I remember the night that I found out Theo had died. The scene around me is sketched out in high intensity detail. Sharp, crystalline. Set. The tall, dorm-like bed with the black, gauzy canopy hanging above it, white carpet white walls, the purple glow of my Halloween lights strung across the ceiling, the tiny couch stuffed into the corner by the desk, the spattering of posters and photographs—all an attempt to claim the space. It was very unfamiliar. Cold, unfriendly, unheimlich. I remember watching as the air and colour were sucked from the room the moment that I heard those words. Each element remains in my mind, unchanged, embodying the permanence of the loss itself.
I was lying in bed at my new apartment in Davis, California. It was late October. It was a student residence. I had moved in just two months before, transferred there to finish my degree. I barely knew anyone.
I got a call.
I usually don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t know (often not even from ones I do). But I did this time, I picked up. I heard a voice I didn’t recognize. She was crying. Something felt Wrong. Like it always does in the movies. I felt as though I was watching this all take place on a screen, as though it was affecting someone else, not me—disconnected, distant, detached. She told me that she didn’t know how to tell me, but Theo had passed. They had found him that day, in his apartment. He had hung himself. He was gone. She knew we were close, so she reached out to me. A lot of his friends did in the coming days.
Reality did too. It shifted, careened around me on a tilted axis.
I cried. I babbled to this person I didn’t know. I apologized. She cried. She apologized. It wasn’t our fault; we were just shaken by circumstance beyond our control. And that’s what you say when you feel helpless and horrible: “I’m so sorry”. Are you consoling yourself or the other person? Who’s to say.
I remember some part of me worried about the etiquette of the situation. I didn’t know how long it was ok to stay on the phone with this stranger. Or how long I could stay on. I was incapable of speech but needed someone to speak to. Someone to just be there. She needed someone, too.
But we didn’t know each other, so could we really be that person for one another?
We must have tried.
I’m not sure when we hung up.
But as soon as we did, I sank into the floor. And I mean that in the most literal way possible. Reality was now a broken thing, so the laws of physics no longer applied. Have you ever seen the movie Trainspotting? It was exactly like the scene where Renton overdoses on heroine. Except I wasn’t numb.
I ached. And by “I”, I mean all of me. I mean the quintessential I. The very core of my being ached.
And I sank into the floor.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, but at some point—and I’m still not sure how I managed this, since I had dissociated from my physical body in an effort to avoid the pain—I reached for my phone and called my new friend who lived in the same complex. She told me to come over.
She was studying for an exam, but she was warm to me and let me cry and told me I should write and I did and I needed it. But I was afraid to overstay my welcome. She would have let me. But I felt guilty for taking up physical and emotional space. Eventually, I knew, I would have to walk away, and sit with this feeling alone and learn how to heal, how to be ok again. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to do that, but I knew I had to do it anyway.
Next month will mark 5 years since the death of this man I loved dearly. A loss that completely shattered me, and then shaped me, as I spent the interim between then and now trying to process the grief and piece myself back together. I like to think I’ve made some headway, experienced a breakthrough here and there. But I made the mistake of trying to do this on my own; and I’m finding there is still much work to do.
Nevertheless, after so much time passes, you begin to think that you’re OK, that you’ve healed enough. But then, an old photo—one you’d forgotten even existed—resurfaces in your “on this day……years ago” feed and punches you straight in the Sad Place which is some combination of the heart and the stomach.
And you crumble inwards for a moment, but not for as long as last year or the year before.
The sadness, the pain, the loss…it’s all still there. It’s there in the knowledge that you will never see this person again, that the only experiences you can share now lie in images and memories—moments—frozen in time. Nothing new. Not again. Not ever.
It’s all still there, but it recedes back to its dwelling place a bit faster with each passing year. Yet, despite whatever progress you’ve made towards healing, every now and then you’ll be served some reminder that it lives inside of you. Grief doesn’t die like those you love do. It lingers, it stretches, it thins out in time, but it never breaks.
And I suppose that’s ok.
There is no greater pain on this earth than Loss, and none so permanent. It may diminish over time; however, each death will change you irrevocably.
But I would rather experience the pain of memory, of loss, repeatedly than to lose it and you with it.