“We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here… where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge.”
– Annie Dillard, Sojourners
Grief was a new companion in my life, following The Accident. It followed me everywhere: it woke with me in the morning, took up residence inside of me and accompanied me like an unwanted stray dog. It joined me at each funeral I attended in the week following the accident. It gripped my heart and squeezed, lodged itself in my brain and made simple tasks harder. Simple sounds triggered memories. There were foods I avoided after The Accident, because they reminded me of things I had seen and touched. For weeks afterwards, I sat in a mental fog in my classrooms.
But grief’s most profound impact was its ability to isolate. The world just did not look the same to me anymore. I looked around me with a new set of eyes. The concerns that had occupied me before The Accident seemed childish, almost frivolous. Girlish chatter about upcoming school dances, and all that teen drama? A waste of time and energy. Out of the chaos and violence that night, my clearest memory was sitting down on the roadside beside a victim, having failed to revive him. The sky above me was dark and very silent, the stars blinking coldly against my despair. I could not shake this moment of realization: life is fragile, and I am impotent against its cruel whims. My childhood ended in that very moment. I lived as a sojourner in the worlds between adolescence and adulthood, fitting into neither realm very comfortably.
Grief silenced me, for a number of years. I buried myself in the vow that if my life were to be snuffed out the next day, I would not waste one moment of it. Sorrow became the fuel that powered my determination to make whatever time I had left “count.”
Grief was not done visiting me, though. I endured more losses. One friend suddenly drowned. Another, the boy whose locker was next to mine, died one weekend in a hot tub from an undiscovered heart condition. His empty locker greeted me each day, making the dark dog grow and stir, again. Looking at the bolt on his locker, I remembered how his warm brown eyes crinkled each morning as he said hi. Squaring my shoulders, I shoved aside the memory and carried on. Another friend committed suicide after a long struggle with depression. Before I graduated, I had lost 7 peers. Each time, grief wrapped itself around me in a cloak. Its companionship made me a stranger in the midst of my life. I coped by distraction: I immersed myself in work, chasing grades and school activities and scholarships. I hid my alienation from others with a ready smile and a listening ear.
Over time, I was able to rebuild, learning that work was its own consolation – a cushion against the knowledge of the universe’s randomness that had seeped deep into my very bones. The stray dog finally became small enough to stop following me around, and just moved into a space in my heart and soul – still ever present, but less alien to me as time passed.
The first lesson of grief was that I was small, and powerless against a world of random chance. I railed internally against this knowledge, determining that I would live a life that somehow undid whatever harm I encountered. The second lesson of grief was that there was some source of strength inside that allowed me to be two people. Outwardly, I became the smiling, responsible and high achieving adult; inwardly, I was also the helpless child seated on the pavement looking up at the heavens in stunned silence.
When cancer arrived almost 3 decades later, I put these skills to good use, outwardly continuing as the stoic adult, and holding both the stunned child and dog of grief at bay inside. I was learning the third lesson of grief: nothing is ever wasted in this universe. It is both random and purposeful. After surviving The Accident, I had learned how to rebuild (or so I thought) – and even a cancer diagnosis did not seem as immediately terrifying as sitting in a pool of blood, trying to breathe life back into a child’s broken body.
But my determination to overthrow cancer as just one more obstacle was, in its own way, a reflection of that naive teenager who set about reviving a dead body. Grief, I was to learn, was also a lycanthrope: the dark dog inside was stirring again, and would morph into a more sinister adversary, divorcing me from the carefully crafted adult self I’d created after The Accident. The new battle to rebuild would take me into a very dark place, and where it seemed “as wise to stay in bed as budge.”
In time, I would learn the names of the coping skills I’d developed – denial, and bargaining – and very soon, I would see how useless these strategies were in the face of the many losses that lay ahead.