I lost my best friend Jaime almost 6 years ago. She was one of those people who was more than a friend, and was a true soul mate. There has never been another person on this earth that has known more about me or truly understood me on the level or to the extent that she did. I’m a pretty shy person and I don’t make a ton of friends. I am a lot more outgoing on the web than I am in my real life, and I find it hard to connect with people a lot of the time. I want friends, but most of the time I feel awkward around other people. It probably doesn’t help that I’m a homebody who doesn’t like clubbing or dancing or parties or any of those things, so I just don’t make friends easily. She and I met on the internet (of course), but we did all we could to visit each other and hang out in the real world. As we got older, we grew apart some. Our lives went in different directions. I had a child in my early twenties, and she was still out having fun and living a different life. That was fine. We had the kind of relationship where I knew she would always be there, and that however many times we might drift apart over the years, eventually our paths would meander together once again. And then she passed away.
I think it hit me more deeply than I can really understand even now. When I got the call I responded with an “Oh. Okay. Thank you for telling me.” It took me a full 24 hours to cry at all, and I really don’t think I cried enough. I told myself at the time that because we had drifted apart, I had already mourned her. It bothered me that the last time we spoke, I had gotten upset with her because she had called me very late at night and was not entirely sober. I had a child she might have woken up, after all, and I had outgrown my college drinking days. We got off the phone, and the next night she called again, a little earlier, but still after nine o’clock. I didn’t answer. I listened to the message she left, but she was again a bit inebriated. I never called her back. Months passed. And then she died. I told myself that even though she was gone, she knew that I cared about her and she still understood me well enough that she wouldn’t be angry with me for not returning that call. I had several vivid dreams where she spoke to me and I cried, and she told me everything was fine and I believed her. I committed myself to trying to call and comfort her partner who was of course in a much worse state of grief than I was. I’m the kind of person who has to do something about uncomfortable situations, and this was the only thing I could do. I also realize now that I felt like what she would have wanted me to do was to try to take care of her wife for her. All would be forgiven if I could do that. I guess really I felt like I could only forgive myself if I did what I thought she would require of me. Eventually the immediate grief passed. I thought I was pretty much done with it. I see now that I was not.
What I began to do was to slowly take that grief brick by brick and build a wall between me and the rest of the world. I have trust issues. I’ve been hurt. Jaime was the one person on the Earth that I thought would always understand me and be there no matter what. Her death seeded the notion in me that no matter how perfect a relationship with another human being might be, no matter how much they will always be there or want to be there, death can still take them away. This really damaged me. I just pulled away from everyone. I was terrified of having friends. Though somewhat shy and at times self-conscious, I never really had social anxiety before she died. I didn’t bond closely with everyone I met, but I was able to make and keep friends. After that wall started going up I didn’t make any new friends at all. I shut myself away from a lot of the online friends I had, and didn’t really make much effort to hang out with my real life ones. The brick wall was becoming more like a suit of armor. It was easier to move around in, but it was still pretty damned heavy. But I was okay with it. I liked it. It kept me safe. I can see now that as the years went on it unfortunately began to press ever inward and began to cut me off even from myself. I stopped writing and creating until I went back to school to get my graphic design degree. Even then I really found it hard to work on anything that wasn’t an assignment. I still read my books and had my wild fantasies. I still gamed. But slowly everything started to fade to grey.
I’ve always been a fairly vibrant person with a strong personality. I don’t always choose to share that personality with everyone, but I love literature and art and theatre and acting. A lot of that faded away as my grief armor pulled inward. I had no desire to touch the emotions that give birth to creative things; I was too busy protecting myself from those emotions. In some ways that made me lose myself, and looking back now I can see that I was actually even pushing me away from, well, me. I had some perception that I was pushing other people away, but I don’t think I saw what I was doing to myself. I just had this feeling that I was safe and better off alone.
Earlier this year one of my very closest friends from high school also passed away unexpectedly. He and I had also drifted apart, but more naturally than I had with Jaime. We just grew up after high school like people do and went our separate ways. We reconnected on Facebook, but hadn’t gotten around to reconnecting in real life. There’s always time, right?
My first reaction to losing him was fear. I knew that losing Jaime had messed me up. I thought for sure that losing yet another friend that was far too young to die was going to make me shut off even further from everyone. I thought, though not with too much seriousness, that being close to me was something of a curse. I think, though, that actually having the conscious thought that I might get worse and pull away from people more kept me from doing so. I think I cried more for him than I did for Jaime. Some of that was because I was able to attend his funeral. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years. I hugged people I probably never hugged before, and I liked it. It made me feel better. I had that connection again with other people even if it was a bit fleeting. I was still unable to attend the gathering everyone had after. I still needed to keep people at arm’s length and was too afraid to really talk to anyone.
