In high school in Spokane, Washington, our friend Gabe went missing one night after a party. He was last seen stumbling towards home in a soft snowfall, lightly blanketing the yards, the leftover jack-o’-lanterns, and collecting on the tops of mailboxes. The snow fell for days after, accumulating thick and high around our boots, clinging to the denim of our jeans as we searched for his body. He was found by one of his dearest old friends ten days later. He had fallen off the little cliff shortcut. The place where you had to hop over the rock wall and walk along a path with a sharp drop on the other side. It was unlikely he died from the fall into the soft snow. They said he passed out there and died of hypothermia when the snow covered him completely during the night. The school fell into a deep well of grief. The cold froze tears to hot faces in the yard. The halls were quiet. The counselor’s office full. I was out of town for the funeral, where I heard they played Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. Gabe’s favorite song. A tribute, a farewell. I didn’t cry for Gabe. I wasn’t his girlfriend. I wasn’t his best friend, or his mother. I’d only known him for a couple of years when most people in the school had known him since kindergarten. I’d moved a lot. My friendships never felt as deep as the ones around me. I just didn’t believe that there was space in grieving for Gabe allotted to me. I hadn’t earned the right. I felt like an outsider.
For years afterwards, I saw Gabe in crowded places. It didn’t matter what city. I might find myself walking behind him while rushing to catch a subway in New York. I might turn just in time to see him disappear into a comic book store in Portland, Oregon, or he would be looking down and laughing on a bridge as I drove under it.
When my grandmother, my MawMaw Thibodeaux, died, my dad offered to fly me down to Louisiana for her funeral and, though nervous, I accepted. I still hadn’t been to a funeral. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know the importance of closure, of saying goodbye in a shared experience environment. I didn’t even know all of my cousins that well because we moved away when I was only a year old. So, unlike my many cousins, I only got to see her once a year. I remember sitting up tall at her breakfast bar eating fresh persimmons from her backyard garden, watching her make duck gumbo out of the duck she just killed and cleaned in the kitchen sink. She would ladle the gumbo into wide-mouthed bowls over white rice and top it with homemade fig preserves. She spoke a mixture of English and Cajun French. She told me she loved me big like the world and pulled the glittering crown off her life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary for me to wear around the house. She called me by my first and middle names. “I love you big, big like the world, Margie Gail,” she said, as I twirled as fast as I could, crown covering my eyes, my ears.
The weekend of her memorial service, a freak ice storm hit the deep south and all the flights were cancelled. After the funeral I heard that all of the grandchildren had brought a single flower to her casket. I heard that it was a beautiful ceremony filled with love and laughter, but I wasn’t there. It reinforced the fact that maybe I was outside of this grief. Somehow my experiences with her were less than others. I hadn’t earned the right to grieve for her.
Last week a dear friend of mine died. Tragically, unexpectedly. She died after a routine surgical procedure when she was still so full of life, had so many plans and ideas, was such a shining inspiration to the world around her. I found myself in shock. We spent a lot of time together while we were in nutrition school, but after that, and both our marital separations, and our new hustle, we barely saw each other in person. We stayed in touch through social media and email. Recently I gave her a testimonial for her newest book. She responded to my last post with “You, Girl, Always You.” Sometimes she called me “Meow”. We exchanged little snippets to catch up. I wished her well on her surgery, the removal of breast implants that she no longer valued, that had made her ill. Her bravery, her loud call to a higher level of self-respect had knocked me over.
And then she was gone. A mega-watt light bulb explodes into darkness, an unprecedented vacuum, such gravity.
Birth and death, it could be argued, are our only absolutes. So commonplace, intrinsically woven into our being – and yet, they are utterly exceptional. Every time.
I went to the Facebook tributes first. Her brothers and oldest friends were chiming in with beautiful tributes of their experiences with her. I had some moments. I hadn’t seen her in a while. I’ve only known her for five years. I haven’t seen her in too long. Like so many friends who have to hustle so hard to make things work… too long. At first, I decided against posting on Facebook. It felt self-serving. I was afraid people who were closer to her would wonder who I thought I was. Until something (someone?) whispered into my heart, “You don’t have to be alone. Your connection was real. Your pain is real.”
So I tried posting – and the outpouring of love from people who care, from people sharing wisdom about grief and love, has been such balm.
I changed a trip to make it to her memorial. It will be the first time I celebrate the life of someone I loved this much with friends and family. I couldn’t miss it. Not again.
And, of course, I had all these other feelings about telling you about it all here. Like, sure I got some support, but am I just milking it now? Does it matter? Isn’t grief universal? I want to tell the world about her incredible life.
Jesus, I’m tired of questioning everything I do. Worrying about how everyone in the known universe will feel about me is beyond exhausting. So, I’m not going to do it. I decided instead to write about these experiences. Even if it’s all still fresh and might be an underdeveloped story. Even if under all of it, some part of me just needs a witness, or to indignantly take my place in the grief that I’ve actually earned by being born into this mortal coil.
Maybe you need a witness too. Maybe you can identify with the confusion, the consternation, the wonder and terror of saying goodbye to someone whose presence you would never in a million years have imagined losing. Maybe there are other things you haven’t felt worthy of feeling, so you started caretaking or hiding instead. Maybe there is so much to grieve and everything doesn’t just happen for a reason. Maybe silver linings are bullshit. Maybe we don’t let go, and instead we must expand to carry it all with more grace. Maybe we need each other to get there.
Maybe grieving fully really is the path to living joyfully.
Whatever the reasons or answers (there are no real reasons or answers here), I mostly want to say that I love you. I have such a deep appreciation for the support each of you brings every time you take the time to read my ramblings, take my classes, buy my stuff… all of it matters. I want to remind you to hold your loved ones close. To not be afraid of the primal parts of your heart, or theirs. There is no right way. No judgement. No precedent. No law for this most commonplace act of living and dying. It is an exception every time.
We are an exception every time.
And we deserve all the room to breathe.
* The image in this post is from Tina Leigh’s Instagram account.