What nobody tells you about grief is that it swoops in from nowhere, a ghost on a breeze.
After the shock makes your body go limp while your brain screams no, no, no.
After you cry and cry until there must be nothing left, and the no and yes fight each other, the yes starting to sink in and saturate you, and then you cry some more.
After you begin the stop-start of putting your life back together, stacking moments around the loss, around that broken, achy part of you. Nobody tells you that grief comes back when you least expect it. Five years later, 10 years later.
Thirteen years later.
Yesterday morning, I ran for the first time in weeks. Through July air so thick and humid you should be able to see it. It had been a few weeks between runs, and the break lent me speed and stamina, as if my body had been waiting for it, tight and coiled, ready to spring. Music streamed into my ears through headphones. I straddled the shade on the side the road, enjoying the hint of breeze.
And with no warning, there she was. My dear friend, Katrina—the one I’ve been trying to write about for years.
The last time we spoke, we were 27. We had both recently left Alaska where we’d grown up—she was in New Mexico, I was in Olympia, Washington. Our phone calls were always epic—and this one was no different. We talked about the sensitivity we both shared, and the tendency towards depression and anxiety. We wondered how it was possible that we were 27 already. And then we talked about the future.
She had just moved to New Mexico, and with the momentum of the move, she felt that anything was possible. She talked about going to school to become an acupuncturist. I talked about writing. And then we talked about motherhood, marriage, mortgages. That future seemed blurred, like steam rising off a road—distant, but coming into focus.
Two days later, after her first day of work at a new job, she went for a bike ride and was hit by a car. She died instantly.
The future we’d talked about smudged even more.
It wasn’t solely the loss of her, though that would’ve been enough. It was the loss of my brother two years earlier, of another friend a year earlier, and of my grandfather a few months before. It was the weight of all of the losses together—a staggering, smothering weight.
I shut down.
And with time, I got up again. I moved back to Maine, the place I’d been pining for since my brother’s death swept me home to Alaska. Almost immediately, I met the man that would become my husband. The years strung together: I bought a home. Got married. Became a mother. I lived the future Katrina and I had talked about, made of heaps of moments that we could’ve talked about for hours.
My body slowed from running to a walk. I could hear my breath, sharp and wheezy. I stood there and tried to breathe, while the fabric between the worlds shimmered and went sheer.
I let myself cry, for a moment, then moved faster.
What nobody tells you about grief is that you could be running on a gorgeous day, pushing your body through heat, and you’d hear your voice say, I miss you, Katrina. And you’d believe that maybe she could hear you through that hole that sometimes opens between the living and the dead.
All day, the memories floated through: Sitting on the porch of a blue house where we first talked, bonding over a silly boy we’d both—unsuccessfully—dated. Long talks by the beach, the mountains cradling the secrets we spilled to each other. Lying on the blue gray Alaskan shore, topless, with small dark stones covering our nipples—and giggling like crazy when we saw a group of people approaching.
What nobody tells you about grief is that it’s never over. That you can have a dear friend for only five years, and still grieve for her 13 years later. That grief doesn’t follow math. That sometimes getting older feels so much like leaving our loves behind.
How lucky I feel to be here still, how much I wish she was too, and what dumb luck it all feels like sometimes: Car meets bicycle on just the wrong curve on icy road. How much I want to compare notes about our lives. How sometimes I see someone that looks like her, and I stare and stare at the stranger, who maybe has her long golden hair, or the slight tilt of her chin, or her kind blue eyes. A stranger who holds no part of her, nothing of what I search for. Not the rolling cadence of her voice, which right at this moment I can remember, I can hear. How memory does that—sometimes it gives and other times it takes away, leaving you grasping.
What nobody tells you about grief is that it can linger for a whole day, or longer. How you’ll feel her in the sunlight, in the wheeze in your lungs, in a quiet moment at your meditation class that night. How you figure she’ll wisp away in the night, but she doesn’t.
The next day at a yoga class, I stretch and bend and move. Orbs of sweat roll down my body, splashing in dark circles on my mat. Heat moves through me, and breath, and I smile. I am 40, and it feels good. Then I think of Katrina, and in my mind, she is still twenty-seven. For an exhale, I feel guilty—I get to be here, right now, in this body. She doesn’t.
I hold on. I let go.
Just before shivasana, the teacher closes with a reading about birds. About finding your flock. About preparing to soar. Instead of the stark white ceiling above, I envision the blue sky, speckled with clouds. In moments, I will walk under that sky. I will lift my face towards it, enjoying sun on skin, air in my chest.
What nobody tells you about grief is that sometimes, it feels sweet and terrible at the same time. That you will miss her, and also be glad to be here in this body, for this moment. That you hold on. That you let go. At the same time. That it confuses your heart to squeeze and release, but that’s what our hearts are meant to do.
I walk into the sunlight. I take her with me. I leave her behind.
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Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Javier Kohen at Flickr