I originally posted this on Medium back in December of last year. It’s the biggest piece of me that I’ve ever popped out and placed on the internet, or anywhere for that matter. I thought it fitting that it be my first personal growth post here as it really was my first personal growth post ever.
15 Years Later: Perspective on Dealing with Grief as a Teenager
I’ve wanted to sit down and write this for a long time now but it’s taken more than 15 years to live it all, learn from it, and look back in hindsight with unclouded vision. This is a therapeutic exercise for me, so bear with me as I attempt to pen this; I’m no writer after all.
More than 15 years ago I was a snappy teenager trying to navigate the intricacies of high school. We’d recently moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan where I juggled the stress of being “the new kid”, studying, a 6 day per week gymnastics schedule, a blooming social life, and of course, boys. Anything that wasn’t in my direct line of vision wasn’t important or worth investigating. I lived in a bubble of well balanced family dinners, eating chips while watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman on Friday nights, daily romps around the neighborhood with the family dog, gymnastics practice, game night, and puzzles.
That bubble burst on Labor Day weekend of 2001 at a friend’s lake house. My dad called the house (no cell phone!) and spoke to my friend’s parents before they came to get me, sat me down, and handed me the phone. He told me my mom had passed away that day. Instantly, the ground fell out from under me and I was swirling around like Dorothy in the tornado scene of The Wizard of Oz, unsure where I would land. All I knew is that it sure as hell wouldn’t be “Kansas”.My sister, dad, dog, and I slept together on the floor of our family room that first night. We clung to each other, snotty and red eyed until the sun came up, like it always does. But this time, everything was different. It was like I woke up into a nightmare instead of waking up from one. We were missing 25% of our tribe, our squad, all of our collective “person”. It was what I think phantom limb syndrome must feel like, waking up for weeks thinking I heard her slippers shuffling across the hardwood or scrambled eggs sizzling in a pan for breakfast. Everything I was used to had flipped 180 and everything felt so dark.
A few days later, the 9/11 attacks hit New York City and I remember watching the TV in class not comprehending what I was seeing while teachers and students cried, called home, chased down loved ones, and panicked. I’d just watched my mother’s body lowered into a hole in the ground, even the greatest terrorist attack to happen in my lifetime wasn’t cutting through the grief I felt from losing her. So with the rest of the nation, I mourned, just not for the same reasons.
In the years to come several more people would exit my life: a best friend in a freak car accident, a great grandmother, then a grandmother, 2 cousins, and another dear friend. The weight of my grief was so heavy that I could barely move some days. I felt like if I stayed busy enough my brain wouldn’t remember and push me back to that place of darkness. But if not dealt with, the darkness comes for you no matter where you are.
We struggled as a family for years. We hated each other because we reminded each other of her. We threw things, we had tantrums of epic proportions (not even a 3-year-old who has just been told “no” could out tantrum us), we screamed, a lot, we said nasty unforgivable things to each other, things I wouldn’t say now even to the Trumpiest of Trump supporters. This was our dark period. Every time my dad spoke to me, I wished he were her and I resented him with every fiber of my being. I’d be in class and smell or hear something that reminded me of her and immediately burst into tears and run to my counselor’s office yet, I carried on somehow.
Out of all of the rubble emerged some true feats of strength. Between the waves of grief, we were slowly rallying; we were evolving. “Survival of the fittest” has never felt more applicable to my life than it did during the first few years following her death. We all learned how to fix something that was truly broken; we put the pieces of the ultimate puzzle back together, our family.
My sister at the age of 12 started cooking meals for my dad and I, every night. And when I say every single night, I mean Every. Single. Night. Eventually, she’d start making our lunches too. She picked up where my mother had left off. She became our own in-house Ina Garten and we, her Jeffery. This was before the age of “Master Chef Junior” and “Chopped: Teenagers”. It was unheard of for a 12-year-old to hold the responsibility of feeding a family but she did it. Not only did she do that, she did our laundry, kept the house clean, and made grocery lists. She was Mom 2.0.My dad rallied too although, at the time, I gave him none of the credit. He worked every day taking little to no vacation, went in early so he could come home at reasonable hours, saved money, invested money, made sure we got to the dentist every six months, attended nearly every single gymnastics meet I had traveling across the country for them (and wearing the proper team swag too), bought tampons (thank you dad, really you deserve a medal for this), and so so so much more. At the time it felt like he never did enough, it felt like he didn’t know what we were struggling with. We’d lost our mother after all. But he, he had lost his partner, his wife, his co-pilot, hisbest friend. In a way, he lost so much more than we did that day and it took me so very long to realize that. He managed to stay strong on the outside for us but I know he was dying inside, too. Selfish teenage agendas do very little in the way of exposing the true emotions of a 40 something year old man fighting for his family.
When he finally became strong enough to try dating again, I judged them all, harshly. They weren’t her. He wasn’t him. We weren’t us. And when he finally cleaned her stuff out of their closet, I remember crying for hours, days even, and telling him he was trying to erase her. I used to sit in their closet and just inhale her scent when I was close to forgetting what she smelled like. It was as close as I could get to her anymore and he was taking that away, how dare he. I didn’t think how hard it must have been for him to walk into that closet every morning to get dressed for work thumbing through button up shirts that were touching her things; these things that had memories. That dress she wore to that event when that thing happened that year when everything was great.
