People keep dying: A reflection on grief
October 12, 2016 at 4:00 pm
The other day I was sitting at Farley’s in Oakland and I thought (or said aloud) to myself, “Yo, people keep dying.”
It was a stupid thought. Of course, everyone is dying. At any given millisecond, someone somewhere is exhaling for the last time. People are dying everywhere. And some of them are dying for no reason (it seems). No ailment, no illness, no fathomable cause. These deaths approach as unannounced as car accidents, scattering shards of guilt, resignation and despondent awe at the fleeting mercilessness of mortality.
There are a few things that happen when someone dies unexpectedly. You begin to reconsider what matters and who doesn’t. You negotiate the must-haves with God, of whose plans you have begun to respectfully scrutinize with increased trepidation. You look at your own life a little differently, weighing the pros and cons of the pros and cons. You decide that the extension on the life you’ve been given is worth more than the things you complain about not having. You desperately attempt to drown out the vivid realism of your own imagined death with positivity, intent on appreciating the things and people you’d previously disregarded. You’re going to live life to the fullest! You’re going to seize the day! And then the platitudes die too, and you’re left with more open-ended questions than unbridled enthusiasm.
There are deaths that hit hard with a piercing and direct pain. The family members, best friends, neighbors, co-workers. The inability to hear their voices on the other end of a call you should have made more frequently when they were alive suffocates us. We try and fail to accept their departures in an infinite loop of desperate resistance. Then there are those that hit tangentially, never really reaching your emotional core, but occurring close enough to feel something, like a seismic wave.
When I was 23 years old, Courtney died. We were close friends in middle school, but went our separate ways after I joined the cheerleading squad in high school. I still don’t know why we became distant, but I’ll be mad at myself forever because it was probably my fault. I hadn’t spoken to Courtney in years when she sent me a message on Facebook asking about my grad school program. I was living in D.C. and working at a consulting firm. Courtney was living in California and working as a social justice fellow. We went back and forth via Facebook messages, reconnecting and making plans to catch up over the phone to talk about public policy. She sent me her number, and I was supposed to call her.
Months later I logged onto Facebook to store her number in my phone, and my timeline was filled with tributes to Courtney. Even with all of the statuses, the pictures and the posts on her profile, her death didn’t register. I didn’t understand. I was sitting alone in my studio apartment eating a plate of spaghetti, and I remember holding the plate with one hand while I googled her name to figure out what everyone was talking about. An article about a traffic accident showed up in my search. She had been walking along the highway to get help for her car, and was struck by six separate vehicles. My plate went against the wall. I never got the sauce stains out. I remember calling my mom, and then my sister, and both conversations were pointless because I couldn’t get anything else out over my hysteria other than, “Courtney died! She was so nice! She was so nice!” I repeated it over and over. “She was the best person. She was the nicest person.”
Courtney dying made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now. She was literally, in the entirety of my lifespan, however long it ends up being, the best person I’ll have ever known. She was the calmest, most sincere, caring, intelligent advocate for more causes than I can remember. She was a woman of faith, and an equal rights activist with a history of just being consistently good. When Courtney died, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I buried my guilt and confusion beneath brunches and happy hours and vowed to honor her for the rest of my life by writing about her every day. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know that she would be one of a handful of deaths that would happen out of nowhere. My friend Jeremiah. My uncle. My neighbor’s dad.
So what do you do when people keep dying out of nowhere? You could cry about it. You should cry about it. You could write or travel or exercise, melting the heavy, coagulated empathy that has formed and settled somewhere inside of you. You could mourn privately in the bathroom stalls at work or grieve publicly on the subway.
You can’t ignore it. You can’t pretend it isn’t happening. It’s already happened. And it’s happening to you. Your body is aging and time is passing and your days and hours are dwindling down to the second. One day, your time will be up, too. This is an important reality to acknowledge. There are consequences to living a life that does not take the inevitability of death into account. How you live your life is a reflection of this acknowledgment.
How you waste your time, how you exhaust ambition is an investment in the strength of your obituary. What do you want it to say? She enjoyed sleeping in every Saturday and Sunday Fundays with fake friends.
There are things I don’t want to understand. Things I’m not ready to accept about adulthood. Things I can’t explain to myself. These things worry me and make me simultaneously afraid to both care too deeply and not enough. I’m not ready to accept the fact that so many critical things are out of my control.
I look at people that go through these things, and I wonder how they’re ever going to be able to live their lives the way they used to. How are they going to smile? How are they going to laugh? How are they going to be able to hold conversations with strangers without bursting into tears at the mention of things that remind them of the deceased? How are they going to go to work and sit in meetings with the weight of this grief lodged permanently inside of them? How do you hold onto something like losing a parent, a spouse or a sibling and go on about your everyday life? I look at the people around me who have endured such tremendous loss, and I wonder if they’ve always been that strong. Were they born with the ability to carry the heaviness of fresh grief without crumbling underneath its pressure? Was I born with this ability, too?
I’ve been to funerals that I know would take me out. I’ve seen people in caskets that I never expected to see in caskets. I don’t know how strong I am, but when the time comes, I hope I’m strong enough.
Shay Ball is a writer and finance manager at a startup in San Francisco. She was born, raised, and lives in Vallejo, California. You can find her online at shayarea.com.