Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Heartbreak, Grief, and a Glimmer of Hope

This past Saturday, I went with Dan to the memorial service of a childhood friend of his who passed away at 24 years old of testicular cancer. Never having met this young man, I felt that my role was largely just to be there to support my husband, and although I knew I would probably tear up, I wasn't anticipating feeling too emotional. After all, I thought, I've been through all this before, and a lot closer to it... how can this be as bad?

I made it through the memorial service without getting too choked up; it wasn't easy, especially while listening to friends recall the wonderful memories they have of a really wonderful guy, but the ever-distracting presence of Owen gave me something else to concentrate on. Dan tracked down the young man's 2 older brothers, chatted for a few minutes, and then we went home. Things went smoothly for the rest of the day, and at about 7:15, Dan left with his sister to go see his favorite musician (David Bazan) play a show at Messiah College.

Addison went to bed at 8:30 (early for her) and I was then left to myself. Which means the flood began. Because the damage of going to a memorial service for someone I didn't know wasn't immediate-- it came later, when I had time to reflect. That's when the bandaids fell off the old wounds and all the memories returned.

My junior year in high school was chaotic. 6 students in our district died that year-- an elementary school girl, a middle school girl, and 4 people in my high school. Of the 4 from the high school, there were 2 that I knew, and one I knew well, named Chris... I had grown up with him, had him in all my classes all through middle school AND high school, frequently chose him as a partner in projects, and had even dated his twin brother for a time. He lived down the street, and I spent a great deal of time at his house over the years, sometimes just to spend time with his mom. He died on May 2, 2002... just before the end of our junior year. I attended his viewing and funeral and spent much of the next week at his house, even sleeping there a few nights, with a large group of our friends.

A few months later, my aunt died from what had started as breast cancer, but spread throughout her entire body. I went to see her at the hospital when it was obvious that the end was near, but couldn't make it through the door-- it was too soon. I had been at the hospital moments after Chris had been taken off life support and had gone in the room to say goodbye... the memories of that were still too clear, and the overwhelming circumstances of what I knew was my aunt's impending passing were too much for me. I went to a waiting room down the hall and cried instead. A few days later, I attended her viewing and funeral, and hoped that I was done with all of that.

The summer between my junior and senior years was probably one of my best summers... I spent all of my time with my two best friends, Tessa and Megan (who happened to be cousins). We went to concerts, took small road trips, spent entirely too much time at what was then the Camp Hill Mall (Tessa had a huge crush on a guy that worked in the food court, and wanted to spend as much time there as possible.) At the end of the summer, Tessa and I helped Megan move to Maryland... she had decided to try living with her mother, as things were not going well living with her father. It was emotional leaving her behind, but she promised frequent visits, and I had to be ok with that.

My senior year flew by quickly... I met Dan, who would later become my husband, in September of my senior year and started dating him in December. This relationship and my jobs (first Fishbone, then Picture People) consumed most of my free time, and visits from Megan were the occasional bright spots throughout the year. I graduated on June 14, 2003 (Tessa's birthday) and was ready to embark on the next chapter of my life. I have a very cherished photo of me on my graduation day, still in my cap and gown, standing with Megan... I only saw her for that fleeting moment that day, but it is very precious to me, as that was the last time I saw her.

On July 8, 2003, Megan was killed in a car accident on 11/15, driving back to Pennsylvania for a visit. Tessa woke me up with a confusing phone call... she kept saying that Megan was "missing", that she was supposed to have arrived by that time but hadn't... she was crying, and although I held onto the hope that Megan truly was just missing, deep down I knew that Tess wouldn't be crying like that unless something awful had happened. We later found out that the accident had happened near Gettysburg... something caused Megan to cross the median, and she was hit head-on by a tractor trailer. She was ejected from the car, and traffic was tied up for hours.

