On July 6, 2015, I awoke to a phone call alerting me that my best friend of 17 years had been killed.
The details were spotty: there had been a boating accident roughly 36 hours prior on a lake in North Carolina. Jenna had been killed along with her uncle. Her cousin and boyfriend, also on the boat, were in the hospital.
As I tried to make sense of what happened, I felt as though I was having an out-of-body experience. The entire time I sat in a comatose state of disbelief, my eyes glued to a text message she had sent me less than four hours before the accident. My brain refused to believe that someone I had just spoken to could be gone. I called her phone over and over again, hoping she would answer and explain that the whole thing had been an elaborate misunderstanding; but every time her voicemail picked up, the automated response alerted me that the mailbox was full.
The weeks that followed were a blur. Planning her funeral, comforting her grieving family and friends, packing up her house, all of the terrible side effects of tragedy compounded by the fact that she was four months shy of her 30th birthday.
And just like that, I entered into a completely new chapter: Life After Death.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Every cliché you’ve ever heard is true
Life is precious. Everyday is a gift. Live each day like your last. Before losing my best friend, phrases like this seemed reduced to posters hanging on the walls of a guidance counselor’s office or accompanying a wistful Instagram post of a woman staring off into the sunset. Now, they read like totems from people who walked a similar path before me.
Losing someone, especially so suddenly, is a sobering reminder that the time we have on this planet really is so finite. All of the time we spend frustrated sitting in traffic, obsessing over how we look or what we’ll wear, arguing with a partner over who should unload the dishwasher, things that take up so much real estate in our minds cease to be important the moment our life is over. With that new knowledge, knowing that today could be our last, do we really want to spend it pissed off?
Now, I chose to live by a new rule: Life is short, order dessert.
You are stronger than you think
If you would have asked me a few years ago what my thoughts on death were, you would have been met with stunning anxiety. I spent so much of my time thinking about what I would do if I were to experience loss. I obsessed over how I would feel if I were to lose a loved one. I comforted grieving friends with praise, proclaiming them to be so strong, so resilient — all the while imagining myself in the same situation with different results. Surely I would be a withering mess, I told myself. I’d probably never stop crying or be able to smile again.
Then, one day, I was walking in their shoes and, believe it or not, I was putting one foot in front of the other. Sure, it was miserable and challenging, but I was doing it. I was still here, breathing and living and moving. To borrow a line from Bob Marley, “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” Another cliché come true.
Grief, like life, is a rollercoaster
If death teaches us anything, it’s that life is a constant of ups and downs. With every momentously tragic event, there are also incredible highs: birthdays, anniversaries, first love, first heartbreak, job promotions and layoffs. All of the ebbs and flows of life play out similar to the phases of grief.
Some days there are intense lows where the very act of getting out of bed seems impossible. Other days there are glimpses of happiness found in revisiting a memory or the first time you laugh, really laugh, after believing you may never feel joy again. The amount of time we spend on this rollercoaster differs for everyone; for some, we never disembark. But, as we grow to learn in time, the peaks and valleys become less severe and we are able to anticipate when the next heart-stopping plunge is around the corner.
Your pain can be used to help others
I am always so amazed by people who are able to turn their tragedy into triumph. We see stories everyday of profound individuals who have been to the edge and come back better, stronger, believing their divine purpose is to use their suffering to help others. I am not one of those people. I did not open a charity or become a motivational speaker.
For a long time, all I did was cry and move about my days in a zombie-like trance. Then, one day, an acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook about losing their friend in a freak accident. Immediately, I felt compelled to reach out to them to offer my condolences and share resources (books, a local therapist). I hoped I could provide them with some comfort, albeit minimal. I didn’t run a 5k or raise money, but the very act of letting someone know they weren’t alone made me feel as though I could make a difference, however small.
You’ll never be the same — but you will be okay
While you never fully “get over” loss, in time, you do learn how to live with it. For me, grief feels like living with an injury that never quite properly healed. Your body learns to adapt and rebuild and, over time, scar tissue covers the spot where the injury occurred.
You learn to live with this “new normal.” A giant, ugly scar that reminds you of the beautiful person you once knew. Sometimes it hurts and other times it just hurts to look at; but it’s always there — even if years later others can’t see it or even remember you have it. Life does go on after tragedy. It doesn’t go back to the way it was, but it does move forward. You keep moving forward — and that’s okay.
— Megan Harris