THIS IS WHAT I WANT FROM YOU
WORDS & IMAGE: LIZZIE SHACKNEY '17
You don’t get over it—
It gets under you,
Inside of you,
Embedded in your DNA.
Because grief is a wave
And I would rather ride it out than drown,
Or get out of the water.
Grief is a bump in the road
every half mile;
it is the shard of glass
hidden in your shag carpet;
it is a picture frame
hot-glued to your hip.
Last summer, after a long, hot July day in New York City, my mom called, asked if I was with a friend, and held herself together as she told me that my father had unexpectedly passed away. I fell to the ground, legs shaking, in complete disbelief. I said out loud, “I don’t fucking believe you.” We made a plan; I hung up, watched an entire season of Orange is the New Black, and cried myself to sleep. The next morning I flew home. I found myself in another state. The texts and calls came pouring in: messages from people offering support, telling me they loved me, that he had loved me, that everything would be okay.
Friends at Wesleyan have told other friends that they don’t know how to be there for me. They have told me this to my face, too. When I bring up my father, which I like to do, people get a little quieter. I wonder if they are waiting for me to burst into tears.
I only burst into tears sometimes-- mostly when I am drinking or when something else has made me upset, like a boy or a paper or a general sense of disappointment with the world. Once, I lost my coat at DKE after spending the day at my father’s alma mater, so, naturally, I began to cry and scream and yelled “Fuck you!” at a girl who accidentally bumped into me. My friends walked me home, each grasping one of my arms, but I stopped and kneeled down on the sidewalk to cry some more until they picked me up again. Many nights, I would be at a party surrounded by dancing, smiling people, and I would feel so alone, like I knew something that they didn’t, and I would have to just walk home, alone, afraid of becoming someone’s burden.
Grief is not a commonplace feeling. It’s not universally known, like “happy” or “sad” or “angry.” As you grow older, you come to know more and more people who have felt grief; one by one family members pass on, tragic accidents and unfortunate events and surprises occur, and you and your friends come to understand the meaning of loss and how it affects the mind in seemingly irrational ways. But for now, when you are young at a place like Wesleyan, grief is relatively unknown, or at least not talked about. The girls I live with don’t really know it. The boys I dine with at Usdan or sit with on Foss don’t exactly get it. They are supportive and caring, but they will never really know until they know.
There are many life events and experiences that carry this sort of weight, the sort that makes total empathy seem impossible. This does not mean that a person who has been through something difficult cannot be supported or shown kindness. This does mean that those who are offering support or showing kindness must recognize that they can’t comprehend this feeling, not fully.
This is what I want from you.
Please do not have expectations of my emotions. Understand that I will not always be bubbly and fun, I will not be my old self, but I will still want your affection. Tell me that you will love me no matter what, no matter how sad I am, so that I don’t have to feel guilty on top of feeling terribly upset. Also understand that I will not always feel so low, that I can still be very happy and functional and joke about death and grief and that you can laugh along with me, because tragedy can be rather absurd. After my father’s funeral, my eight-year-old cousin came up to me and asked, “Are you over it yet?” I was stunned, and in that moment, I realized the weight of my loss. I was like, woah, no, this isn’t really something that you get over. It’s a chronic condition, and it manifests itself in different ways: I have a collection of voicemails that I keep but will not listen to, I have a shrine complete with the best photograph of him and a handful of ashes in my dorm room that I glance at but will not stare at for long. I miss him when I least expect it, and I can’t control when or where the waves of sadness will overwhelm me. Even I can’t know what’s coming next, so come and sit in this realm of unpredictability with me.
Please read my mind. This is an unreasonable request, since I don’t know many people who can actually do this, but I guess this is a call to all telepathists, because I think you would make great friends. Sometimes I want space. Sometimes I want to feel another body against mine; sometimes I want someone to wrap their arms around me and hug me tightly until I pull away hours later. Sometimes I will say I need space when I really want comfort. Sometimes it’s very hard to ask for help, but sometimes I need it.
Please know that it would be easier if life were slower. I wish that I had gotten the chance to slow down, to understand what was going on in my life, that I hadn’t gone right back to my summer job, back to my cubicle and brown bag lunch lectures, back to “normal.” I wish that I could have been like Cheryl Strayed in Wild and spent a few months backpacking alone in the wilderness, accomplishing some insane feat that I would always associate, in a healthy way, with my grief. But I couldn’t, based on who I am and who the world makes me think that I should be, so please know that it’s not easy going back to business as usual when business is far from usual. College is the opposite of slow. It is filled with expectations for how it will play out and does not leave much room for being alone in the dark and entertaining your emotions. It can be tough to take a day off from college, and even tougher to explain why you need a day off.
Please know that I am grateful. I am grateful for those who have stuck by me, to those who were patient, and to those who have held my hand, if at least for a little while. I am grateful for those who got it right, but also for those who were afraid of getting it wrong. I’m so grateful that you tried.
Above all, please be kind. Jews and Joan Didion say that grief takes a year, and I made the mistake of thinking that that’s all I have. People cut me all kinds of slack at the beginning, and I enjoyed leaning into the kindness and softness of people. I wondered how much effort it took to be kind and soft, and I’m not sure that it required all that much because I’ve tried it myself. I also wondered how much more wonderful the world would be if everyone could always be that kind to everyone else, regardless of the tragedy du jour. People have all kinds of pain in their lives, most of it invisible. Please take the energy that you used to be kind to me or someone else during a difficult time and extend it. Make it last.
Please realize that despite the fact that I write in the first person, this is not about me. This is not just about losing a parent, nor is it solely about being 19 or 20 at Wesleyan and experiencing such things. It is about the obstacles we all face, and it is about how we would hope to be treated in the midst of struggle or in the aftermath of tragedy. I can only write in my voice from my own experience and perspective, but I write with a firm understanding of who I was, who I have become, and how I got from there to here.
The hard truth of the matter is that the world is neither slow nor kind. The world cannot read your mind, and it has plenty of expectations for your emotions and your energy. I’m building myself back up as best I can; I am weathering the storms and growing out from and despite of the pain. But you, whomever you are, at the very least, can be kind. You can understand that you can’t understand, and you can be there by trying to sense you are needed. If I can, I will tell you what I want. If I can’t, be kind. Love me anyway.
The "On Grieving" series is written by Wesleyan students who have lost a loved one. These sister essays reflect various different accounts of the immediate grieving processes, as it happens at Wesleyan.
If you have lost a loved one and would like support, please reach out to the author (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Come by Wesleyan's student-run grief support group, which meets on Tuesdays at 7:30 PM in the Davison Health Center Solariam.