Last week (was it really last week? it feels like it happened long ago but also maybe yesterday) I found out that a dear friend had died. Chris. He did not have a terminal illness, and his death was far from expected. He is the first close friend I have lost. His absence is penetrating. We did not talk every day, or even every week but he was always there when needed. He helped my boyfriend through the early stages of his sobriety from alcohol. He helped me learn to handle the negative voices in my own head. He was generous. He was caring. He had turned his life around after a long and harrowing addiction to heroin. He was sober, and dedicated to helping others regain control of their lives. Because we did not talk every day, it is hard to remember he has passed. At the same time, the thought of his absence is everywhere in my mind. When I drive past his street to go to work. When I hear about the neverending political circus of America (he had many choice words about both political parties). When I have a quiet moment to myself. When I hear about more grief and violence in the world, more tragedy that (if tragedy were a contest) outweighs my own by multiples. I cried when I read the email confirming his death while still in bed. My boyfriend cried. And then I stopped crying, as he continued. I couldn’t sit still. I practiced yoga, it wasn’t enough. I went on a hard run, it wasn’t enough. Grief was there, but I could not look at it. I needed distraction. And I was embarrassed that my emotions were not as free as my boyfriend’s. I felt cold. Worried I was apathetic. Unable to process anything. Grief is weird, as is death. Hard concepts to comprehend. Really, beyond my understanding.
There was little space to process, that first day and for many days following. Our house was filled with out-of-town family. My boyfriend’s sister and her two daughters (5 and 7); that night 11 more of his family members came over for a dinner party, and my mom flew in from Los Angeles. The day was filled with the chaos of food prepping, multiple trips to the grocery store, and last-minute cleaning. And grief, crammed into the edges of my mind.
The most healing I felt that day came when I baked a cake with the help of the two little girls. I had to be fully present to ensure I didn’t forget an ingredient or a step, and to make sure that both felt included in the process. They helped force me out of myself, if only for an hour, and it was grounding. At one point the younger girl hoped aloud that people would like the cake; her older sister corrected her, saying it was more important to focus on the present moment because it does no good to focus on the future. My daily dose of wisdom.
I held this notion of mindfulness (one that Chis approved of and espoused in most conversations) close during the following days when family obligations and work kept me from space for long contemplation. Focus on the moment. Be here, now. The only things we can control are our own actions. I felt the weight in my chest, the pull toward ungulfing sadness, noted it and moved on. I did have some moments in which I broke down, once in private and once in public but they did not feel sufficient. My tears were real but they somehow felt selfish. He was a close friend, but not someone I had known for a long time. We weren’t even Facebook friends; was I even allowed to grieve?
Yes, of course. The answer is always yes. There are no rules for grief. There is no manual to follow, no guidelines for whom you should or should not hold sadness. I miss Chris. I miss him horribly. I want everyone to know that he gave an enormous amount of time and energy to the people about whom he cared. He was honest. He was insightful. His perspective on addiction and change powered countless people through their recoveries. He was always eager to share pictures of cats. He will be missed by so many people.
A week after his death, I had a dream in which he appeared. I walked toward him, and we hugged for a long time. When I woke up, I felt a better sense of peace than I had in days. I don’t know if this dream had any more meaning than as closure for me. But it helped. My chest is less tight and I am worrying less about whether or not I am doing grief right. His memorial service is next weekend, and I know that will provide another layer of healing and closure. Until then (and, really, afterwards as well) I hope to continue his legacy of mindfulness, self-care, and listening to others.
And now, a few readings for the weekend:
Mercy Now: Parker Palmer on senseless death and violence, and how to cope. He speaks to the need for creating moments of silence in our lives to escape the barrage of media. I, too, have felt bombarded with sadness and this was a helpful reminder to take time to step back and just be.
Joan Didion on Grief: Grief does not come in expected ways; it is strange and unpredictable. The passages on Brainpickings from Joan Didion are reminders that mourning is personal and does not usually come when it is expected, but rather waits until the busyness of life subsides.
Anne Lamott on Grief, Grace, and Gratitude: Also from Brainpickings, excerpts from Anne Lammot’s book Small Victories on how strange and fragile bodies are and how hard living can be. I am endlessly inspired by Lammot, and always feel better after reading things she has written (although secretly wishing I could have written them myself).
With that, have a wonderful weekend.