The first time I ever got “up close” to death was when I was in high school.
A good friend of mine died. Her name was Adyti. On a very normal day at school, I got a call from her boyfriend. He was barely audible and mumbling. I pressed my ear hard against my clunky Nokia phone until I eventually heard, “Adyti died.”
I was in shock. What? How? That can’t be possible… we were just talking to each other yesterday? I hung up the phone and called her. After a few rings, it went to her voicemail, you’ve reached Adyti…. Her voice sounding cheery and excited. How could this be? How do you go from one state to another so quickly? Is it really that fast to slip over into darkness?
Other than my grandfather’s death, of which I barely remember, this was the first time in my life I’d ever known someone who had died. Up until that point I hadn’t even experienced the death of a pet.
It was shocking and horrifying. I began thinking obsessively about death. I had no idea what to say to her family, I wanted so badly to know if they were okay but I was too scared to ask. I was too afraid to even look them in the eyes.
About a year after Adyti died, I saw her sister on the train. We locked eyes for a moment and looked away. She looked sad, standing there tall and slim, holding onto the railing near the door. I felt so sorry for her. I just wanted to go over and hug her, I wanted to ask if she was doing okay. Instead, without saying anything, I quickly got off at the next stop. I was too afraid that I’d say something to upset her. I still feel a tinge of regret when I think about that moment. But back then, I had no idea. It was shocking enough to discover this “death” thing I’d heard about was a real thing that actually happens.
7 Years later, I would understand this all too well. I would understand that feeling of isolation when people were too afraid to say the wrong thing, so they said nothing at all. I actually wanted to reach out to Adyti’s sister when Elizabeth died, I wanted to apologise for that day on the train. I wanted to ask her how she coped with her sister’s death. But I couldn’t find her on Facebook. I remember wanting so badly to meet someone who had gone through something similar. I felt so isolated and alone in my suffering, I didn’t know where to turn. So I wrote. I turned this website into a memorial for Elizabeth where others could come to find solace in their suffering. I wanted to create a kind of digital community where everyone is welcome to be honest and true to what hurts the most.
When my sister died, I found the most comfort in people who gave me the space to be. They were the ones who said things like, “I am here for you. What can I do?” My beautiful friend Tiffany was a shining example of that. She’d come over to my place and simply listen quietly as I cried. She didn’t try to fix me. She never sugarcoated the situation, she never tried to hurry me along my journey through grief.
It turns out that even saying things like “I literally don’t know what to say, I’m just so sad to hear this” is actually better than nothing. And unfortunately, there is no “quick fix” or “30-day program” to getting over the death of a loved one. Some scars never heal. It’s been 4 years since Elizabeth died and I still cry about her. I still get angry that she left us. I still see something hilarious and wish I could share it with her. This is just a part of my life now and actually, it’s surprisingly okay.
The hardest part is seeing the pain in my parents’ eyes. Watching them suffer puts me straight into superhero mode; diving in to save the day, desperately looking for anything to stop the bleeding. But obviously, this cannot and will not be fixed. My sister is dead, that’s it. But instead of going insane trying to somehow take away their pain, I’ve freed up the space to allow more room for them to be honest with me.
It really is such a shame that we are so unequipped to deal with other people’s grief. Death is a part of life, a part we can’t escape. It doesn’t matter who you are, death does not discriminate. You can be the richest, powerful, beautiful, famous, intelligent person in the whole world, but death does not care. There is no negotiation. Even the great illusive artists like David Bowie, or the incredible leaders who can seemingly push through anything like Winston Churchill. Even they could not escape it. So why are we so bad at talking about it?
From the moment we are born, we are dying. Death looms over us like we are microscopic ants. Those who have lost the ones we love the most to death are in fact the lucky ones. Because they are the ones who have seen the incredible value and beauty of being alive. They are the ones who can choose to meet death like a great opponent about to begin an epic sword fight. We grow in size by our ability to live life in its absolute fullness; we love harder and ride the waves of the exhilarating beauty that is the gift of life. We let no moment of beauty pass under our nose without sniffing it and hugging it and holding it close. Since having lost Elizabeth, I squeeze so much more out of life. I recently came across an article discussing how people can bounce back from hardships and become even better than they were before, it’s called post-traumatic growth. It’s actually a thing, look it up. It happened to me. I really had no idea that the most horrible experience of my life could blossom into the most beautiful. Who would have ever thought?
The reason I bring this up is because last week, my eldest cousin David died. He was in a head-on collision and died instantly. He was only 32 years old. His funeral will be in Canada, just a few days before Christmas. I have written this for the people who were closer to Dave than I was. To his mother, his father, his siblings, his fiancé, his close friends… I wish you all strength and love in this time of unbelievable tragedy. I even struggle to write this, I am in utter disbelief.
All I can say is that there will be days when you will feel like a tiny sailboat in the midst of a tsunami. Your boat will be crashed over and over, and you may well wonder to yourself, “will I ever get through this?”
I just want to tell you: yes, you can and you will. Take it little by little, day by day. Focus on the small steps, the tiny victories, and you can get through anything.
Stare death in the eyes and never let it’s cruelness overcome you while you are still alive. Mend your wounds, take your time. When you are ready, meet your pain with incredible gratitude and hope, like water simmering over fire.