A Eulogy For The Living: On Grieving Someone Who Isn’t Dead

Trigger warning: suicidal ideation

When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?” — Ocean Vuong

A boy with half a name is ripping at my clothes in a room dark hazy with vodka. Naked before another stranger, I close my eyes and try not to think of this as another little suicide. He holds my body down, his thrusts searching, aggressive. He pulls hard on my hair and I let myself enjoy the pain. I am glad to be hurting over something other than you. Quickly, he stills and collapses, sweating, beside me. Apologizes without really meaning it. Says something about the bathroom and leaves sheepishly.

Outside, a lamppost, duller than the rest, flickers before going out completely. I turn my attention back to the sheets, wet, rumpled, and empty. This, too, is a slow, small death.

* * *

There comes a time in every girl’s life when she must accept that the world is simply not as beautiful as she had dreamed it into being.

We all just have to hope there’s enough light left to see by when we finally open our eyes.

Some dreams, of course, are lucid. Perhaps I have been afraid to admit to myself that you aren’t quite the person I want you to be. And given the distance and the timing and the odds stacked against us and all the little fires we set along the way, maybe I always knew that we’d crash and burn. But I never expected that when the smoke cleared, I’d be left alone in the wreckage.

The thing about faith is that often, it is blind. But where there is smoke to blind it, there must be a fire, and while it’s burning me alive, you’ve turned to ice. I want to believe that love doesn’t just burn out, but I’ve been trying to turn your cold shoulder around for so long now that I don’t know what I believe anymore.

When I was young, my teachers said I read too much fiction. I spent too much time in distant worlds of dragons and magic, my head a permanent resident in the clouds. I guess it took until now to realize that not much has changed. Maybe my mother did read me too many fairytales, or I’ve been watching too many telenovelas, because yes, I truly believed you were meant for me. For the last two years, you have been my guiding light, my best friend, my favorite maybe, my saddest almost. After every fight and every slammed door, you always came back; you were always home. I believed there to be something fateful, something gravitational in the way we always circled back to each other, despite everything that went wrong, despite everything that stood in our way. I believed that by crossing from the north of one country to the south of another and turning up at your door wearing your favorite skirt and my heart on my sleeve, I could make things between us beautiful again. I took the early morning train from Manchester to Cardiff, believing that fortune, surely, just had to favor the brave. I loved you, not even in the past tense, believing surely that was enough.

The saddest truth about this world is that sometimes, love just isn’t enough. It can’t end wars, it can’t cure cancer. It can’t bring you back. Not this time.

* * *

The man at the train station has his hand on my shoulder. Somewhere very far away, his distorted voice is asking if I’m okay. Through a film of tears, the train lights blur to a sea of beckoning gold. I think he’s worried I am going to jump.

I am more worried about what happens if I don’t.

Maybe it’s time. Maybe I should just close my eyes and think of your smile. And yes, I know that you would want me to fight, but the truth is I can’t bear the thought that one day, you will become just another story. Our skin cells regenerate every 27 days. Which means that already, your touch has been written out of the fabric of my body like it was never there. Already, there is nothing left of you here but what I make of you. I can feel you slip through my fingers like knives, your absence screaming and violent, tearing gaping holes in my body. It’s the kind of pain you feel in the marrow of your bones, the kind of trauma that takes root in your stomach and aches loudly, grows insistently. Something that no matter how many TV shows you bury yourself in or boys you let bury themselves inside you, you just can’t forget; something you will take to your grave. Something dead that will always demand to be exhumed. Like a doorstep covered in blood and a boy playing sheep in wolf’s clothing, telling me not to cry. Like time stops, sits down in the wreckage, and finds it is simply too late to start again. Like somewhere, a girl is sobbing at a train station, waiting for someone who is long gone. Like somewhere, a phone is ringing and ringing.

And no one picks up.

* * *

My therapist’s office is on the sixth floor. She is talking to me about hope. Behind her, the sky darkens to a wintry blue velvet and the city shimmers gold.

What a beautiful ledge to jump from.

When she asks about my Christmas, I will tell her that I named my depression after you. I gift-wrapped every panic attack you gave me and put them under the tree as reminders. I drowned in light. I faked a smile and watched a film with my family. I finally understood why Peter Pan had to stitch his own shadow to his body. I, too, know the body as a cage to try to escape from. I, too, am sewing exit wounds shut.