The next several days are full of fractured memories. I remember spending most of my time with either Tessa or Dan, depending on the time of day... I know I spent a lot of time crying, but I don't really remember it. Her funeral is a blur as well-- her mom agreed to have the funeral and burial in Pennsylvania... Megan was buried in a family plot in Oberlin. The funeral was awful-- the random minister they had asked to do the funeral service kept forgetting her name and calling her "Michelle." (Megan had attended a Russian orthodox church most of her life, while living in Camp Hill, but for whatever reason her mother wanted a Methodist funeral service, and seemingly just selected someone at random). The burial was almost worse, but was strangely funny in a way... someone had bumped the panic button on their keychain, and a car horn was blasting during most of the burial service... no one could tell which car was going off. I couldn't help smiling, because somehow I knew that Megan would be laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of all of this.

I went to West Chester as planned in August, but stayed only for a semester... I made no friends there (socially anxious to begin with, I have a difficult time making friends... add to that the fact that the loss of my best friend made me disinterested didn't make things easier.) Would things have been different if Megan hadn't passed away? Probably not, but I definitely think that her death, and the subsequent depression, made things a lot more difficult.

It's been almost 7 years, and I've been to a couple more funerals since then, but none have left a scar as deep as Megan's. It has affected many aspects of my adult life-- Tessa and I haven't had the same relationship, although we are still close friends... I haven't made many new friends, largely due to my own insecurities, but in part because deep down I have a fear of getting close to people that I might someday lose... I can't drive to Gettysburg without getting a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I drive past the area where Megan died. I got a tattoo in her memory a few weeks after she passed away, deliberately placing it on my upper left arm, where it would be seen and presumably asked about. It never gets less awkward explaining when people ask that my tattoo is in honor of my dead friend, but in a strange way it makes me feel like the memory of Megan is always close by.

So when I went to the funeral with Dan and saw all of these young people mourning their friend, it reminded me of a quote I discovered after Megan passed away... "We call that person who has lost his father an orphan; and a widower that man who has lost his wife. But that man who has known the immense unhappiness of losing a friend, by what name do we call him? Here every language is silent and holds its peace in impotence."-- Joseph Roux. It touched me deeply after Megan died, and continues to, even now... from my experience, I learned that you never really feel like you have a claim to the grief you feel. After all, she was "just a friend"... I felt like I had less right to my grief than Megan's father, or her grandparents, or Tessa... they were all her family. I was merely her friend. But as time passes, I am learning to accept and acknowledge the fact that I have as much of a right to grieve as anyone else, because Megan left a hole in my life when she died, and no matter how many friends I make, or how much time passes, that hole will always be there.

I don't often talk about all of these things... partially because it doesn't exactly make for lighthearted, casual conversation; partially because many people are uncomfortable talking about death; but mostly because I've worn my grief like a shield for so long that it's hard for me to let go of it. I think a part of me is hoping that in writing this, I'll stop holding it so tightly and will be able to open myself up to new relationships a little more easily (because even after 7 years, I still tend to keep people at a distance). But I think my real reason for writing this is because I am hoping it'll be a little easier to move past it when it's no longer my own. It's purely selfish-- as hard as it was to write, I'm hoping it'll be freeing in the long run.

(photo, left to right- Tessa, Megan, and myself)


Sarah said...

Wow, Jemma, I am so sorry about the loss of your dear friend. I think sometimes friends grieve more because they know that person in such an intimate way, whereas family doesn't always know them in such a deep way. I understand not wanting to get close to people for fear that you will lose them. Paul said that to me after his mom died, and it really took a toll on our marriage. Thankfully, he has given intimacy another chance and I hope you will find a way to do so too. I am really glad that I have met you and hope to get to know you better!

Sharon said...

Wow! I didn't even know this one was here. This was very hard to read. Is it terrible to say I'm glad you still miss her? I think of her often but never bring her name into a conversation. I also never realized how much her death effected your future relationships. I hope writing this was freeing for you. Free to love new friends and your family without reservation. I love your honesty.