I didn’t want to spend the latest of my late twenties becoming familiar with death. I wanted to be dragged out of 29 by my split ends, clutching my belief that ‘yes, all men’, and swiftly blocking boomers. Instead, I am sitting alone in my house having so much trouble with tense, with the way words need to change when the people I am talking about are gone.
My friend died. I had a beautiful, kind, extremely funny, 30-year-old friend who died. She was the sort of person who saw through crap and gossip, and just liked people. Being her friend felt like standing permanently in a patch of sunlight. Then she died, and her death tore a giant hole through the lives of maybe a hundred of us.
At her funeral, I saw a lot of people I like, and a couple I don’t. I’m nowhere near as good as her. I watched her parents and sister give great, funny eulogies; perfect for someone who could make people laugh and who laughed at herself so easily. I felt the friends around me lean into the eulogy jokes. I didn’t know funerals could be so funny. But the silences between the sentences of those closest to my friend were not funny at all. They allowed just enough space for something nightmarish and unsolidified to escape. The sound a throat makes when the death of your child is living inside it. A sound like the crunch of earth moving. I never want to hear that note in someone’s voice again.
Outside, I hugged people I hadn’t seen for months and asked how they were. They inevitably murmured not great, and I laughed weakly. With one, I said a couple words and then we just stood in silence. Neither of us knew how to fill it, or even what the point would be.
Before the funeral, but more so since, I had been examining my feelings about and my responses to death. Only because everything feels so unhinged, and I’m not sure how to progress.
I’ve noticed the older someone is, the better they are at reacting to the news. Any middle-aged person I’ve had to tell, whether to explain a work absence or a significant lapse in concentration, has taken it in their stride; expressing care and empathy, and then moving forward. But so many of us in our twenties just freeze, or breeze past it, like if we pretend it isn’t there, things will be better for everyone.
I noticed the same thing when my gran died - that if I mentioned it, a lot of people changed the subject quickly afterwards. It makes me wonder why Western culture has dislocated itself so completely from death. We all comprehend that, one day, we will die. So why do we not allow each other to speak of those we have lost? What are we afraid of? A rogue tear, a crack in someone’s voice? The memory of losses that we ourselves have suffered?
I bring my friend up frequently. She wore Roman sandals and had dark silky hair. She taught violin and was writing a film, and she was the opposite of an acquired taste. I’m quite comfortable with admitting that I feel more anxious than usual, and that getting to sleep has become really hard, since she died. But the way that the hopelessness of it all bubbles over feels unsafe to admit. I can’t confess how many times I’ve cried at the gym in the two months, the shock of it all somehow coming only when I’m panting and at capacity, headphones on and looking at my own hands, blocking out anyone who might notice the sweat and tears pooling together.
I have learned some solid truths since losing my gran and now my friend in successive years. I’m becoming familiar with the twisted knot of grief. Sometimes I feel it sitting in my mouth. The edges are mustard-coloured and salty, the centre impossible to chew or swallow.
One truth is that rituals matter. Staying home alone and avoiding a memorial or a wake is a bad idea. It might feel too hard and as though all the sadness and the grieving people will be too much. But being together to talk about a person who has died is important, and the regret from not going is so much worse.
Another truth is that it is okay to talk about death. That person lived and they mattered. Now they are dead and they still matter. Talking about them and saying their name is good.
A friend of mine lost a close family member in high school. I texted him and told him I was so sorry, but also that saying so felt insufficient. He texted back and told me clichés were overused for a reason. I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it came to expressing sadness over a loss.
I spent my childhood with my mother and grandmother. My first year at university, I would crawl over to Gran’s house two or three times a week, to eat home-cooked food and watch Coronation Street, or the Alan Rickman Sense and Sensibility she had recorded on VHS three years earlier when it played on a Sunday night. She wrote my name on the tape in shaky pencil because she thought I would like it. Her death shattered me. Even now, I can’t stop thinking and writing about it.
At her funeral, I dressed as nicely as I could and said some words about how, when I was a child, she would read me books if ever I was constipated. She just sat with me, in the bathroom, for as long as it took. The depth of love in that action has never left me. All of it feels important. Laughing and talking about all of her life, acknowledging the bad parts of it, even acknowledging my bowel movements, feels important.
Good friends are sewn into the fabric of your life. My friend was only ever one message or one stupid video away. I knew when I was going to see her next, and even when I didn’t, I knew it wouldn’t be long. I counted on her presence, I needed her opinions. I wanted to see her face change, to watch soft lines appear at the same rate as they appeared on mine. Slower, probably.
Despite all of my sadness, I keep forgetting that I’m grieving. I keep forgetting that one drink might take the edge off, but four or five will tear away the mask I’ve worked so hard on, and have me moving through the club like an open wound.
I keep thinking there has to be something good to take away from this. I don’t mean a bright side, because there is none. I mean this in the way that people who are religious hold onto their faith - with a belief that there are good things, good moments, good people, and something to live for, even after losing a woman who died before she had time to give the world even half of what she was capable of. I keep thinking that I cannot possibly have known someone this radiant and special without now pulling something good out of something so bad.
All I can come up with is that I need to live both bigger and softer. To care less about whose turn it is to clean up, and more about what the people I love got up to today. So many of us in this country are afraid of being sad out loud, especially those of us who have been indoctrinated into the colonial mindset around death. We pretend that death doesn’t exist; that the tears of others are frightening; and that all painful things, generally, should be swept under the rug. But really, life is too brief to scrub the colour off it.
So I sit here, holding my grief in my hands, twisting it over and over so I can look at it from all sides, trying to ensure that the loss of these people, whom I will always love, pulls me out of my twenties with softer edges than I had before.
Dedicated to Emily Jaynjira Campbell
Photo / Clouds by Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-01357-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30628192