I’m looking through her pictures, reading the posts of positivity and realness she always wrote. I’m sifting through old messages and letters. I’m checking my phone and email for an update, an acknowledgement, an answer, anything.
“Your cousin died.” That was all the information I knew Wednesday night. My beloved cousin. The one I’ve looked up to ever since I can remember. We were pen-pals. I received her old clothes, mailed to me in big boxes from Florida. She made me jewelry- a hemp necklace with pink and white beads that I still have in my jewelry box. She was a talented softball player and all of her picture day photos in uniform were thumbtacked to my corkboard. In 6th grade, we had to write a paper on who our hero was. I chose her and proudly made a collage with a picture of us arm in arm during Christmas 1999, when many relatives were able to come together, no easy feat for a family scattered throughout the US. Time together, though not often, was so treasured.
She was the kind of person who never tried to conform to societal ideals. I don’t know all the details of her story, and some of it wouldn’t be mine to share anyway, but I know her life was not always easy. And yet, she was one of the freest free spirits I have ever met.
I remember saving the thank you letter she wrote to my parents for her 18th birthday gift. In it she wrote, “I’m 18. What’s next but the world?” “What’s next but the world?” became my mantra, a phrase that carried me into my own adventures, every time I felt that pining to take a risk. It became a pep talk that enabled me to jump out of airplanes, apply to Peace Corps, and travel the world for five months.
We were even in the works of planning a late December visit. “We could go to the Grand Canyon!” she proposed. “Yessss!” I exclaimed, imagining the heart-to-heart conversations we’d have on our drive there.
All of these memories filter my mind as I continue to process the news.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” said the person who told me, unsure of what to make out of my silence and sobs.
I believe people are well intentioned, but sometimes the usual trite remarks surrounding death and grief just don’t really help. It reminds me, though, how complicated death and grief are and that we’re all just doing our best to love each other in the ways we can think of. It’s a way for us to comfort ourselves when we reach the edges of that thing we cannot grasp for certain, but all must face at some point: death. None of us knows tit-for-tat what happens. It falls completely outside of the purview of human understanding.
What do I know about it.
What do I know about what it must feel like, to be near it, or perhaps around it, or perhaps still far from it, but not too far.
I don’t know.
But I remember the words of my youth pastor who watched her own mother pass away: “I will tell you all this–never be afraid when this time comes. You could actually see Mom’s spirit leave her body, hover a while, and go. She looked so happy, so peaceful. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”
I cling to this hope, and the picture my cousin’s high school graduation picture that’s been on my shelf since 2001. I let the words and experience of my youth pastor nestle deep into my heart- like I did when my own mother experienced a health scare- until a satiated peace comes over me.
In this state of solace, I decide what I will do, and what I won’t do, as I move forward in my processing and grief.
Here’s what I will do:
I will visit my family and not even consider the finances behind plane tickets.
I will take time to grieve and process and not rush a single tear or lack of tear. I will write down everything she’s taught me. I will examine how she lived, and ask myself, “What was it about her that I just loved and adored so much?” All of this will unveil the practices of hers that I can live out in my own life.
I’ll keep telling people how much I love them, what they’ve taught me, and the vulnerable ins and outs of my heart without fearing if I will be perceived as too “mushy” or over-emotional.
I will recognize that we all process death and grief differently. Some people feel angry. And the best thing I can do is to let them be angry and not coddle them. Some will be sad. And the best thing I can do is to let them be sad and not tell them to “Smile, it’ll be ok.” Others will feel numb. And the best thing I can do is let them feel numb and remind them that numbness is a perfectly acceptable emotion and you don’t need to feel guilty about it. Some may need to tell every one they know how much they love them. Others may need routine and normalcy since everything in their life feels so un-normal. Others may be sick of everyone skirting around death with gentler words like “passed away,” walking around the sad, ugly truth that this person is dead. Other people will find the word “dead” so excruciatingly painful and hurt so deeply right now that they just need some phrase remotely bearable enough to even get the word out. Some people, like myself, will cycle in and out of all of this. Elizabeth Kubler Ross coined it perfectly in her theories of the 5 Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
I notice myself filtering in and out of these feelings with Heather’s passing, feeling like intricate waves thrown about between a storm and placid sunset. Grief is hard. Death is harder. It’s rarely a seamless process to get to that desirable plateau of resolution. But I am in no rush as I try to understand what I can of death.
