The Evolution of Grief.
1. deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.
“She was overcome with grief.”
I’ve spent the past few months composing this post in my head. Each time, I stop because I am terrified that I can’t possibly sum up the most formative experience of my life, in a single blog post, and really and truly do it justice. This is the source of my writer’s block, you see. I can’t just write about my grief; I need you to feel it. I need my words to make your heart ache like mine did, like it still does. I need my words to make you see how utterly earth shattering her death was, so that you understand how my grief has shaped my entire being. How can I possibly do this with just my words? I don’t know that I can, but I know that if I don’t try, I can’t even hope to help you to understand how a grief that began more than half a lifetime ago, continues to evolve. So, here it goes: the evolution of my grief.
There are moments in my life that play like movies in my head with such clarity that it’s as though they happened only moments ago. My first kiss, skinny dipping in the dark at Devil’s Lake, climbing the Eiffel Tower, walking down the aisle at my wedding, finding out I was pregnant for the first time, the moments when my babies were born… I know with every certainty that I won’t forget these beautiful things. I also won’t forget sitting in class wondering where Rachel was, only to go home from school to discover that she was at the hospital because she had cancer. I won’t forget the terror I felt when I got sick at my birthday party and worried for days that I gave my illness to my immunocompromised best friend. I won’t forget reading a letter to her as she lay in her hospital bed in a coma. I will never forget walking out of that room knowing that it was the last time I would ever see my best friend alive. And I will never, to the end of my days, forget the sound of her coffin hitting the bottom of the grave at her funeral.
We met when we were four years old. I was Rachel, and she was Rachel, and how cool was that when we were four years old? And she lived right down the street? Well, that was even cooler. Fast friends, we were. And twelve years later, we were 16 years old. Still the best of friends with literally an entire lifetime of memories. In fact, I remember so very little before I knew her that sometimes, it feels as though life started when we met. We were 16 years old in 1997, and then she died.
When you’re 16 years old from an upper middle class family on the west side of Madison, WI, you don’t anticipate that cancer and death will be pieces of your high school repertoire. You think about boys and kissing and stealing booze from your parents’ liquor cabinet, about the Friday night football game and school dances and which Thompson brother is hotter. You think about what you’re going to wear to Homecoming, not what you’re going to wear to your best friend’s funeral. You think about what excuse you’re going to give your teacher for not doing your homework, not about having to go to school the morning of her funeral to beg your teachers not to make you take your final exams on the day after her funeral.
Do you see? It’s incongruent; it makes so little sense that it’s almost inconceivable. Teenagers are fitted with invincibility cloaks – it’s 100% developmentally appropriate for them to think, “those bad things will never happen to me.” And here you see the split: how everyone else continued down the path with their invincibility cloaks on, but I lost my coat. And all those bad things that will never happen to anyone else? Yeah, those bad things were definitely going to happen. Not to me, of course, but to someone I loved, because my experience said so; my grief said so.
I thought of her every single day before she died, and every single day after she was dead. I begged her for a sign that she was still with me, that she wasn’t really gone. When he hugged me at her funeral – that first kiss ex-boyfriend – I took it as a sign that she came through with my beg. In retrospect, maybe she did, but maybe he was simply there because everyone was there, and a hundred people hugged me that day. I was utterly desperate to believe that she wasn’t actually gone forever. At 16, how could I believe that I would live the rest of my life – 60, 70, 80 more years – without her? Again, it was inconceivable.
The daily life of adolescence was inconceivable as well. Life went on around me as though her sickness and death were only a blip on the radar. School continued. Homework continued. Dances and boyfriends and parties and friends continued. In some sense, I continued, but my social relationships were never the same. How could I be bothered with who kissed who when CANCER? How was I supposed to care about that party when SHE’S DEAD? I suffered for it, too. I spent many lunches alone hiding in a hallway. I skipped class to walk to visit her at her grave in the cemetery, not to go out to lunch or get high in a friend’s car. I felt as though I couldn’t relate to my peers anymore. Why couldn’t they see that none of that mattered in comparison to Rachel? In retrospect, it was I who couldn’t see why it mattered. I was so consumed with grief, so stuck in her death, that I couldn’t possibly be a teenager like everyone else. I didn’t know how to move on. I didn’t want to move on… how could I, when moving on felt like leaving her behind?
Life went on this way for years. From 1997 to 2008, my grief did not evolve. As time went on, it didn’t consume me on a daily basis in the way that it did in the beginning, but it was always there with me. When I applied to colleges, my essays were about my experience of losing Rachel. When I studied Philosophy and Psychology in college, I devoured knowledge in the hopes that I could better understand and explain what happened to me when she died. When a friend of a friend was killed in an auto accident in college, I felt as though my grief reopened in my heart. At a candlelight vigil following the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers, I cried for the victims and their families, but also for Rachel, remembering that her heart was set on going to college in NYC. I distinctly remember my best friend, Kat, saying to me at the vigil, “She’s still here, Rachel. She’s with you.” (18 years later, it still pains me to write best friend in relation to someone other than Rachel, as though she’s been replaced.) When I got married in 2006, I made Rachel a part of my ceremony by giving flowers to her parents and sister during the processional. I thought of using one of her water color paintings for my invitation. I grieved that she couldn’t be a part of my wedding. When I got pregnant in 2007, I knew that if we had a girl, we would name her Zoe (Rachel’s chosen name in french class).