“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When he wanted to do something for himself, I felt like it was unfair for him to turn his attention to something that wasn’t us; like he was being a bad parent. Really, he must have felt so stifled in that house with us, with the memories, eating breakfast every morning in the same kitchen where that pulmonary embolism burst in her lungs killing her within minutes, being surrounded by her influence right down to the choice of crown molding that he just needed a moment of peace to himself, some breathing room (something I do every week when I get stressed out at work or get caught up in drama with my friends, without permission). Why couldn’t I give him that?
I took on the role of soccer mom as soon as I hit 16, carting my sister around to school and beyond. But mostly, I learned what it meant to protect your family. We had all been through an immense tragedy together but we were all dealing with it separately. So, in my own way I looked out for everyone. Fighting to protect their hearts from further hurt by being opinionated and loud.
I made sure I was always on their side. Petty female co-worker drama? I talked massive shit about them to make sure my dad didn’t feel so nuts. Dorm room scuffle at college? Tell me what room number the culprit lives in, I’ll give her a stern talking to or, pull a Mean Girls and call her mom to tell her that her daughter’s Planned Parenthood test results are in. Whatever the situation calls for, I’m your girl. I gradually became more self aware (though this would take years to master) and pushed to repair my relationships with both my dad and sister over time. My sister turned from arch enemy #1 into my very best friend. We found humor even in the most fucked up of situations. We laughed through the tears; we pushed forward.
It all seems so simple now. They teach you in any entry level psychology class that everyone goes through the five stages of grief after a loss as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. D.A.B.D.A. — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. Why is there just a 5-step program for getting through the grieving process when there are 12-steps to sobriety?Surely there are more layers than this. And what they don’t tell you enough is that some of these stages can last years. Failure to move on to the next stage can rip your world apart.
Personally, my denial stage was quite short but my anger stage was the longest. I walked around angry for years taking it out almost 100% on my father and sister. Not too firm a believer in God, my bargaining was also brief. I settled here for things like dreaming of her or wearing one of her pharmacist lab coats around my room. I knew I’d never see her again in this life; the universe is not to be fucked with. But my depression also lasted years manifesting itself in the form of testing my limits with self harm, experimenting with alcohol, and being just rebellious enough to not result in any serious consequences before finally reaching my own level of acceptance. We all navigate these stages differently. Perhaps when I was still angry, my dad was depressed. Maybe my sister was bargaining at that time. Maybe we were all depressed together. But one thing I know for sure is that we all reached acceptance at different times.
This past spring, we took a trip. Our first official successful vacation since she died. We tried to take a camping/hiking trip to the Smoky Mountains back in 2008 but that was a disaster and we couldn’t stop fighting long enough to make it through the whole thing. We cut it short and came home early. But, this spring we took a trip, the trip we’d talked about for nearly 2 decades. We went back to Seoul, South Korea where my sister and I were born. We made that trip without my mother; it’s something I’d never dreamed we’d do without her. We went back to the site of our orphanage (which has since been leveled, but it was a nice pile of dirt nonetheless) to get a glimpse of the lives we might have led had we not been adopted. We made that trip together, as a family, with a few new faces: my sister’s husband and my stepmother. I left there feeling so thankful for the life we’ve led. We’d finally stepped out into the sun after years in hibernation.
This might not have been the life I thought we’d be living when I was 10 but it’s such a beautiful one. That cliché phrase, “time heals all wounds” rings pretty close to true after 15 years. Although the wound in my heart from losing her will never ever close, it’s patched together enough to beat on and push blood to the rest of my body. She lives on in me in my tireless ambition to achieve my goals (it’s what led me to Chicago and gave me the courage to land here in New York years later), in the kindheartedness and intense loyalty of my sister (mess with any member of her tribe and she will fuck you up), and in the fierce and stoic reliability of my father (call him at 3am and say that you need his help, he’s in the car at 3:01). The best pieces of her are all here spread out among us. It feels so shortsighted now when reduced to a few lines on a page that it took 15 years to see it all but, here we are and we’re all doing just fine.I know now that I owe so much of this to the man behind the curtain. Dad, thank you for putting up with us, for making us learn to do our own laundry wayyyy before college, for threatening to park a dumpster in front of the house and throw all of the contents of our rooms into it if we didn’t clean them, for teaching me how to drive a stick shift, for navigating our teenage angst and emotions, for forcing fruit cake on us at Christmas (it’s still gross), for buying us tampons, for ensuring we had every opportunity we could have wanted, for supporting both of us taking the longer route through college (and being okay with us not going to University of Michigan), but most of all for never, ever, EVER giving up on us. Thank you for being our father back then and not our friend because you knew that’s what we needed the most. And thank you now, as an adult, for being one of my very best friends. I love you for all that you do and I’ll spend the rest of my life calling you on my morning walks to work, making fun of your fashion “sense”, and ultimately, making it up to you.
“Those awful things are survivable because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.”
― John Green, Looking for Alaska
You don’t know how to navigate those stages of grief as a teenager. Hell, I still don’t know if I’m doing it right now at 30 but maybe that’s the point. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It’s just important that you do. I’ve accepted that the process looks much less like linear D.A.B.D.A. and much more like a roller coaster D.A.B.A.B.A.D.D.D.D.D.A.B.D.A.D.A. for many of us and that, is just fine.
There are still days where something triggers me into tears but there are so many more days now where I find that I’m smiling to myself remembering something fondly instead of the pain that followed down the line. I am so thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to know my mother; what a badass woman she was. I have now lived longer without her than with her but not a day goes by where I don’t look to the sky, breathe in, and remember that this is all that she wanted for me: to live. We have all finally come out of the dark and although things will never be even close to perfect, the future couldn’t look more bright.