This year, I learned to grieve, or at least to grieve more fully. I learned to sit with my sadness in the red glow of sunrise. To touch the abyss that split me open again and again and again, to allow myself to be swallowed, and to come back to the world, eventually—changed certainly, but still me.
This year I learned that while grief is uncomfortable, painful, sometimes unbearable (and yet we bear it anyway), it is a sign that we have loved, that we have shared joy, that we have learned, that we have grown, that we are human, that we are still here, breathing, if just barely. That knowledge doesn’t make the grieving any easier, but it is the truth, just the same.
I have faced loss before this year, but I’ve always averted my gaze, retreated into a galaxy far, far away or Narnia or another of a thousand fantasy worlds where my heroes were always there, waiting.
In fiction, even when a character dies, you can turn back the pages or rewind the film and find her there, fighting evil or galactic injustice. Life doesn’t quite work like that. You can fall back on memories and photos, but memory is a tricky thing. The very act of bringing up a memory can alter it, shade it with your current mood and state of mind.
You can reminisce and remember, but you can’t laugh together at an inside joke or watch the same movie for the thousandth time, speaking all the lines in unison.
When I was fifteen, my friend Lacey died suddenly from a brain tumor. I didn’t understand the feeling of emptiness in my chest, so I wrote angsty poetry and re-read the Young Jedi Knight book series that we both loved. Lacey wasn’t my best friend or even among my closest friends, but with whom else could I discuss Jaina and Jacen Solo’s adventures, parental troubles, and awkward teen romances?
For a time, I had a friend to share my universe, and then I didn’t.
I could repeat that line a thousand times with endless variations.
For a time, I had a grandfather who called me Lucy and threatened to throw me in the picky bushes if I misbehaved, and then I didn’t.
For a time, I had a dog with curly black fur and the kindest eyes, and then I didn’t.
For a time, I had a mother figure who made me hot chocolate on snow days and taught me how to pet a horse, and then I didn’t.
You don’t have to have met a person for their death to grab hold of your throat and constrict your lungs. Artists release art into the world where we experience it and re-experience it. That too is a form of bonding, of shared experience, of memory.
But for all those moments, all these losses—many more than I’ve listed here—I never learned how to grieve. How to feel consumed by sadness and know that it is okay to feel that way. I learned that I will get up the next day and carry the torch. And if I’m too weak to walk or carry that torch, I have friends ready to hold me up. And that I will do the same the day after, and the day after that, until it is my turn to face infinity.
2016 has taken much from me, as it almost certainly has from you. Not just celebrity icons like Carrie Fisher and David Bowie (and on and on), but ex-lovers, family members, health, certainty of freedom, and for a time, words themselves.
Learning to grieve isn’t like learning an immutable fact. It’s a process, and it changes for each loss. Grief isn’t something that diminishes you, at least not permanently. It’s possible to lose yourself in grief, the same way it’s possible to lose yourself in depression. But it’s not inherently a process of loss. It’s a process of healing and exploration, of growth and love.
This year, instead of fighting the abyss, I walked headlong into its darkness, allowed myself to be split open, and come out the other side. Some people might want to call this depression, but it’s not—it’s a different type of surrender. It’s surrendering to the unique truth and beauty—and yes, pain, too—that marked your relationship with that person or with that person’s art.
Today I mourn. And tomorrow, also. But I will wake up, and I will carry the torch.