* * *

Absence, my mother has always said, makes the heart grow fonder. Which is another way of saying that after each time you throw me out on the streets, you make me even more at home when you let me back in. Because you missed me. Because you realized something or other about how you treated me, about what I deserved, about how much you loved me, how much I meant to you.

You only remember my worth when I’m not around. Which is to say that my absence has more value than my presence. After all, isn’t that all being suicidal is? Attaching a greater value to the soft, untouchable lightness of not being than to the heavy burden of the body and mind?

Each time I settle a place in your heart, I am naïve to think I won’t eventually have to barter for it. To think that my presence, warm and beating and vibrant, all my love and truth on the table, could be enough to keep its seat. I am just keeping it warm for the next girl you move in. The one light enough for you to commit to. I try to tell you that I am more than my darkness but I don’t quite believe it enough to get the words out. Instead, I string up lights around the house and give you every little piece of me and hope that this time, it will be enough. You, sweet and cruel, let me hope.

You talk to me about being here, about home, say you’ll always be a fireplace to warm my hands at. You never warn me about the third-degree burns or the eviction notice I trusted you enough to stop waiting for.

You talk to me about being here and you make me glad I am. You give me a safe place where I can exist outside of my body, outside of my mind. My walls come crashing down without warning and suddenly I am naked and free and here, and for the first time, I don’t wish I wasn’t.

You talk to me about being here, but you love me more when I’m not.

Upstairs, a shoe drops onto the carpet. I hold my breath until my breathing stops.

You’d think I’d have learned by now.

* * *

The police are downstairs. It’s 4 a.m. and my pill packet is running empty. How did I let it get to this?

The police are downstairs and they want to check that I’m okay, but I can’t speak, I can’t move, I can’t. I can’t. Tell them. Tell them for me.

The police are downstairs and you’re the only person I want to talk to about it.

My friends never quite understood. What’s the point of making a bomb shelter out of a boy with a grenade mouth?

I want to say, dark clouds, depressive tendencies, ship set to self-destruct, but the truth is sadder. The truth is that when you said, again, that you’d changed, I believed you.

How can I blame the knife for cutting?

How can I compare you to a sharp thing after tracing my finger over your softest edges?

* * *

At every funeral I’ve ever been to, the most commonly heard sentence was: At least you still have the memories. A stab in the dark that pierces skin. A frail attempt at comfort that loses all meaning from the moment it touches our lips.

What are memories but our flimsy ideas of the past? Like gum, memory is rolled on our tongues so many times that its shape bends to our will. Its flavor fades over time, yet we refuse to spit it out; we keep a space for it in our mouths until there just isn’t any space left. We chew and chew and chew and never swallow, never digest, never let it settle. We’d rather choke on our memories than let them go. We play them over and over until we can’t see them clearly anymore, until the quality becomes so fuzzy that the original is lost in the mists of time.

The thought of that happening to our memories terrifies me. The knowledge that it already is breaks my heart.

Let me preserve them here, suspended in mid-flight, as we always were.

If memory is all I have left of you, let me tell you what I remember.

I remember all of your stories. How your eyes met mine as your laugh, real and colourful, ripped through the paper room, through my paper body. How everything was always paper but you. You, three-dimensional, bright and soft and corporeal, the way you smile with your eyes, the way you put your hand on my thigh and quickly ask if it’s okay, the way your heart quickens at my touch. I remember you, after the longest time of knowing each other through pixels, through lit screens and long distance, translated into a physical dreamscape, everything I know and so much more. Skin so close I can touch it, lips so close I can taste them, a gravitational pull in our proximity, a kind of unspoken, unspeakable warmth in the space between our bodies.

I remember your eyes, how they hovered for a moment, flickering between my eyes and my lips. Ocean Vuong said that to look at someone is a powerful thing; it is to fill one’s whole world with a person, even if just for a moment. I remember how in that moment, the whole world was right there on your bed, suspended in the seconds that feel like hours before the kiss, a little capsule of want; two people connected by the exact same thought. To be kissed, Vuong added, is to be swallowed by what drowns you, only to surface, brimming at the mouth. I remember: You kissed me hard, like the only oxygen on Earth was inside my mouth, and deep, like I was a river you wanted to drown in. We came up breathless, our softest edges exposed, my body achingly, dizzyingly yours.

