As you grow up, there are many things that life teaches you. Whatever path you're on, there are different turns and bends that take you to a place you've never been before, and when that happens you've been changed forever. Some of the famous lessons include your first crush, the first time you lose a friend, and that mysterious period when the biggest school debate shifts from the legitimacy of Santa to the legitimacy of our president.
I could tell you that these changes are important (and yes, I believe they are) but in the end, that wouldn't matter. The truth is that these changes are inevitable; the people we were 10 years ago are not the people we are today. It's taken me a while to learn this truth, but now I can look back on my childhood and try to pinpoint some of the larger changes I've encountered- the ones that knocked the breath out of me and led me to question what I thought I'd known before.
One of the biggest curve balls that life has thrown me- something that I look to as a true point of "growing up"- was the first time that I experienced real grief. There seems to be a phase that adolescents go through when they realize the reality of mortality. It's almost as though a panel gets lifted to expose the frightening truth that anyone, anywhere could die at any time. When that panel raises for the first time, it can never be lowered again.
The first death I ever experienced was when my grandfather passed away. Being in elementary school, I was not at an age where I could comprehend what had happened. The things I felt and experienced- my mother (my rock) collapsing to the floor in tears, my older siblings quietly taking me to my room to assure me that she was okay- were memories burned into my brain, but there was no association of true grief, just a sense of confusion and fear. And though I can look back on it now and feel a pain in my heart at having lost him, this is something that took time and knowledge to settle in.
Because of this, my first real experience of grief can be attributed to the death of a classmate much later in life when I was in 8th grade. Most people understand middle school to be a great time of change for kids, both physically and mentally. And even though I experienced puberty and "heartbreak" at that time like everyone else, the biggest change for me by far was when a fellow student- far too young- passed away.
Despite having minimal interactions with the student, the news of his death hit hard. The way in which I learned of it was by a close friend who had previously been his girlfriend. It was almost as if hearing the news in that manner- not by a neutral party, but by a person whose life was completely shaken- made it that much harder. Perhaps it was a "secondhand grief," but there was something about the way she pointed to where he used to sit in class, a broken look in her eyes, that made the situation far more than a simple announcement or letter home explaining the situation. Either way, it was the first time in my life that I found myself unable to deal with an event, so much so that I ended up going home for the day.
Looking back, the whole time period of his passing was full of "firsts" for me. To start with, it was the first time that I saw death as an inevitability rather than a boogeyman. It was also the first time that I'd noticed others grieve. It was when I found a student crying in a bathroom that I realized just how large the ripple effect of loss can be. It was when a group of students performed a tribute to him through a song in a talent show that I understood the idea of coping. It was when his family arrived to collect his 8th grade graduation certificate that I realized moments of a life lost could live on. And it was when his family member with tear-filled eyes asked everyone else to stop crying that I realized grief takes many faces.
Since becoming a student at Eastern, I've gone on to experience five other losses. I've lost an uncle, a father, a grandfather, a grandmother, a school friend, and just recently, my mother's cousin. There have been times when I've though I knew how to grieve. Textbooks will tell you that there are many forms of grief, but none of those seem real until you experience it firsthand. We've all heard about the tears, but nobody tells you about when the tears won't come. There's nothing to prepare you for the undying anger- closer, really, to rage- that comes with a lack of closure. And they don't tell you about the peace, either, when you can look back on a life well-spent and a relationship well-loved.
Nobody could have told me that there would be a time, a span of six months, that I would lose three family members back-to-back. And even if they'd tried, they couldn't have explained to me the crushing feeling of waking up each day wondering whether or not your terminally sick grandmother had finally lost her battle. Above all, there is absolutely no description for the flinch-reflex of hearing a phone ring and wondering if you'll have to pull out your black dress again.
I wish that there was any real advice or guidance that I could give when it comes to grief. God knows that I've had my fair share in just 20 years, and one would think that I'd know what to say by now when someone says "I'm sorry for your loss." But the truth is that even now when my doctor asks if my father has health problems, my first thought is to reply, "yes, he's dead."
There is no hand-guide to grief, and maybe that's the real lesson to gain from this. It isn't until you've lived it yourself that you have a chance of even glimpsing the realities of grief, and even then the next death will be different. No matter how many funerals you sit through, you'll never be able to "master" the grief process, and that's okay. Be sad. Be angry. Be tired. Be confused. Be at peace. Be restless. Be. There is no right answer.