Grief's Many Faces

How tragedy can shape your true self

The crisp February breeze ran up my back. The thin bare branches of the trees hanging overhead swayed freely.

Under normal circumstances, the cold air would have made me shiver and shrug deeper into my coat. But that day, I didn’t move, like a stone statue standing unaffected by its surroundings. 

I didn’t wear a coat either. I left it in my car. 

Partly by mistake, but also in part because I hoped the cool air would make me feel something other than the numbness that had overtaken my body during the past week.

As I stood in the stark cemetery on that cold Sunday morning, watching a machine lower my friend’s casket deeper and deeper into the ground, my emotions were so jumbled that I felt almost nothing.

This was the second of three funerals I attended over the course of my junior year of high school. They say death comes in threes, and God do I wish They would shut the fuck up sometimes. 

First, I lost my grandma in August, right before the start of the school year. Cancer. The entire summer, I had to watch her deteriorate into a shell of the strong Jewish woman who I once knew.

My mom, who stayed by her own mother’s side until the very end, told me to stay away when things got really bad. She said I should remember my grandma the way she used to be. I wish I’d listened to her.

While I do remember the good things, like the way she’d apply fresh lipstick and then quickly press her lips into a tissue, wiping away most of the stain, I also remember the horrible details of the bitter end.

How my grandma couldn’t walk.

Then she couldn’t talk. 

Then she couldn’t move at all.

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I didn’t cry during my grandma’s funeral. I hated crying. I thought it made me weak. I saved my tears for those lonely nights when there was nothing left to do but cry. 

As summer turned into fall, I compartmentalized my feelings and focused on the school year ahead. I knew junior year was crucial to get into college, and I needed to be on top of my game. 

And for the most part, I was. My grades were great, I was an active member of student government, National Honor Society and the yearbook staff. Most importantly, I was happy. I thought I had moved on from my grandma’s death, and I was ready to take the second half of my high school experience by storm. 

Then, in the late evening hours of Valentine’s Day, Alec died. 

We weren’t best friends by any stretch, but we had been in classes together since elementary school. 

We first met while playing on the same little league baseball team.

I was, and still am, not an athlete. Sports just aren’t my thing. But no matter how many times I messed up, Alec always encouraged me to keep trying.

I don’t have any memories of him without a smile plastered on his face. That smile lit up a room. 

As I slept, the news started creeping its way around Snapchat, through private iMessages and over the soundwaves of late night phone calls until it ended up in my inbox. 

“Tonight made me realize that life is too short for me not to tell you that I love you,” read the text message on my phone. 

“I love you too bitch!” I responded, not knowing the context of the message. 

“So I guess you haven’t heard…”

“Heard what?”

“About Alec? He died last night.”

A pit formed in my stomach, and it felt like the air had been sucked from my lungs.

“That’s not funny. Don’t joke like that,” was all I could write back. My mind wouldn’t let me believe that someone so young, only seven months older than myself, could die so suddenly. 

But it happened.

Kids cried in the hallways. Counselors and other administrators watched us, trying their best to console students during such a traumatic time. As the weekend and numerous memorial activities approached, emotions ran high.

As I pulled into my driveway after school on the Friday after Alec died, I heard my mom’s voice from my backyard.

I walked around the side of our house and found her playing fetch with my dog. I entered through the back gate to greet her, but as soon as our eyes connected, I knew something was wrong. 

“What is it?” I asked her flatly. I was so on edge from the week’s events that I felt the same pit forming in my stomach before she had time to respond. 

“Aunt Mugs died last night. She had a heart attack,” my mom said, choking back tears. 

I saw the rest of that moment play out in front of me like a scene from a movie.

I saw my mom crying. I saw my dog looking at her with a wagging tail. But most importantly, I saw my own face. 

I saw my emotions falling away, and a cold, empty look taking their place. 

In that moment, I felt nothing.

“Ok,” I responded. “I’ve had a really long week. I’m gonna go take a nap.” 

I saw my mom’s confusion to the starkness of my reaction. She never questioned it, but I saw fear in her eyes. Fear that I’d never feel anything again. 

And honestly, I was afraid too.

I cried sporadically throughout the weekend leading up to Alec’s funeral, but the numbness that took over my body on Friday remained.

At the end of Alec’s funeral, after most of the adults had left for their cars and returned to their lives, a lot of my classmates stood at the gravesite sharing embraces, memories, laughs and tears.

After what somehow felt like both an eternity and a single moment, we all decided it was time to go. We began giving hugs and saying our goodbyes. 

The last person I hugged before leaving was my friend Amy. We weren’t that close, but she was a year older, extremely involved at school and someone who I looked up to.

She walked up to me, looked me in the eyes and asked me such a simple question. 

“How are you doing?” 

I broke down into tears. I pulled Amy into a deep hug and sobbed in her arms. 

“It’s just not fair,” I repeated over and over through my sobs.

It wasn’t fair that my grandma died so painfully. It wasn’t fair that such a bright boy had his life taken before he could even reach his prime. It wasn’t fair that my aunt spent her last moments alone. It wasn’t fair that at 16 years old, I lost two family members, a friend and my youth. 

But in that moment of total despair, I realized that I was feeling again. I was feeling anger, sadness and pain. 

I was grieving. 

I was grieving for everyone and everything I’d lost in the last eight months right there in the middle of that cemetery. 

But after my moment with Amy, my grief didn’t go away. 

I was still sad, and I was still in pain. But I was also acknowledging those feelings. 

My friends and I started having honest conversations about our emotions. On one of the many late nights we spent sharing memories of Alec, I opened up about the pain of losing my grandma and aunt at the same time. 

I didn’t cry when talking about my losses that night. I actually felt a sense of relief that those closest to me knew about my struggles.

I’ve always been a talkative person. At every parent-teacher conference, and next to the letter grades on all my report cards, my teachers commented about my ‘chattiness’. While grieving, my chattiness was still unwavering.

I used my words to understand what I was feeling. I would talk through the happy times, as well as the sad ones. I needed to do something to make sense of what it meant to truly grieve. 

At first, it was hard for me to make sense of all the emotions attached to my grief, but Alec’s mom unknowingly served as my guide. 

She’s very active on Facebook. She wrote that grief is not something that goes away. It will always be a part of you, and over time, you’ll learn to grow around the pain.

This sentiment changed my entire outlook on grief. At the start, I looked at it as a single emotion that needed to be felt and then put away.

But that’s not what grief is. 

Grief is an experience — and a transformative one at that. It shapes you in more ways than you can count. It changes the way you feel things. It changes the way you love others and yourself.

Grief is not mentioning the names of those I lost because it hurt too much. 

Grief is the bravery of finally opening up about my feelings to my friends. 

Grief is enjoying the holidays with family while silently knowing there will always be two empty seats at our table. 

Grief is the painful pricks that become less frequent with time but still make me bleed when they hit.

After the initial grief, my life entered into a time of firsts. 

My first math class without Alec sitting one row over. 

My first family gathering without my grandma and aunt present.

My first birthday without cheesy cards filled with my grandma’s lengthy notes or my aunt’s perfect cursive. 

With each new first, I would feel another prick. Each one reminding me of the journey I was forced to take, and how it would be one that lasts a lifetime.

As the years progressed, firsts became seconds and thirds, and the pricks of each pivotal moment without the ones I lost became less painful. 

I still see Alec’s smile; I still hear my aunt’s bolstering laugh; I still feel my grandma’s warm embrace. 

But when these memories wash over me like soft waves, the sharp pricks are accompanied by another emotion: gratitude to have known them at all.