Throughout every.single.important.moment in my life, I made Rachel present. She died when we were 16, but I made sure that she wasn’t gone from my life for a single day after that. Not a single day, not a single moment; she was there because I brought her with me. My grief did not evolve because I would not allow it to do so. If it evolved, I might forget. Other people might forget. I might have had to face that Rachel was actually dead, that she was really and truly gone.
And then in 2008, my son was born. Instantaneously, my grief evolved. It didn’t evolve into acceptance, however. It evolved into terror. I no longer viewed Rachel’s death as something that happened to me, but rather something that happened to her parents. I realized that the ultimate grief was not in losing a friend, but in losing a child. A shift occurred in my grief: I finally thought of Rachel’s parents and how they could have possibly survived the death of their child. It seemed an impossible feat to me. I thought about it constantly. Quickly, my thoughts became the things of nightmares. Instead of being consumed with my own grief, I was consumed by fear that my sweet baby boy would die; that he would be taken from me as Rachel was taken from her parents. And no amount of rational thought could contradict what my grief told me: children die. I worried constantly, incessantly. I didn’t sleep because I feared that I would wake up and he would be dead. I hated leaving him, even with my husband. What if something happened while I was gone? The evolution of my grief – fear – consumed me. It pervaded every aspect of my life. I unintentionally obsessed – OBSESSED – about it. For what if I let my guard down? What if I stopped thinking about it for just a moment? Then I would lose control of it, this pervasive fear and evolved grief. Obsession = control.
As long as I stayed vigilant with my fear, my evolved grief, I maintained some piece of perceived control over what bad might come to my child. I kept my baby with me for all the seconds, minutes, days of his life with those obsessive thoughts, tucked into the enormous cloak of grief that I kept wrapped around my heart, to keep him protected so that no harm would come. I maintained control of him in my life, maintained control over his death, with my fear.
Do you see it now? The connection? As long as I maintained my grief as the biggest piece of me, I kept Rachel with me, ever present in my life. Death might have taken her physically, but by keeping my grief at the forefront of my everything, I insured that she was there for and a part of every major event in my life, long after she died. I maintained control of her in my life, maintained control over her death, with my grief.
It’s taken the most truly horrendous, life-shattering bout of Postpartum Depression and Postpartum OCD, and over 18 months of treatment with a most incredible therapist (she’s Jane; you should bow down and respect that woman with all you’ve got) for me to realize that my grief has evolved again. Finally, Rachel is where she should be: in my heart. No longer is she present in my daily life. Certainly, I think of her often, but it feels differently now. I’m not consumed with her death any longer. When I think of her, a space in my heart warms with her memories. It’s as though she shares space with my childhood home: a place I love and cherish and remember dearly, but know that I can’t go back to no matter how badly I want to. I still miss her with my entire being, and wish desperately that she could still be here, but I accept now that she’s not. She won’t be at my kids’ birthday parties, and she won’t come over with her husband to play Cards Against Humanity and drink wine until we’re falling all over ourselves with memories from childhood and high school and college. She will never be the person I call when my heart breaks, or when I’m so happy that I want to scream from the rooftops. She will never hold my hand when I’m in labor, or visit me in the hospital to meet any of my sweet babies. And as much as my heart breaks to say it, the truth is that I have other friends for those things. And so, I keep her tucked away in the most lovely space in my heart, where she doesn’t live on, but her memories do.
And I think that is it for the evolution of my grief, until this past Monday afternoon when my four year spoke, and my heart nearly stopped. We were listening to Spotify, as we often do, when I’ll Be Missing You began to play. It caught me off guard, as I remember the song from 1997 as an anthem for my grief. Jacob was playing legos on my bed, and as the song played, he looked up and said, “The girl singing are Rachel.” I maintained my composure as he went on to tell me stories about how Rachel drove him to her house in her red car and they cleaned her windows and then he climbed in her window. Rachel and my twin sister, Emily, and I got in so much trouble as children for once tying bed sheets together, hanging them out Rachel’s 3rd floor window, and trying to climb up them into her window. I showed him pictures from my 16th birthday party and asked him to show me Rachel; he pointed immediately to her face. And when I asked him when he saw Rachel, if it was pretty recently or if it was a while ago, he told me that it was a long time ago, before he was born, when Rachel helped him.
I know there are doubters (hi, Mom), but for me, my sister said it best when she whispered, “He knows her, Ra. He knows Rachel.” I choose to believe this. I choose to believe that while I’ve tucked Rachel into my heart after all of these years, she’s somehow tucked herself into my children’s hearts. What a beautiful way for grief to evolve, isn’t it?
In ever loving memory of my dearest best friend in the entire world, Rachel Kelcz. (Can I keep you? I know I can.) All my love, Kelcz. All my love forever and always.