I won’t pretend as if I never gave any thought to death. Death has crossed my mind most every day since middle school. As a chronically anxious person, I subconsciously convinced myself from an early age that if I play out possible scenarios of how death and trauma will enter my life, I would be mentally prepared for the day that they finally do.
March 8th, 2021 began as any other Monday would – fatigue, start-of-the-week angst, and work. The pandemic’s first birthday was quickly approaching, as well as a newfound sense of hope with the first round of the vaccine rollout. Things were finally taking a positive turn. An ordinary Monday would have been just fine, but an unexpected midday phone call from my cousin put to the test all my years of mentally preparing for death – our beloved Lauren had been murdered.
Tragic death hits as a full-force shock and leaves you with complicated grief that comes with no how-to manual. As I came to find out, and as one could probably guess, it is impossible to prepare for mentally.
What is there to say about grief that has not yet been said? Over the past year, I have been working to accept what I have always heard: everyone grieves differently. This has been a journey of acceptance that I still find myself navigating. Even the five stages of grief were not something I could fully relate to, which made me feel as though I was doing something wrong. Therefore, I wanted to write this not to declare definitively how grief feels for all, but rather how grief has felt for me. Grieving a loved one is a process of its own, but accepting the way that you grieve without judgment can be a whole other beast. I write this to help myself find acceptance for my grief, and with the hope that someone else might find solace and validation through my experience.
The initial pain is unbearable. My body had never known panic at the level I experienced it after receiving that phone call. I immediately became overheated, I started to hyperventilate, and I could not stop screaming for well over an hour. The mental anguish I experienced over the next few days and weeks was nothing short of torturous. Aside from the nightmares, anger, shock, and sadness, I experienced a deep longing to see someone, someone that I would never again see in this lifetime.
I have a distinct memory of checking Twitter that week and realizing that the world was still moving. The worst thing to ever happen to me was not trending in hashtags, and Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry was the biggest news of the week. This was my first glimpse into the isolating feeling that is grief.
That same feeling of isolation reappeared this week on the anniversary of Lauren’s death, as I realized that each passing year the world will move further from the last day of her existence, and only some of us will forever feel the pain.
People have no idea what to say, so many just say nothing. Death, sadly, is taboo. Murder adds a whole new level of discomfort for those not directly impacted. If you take away nothing else from these words, please take this: there is nothing that you can say that will cease the pain, but saying nothing is more impactful than you realize, no matter how well-intentioned. In the beginning stages, being around people who refused to acknowledge what had happened made me feel as though my whole self was unwelcome, that my grief was a burden. Even a “I am here if you need me,” from those who felt wholly unequipped to discuss grief meant the world to me. Levels of vulnerability vary when it comes to discussing one’s own loss, but you will never know how comfortable someone is until you give them the chance to tell you. Personally, I am an open book.
The most impactful message I received during that time was from a former coworker, with whom I was not even particularly close. She said, “If you ever want to tell me about Lauren, I’d love to hear about her.” Lauren was a brilliant attorney who was kind, hilarious, and loved by everyone she met. She was so much more than a victim, and that text message allowed me the space to convey that. I have never forgotten this approach to another person’s grief, and I try to offer the same space to those in my life who have since experienced loss. For myself and many others, talking about the dead can actually be an immense source of comfort. Don’t be afraid to offer that opportunity to a grieving loved one.
I cry a lot. I’ve always been a crier, and used to seriously shame myself for that trait. Through therapy I learned that crying is a healthy release of stress and pain and I came to accept it as part of my process. Oftentimes in stressful situations, I know I must cry before I can think clearly and make a plan. I am grateful that I learned to embrace my tears before I experienced tragic loss, because through grief I have leveled up as a crier, to say the least. Over the past year, I have been moved to tears by the smallest gestures of kindness, the faces of sweet puppies, conversations with friends, and close to all of the movies I’ve seen in theaters. I try to embrace these tears because through grief I have learned how important it is to fully feel the life that I am living, as I am only given one to live.
I wish I could say that throughout the first year I have always been accepting of myself and my emotional reactions, but that would be untrue. There are tears that come out of nowhere, unprovoked, during a party or a night out with friends, for which I judge myself more harshly. I often tell myself that I am overreacting and that I shouldn’t still be crying at this stage in grief. I always wonder if others can relate to this unfair judgment that I pass onto myself.
I have a new perspective on life. This point sounds cliche, without a doubt, but I cannot express enough how true it really is. I wrote in the beginning that I am chronically anxious, and this has not changed. I still mistake worrying as a means of planning, and I certainly fear violence more now than ever before. While I have not been able to curb my anxiety, death has taught me how to decipher between the issues that matter in life and the issues that bear no worth. There is so much I fretted over on March 7th of 2021 that never again crossed my mind after March 8th. I did not become apathetic – I am more emotionally in touch than ever before – I have simply refocused my time and energy.
The most candid description of grief I have encountered this past year is one by Jamie Anderson that reads:
Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in
that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.
Lauren was one of my favorite people on earth, yet I never told her so. I’m not sure I ever even thought to tell her, and now I am just left telling everyone else. I can’t give her the love that I have to give her, but I must take that love and give it to those around me while they are still here.
You have heard it before, but life is truly a gift. None of us are more worthy of it than others, yet some are taken tragically and far too young. There is no explanation that will make this reality acceptable. But because I am still here, I have chosen to live life where Lauren left off. She loved her friends fiercely, and through getting to know them, I understand why. We have all made a point to carry one another through this pain, despite many of us being strangers just one year ago. Every time I travel, dance, sing karaoke, or eat brunch, I do so in Lauren’s honor. Grief, anxiety, and depression can be debilitating and I would be lying if I said that I am always happy to be alive. But I know now that these feelings are all facets of the life experience, as are their counterparts: love, serenity, and joy.
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