Everything we experience in life, we experience uniquely. However, there are certain things we need to know that others have experienced and have come out stronger on the other side. In this series, we will share personal stories from ourselves and others about some of these lonely experiences that could help someone else out there who is going through some of these kinks in life. Today, I share my experience with grief.
I looked at his face in the picture on my wall, everyday, for one and a half years. It was right next to the polaroids that line the door frame to my bedroom. I didn’t want it to blend in with the other polaroids because, well, it was not a polaroid itself and so it did not fit in. Unlike the polaroids, it was an imperfect oval. Unlike the polaroids, it was not glossy but matte. Unlike the polaroids, it was cut out of a brochure; and unlike the polaroids, it froze the perfect smile of he who I am never to truly see or even share a familiar smile with again in this lifetime.
Do you watch Modern Family? There is an episode where Gloria and Jay’s 5 year old son finds out that he is mortal and will die one day. The poor boy goes into baby depression and tells his friends the bad news – that they will all die one day. I don’t know when I found out or who told me this secret but for as long as I can remember, I knew the following as well as I knew my name: my family and friends could die. With each announcement of the death of the friend that I messaged on twitter just two days before or the aunty that I did not get to say goodbye to, there was always a base of latent expectation that managed to absorb the shock. Yes, I cried. Yes, each time I was reminded again of my and mines mortality. But I knew it would come, didn’t I? So after some time, all was well again.
Here is what nobody ever told me
When you meet that boy, unexpectedly, who is everything you want and everything you did not know you want; that boy with whom there was never a question about the space you occupy in his life and him in yours; that boy with whom it is never difficult to imagine and talk about a future together… unexpectedly. Nobody ever tells you that you could wake up one morning to messages from him wanting to catch up on the previous night you had apart. He would tell you about how he, at the last minute, ditched plans to go out for drinks and went for a night vigil in church and how he felt so darn good after the vigil. You would spend the first 2 hours in your day talking about where you would live as a couple – a house or a condo. He would choose a condo because he finds that houses are too much responsibility. And when you try to be smart and ask him where the children will play if you don’t live in a house with a yard, he’ll fire back that they will play in the gym of the apartment building and you will both laugh. Nobody ever tells you that it will be a busy Saturday for you both and that when you send him a text that night before bed, he will not read it because the doctor has not figured out how to get him to open his eyes and speak after the accident that would happen only a few hours after your long conversation that morning. Nobody ever tells you that by the time you wake up on Sunday morning, the one that your heart is attached to would have died. Nobody ever tells you.
His death was my first encounter with grief.
Nobody tells you what to expect when you grieve. But that is because there is no formula. You would think that with all the billions of people that have lost their loved ones to death, there would be some type of written guide; a tell-all – that will prepare people for what to expect when the times comes. You would think. When I was in university, I knew that it was possible that I could lose one or both parents and someone will need to be responsible for my siblings and I. I already knew the uncle and family friend I would go to for help, if that happened. I already had plans for my younger brothers. I already knew how present I would like to be for my parents if one of my brothers died. But nobody tells you what to do when your boyfriend dies. Nobody tells you what to do when you suddenly wake up with urgency after finally falling asleep at 2am, because you remembered that you never got to give him the birthday present you bought him and all you can think and cry about at 3:30am is this.
Not knowing what to do, compounds the grieving. Not many people will count a 6 month relationship as serious and so there is a crisis that sets in immediately. You wonder if his friends are asking themselves why you have so many tears for him when they only just found out about you. And so when you host them, because it is easier for everybody to be together, you look for things to do so that you do not outcry them. You go out and get the groceries, even though the dullness of the evening still hurts your eyes and you feel like a ghost. You cook and ask everyone if they are okay and if they need anything else. You have words of consolation ready for anyone who breaks down when the reality hits them again in the course of the day. You do and do and do because nobody told you that you needed to separate yourself from the grieving of friends and grieve in the loneliness of a lover. A lover’s grief is different and unfathomable by any other. The only other person that could understand a lover’s grief is the other lover who has caused the grief. So you see the difficulty?
There is also the battle of how close you are allowed to get to his mother. You had your first panic attack in your 24 years on the day of his memorial service. His mother had asked to meet you because he had told her about you. The moment you set your eyes on her sunken eyes, weight loss, and skin that is much duller than all the brightness that you had seen in pictures, it hits you that he must really be gone and so you run to hug her and as she cries and screams into your hair, you hide your runny face in her suit jacket and allow yourself to not breathe.
The first time you go outside after days of hiatus, you are scared. Your heart races the entire time. You feel like a lost child that is playing hide and seek in the middle of Times Square with her family and suddenly could not find anyone of them.
I was lost
The only thing worse than feeling lost is feeling like you probably don’t have the right to feel lost. There was work to be done and plans to be made. Life did not stop moving on the day you gathered his friends on a phone call to pray for his recovery since it was his birthday and nobody had been able to speak to him since the accident 10 days ago. There was a lot of optimism after that prayer and you looked forward to the day you would be standing next to his hospital bed and he would wake up from the coma. Life did not stop moving that day when you got the phone call announcing that he had been dead for all of those 10 days. And so because you did not want a pity party, you had to feign moving on with the rest of life, when in reality, life had paused for you in that period. Nobody ever told you that it is okay for your life to pause because the only words you could hear him say now were those words he said the night before he moved to another city, “Don’t run away”. And you replied, “I’m not going anywhere”. You can still feel how tightly he held on to you that night as he slept – like he was afraid that if he let go even slightly, he would lose you forever. So you continue, forcefully, with life. But dear girl, because you are forcing the unnatural to happen, you cry all the time. Every day. On the subway, on the streets, after a benign work phone call, on the plane home, in the bathroom, and oh yes, every night as you pray for healing, you cry yourself to sleep.
Here is what they did tell me, though
That it gets better with time. That the tears don’t rush out as quickly and as frequently. That the memories don’t cause sadness, at least not every time. That there will be healing.
And they are right. There will be healing… with time and asking from HE who is able to heal completely. And so a year and a half later, as my eyes caught his picture on my wall, I heard the clear words of the inner voice that guides me and it said “you can take that off the wall now. It is time.” I still walk around my apartment in his oversized blue slippers and his smile that can only be likened to the sun still flashes in my mind’s eye from time to time. But there are no tears anymore. His memories make me happy now and they give me hope for a future filled with love, friendship, romance, and partnership.
They say that once a writer loves you, then you can never die. Because the writer will keep you alive in words. I think about this all the time because until this moment, I have not been able to find the words to write for him. I have run away from it and the thought of doing it now, scared me a little. And so for you who is experiencing the unfamiliar territory of grief, don’t drown in it but don’t force yourself out too early. Allow yourself to swim the length of it and grab on to a life vest or a floater if you need to. You will come out on the other side, more whole… stronger (cliches are cliches for a reason).
And no matter how lonely it feels, please remember that you are not alone.
For Dr. Chinweike Okegbe, PhD (1989 – 2016)