Words by Emily Hallblade // Image by Samuel Pederson
It had been four years. Four years of change and growth and plenty of other challenges that I had overcome. But when my eyes met with my old friend’s across the coffee shop that day in November, I could feel myself crumbling again. I looked back down at my homework like nothing had happened, but my heart was racing. I hadn’t seen this friend since she left my life suddenly, almost four years ago, no goodbye. It had left me shattered and angry for a few weeks, but then I quickly convinced myself I was fine. Not only fine, but better than I had been before. I spent the following months making new friends and starting new hobbies. It was actually a pretty great season of my life. But I could only keep busy for so long. By the time a year had passed, I still felt an aching void and was furious that nothing seemed to be filling it. Most of all, though, I was angry at myself. Hadn’t I gotten over this already?
I left the coffee shop not long after the encounter that morning and took a long walk along the wooded trail right outside my university’s campus. I shouldn’t still be upset, I kept telling myself over and over again, leaves crunching under my feet. After all, four years is a long time. I had taken so much pride in all the ways I had matured since then. But as I ventured away from the path and found a log to sit on near the lake, tears were falling down my face. Yes, it had been four years, but I was still sad and angry. And maybe that was okay.
This is the pattern that I tend to find myself getting stuck in: pushing past hard feelings as quickly as possible so that I don’t have to be in pain for as long. I did this during my final semester of college when my boyfriend and I were in the middle of long-distance dating, one of my best friends had just started grad school two states away, and I was no longer living on campus surrounded by friends. I knew it was going to be a hard season, but the last thing I wanted to do was wallow in it. So I tried to look on the bright side—graduation was coming, my friends wouldn’t be gone forever, and I’d soon be starting the internship I had wanted. In the meantime, I tried to keep myself as busy and distracted as I possibly could so that my mind wouldn’t find the gaps.
It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with feelings—I tear up easily at any movie featuring a dog and whenever one of my favorite songs comes on the radio. It’s just that when grief hits me in a way I don’t expect, I don’t know what to do myself. I’ll try to look on the bright side, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but instead of acknowledging and grieving over the good, I’ll try to convince myself that my life is somehow better than what it was before. I’ll only allow myself to see the bad about what’s gone so that it won’t hurt whenever I look back.
While it’s definitely true that good can come out of loss, it’s not healthy to only view what’s gone in a negative light. If I completely dismiss the good that was lost just to make the whole ordeal less painful, it’s almost like I’m pretending that a portion of my life didn’t happen. I can’t live like that.
Replacing what I lost doesn’t work well, either. After this friend had walked out of my life, I tried replacing her with a guy I liked, with a new group of friends, with a mentor. Nothing worked. Trying to replace ends up being too exhausting and is ultimately a letdown.
See, I try too hard to force the grieving process—to get a head start on it so that it doesn’t catch me by surprise. But I’ve learned that this doesn’t work. Grief always finds a way to seep out into my life in the form of anger, anxiety, or frantically searching for something new to invest all of my time and energy into until I realize that it doesn’t help. Following my college graduation, I was angry for a long time. I didn’t know why until I finally allowed myself to work through my emotions. I realized that even though my boyfriend was now back and I was still keeping up with my friend out of state, l was still devastated at their leaving and hadn’t given myself the proper time and space to actually let myself grieve.
I think one of the biggest things I’ve come to realize is that the process of grieving really isn’t a process at all. Most of the time, I just wish I knew what to expect of it. I wish it had a formula I could follow. But contrary to what all of those handy “seven stages of grief” charts say, I don’t think it’s that neatly organized. Sure, maybe there’s some truth behind the order that people naturally process things, but grief doesn’t really work like ripping off a Band-Aid. You can’t expect one big breakdown, or seven little breakdowns, and then life to go on like it did before. I think it will still be there in little bits and pieces—maybe for a few years, maybe for the rest of your life.
This past December, my family moved out of my childhood home, and we celebrated Christmas somewhere new for the first time in sixteen years. I was expecting it to be hard, so I tried to pre-grieve a few weeks in advance—letting myself cry when needed while sitting in my car or apartment alone. But it didn’t make actually saying goodbye to the house any easier.
I walked through each of the rooms before I left that house for the final time, grateful that I had a last chance to take it all in. Even though the old house isn’t far from where I currently live, I haven’t had the heart to drive by it since, but I’m sure someday I will and it will feel weird and hurt all over again. And I know that I’ll have random days here and there for the next few years where it will hit me harder than others. Because grief is like that—the unpredictable friend who shows up when you least expect it and you’re never quite sure what they’re going to say.
To anyone experiencing grief or sitting with uncomfortable feelings right now, I want to say this: let it be messy, let it hurt, and don’t force it to go away. Don’t compare your experience or your pace to others. Be patient and let yourself work through it at your own timing. It will help you in the long run.
Click to Read Next: Friendship 2.0
About the Author:
Emily Hallblade currently works as a copywriter for an outdoor sporting goods company and is perpetually trying (and failing) to cut back on her coffee consumption. When she’s not writing product descriptions of ski jackets or working on her own blog, she enjoys reading, smelling candles, playing guitar, and aspires to write a young adult novel one of these days.