Some kids looked up to superheroes when they were growing up. Others turned to public servants or pop stars. As a socially-anxious freshman in high school, my hero was the sarcastic upperclassman I sat next to in my elective class. Her pixie cut and sharp tongue made her the more interesting side character in my otherwise monotonous coming-of-age story. She was everything teenage me wanted to be: confident, outspoken, and easy to share a laugh with. There was a group of boys in our class that liked to tease me and she would always stick up for me. We became fast friends, forming a girl-powered alliance against them. The last day of class came entirely too soon, and I’d spent the night before rehearsing how I’d ask for her number. I dreamt of hanging out with her at the mall, praying her coolness would somehow rub off on me.
When I went to school that morning, I couldn’t contain my excitement as I bounced my leg under my desk in anticipation. Several minutes passed after the bell rang with no sign of her. I reminded myself she was usually late to class, nothing out of the ordinary. What was out of the ordinary was the presence of the school’s guidance counselor. I tuned out the beginning of her lecture, my only thoughts fixating on where my friend could be.
Then her name was spoken.
My whole body froze hearing the uttered words, “she passed away last night.” I felt rocks in the pit of my stomach. Surely this was some kind of sick joke? She was the class clown after all, so maybe today was her last hurrah. It wasn’t a joke. She wasn’t late because she’d missed the bus. She was really gone and I would never see her again. Those were the new harrowing thoughts that looped in my head.
I remember sitting in the guidance counselor’s office, eyes glued to the floor as I listened to the repeated phrase: “sorry for your loss.” This was my first experience with the reality of death. At the time, I hadn’t had any deceased relatives or known anyone close to me that passed away. I’d later find out that she took her own life, another concept I couldn’t wrap my head around. My family did the best they could to console me, but they’d never dealt with a situation like this either. Seeking help from friends was a dead-end also, talking about suicide wasn’t how a bunch of fourteen-year-olds wanted to spend their lunch hour.
For a long time, I carried the weight of her death on my shoulders. It’s often said that the “suicide survivors,” the loved ones of the person who took their own life, irrationally blame themselves for their passing. I definitely fell victim to that notion. I asked myself why I couldn’t tell something was wrong, why I hadn’t done more as a friend. I thought “If only I’d asked her more questions… If only I’d reached out sooner…” I think realizing that it wasn’t my fault was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome.
Additionally, getting past the guilt was only part of the problem. I couldn’t get over the hurt of it all. I would get so worked up about how unfair it was that her life was over while I was still living mine. I cried on my seventeenth birthday because I’d finally turned an age she hadn’t had the chance to experience. There was this constant shift between sadness and anger until eventually, I grew numb to the situation. Unbeknownst to the people around me, I would annually succumb to the gloom of the day of her death. I marked it on my calendar every year, more as a reminder of the hurt than a moment of remembrance.
The advice I was told often was that I should try and remember the good times I spent with her instead of dwelling on her absence now. It was a method of thinking that helped me get by for a while. When I was still in the early days of coping with the loss, I did things that reminded me of her. She would always wear long cardigans, paint her nails black, and drink those tall colorful cans of Peace Tea, so I tried doing the same. Having little physical reminders of her with me felt comforting in those moments. When I started to grow into my own style, I found that imitating her wasn’t helping me anymore. I turned to writing. Whether I’d had a really great day or an impossibly bad one, I wrote letters to her in a journal. It was a cathartic practice that allowed me to still feel connected to her, though sometimes I felt like writing letters to someone who can’t receive them was a crazy idea.
Fast forward to my college years and I’m sitting before the on-campus counselor admitting to him that I’m back to square one of my mourning process. I was embarrassed that I still struggled with the loss. I’d hoped that surely since so much time had gone by, I’d be better equipped to deal with grief. I was politely informed that grief doesn’t work like that at all. It was devastating having to essentially start from scratch in my healing process. Dealing with trauma as I grew into a young adult was something I still fumbled with. It was hard to accept the fact that someone I looked up to was taken out of my life for the same reasons I ended up struggling with myself. I spent one too many days questioning if suicide was the only way out. I wondered if it’d taken her, did that mean I was next? This was the phase in my life that embodied the saying “recovery is not a straight line.” Mine was a maze someone drew with their eyes closed.
The counselor recommended I try making art inspired by my friend. Instead of focusing on the negativity tied to the emotional event, he suggested I put that energy towards creation. As an art student, I was surprised at myself for not thinking about it sooner. In the past, I’d tried writing songs and poetry to vent my feelings. I wanted to get it off my chest and be done with it, but I hadn’t thought about doing something with the intention of “celebrating” her life. The transition from mourning a life to celebrating one required me to change my whole mindset entirely. Frankly, I was tired of being anchored down by the sorrow. I was hopeful for finding a way out of it. I wanted to feel that she’d be proud of me for how far I’ve come instead of taking steps backward and sitting in anguish.
Something that helped me ease into my creative process was focusing on one good memory at a time. I drafted lyrics of a song (yet to be finished) where I recall ending every school afternoon with a wave to her. She’d always lean against a fence, in all her rebellious glory waiting for her friends to meet up with her. For just a minute every day, before her friends came, her goodbye was just for me. I carry that concept with me often. It helps to find gratefulness in little things like that.
When we were classmates, I would make her paper airplanes. We would fly them in our corner in the classroom laughing as their poorly folded wings crashed them to the floor. For a project in one of my classes, I tried combining all of the coping mechanisms I’d learned over the years. I filmed a visual poem where I share an open letter to her and send it off as a paper airplane into the sunset.
Learning that there isn’t a timeline for grief has been such a big lesson for me. You are allowed to mourn and feel whatever clusterfuck of feelings inhabit your heart and mind. There isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve and there most certainly isn’t a linear schedule attached to it. I feel like I’m finally at a point where I can remember her and look towards commemorating the memories we shared and the things I loved about her. Her absence still hurts, I don’t think the hurt ever really stops, but it’s relieving to know there are creative ways of prevailing through the pain.