Illness has a way of slowing you down whether you like it or not. Even if you don’t fully succumb to the urge to go to bed and rest for a few days, you cannot help but be affected by the toll it takes on your body. At first you ignore that fatigue and the tickle at the back of your throat and tell yourself that you are not getting sick. You push through. But sometime in the next day or two, it hits you and there is no denying it any longer. You are sick.
Grief has a similar effect, starting with denial. You get the news that someone you care about has died, and you push the actual news aside in favor of talking with family and friends about the the details of how they died, or making funeral arrangements, or buying plane tickets, or taking time off from work to travel for the funeral. You busy yourself with the tasks of bereavement, but you do not grieve. Inevitably, sometime in the next few days, perhaps when you see the death notice in the newspaper, or when you see a picture of the two of you, or when gathering with family and friends who knew them, it hits you. Your loved one is gone. You cannot ignore the impact it has on your mind and body.
A friend of mine was murdered last week. That’s a statement I have never before made and hope never to utter again. I have lost fellow veterans to military action, and friends and relatives to all manner of disease, as well as to simple old age. But I have never had a friend murdered before. Shooting deaths are, sadly, becoming more common in our country, not a big surprise given the rising interest in, and acquisition of, firearms in these last years. But I don’t want to make this about gun violence. That conversation needs to happen, but not in this posting. In this moment, I just want to talk about grief.
To think of her death on the side of a lonely road, at the hands of a person she had likely been trying to help and befriend, is unbearable. She probably struck him as a bit crazy, but he saw an opportunity. Whatever transpired between them in those hours leading up to her death, anyone who knew her knows that killing her was unnecessary because she would have given him anything that was within her power to give. She probably already had. But the ex-con in him likely thought as differently about her as she did about him; she probably saw a guy in need of love and help, and he probably saw her as a witness to whatever he was doing that would get him sent back to prison. Or maybe he was just a bad dude who killed her because he could. Whatever the case, it was senseless and unnecessary, even from the most depraved viewpoint, because his secrets were safe with her. She was that kind of friend.
Some who read this article will know immediately of whom I speak. I am leaving her name out of this article not to avoid mention of what is already a very public death, but to allow everyone who knew this woman to grieve in their own way, with their own memories of her intact. My knowledge of her and my memories are but one perspective; reading comments and memorials on social media has made it clear that my friend was many things to many people, which was exactly how she wanted it, I think. She wanted to be whatever you needed her to be to feel better in those moments that you shared with her. She wanted you to be happy.
Over these last few years that I knew her, it became clear to me that I perceived her in ways that were different from how many others saw her. Why? Well, it wasn’t because I was closer to her than other folks, or because we shared some special bond, though we did share a unique connection, as she did with everyone she knew. No, I saw her differently because I recognized her behavior from my other life experiences and, once I acknowledged it, everything about her suddenly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. I was able to talk with her about what I saw in her, but she really didn’t want to have that conversation. So, we talked occasionally when she had a bad spell, and I helped her when I could. But she shut me out during more cheerful phases, perhaps because she knew that I would see them for what they were and be a little less enthusiastic about them than some of her other friends. I don’t pretend to know her thoughts, but I did understand her patterns.
My friend was an extraordinary storyteller. Without missing a beat, she could rattle off a tale allegedly from her past that would fit so perfectly with your experience as for the two of you to be soulmates, sisters from another mother. She became an expert at giving others the love and acceptance that she herself so desperately wanted. Don’t misunderstand; she was not a con or a liar. No, she was a helper and a friend. Whatever and whomever you thought she was, she sincerely believed she was those things, too. She had a gift for connecting with people that bordered on the obsessive, and she had an excellent memory that allowed her to have so many friends from around the country and around the world, and to never forget details of their lives that they had shared with her. She was the rarest of creatures: a chameleon whose heart was filled with love. She always meant well and was always trying to help others. She wanted you to know that you were never alone because she was with you.
For me, the memories of her that I am embracing today are a mixed bag: on the one hand, her infectious laughter, her sunny spirit, her love of music, her good heart; on the other, some very dark days and hours spent in hellish places both of mind and body, unreachable by anyone. The memories we all have in common are of her scrappy, fighting spirit and her unending love of, and faith in, people. She could find the bright side of a cow patty, and she insisted that we could, too, no matter what we were facing. She was an expert cheerleader and an optimist to her core.
As I sit here knowing that I have turned the corner on the illness that befell me at about the same time that my friend was killed, I feel like I have turned the corner on my grieving, too. That is not to say that I am in any way ‘over’ her death; to the contrary, my mourning of her loss is just beginning. Grief is never-ending, coming and going in waves like the tide. She will join the chorus of others whom I have known that have left footprints on my heart and mind. She will never be forgotten. I know she would not want me to wallow in my sorrow; she would want me to get on with it. I will do what she would do had it been me: memorialize her death by keeping her memory alive, by speaking out about what happened to her in meaningful ways, and by continuing her mantra to help others by loving them, no matter what. One day at a time.