Perhaps that is death’s beauty— that like life, death allows us to step away from the righting and wronging and into our humanness. When someone we care about is grieving, you don’t think about how much you disagree with them on _____. You don’t think about their differing political affiliation. You don’t think about the stupid stuff. You think about how your soul and my soul are one and connected. You think about how we all experience these tender emotions and need to feel and express loving kindness. We simply cannot watch someone suffer, isolated, alone in their tears, when we see it in right in front of us. Because your pain is my pain and your joy becomes my joy, when we really live as each other’s keepers, in step with this inextricable synapse connection of our own humanity.
Tonight, I cry in what feels like a song with no coda. It starts with a trembling lip, then tears with no audible movement. Then bellowing, discordant pulses reverberating like an electric guitar. I take in only short breaths and finally my body overcompensates by taking in a large intake of air. My wallows get louder and my pillow gets wetter from all of this sadness. It’s 12:30 AM and my body is utterly exhausted and yet it feels like it could go on crying like this for hours. I turn off the light and let the flickering candle beside my bed light up the picture of her laugh. It’s there that I find a little slip of paper I wrote earlier this week when I was struck by a beautiful sunset: “Linger in the beauty.” Things don’t yet feel beautiful, but a peace in my heart knows-know unshakably- that there will be beauty to be found in the midst of this devastation. I blow out the candle and put a picture of her under my pillow.
As the next day came, I kept plans I had with friends, grateful to have some laughter. After most of them left, my one dear friend and I talked about what happened. We talked about death and how it’s hard to accept. We talked about the immense sadness we will feel when our parents die- and can’t imagine them dying- but are fully aware that they actually will, no naivete.
And if they are going to die one day, that means you and I will too. Someone else’s death makes you acutely aware of your own and the people who will awkwardly pick up your old journals, wondering what to do with them or whether or not to read them. And you won’t be there to tell them that it’s ok, you can pick this up and read these scribbled words if that will help you as you mourn. That you aren’t afraid of being fully known. That you hope this will help connect the dots over the old experiences that were once too hard to talk about in person.
But if we’re going to die one day, weren’t we lucky enough to have been born in the first place? And isn’t the actual creation of life itself an incredible miracle that makes no sense- how a dot inside a woman and a dot inside a man can create a body that moves and laughs and cries when the two dots comingle? And yet in and of those dots themselves, one without the other, this body doesn’t happen- meaning no one dot has any capability on its own to become this incredible thing?
After this death, I am further in awe of life. It’s a doorway to conversation with family and friends about the life reality of death that we seem to tiptoe around. My own family shares memories I hadn’t heard before. I’m taking even more pictures than ever before because seeing all these pictures of her helps me to remember. I can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast most days, meaning I forget so much of what happens day in, day out. But these photos feel like victories as I remember the time I first learned how to spell her name and said it outloud over and over again until she walked out of the room, allowing me to annoy her just enough like a little sister. I’m even sending a message to my cousin’s former husband telling him the qualities he has that speak to me. For some, it might be a bit much, but I’m so tired of being sold the “fluff ‘n stuff” of life, these surface level conversations, like “Hi, I’m good, how are you?” cordial bullshit. I am so relieved and touched when I see people willingly reveal themselves, willingly made vulnerable, admittedly recognizing the full depth and range of the human experience.
Beauty in which to linger is coming forth. It’s not the entire picture, the full frame. Because life is not all beauty. But here in this moment, there’s a crack of light, enough to light candles that in turn can light other candles, until together we’re seeing in this darkness, wandering towards the light, finding ourselves and losing ourselves in these cracks and crevices of pain and beauty.