Sometimes I wish I didn’t write about grief so much. I wish I didn’t talk about it, I wish I didn’t think about it, I wish I wasn’t that person who can’t seem to let it go. But the truth is that 11 out of my 24 years were spent in the world of grief – almost half of my life. It’s what I know and, like it or not, it defines who I am. It’s what I consider myself an expert in. It would be much cooler to be trilingual or a dog whisperer, but ya know. Whatever. I’m learning to accept my fate.
My dad died as a result of a car crash when I was 13. What makes as a result different than in? Well, to make a long story short: someone crashed into his car, he was fine, and then he wasn’t. It’s a bitch because it gives you this thing called hope then robs it from you. Yeah, I’m a little bitter.
When I think back on that time, there are two things that gave me the stability I so desperately needed. These two things are what I am thankful for every single day, because without them, I have no idea how I would have survived.
The first is my relationship with my 8th grade teacher, Bevin. I can’t mention this time without mentioning her. I wrote a post about her last year that I urge you to read. In addition to the many life lessons she offered, she taught me that you have to reach out to people.
I hated being vulnerable, and I still don’t love it. I’d rather hide behind writing. Bevin was the one person I could talk to, which was convenient because I couldn’t run from her. I loved to run. I could run from therapists, my family… practically everyone. But Monday through Friday, without fail, I had to see her at least once in her class.
This taught me a very important coping mechanism. I don’t like reaching out to many people. So when I do, I make sure it’s to someone I can’t avoid. Someone I have to see at least once a week, no matter what. I don’t always reach out looking for answers or advice… sometimes I just send a cryptic text full of bullshit. Putting it out in the world makes me feel better – it’s like an insurance plan. Most days I’m fine, but in the off-chance I freak out, there’s someone around who already knows what I’m going through because I’ve sent them a text saying “I’M SUCH A FLAKY BITCH” or “WHO THE FUCK DO I THINK I AM?”. Someone who I don’t have to explain anything to. Someone who can just calm me down. I’m a high maintenance friend and I’m incredibly thankful that these people put up with me (Sophia, Jay, Katie, Annie Con – thanks for dealing with my shit, guys).
The second is a place called Healing Hearts. It’s a bereavement center for kids and teenagers. I grew up there, and as much as I wish I never had to step foot in the place, I’m so incredibly thankful that we found it.
Healing Hearts taught me that I’m not alone. In a world where I was forced to mature early, I was able to be a teenager here. I felt normal, a feeling that I still desperately try to chase. Everyone just got it. I wasn’t different, I wasn’t pitied… I could just exist. Having a community like this was everything… (Christine, Diane, Samm, Hannah and E.J. – I owe you guys the world.)
I could complain about things that I felt awful complaining about to anyone else. I was able to complain about my mom working so much without feeling awful. I could complain about how jealous I was of my sister. I complained about how my teachers were unsympathetic, how my brother ruined my chances with boys, and how unfair it was that I wasn’t cheerleading captain. Most of all, I could complain about the way the world treated me in this new normal. We were able to make charts with the title “Things I Wish My Living Parent Understood” without feeling guilty.
I could admit my darkest feelings of guilt. I could talk about regret without hearing the “no regrets” speech, because everyone else regretted things unsaid too. I talked about how much I hated myself, how I couldn’t even fathom a way to like myself after how awful I was to my dad. We were able to make charts with the title “Things I Wish I Could Tell My Dead Parent” without feeling guilty.
I could choose to not talk. There were days where I was so incredibly depressed that I didn’t even have the energy to talk. That was okay. I was never pressured to talk. No one thought I was hiding some deep, dark secret in my silence. Even when I didn’t talk, I had my feelings affirmed through hearing my friends talk about what was on my mind. We were able to make charts with the title “Things I Wish I Could Say” without feeling guilty.
I could find the humor in my situation. While the group was open to anyone who lost an immediate family member, we all had dads that died. So we made dead dad jokes. We laughed at strange things that happened at funerals. We made fun of people who didn’t understand how to talk to grieving people. We were hysterical over all of the times we used our dead parent as a cop out for homework we just forgot about. We laughed our way through things like “Emotional Bingo” and found it hilarious that someone made a living out of making board games for half orphans (what we called ourselves, “Hos” for short). We shared in the wonder of nailing the college essay. We were able to make charts with the title “Things That Are Still Funny” without feeling guilty.
I could be selfish. My life was now consumed by wondering how everyone else was feeling – is my mom okay? How’s my brother? Is my sister hanging in? How can I be less of a burden to everyone? But when I walked into Healing Hearts, it was all about me. I was separated from my family for an hour when I could sit in a room with my friends and therapists. Not my family’s friends, mine. For at least an hour, it was all about me. At the same time, they took care of my mom too. There was a parent’s meeting at the same time. I knew she was getting the community she so desperately needed as well. Knowing that she was getting help freed up my mind and allowed me to focus on myself. It also brought my mom and I together. As much as I rolled my eyes at memorial ceremonies where we would bring in my dad’s favorite food and light candles, it forced my mom and I to grieve together. We were able to make charts with the title “Things That Make Me – ME! – Feel Better” without feeling guilty.
Most importantly, I was in a place that understood me. That didn’t try to fix me. Everyone else was trying to fix me, like I was some machine that could be oiled up and sent on my way. They didn’t do that at Healing Hearts. The teenagers in my room, as well as the adults who worked with us, understood because they have been there. They don’t tell you that everything will be okay, because sometimes it won’t be. They don’t tell you not to feel guilty because they still feel guilty too. They let you sit in the shit, talk a little about it, then walk away with a little less than what you came in with. That’s what it was. Moment to moment, get a little better every single day. Take one step forward, fall fifty steps back. There’s no measured progress, as new years come with new challenges. Just show up. Just get there.
When your world falls apart, you desperately seek some sort of stability. You feel like anything could be taken away from you at any moment and thrash around trying to grasp onto something. That’s what a community does. Take it one moment at a time. We’ll always be here.