I always really liked the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”
I elaborated on this a little once I felt I had found lifelong friends:
“The only way to have a friend is to be one. A true friendship begins with something that brings two together, grows with a true understanding of one another, strengthens when learning each other's imperfections but bringing out one another’s beauty, and lasts forever when a true appreciation for one another is shown with respect, trust and wholehearted love for each other's happiness.”
I found two friends that allowed me to see this kind of friendship can exist. We brought out the best in one another by both speaking and acting with great support and gratitude. We had a true understanding of our worth together and apart. There was the occasional sarcastic joke ragging on one another for light-heartedness and humility, but at the core of it, we only wanted what was best for each other and we made it known by always lifting each other up. It was complementary. It was real. It was unconditional. It was pure, and I felt free being with them, traveling with them, learning together. We met in high school and in fear of losing touch when we graduated, we kept a private digital journal on Facebook where we could communicate and share our experiences away from one another. We even titled it “Forever Diary” and my definition of friendship was written under the title to always remind us of what we have.
I recently went back to this diary, six years later, and it was painful to return to it. One of the friends who contributed tragically and suddenly died six years ago. The pain of her death left my other friend and I to grieve in very different ways. The loss divided our friendship as it felt poignantly empty and unbalanced without our friend.
Grief is incredibly personal yet universal. I guess that is what makes it so complex to try and talk about.
On our recent Spirituality Retreat, I picked up a copy of C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, his account of losing his lover and wife. In it, he says that grief is a lot like fear:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in.”
His account is honest and personal. I can empathize from my own experience of grief. Everything feels raw, like you’re an open wound to the world. The pain often made me feel isolated from others. I felt others observing me, and I hated it. I subconsciously compared my friendships to the one I had lost, which led to pushing people away. Maybe I pushed them away in fear of losing them too. Maybe I also saw I had to let go of relationships that were no longer allowing me to grow.
I had suppressed my father's death at a very callow stage of life, and it was not until my best friend died that all the of the suppressed feelings came rushing to the surface.
I am not going to deny that my grief allowed me to see some of the darkest parts of myself. I am not going to deny that the fear I felt was sometimes paralyzing and I had a distrust of life for some time. In this way, I will agree that grief was a lot like fear. However, I somehow knew I needed to feel it. I did not deny my anger, my deepest sadness, my fear and my pain anymore. I chose to grow with it, to learn from it, and to let it take me to true healing and forgiveness. It was with this choice that I was fearless. C.S. Lewis didn’t touch upon this.
Without going to that place, I would not have started to heal. Without the pain, I would not have found Camp Erin, a camp for grieving children processing and commemorating those they have lost. I volunteered at Camp Erin for only one weekend a year every summer, but every year it made me see that there were people who understood the importance of vulnerability. I saw the power of community. It was Camp Erin that made me realize I can choose to surround myself with people that value this way of living and healing.
I chose to keep searching for places that shared this value, which is what ultimately brought me to Good Shepherd Volunteers. Specifically, it brought me to Collier High School, a special education school that values this every single day among young students, staff and social workers alike. The students at Collier may carry their fears with them, but they feel safe in a place that allows them to do so.
I have come to believe that grief is transformative, and it happens every day to each and every one of us as we are learning, growing, becoming, and letting go of our past. Throughout my year of service with Collier High School, I started seeing that loss can come in many forms. Loss in death. Loss in a broken relationship. Loss in a new chapter of life. Loss in choosing to walk away from those that have hurt you. Loss in a new understanding of self. Loss in a redefinition of identity. Loss in an abusive relationship.Collier's teachers and staff acknowledge these losses, guiding the students towards resilience in their adversity, breaking down the stigmas against mental illness.
Collier is a place where every person I meet sees that pain is as much a part of life as laughter and joy. It is a place that gives me hope that unconditional love can exist not just in friendships but in entire communities. From the kitchen staff that make incredible, nutritious meals for students that don’t often have home cooked meals to the teachers that understand every student's needs on an individual basis, I have never seen staff members care so deeply and dedicate themselves so fully to supporting these students on their own path to resilience. I have never seen so much inclusion in both diversity and vulnerability. It is a place that has given me hope in my own healing. Sometimes I can’t help but feel how the students must feel - a sense of belonging.
What I also realized is that with my many losses, true friendships, belonging and partnerships always come back in new and sometimes even bigger ways. But it's that same kind of love, the kind of love that gives you hope, makes you stronger, and makes you see all the good inside of yourself.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis did touch upon feeling more connected to his deceased wife when he felt more alive. He felt more connected to her when he was doing the things that made him truly happy, the things that reminded him of her. Being with this community makes me feel alive. Living with intention, with people who are driven by the same mission, makes me feel alive. Seeing the kids at Collier High School laugh or smile even on their toughest days, makes me feel alive. With that, I feel closer to everything I have lost. With that, I feel closer to myself.
In loss, in change, in growth, whatever we want to call it, I have found that healing is a choice. The choice to feel all of my pain. The choice to choose myself first for once and see it wasn’t selfish after all. The choice to always be true to myself in my kindness. The choice to forgive and let go of all forms of loss. The choice to build strength physically, emotionally and spiritually. The choice to surround myself with those that also choose to heal. As many of our students approach graduation, I hope they will take what they have learned with them and always choose to heal.
In April of this year, I received a message from the mother of my childhood best friend. She told me that my friend was suffering from an addiction and died from a drug overdose. All of the memories of my childhood with her came flooding in. I started seeing her face in the middle school students at Collier as that was the age we were close. She was a girl full of life. She always made me laugh in any situation. It seems some of those I grew closest to growing up died so young, in very sudden ways, but lived so much in their short-lived life. It has broken my heart in a lot of ways. We wonder why there is an opioid epidemic or a rise in suicide. We wonder why there are mass shootings. It's because we aren’t listening to one another, we aren’t empathizing enough, and we aren’t allowing ourselves to learn from the inevitable pain life can bring. There is a mass disconnect from one another and a mass disconnect from ourselves.
It breaks my heart to see mental illness rise. It breaks my heart that we still live in a society and a culture that numbs, suppresses and denies our deepest fears and losses as if they are weaknesses and something to be ashamed of. We may all be stronger if we saw that being vulnerable and facing our fears is what makes us whole. Although I may have lost incredible people in my life, I have also gained an understanding that life is about how you share it with other people, how you impact them, how they impact you. It’s also about how you grow stronger with pain. When you have understood yourself through pain, it can wake you up. It can make you more alive than you were before if you accept it. May all of our losses and fears one day make us more alive and may we always choose to heal and be whole.
Wickatunk Community '18-'19