there’s the grief you experience and then the grief of those close to/around you. Of course, the grief you personally experience will always be a lingering threat somewhere, those venomous unexpected pangs on otherwise ‘good’ days, the inconsistent, unpredictable, stealthy snake that it is. Then there’s the grief of those in your life. Grief tricks you into thinking is that everyone will feel the same way as you do, for the same amount of time, naturally, because – how could they not? Grief puts a little pin in your rational, adult mind and invites all of your naiveté to centre stage. You lose some of your previous ability to consider everyone else around you as individual humans. Grief puts a suffocating film over your life, skewing your vision, making you feel as if everyone is experiencing the exact same thing as you, when this is not true. And this hurts.
What is a surprising (and again, a naive) revelation is that when you have precious moments of clarity, you see that people move on. People are moving on or have already moved on. They stop checking in/as much, they stop talking about it, some avoid the subject entirely for whatever reasons. This is painful, but again, a reality masked by the same naiveté provoked by grief. But what I’ve learned is that – as much as you want to – you can’t get mad at people for this. That’s ridiculous! You have to lift that blurred screen of irrationality and realise that people have both their own lives and their own processes. People weren’t as close, perhaps, and/or people don’t want to keep living in that place. This is only rational and logical, but to an extent, because you feel sentenced to living there forever, you want people to stay with you forever. The reality is you have to learn to be in that place alone – life sadly goes on.
Writing this now is making me realise just how much you backslide into a childlike mindset, expecting unrealistic things from people around you to make things better. Like I say, grief scrambles your sense of rationality. None of it makes sense. It’s like you’re stuck on a waltzer and you’re at the mercy of the person stood on the deck spinning you around while the person in the control room is having all kinds of fun with the jolting start/stop, nauseating faster/slower buttons. Bit of a shit, overused rollercoaster metaphor equivalent, but you get what I mean.
Another angle is that you’ll come to see that some people don’t or can’t show up for you in the way you expected. You’ll see that some people – that you really thought you knew inside out – are uncomfortable with conflict, some people are entirely avoidant, some people freeze because they’re not sure what the right thing is to do or say so they do/say nothing. Some people won’t have any kind of emotional vocabulary at all. Some people who you really thought would reach out, don’t. Some people will innocently forget as a self-protective mechanism.
For all of the above reactions, while painful and sometimes disappointing, as time goes on you come to realise that, especially people very close to you, they are not personal. People may surprise you with this, but you have to put your ego aside and remember this has nothing to do with their ability to be your friend. Grief is an alienating thing. It’s an isolating motherfucker – but on both ends. You have yourself going through it, then your support systems who may have never been through it, or have and don’t want to revisit that place. As hurtful as it is to experience people in your life not show up for you in the way you expected, you have to keep coming up to the surface of reality and remind yourself: this is how they individually, uniquely experience grief, whether directly or indirectly. This has nothing to do with you, but, as mentioned, grief can really make you regress into that entitled childlike state of mind, so it’s a difficult thing to grasp.
In short, even with something as complicated and nuanced as grief, you have to respect other people’s emotional bandwidths and availability. Not everyone is able to provide the support you need, to be able be there in the way that you want, at the times you want. Not everyone has had the privilege to be able to work through their trauma to get to the place where they can support or see you in the way that you need (there isn’t much space for personal growth/healing in a household that’s oppressed by systemic racism, for example). Nevertheless, I’ve come to discover that that’s a hard pill to swallow.
And of course, this isn’t a universal observation. Of course you have wonderful, beautiful friends and family who have been so unconditionally supportive that your bond has flourished in a way you never knew possible. That’s one of the beautiful things about grief that I am able to comprehend; it truly brings you closer to people in your life in a unique way.
But on the other side of the coin, there comes a general point of acceptance and surrender – with the fact of the loss and the fact of reality. You have to accept that for you, this will be a lifelong thing. It’s simply not practical or even fair to expect others to be on the same timeline as you, but you have to make peace with that. With grief, the turbulent, plummeting, spiralling process that it is, perhaps you can grow curious and invite the idea that, one day, you might find that your experience and journey with yourself is one of beauty, one day.