On Grief: My Personal Guide to Grieving
cw: suicide, death
I’ve encountered an average amount of death in my 18 years on this planet. I say average because I’ve perhaps experienced more of it than some, but I’ve never had someone extremely close to me, like a parent, sibling, child, or best friend, die. But, I’ve encountered many deaths—some natural and expected, like my three grandparents and my dog—and some not so natural, like the 7-year-old family-friend who was hit by a car. Like my uncle, who shot himself when I was a junior in high school. Like my best friend’s mom, who hung herself one Wednesday.
I’m a firm believer that there’s no cut and dried way to grieve. Truthfully, in my experience, the process of mourning varies significantly based on the circumstances. Death obviously feels sad, but while it is often painful, it can also feel confusing, angering, even restorative.
When my friend’s mother passed recently, I experienced the type of numbingly tragic death whose mourning period had no end date—I knew there would be no point at which my friend would be “over” it, no day she’d be freed from thinking of it, no questions she’d ever have answered. Her mother’s death would have no silver lining, and no one could honestly say at her funeral that she had lived a long, happy life. After it happened, my friend told me that she had faith she would lead a joyful life, but that she would only ever be happy “despite.” I wished I could say something that could offer her the slightest bit of comfort or stability, some rationale to ground all of the questions hanging in the air, but suicide is inexplicable. There was no explanation for anything, there was only what had happened.
Death can also be funny. I wrote my college essay about my grandfather’s passing precisely because I thought it was so funny. When he passed, my mother, her seven dysfunctional siblings, and their children all reconvened, which made for some truly hilarious anecdotes. Like when one aunt was set on her husband building the coffin himself, and all of the son-in-laws had to take turns laying in the coffin for weight-bearing tests. My 87-year old grandmother insisted that the priest had hit on her at the funeral and my grandfather was accidentally buried directly on top of his daughter, who’d passed 20 years prior. Not everyone laughed, but my sister and I did more than we had in weeks during that one weekend. Comedy made the perfect bandaid.
Two months later, I felt exhausted and hopeless and worthless in a way I never had before, out of nowhere. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, sent to therapy twice a week, and given a WellButrin prescription. I didn’t understand why my body and world felt so different all of a sudden. In reality it was a hormone imbalance mixed with a succession of shitty things, like a breakup and ongoing friendship problems; normal high school drama. But when I looked back in time, I realized I had stopped feeling normal a few weeks after we’d buried my grandfather. Truthfully, I didn’t miss my grandfather—his death had been a relief, for him and his family—but in my subconscious, his death catalyzed one of the most difficult periods of my life.
Which brings me to another thing: death can be a relief. When each of my grandparents finally passed, I saw a massive weight lift off of my parents’ shoulders. They no longer had to watch their parents become aged, vacant versions of their former selves, and no longer felt obligated to care for them. When my uncle died by suicide, my father told me he’d been waiting for the call for years. Although I certainly wouldn’t say my father was relieved, I could hear the sentiment behind his words; he could feel more at peace knowing his brother was no longer suffering and that the decades-long saga of dealing with his brother’s mental health was over.
I feel guilty admitting that the only time I’ve personally experienced the type of gut-wrenching, actively painful grief most usually typically associated with mourning was when my dog died. I remember seeing my father sob for the first time. I remember just crying for days on end, and feeling an excruciating sorrow and desire to rewind time. I remember relenting to pain, because it was so intense that no distraction could suffice. Every feeling I had was visceral and melodramatic, but also purely genuine.
Death can feel like a lot of things. For me, death causes pause. When grieving, I find that normal life comes to a halt and instead I start to see the world through a slightly different lens. This time can also be totally transformative. In my most recent period of grief, a thought occurred to me: while everyone we know will eventually die, and while we know that we ourselves will die, we don’t spend that much time processing or experiencing death. Most of us spend most of our time here just being alive, until we encounter death every once in awhile and it hits us. And when it does, it’s a feeling unlike any other—I’m not talking about the intensity of sadness, but the shade that settles on the world when someone passes. The whole world literally turns a different color (in my experience, either a golden yellow or a bluish grey) until you realize one day that things are normal again. It’s that feeling that nags you when you know there’s one less person in the world, and when you suspect that the world is a bit less whole than the day before. When you are reminded that life is under no obligation to be good. That things can be so, so broken while the world still goes on.
Grieving is not a cohesive or linear process. It occurs in bursts of feeling, reflection, and thought, until we find ourselves feeling normal again.
“On Grief” is an old series from Method Magazine being brought back by the Artifex. These creative pieces center upon students’ experiences in dealing with loss and grief both on and off campus. Submissions and ideas can be sent to Phoebe Liebling at firstname.lastname@example.org.