Part of my problem is that I’m a “tough guy”. I’m a strong, fiercely independent woman who doesn’t want to need anything from anyone. I can do it all myself and watch out if you stand in my way. I don’t want to need people. I pride myself on being able to take care of myself. I never, ever want to admit weakness, and to me, grief was a weakness. So I cried at the funeral, I hugged my old friends, I hugged the mother of the friend that had passed, and I walked out and went home. I think it was less that I didn’t want other people to see me grieve than it was that I just wasn’t in an emotional state where I really wanted people to see me anymore at all. I experienced a strange mix of warmth toward other people in having a mutual love for a friend that had passed, and coldness of that damned suit of armor I was wearing.
I think this might have been part of the turning point for me. I actually wanted to not be afraid of people anymore. I had also been in my new job that exposed me to a lot more people on a regular basis and had me surrounded by a lot of other artists, designers, and writers every day. I was beginning to make friends, which still scared me mind you, but it also thrilled me a little bit. I was starting to come out of my Tin man like state, but not completely. I think the face plate of my armor opened some, and when I was able to peek out at the world, I realized I wanted to be a part of it again. That armor was still pretty damned heavy to move around in, though.
I’m not sure exactly why it happened, but that armor got a lot lighter over the last month or two. I think part of the reason was that I had really settled into my new career. I felt like a success again and not like a bumbling idiot. I felt like I had ideas and talents to contribute. I was making actual real friends again. I felt like other artists and writers could get me. I was still petrified of people on an emotional level that I couldn’t control, but I was determined to fight through. I was forcing myself to work through it and form relationships. The armor was still keeping me from myself, though.
My grandmother died shortly before Christmas. She was quite elderly and although it happened fairly swiftly, it was not entirely unexpected. Most of my family lives in New York, far away from me. My parents went back there for the funeral of course, and I stayed behind and helped to look after things here. I kind of wanted to go, but it all happened so quickly. I don’t have a lot of money, though I do have credit cards reserved for such an emergency and I could have afforded it that way. Ultimately I felt like I was of more use looking after things here. I also think I was still a little bit afraid of being around so many people and not being able to express my grief properly. I feared being judged even though I know my family is not like that and would never do that. I love them and they love me and I do know that. Regardless, I felt like there was too much here to do for me to be able to travel. I was at least able to take some time off from work this time. When each of my friends had died, I was back at work the next day. This time I took several days. Really I think I allowed myself the time this time because I was ready to actually work through my grief and begin to understand it. I had time to sit with my feelings and think about them. I had time to consider it, and ignore it when it was too much, then get back to it again later. Like always, I had to do something, so I spent hours finding the perfect florist that could live up to my ever snobbish design standards. I found one, and that made me feel a little better. I eventually came to the stark realization that I was the only one of my family that wasn’t in New York at the funeral, and that I somehow had to make myself okay with this. I wasn’t really okay with it, but I did feel like I was needed here across country at home and not so much back in New York. I stumble in social situations and I was worried I would do just that at the wrong time. I decided that it was okay that I wasn’t there even though I wanted to be. I let myself be okay with it. I think I realized when I let myself be okay with it, that if I could make conscious decisions to be okay with an uncomfortable situation I couldn’t do much about, that maybe I could make the decision to get out of the uncomfortable armor I’d put myself in all those years ago. I’m not sure exactly what tweaked it or why it happened, but after my grandmother’s death, I decided to be happy again. I decided I could let Jaime go and be happy and enjoy the things I enjoy without having to miss her sharing them with me. I realized that I wanted to be me again and for whatever reason, the armor mostly fell to pieces around me. I feel like myself again. I feel alive again. I still have some lasting trepidation and anxieties, but I’m able to try to work through them and be okay with it when I can’t, knowing that the next time I try, I will likely succeed. Maybe it’s because I finally allowed myself not to be perfect. Likely it’s more because I decided I didn’t care if anyone else thought I was perfect. I decided to be okay with myself again. Whatever it was that happened felt like a bubble around me popped and disappeared. (Yeah, I’m mixing metaphors, but that’s what it felt like. It was almost audible to me.) I’m back to being me again. I want to create and write. I have a burning need to do so again. It’s odd. I feel like I’m bouncing off the walls and everything that was trapped inside for so long is just trying to explode out. I’m happy with being me. I’m happy being who I am and I want to share me with people again.
And that was my experience with grief. I wanted to write about it because it is such an odd and intangible thing. It’s something that society tells you you should feel and understand, but I don’t think that’s really true. Grief can be silent. It certainly was for me. It’s different for everyone, but it’s never what you think it will be before you’ve experienced it. It does things you can’t comprehend. I think that’s why I want so badly to put it into words. I’ve always had a burning need to understand everything that I feel, and to be able to rationalize and fix it. I know that I still can’t do that when it comes to understanding grief, but writing this has at least made the experience slightly more tangible for me.
This turned out to be far longer than I intended. Thank you for sticking with me through this until the end and for sharing this experience with me.