The Grief That Goes On

By Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

"It will take longer than you need it to, and even then you will feel like it hasn't been enough time." She's talking about her sister who died fifteen years ago. I don't know this woman, but I feel like I do or like I could. I have an affinity for crying in front of and telling my problems to complete strangers. Almost all of them women who remind me of my friends' mothers. I did the same thing on an airplane home to my best friend's funeral in 2013, so I at the very least do know what she's talking about. She's talking about grief. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of her," she says, matter-of-factly, because by now it is routine and she probably tells it to strangers, too. "You've got to accept that it's normal."

But it doesn't feel normal to me. It doesn't feel normal that, almost three years later, I still wake up paralyzed with grief over losing my best friend. I still break down when certain songs come on the radio, or when I think of a movie we watched together, or even when I see certain things on the menus in restaurants. The entire month of October (which was when his birthday and his favorite holiday, Halloween, was) passed me by in a series of panic attacks, dissociative episodes, and nervous breakdowns. The past three Octobers have passed in a similar manner. At least last year I was somehow able to go to class and work on his birthday. Not so, this year. It's not something I can help or even predict, it's just something that happens. I still freeze while rummaging through my jewelry box as I come upon a faded yarn bracelet or guitar pick. I still remember every moment between the last time I talked to him and the first phone call I got telling me he had died. I still talk about him like he's here.

As a kid, my mother would tell me she didn't know anyone who had been to more funerals than I have. Such is the price you pay when you come from a large family, when you're in the Catholic Church, when you belong to a tight knit community. You see a lot of dead bodies. The old unfamiliar bodies of strangers and rarely visited great aunts and uncles and cousins. But a funeral is a funeral. Until it's a kid's…until it's someone you know.

My friend Tyler wasn't even the first friend of mine to pass away. A friend's boyfriend died in an accident the summer before my junior year of high school. We all went to the funeral. I held her hand. I remember being in the backseat of another friend's van on the way home from the viewing, all of us sitting in silence and looking out the window, unsure of what to do or how to be. Though as hard and awful as it was, we all thought, "well, this is it." We'd lost one friend incredibly young. Surely this wouldn't happen again.

But it did happen again, only two years later, to the one person nothing was ever supposed to happen to. No accident, no disease, no freak injury, no drug problem. No cause of death, still to this day. No one knows why, at nineteen years old, my best friend got off the phone with me after I called to tell him a movie was on, and then a few hours later he was dead. That has been the hardest part: the complete lack of reason. Once again, our lives were shattered. Once again, dozens of childhood friends gathered in the funeral home and graveyard, before any of us had even completed a year of school away from home. The only difference this time around was that we had all done it before, and that now we were scattered across the country and not two doors down. 

Last month I anticipated my best friend's birthday (it would have been his 22nd) with every passing day in October. I knew (and dreaded) that it was coming, unsure of how I would react to it this year. I thought maybe I should be "over it" by now, that it was the rule of grief that with each passing year and anniversary and holiday, exponential progress of some kind was to happen. I felt like it should be easier, that if it wasn't easier I was somehow mourning wrong or failing at being a functional, productive adult. I woke up on the morning of his birthday, got onto Facebook, and there in my notifications it was waiting for me.

"It's Tyler Beachy's birthday! Help him celebrate!"

It was fucking cruel. Of course I knew what day it was, but why did his name have to be lumped in with minor acquaintances I've maybe spoken to once in my life? Why did he have to be included in a passing reminder that, on any other day, would have gone completely unnoticed? Why did I have to wake up at five in the morning to have Facebook saying "Hey Anna, tell your dead friend happy birthday, would ya?" I felt angry and cheap and sick and bitter and repulsed, and then I just felt alone and sad. I didn't go to class. I didn't go to work. I didn't "make progress" from the past year. I felt, ultimately, like I had failed as both a mourner and friend. 

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

And then I met this woman who lost her sister fifteen years ago, and I told her all about this, and she made me feel like I hadn't failed. She reminded me, as several others have in the past, that there is no failure in grief. That yes, moving forward I may forget some things, I may forget stories, I may struggle on some days to remember his voice. Years from now I might go to work as though it is any other day, and other times I may stay in bed for a week. I might obsess over the small incidents -- the last meal we shared, the last gifts we gave each other, the last trip we took, the last joke we told -- I might replay it all again and again in my mind. Or I may sit quietly and think of nothing in particular other than what has been left behind. 

"The important thing is that you don't deny your feelings," she said, reminding me of a doctor I went to see following Beachy's death, who was wary to prescribe me antidepressants because we "don't medicate the human condition." Something I now understand. 

"The important thing is that you feel it. Don't pretend like it didn't happen. Don't pretend like they didn't happen."

I sometimes cry on the train. I sometimes cry in the middle of a conversation I've had time and time again. I sometimes cry in front of strangers and tell them about my loss. Sometimes they tell me about theirs. It's going to take me a long time to learn it and accept it completely, but there is no getting rid of grief or grieving the "right way." There's just the human condition, and how we treat each other as we experience it together.