Something happens when someone you care about dies — someone whose heart, mind, and spirit left Earth far too long before they were supposed to, someone you expected to know until he turned into a gray, old man who would still crack jokes and make you laugh, someone you never imagined having a final conversation with or who you would have to attend memorials for, someone whose smile could — and did — light up a whole room, someone you never thought you’d have to see in a casket, let alone as a 22-year-old.
Something happens to your heart: it hurts so much that you convince yourself that you don’t need anyone else, and for the time being you’d rather be isolated.
You stay away from anything and everything that reminds you of him because you think it’ll be less painful that way. You don’t drive by places that you went to together. You don’t say his name or talk about him and the memories you shared. You don’t want to forget but you don’t really want to remember, either.
You’d prefer to skip your birthday when it comes around because you don’t understand why you get to celebrate another year of life when he no longer has that luxury. You don’t reach out for help and keep most of your thoughts, feelings, and tears to yourself.
You don’t want to say, “I love you” to people because you think they’ll either die or break your heart or both. You don’t want to let new people in because they’ll just die someday, too. What if you let someone else in and they can’t be there for you the way you need them to be, or worse, what if you can’t be there for them? You think it’ll be easier to just keep to yourself and sustain surface level relationships with acquaintances than get emotionally involved to the point of heartbreak.
In a way, it makes sense that you want to shut down. You want to protect your heart from ever feeling this kind of sorrow again. The closer you get (and stay) to the people in your life, the more likely it is this can happen all over again.
So that’s what you do — rather, what you think you’re doing. You think you’re shutting people out, distancing yourself from others, and intentionally failing at communicating. You think you’re grieving all on your own.
But then something else happens: along the way, you realize you haven’t successfully closed yourself off from people or shut down from the rest of the world. As it turns out, the rest of the world has been sustaining you all along — the very people you tried to reject are actually the ones getting you through the pain.
You need the friend who lets you sit on his couch in your pajamas the night before the funeral and ramble on until 2:00 in the morning even though his parents were asleep upstairs and he had homework to do.
You need your mom who picks you up off the bathroom floor when you’re in the middle of a panic attack and holds you tight because she knows that helps calm you down, and because she knows you need a hug because she’s your mom.
You need your college friends — both collectively and individually — to pick you up from the train station after the worst week of your life, party with you when you could use a distraction, make you laugh when you’re on the brink of losing it, fall asleep in your room when you have trouble sleeping, and listen to you when you feel like talking. You need them even if it means needing them to leave you alone.
You need the friend who mails you a care package since she can’t physically be with you. You need your favorite professor to call you in during office hours and check up on your emotional wellbeing and mental health state.
You need the friend who lets you visit her for the weekend and literally holds you up as you fall apart in her arms while walking around her campus, because she knew you were about to lose it at dinner in her dining hall and she needed to be the one to help you come to terms with reality.
You need your sister who follows you out of midnight mass on Christmas Eve to make sure you have enough tissues and hold your hand as you cry in the cold church hallway.
You need your cousin who pushes you to have the tough conversations you’ve been avoiding and neglecting to have with anyone else. You need her to pull her car over around the block from the rest of your family just so you can have some time alone to rehash, talk, cry and be honest with each other and with yourself.
You need your other cousin who encourages you to reminisce, because sometimes it’s nice to remember him and his smile. You need the memories of the friend who passed too early because they were integral to shaping your life in some of the most important ways, because you wouldn’t be who you are today without him.
You need everyone else just like you needed him, because it’s better to feel both love and pain than to feel nothing at all. You need people. You need their hugs and advice and voices and presence. You need their love.
There isn’t a proper way to grieve death, especially the unexpected loss of such a young and beautiful life. You don’t get over it, but you can get through it with lots of help from others. Barbra Streisand’s right: people who need people are really some of the luckiest people. And I count myself as one of the lucky ones.