There is no heartbreak as final as death. Nothing compares to that loss or the initial shock of it, especially if the loss is someone who was your age, who was close to you, who was your friend. Robert Louis Stevenson said it best when he wrote,
“The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man’s experience, and has no parallel upon earth.”
If you are reading this because you have lost a friend who is close to you, I am so sorry. If you haven’t, this essay tries to come close to capturing what that felt like, but to be honest— once the grieving is over, it feels like a bad dream you had long ago, and trying to remember it does not do it justice.
I was fifteen years old when my friend died. He was two year older, only seventeen, and it was a car accident. His name was Alan. He would have graduated that year. We did not go to the same school but we lived in the same neighborhood, and I was also friends with his younger sisters, so we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, or biking around the neighborhood. One day he was there, alive and well, eating chocolate chip cookies and burning me CDs to borrow, and the next thing I knew my Dad was getting a phone call late at night telling him what had happened.
I realized a few things that week, when everyone was reeling from the news: humans take turns grieving. Sometimes I was the one comforting our mutual friends, my own siblings, or his siblings. Other times, I was the one being comforted. It was as though a switch could turn on and off—if your friend was crying next to you, you could push aside your own feelings to hug her and coolly tell her that you understood what she was going through. It also becomes clear how generous people can be, and how much you can appreciate their kindness. People brought casseroles to Alan’s parents. Everyone came with a kind memory to share. The school had a memorial for him. Even a hug meant so much more that week.
I could not believe that someone so young could die. That was the hardest part of the whole thing—having to realize that death can be an accident, that it does not discriminate. That sometimes a father did have to bury his son. This realization—that someone I knew and loved died young—kept feeling like a greater loss the more I thought about it. That now his family would always be incomplete. That he would never see his sisters graduate, or get married. That he would never know what it was like to fall in love or get a job or go to college. It seemed unbelievably unfair that he was gone and everyone else got to continue on.
There were so many questions I could not stop asking that week, questions that no one could answer. What if he had been wearing a seatbelt? What if they left the house they were at five minutes later? What was the last thing I said to him? Why did it have to be him?
Those first weeks I was obsessed with going over what had happened, in my mind, in all my conversations—we were always talking about the seatbelt he had chosen not to wear, or the people in the car who had survived, or what they had gone to do that night. It was as though talking about it over and over again was necessary to process the shock and accept the facts. And I kept remembering things about him—the time we all went bowling, the time we burnt a pizza in a toaster oven, that he had introduced me to all my favorite songs. It was as if I wanted to remember everything over and over to make sure I had forgotten nothing about him.
I listened to a lot of sad songs that week. One particular song I listened to on repeat, and to this day I can’t listen to it without beginning to cry. It does not matter how many years have passed. It instantly transports me back to the night when the call came, my dad picked up, and came to me in the kitchen to tell me the news. Those hours are crystalized in my memory.
I also read a poem I loved over and over, and still read when I need comfort. It’s by Lydia Davis and it’s called “Head, Heart.” It is simple but beautiful and captures that back and forth in you, when you are alternating between grief and acceptance:
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But
even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.
I realized that even though you can be completely in shock about the way life can turn out, there are still moments of relief when you are grieving, where you and your friends get together and you realize you are laughing when recounting something special your loved one had done that was funny or sweet. You can feel guilty for laughing, and especially guilty when you wake up on the first day and realize that it was not your first immediate thought. But eventually it stops being your first thought. You realize a whole day passed and you did not cry about it. At some point, a whole day would pass and I realized I had not even thought of him. It was hardest to watch his family suffer. And to this day they are the ones who, at every birthday party, every graduation party, every fourth of July, will look lost in thought for a moment, and only then will I wonder if they are thinking of Allen, missing him and wondering what it would have been like if he was still here, if he would have enjoyed the event. Then the cake is brought out and we are focusing on the flickering candles again, on singing Happy Birthday to his sister, watching her blow them out.