Many of us can recall exactly where we stood, what we were doing and how we felt the moment we met Grief face to face for the first time. When death takes a young person, one who hadn’t been given the chance to experience a fuller life, our first encounter with Grief may be confusing and especially difficult. Losing a child, a sibling, a peer, a friend, a classmate at the outset of his or her life, on the cusp of a brilliant future is a tragic and inconceivable thing.
I was 18 and a sophomore in college when I first understood how fragile life could be. A young woman I had met in one of my classes, a beautiful girl my age, was killed in a car crash. One day she and I were studying for our exams in the library, and a few days later she was gone. News of her passing hit our school hard and I remember experiencing a series of unwelcome and untethered emotions in the weeks that followed. I had no guideposts for my loss and no idea what to do. Our school tried to help us move through her passing by offering well-meaning, traditional rituals: a memorial service in the college chapel, support staff on-call in the guidance office. But really, none of that made much of an impact on me. I couldn’t get over the sense that she had left too soon, and that I hadn’t had a chance to enjoy being her friend for more time.
One image stays lodged in my memory even today, so many years later. She and I were sitting in her car, very late one night, laughing and talking to let out the stress of a long study session during final exams. It happened to be a cold spring that year and our breath had fogged up the windows of the car to the point where I couldn’t see out into the night. I distinctly remember feeling as if I was in a warm cocoon, safe from everything that was waiting for me outside of that car. I felt protected and liked and happy to have made her acquaintance, even if our common link at that point was only a single shared exam. I felt the promise of a new friendship; a sense of excitement about what was yet to come. Within a week, she would die behind the wheel of that same car.
My son’s voice sounded shaky and strange when he called to tell me that one of his close friends from high school had passed away the other night. Instantly, I recognized Grief’s familiar markings, its sudden arrival without warning or explanation, and knew that it would forever alter my child’s perception of life. I did my best to comfort him with meaningless words. Most likely just hearing my voice was all he needed in that moment. I was grateful that he reached out to me for support and I understood how alone he was, far away at school, disconnected from his high school buddies, trying to make sense out of a senseless situation.
Fortunately, I live without much focus on Grief. It’s tucked back in the recesses of my mind, in stasis mode, not demanding my consideration. I fear its reprisal, and live with the knowledge that it will return with a vengeance some day, perhaps unexpectedly, but for now, I am content for it to remain a distant concept.
I am acutely aware of how many people actively live with Grief, feeling its breath on their faces every minute, carrying its weight on their backs as they soldier through each day. Regardless of whether this is a first meeting or one of many dealings with Grief over a lifetime, I am in awe of these brave survivors. They are the universal mothers, fathers, families, and close friends ravaged beyond repair, perhaps someday learning to understand their loss, but never quite finding peace.