I remember being on my knees, your hand gripping my hair like a lifeline, your hips bucking into my mouth. I remember I kissed you, and when I pulled away you smiled the most earth-shatteringly beautiful, genuine smile. In that moment, everything around us melted away. I remember a surge of fizzing, sparkling joy: If I could cause such an intoxicatingly gorgeous smile, if I could bring not only pleasure but happiness to the person I love most, then I must be worth something after all. I remember feeling glad, in those moments, to be alive.

I remember you held me in your arms as I cried, your fingers gentle in my hair this time, your voice soothing, your accent lilting like a stream of crushed stars with a subtle Welsh musicality I couldn’t help but fall in love with. How you cupped my head gently between your hands and planted a soft kiss on my forehead. How in that moment, with the sky getting dark outside, the room filled itself with light, and our hearts were bursting with love.

Where did all of your love go? How does something so tangible, something with the power to compel kisses, to rewrite history, to make the space between us disappear, just evaporate without warning, without saying goodbye?

* * *

Grief, I have been told, is just love with nowhere to go. It weighs us down, makes us ache. I guess that explains why I don’t want to leave my bed much these days. Living without you feels like too heavy a burden to bear.

Maybe the most tragic love stories aren’t the Romeo and Juliets of the world. Maybe they’re the ones left unfinished. Maybe sometimes they hurt so much that we have to put the pen down and accept that we can’t force a happy ending. Maybe the ink just runs away with us sometimes and the love gets lost in translation. Or, in your case, it just gets lost.

The year is over. Our days together are dying as a new decade begins, and I feel so unprepared. I’m not ready to start a new book, one you have already been written out of.

The thing about grieving for someone who is still alive is that there is no last page. No closure. No grave to take flowers to. I don’t know how to mourn you without the burden of wondering if you miss me too. I don’t know how to unknow you; I don’t know how to unlearn your favorite songs and your siblings’ names and your academic goals and your insecurities and the color of those goddamn eyes. Eventually, you will be someone new. And now you’ve met someone new, and knowing that I’m being built out of your life when you still feel like my only home is the coldest I’ve ever felt.

One day we will be strangers, and history won’t stop to write this down. That’s why I did instead. Because all of this – us – means something. I want to believe it will always mean something. I’m so tired of feeling like I’m nothing.

You said that you don’t think there’s a connection anymore. You were wrong. There are some things that will always tie us together. Neither of us can tell our complete history without mentioning the other. Part of you lives in all of my stories. Or doesn’t live, like a flower pressed between the pages. Dead, yes. But still beautiful.

Perhaps writing is a funeral service all its own. An admittance that this is no longer flesh and blood, but paper and ink. This is the rendering of our love into the world of dead things. This is flowers on the grave.

It’s not only our love I’m entombing here. It’s the version of me that loved you. Today, I finally blocked you, cut the last threads that bound me to you, and I have never felt more free.

All this time, I have been in mourning, believing you were a loss. But you had turned jagged at the edges, and every time I touched you, I bled. Still, patient, and blindly, devastatingly in love, I kept reminding myself of the days you were soft. I kept forgiving you for things you weren’t apologizing for. I kept, while you had long let go. I am done burning my knees for you, scrubbing my own blood out of the carpet, pretending the cuts don’t sting every time I shower. All this time, I believed that because of the way we always circled back to each other, we must have been meant to be. I know now I deserve better than someone who has broken my heart over and over again, hidden behind a clumsy, innocent baby façade and come crawling back each time I’d begun to pick up the pieces. You came back to me each time not because of fate, but because my heart is your favorite toy for a while, until you chew it up and spit it back out again. I wanted to see the best in you, so I finger-painted the truth into a prettier picture, called it written in the stars, always dutifully bringing light to your darkness.

Since taking some space from your onyx polluted sky, I see things clearly. I am ready to step out of your shadow, to start keeping some of my light for myself. So I buried the girl I used to be here, along with all of these memories and all of this film.

I told you I wasn’t disposable. And I’ll never let anyone treat me that way again.

Still, I hope someday, you will remember what’s buried here. I hope you will pay your respects.

poet / writer / languages student at uni of manchester

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