Death has always been a kind of myth to me. I have never been to a funeral, nor did I encounter death firsthand as a kid. But I do remember the first time I felt surrounded by it — the first time I entered a graveyard.
I was 12 years old, visiting family in Belgium for the summer. We hadn’t been there since I was a baby and my dad said he wanted to take us somewhere special but wouldn’t tell us where. We entered this immense space filled with gray and black stones, engraved with names upon names and surrounded by withered flowers. As a lively child, it was the first time I didn’t know how to speak, feel, or move.
“Look closely,” I remember my dad saying. “Tell me what you see.”
After looking around for several seconds, not really sure of what I was supposed to be looking for, I saw it: A bright shimmer shot across the dark, gloomy ground. It appeared to come from a beautiful, gold statue of an angel.
“That’s her,” my dad said.
That was the day my dad introduced our family to his mother — a woman my relatives sometimes say I remind them of. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to feel — sad, happy, angry, alone? I couldn’t stop myself from crying that day. How was it possible to feel so much about someone I didn’t know?
And so technically I hadn’t known anyone who died — until last November, when I learned that an old friend had passed after battling cancer.
We met in the fourth grade. He was a new student at my school and I was his class buddy for the week. The first thing that came up was our accents. Although we lived in Germany, my accent was American and his extremely British. I thought he was Scottish, and he made fun of me for thinking that was even a possibility. We laughed the entire week, shared a couple classes together throughout the years, and stayed friends until he left during high school.
I couldn’t believe it. I was friends with him on Facebook, we had spoken several times over the years. How could I have not known that he was sick? I had seen his statuses about bone marrow tests, being on steroids, all the chemotherapy. I even commented on some. Why was I so unaware and just plain oblivious that he was battling leukemia?
But it wasn’t just not knowing about his illness that affected me. The aftermath hit me the hardest. As someone who has tried to commit suicide and who has often been ungrateful for the life I was given, everything shifted after learning about his death. I often used to, and sometimes still do, think negative thoughts that caused me to stay in the same dark place — thoughts like, Why does this always happen to me? But now when those thoughts try to enter again, I think about the impact my friend made in so many lives, and about the fact that I have a choice, and he didn’t.
When I moved away to a new country on my own for the first time, I often felt drawn to people out of fear of being alone. My insecurities became harder to overcome because I didn’t have a foundation of support, didn’t have a family ready to comfort me. All I had was an empty room and strangers roaming the halls.
I turned to alcohol, hoping that things would get better, that it wouldn't be so difficult forever. High school students all dream of our "fresh start," but no one prepares you for how scary and hollow the beginning really is. I felt sorry for myself and let my mental-health issues define me. I started using them as an excuse for not doing things and let them consume every bit of myself to a point where I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I knew acting this way wouldn’t help me, but I believed I had no motivation and no reason to get better.
But after my friend’s death, something clicked inside of me. This is not all that I am. He deserved more than what he was given. He kept fighting with all he had, and I was sitting there throwing it away. How could I be so selfish?
I believe this is the part of growing up where we become painfully aware of the things we threw in the back of our minds, the things we didn’t want to think about or even admit to ourselves. I spent my teenage years on bathroom floors, hiding from everyone I knew, dreaming of faraway places where I wouldn’t feel the pain anymore. I spent that time running away from as much as I could and let myself become consumed by threats that didn’t exist.
But after the pushing, pulling, and all of the chaos, this is my final realization: We are loved. No matter how alone we feel or how bad it gets, we are worth more than we could ever know.
So instead allowing myself to be in that dark place forever, I keep this realization as a reminder for both the good and the bad days. I think of him and all the wonderful memories he has given us. And that is my new, fresh start.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
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