Up until I was twenty, I never truly experienced grief. Well, when I was fourteen my childhood pet died and I took that pretty hard despite my classmates thinking I was insane. I still get pretty choked up when I think about that cat.
But the first time you experience death, it’s the worst feeling in the world. I’m not sure if every other time after that is easier but hopefully I don’t have to find out for a long, long time.
In November 2013, I made a video on an app called Vine. I remember it was my reaction to the Walking Dead midseason finale of I believe season 4. I don’t wanna spoil anything if you’re new to the show and haven’t seen the episode but it was a parody of Rick and the governor’s conversation about a tank.
I wasn’t expecting to get any comments as I really only had one friend on Vine at the time. Well, this time someone new commented on my Vine, telling me that I cracked her up and it was so funny.
Her name was Jennifer. I didn’t really think much of her the first time I saw her comment pop up on my Vine. But over the next few days, we started talking and we grew very, very close. Soon, we were friends on Facebook. And then we exchanged phone numbers and we were texting and Skyping all the time.
She lived on the East coast while I lived on the West coast so meeting wasn’t going to be easy. But we loved talking about what we would do when she visited me or when I visited her. She was so wonderful to me. Yeah, she drove me nuts sometimes and yeah we fought sometimes. What friends don’t though? More on that later.
We talked about making movies together. I’d write the script, she’d do the make-up. She wanted to be a make-up artist, working on The Walking Dead with Greg Nicotero. And I was always rooting for her. She was extremely talented with make-up and around the time we met, I started buying make-up and she helped me pick out all my eyeshadows and mascara and eyeliner and all that fun stuff. She was the one who showed me the Too Faced Chocolate Bar palette (which I now own)
And when I met her, I was in a very dark place and well, so was she. I’d like to think we helped each other. In any case, she helped me out of my dark place. I don’t think I did a very good job helping her through the stuff she was going through. Again, more on that later.
In April of 2015, I got a text from her when I was at work that almost made my heart stop. She’d had a seizure while she was running errands and was rushed to the ER. We thought for a while that it was from some new medicine she’d been taking a few days prior. Kind of a dumb explanation I guess but that was literally the only thing we could think of in the moment.
But, we were wrong.
She told me the next day that they discovered a golf ball sized mass in her brain. It turned out to be a tumor in her frontal lobe. It was terrifying at first but the way she explained the whole thing made it sound so simple. All she had to do was get surgery to have it removed. In my eyes, that would be easy enough. A part of me was relieved. Just get the surgery, she’d be okay. Everything would be okay.
A month later, she went into surgery. I was at work while it was happening. I was filled with anxiety, praying for the first time since I was maybe eight years old. And as I mentioned in my last post, I’m an atheist so, I don’t believe in prayer. But that day, I needed to. It was for Jennifer. So, I prayed. Prayed to whoever would listen that she would be okay.
She made it through the surgery perfectly. They removed 90% of the tumor. I can’t remember why they couldn’t remove the remaining 10% but it felt like the worst part was over.
But, it wasn’t. A month after her surgery, she was diagnosed with stage three brain cancer. Well, the way she explained it to me was stage two going on stage three. And somehow, the way she said it made me believe she would be okay. And I was constantly telling her that. And I genuinely believed she would be okay. God, the way she explained it all to me made it seem so simple, so easy. Maybe she was as naïve as I was.
It was a week after her diagnosis. We were texting back and forth as usual talking about useless stuff. Around one o’clock PM (my time, she was about three hours ahead), she stopped replying. That wasn’t too unusual as she usually took a nap and was awake again around 5:00 my time. But 5:00 passed but I never thought anything of it. I just thought, “damn, she’ll never get to sleep tonight since she slept all day.” she would usually keep me up when she couldn’t sleep. Not that I minded, she was one of my best friends. She was one of the only people I talked to. I didn’t feel so alone with her there.
But the night passed without word from her. On July 19, 2015, I woke up around 6:00 AM. I didn’t usually wake up that early but maybe I sensed something. I woke up to a text from Jennifer’s mom. She told me to call her when I got her message. I wasn’t too concerned. Jennifer had ended up in the hospital a few times after her surgery. I thought she was probably in the hospital for the third time and her phone died and her mom was giving me an update. Jennifer had been updating her Facebook friends and I didn’t feel like talking on the phone so early in the morning so I decided to check Facebook instead.
The first thing I saw on my Newsfeed was “gone too soon!”
“I’m gonna miss you so much!”
My world stopped but I don’t think it hit me right away. I just gasped, covering my mouth with my hand while I scrolled through her messages on her Facebook. Was it true? Jennifer had died? Wait, what had happened? I didn’t understand.
I went back and texted her mom again, asking what had happened. I was hoping it was a misunderstanding. Maybe people had just thought she died?
Jennifer had a seizure the night before, 8:00 her time, which was 5:00 my time. The time I thought she’d be awake to text me again, she was having a seizure. She was unresponsive after that and after some time of trying to resuscitate her, she was pronounced dead.
That was the moment it finally hit me. I looked to Vine for even more confirmation. Because apparently, the Facebook posts and Jennifer’s mom just wasn’t enough. It was 100% confirmed. Jennifer was dead.
I had never felt such heartbreak before. I was actually in pain. I felt so empty, a part of me was dead with her. She’d left and taken a part of me with her. I cried uncontrollably for three days. I didn’t want to sleep, I didn’t want to eat. I wanted to just stare at the wall and do nothing. I was broken and I couldn’t handle my pain.
I lived for eighteen years without Jennifer in my life and after a year and a half with her, I didn’t know how to go on without her. How was I supposed to live without this beautiful presence in my life? She felt like my other half, my kindred spirit and now she was gone. What was I going to do?
I was stuck in the denial stage for months. But underneath that denial was regret. Like I said earlier, she had some things going on in her life that I’d never taken on before. I regretted how I handled them. I regretted how I sometimes spoke to her. I wasn’t always the nicest person in the world and I wasn’t always the most pleasant. I got mad at her for things that don’t even require anger. Why did I do those things? Why did I speak to her so harshly? And why did she keep me around? I didn’t deserve her love or her support or her friendship. I regretted getting frustrated with her. I regretted all of it. I realized then how many mistakes I had made. I realized that I never showed her how much she meant to me and how much I cared about her and loved her. Of course, I said it back when she said it to me but I very rarely said it to her first. And I hated myself for a long time. I still don’t let myself forget it. I keep it in the back of my mind to remind myself that I need to appreciate the people in my life more and that I need to have patience and more understanding.
About six months in, I started realizing that the stages of grief were real. It wasn’t just some made up idea. It was real and I experienced it. And I learned that the grieving process isn’t a straight line as I’d expected. Did anyone ever watch the show Scrubs? Did anyone see the episode in season 5 where one of their favorite patients was dying and the grief counselor came in and they went through the five stages of grief? They went through one stage and moved through it like it was easy. I thought it was going to be like that. I thought I’d finish one stage and that would be it. But you don’t. You’re constantly going back and forth between stages and it feels like it’ll never stop.
I went from denial to anger, to bargaining, to depression, back to anger, back to bargaining, back to anger, back to depression, back to bargaining again. It was a vicious cycle. The weight of my grief was heavy on my shoulders and I could never let it go. I couldn’t let her go. I was afraid that if I did, she would be gone forever. I’d forget what she looked like, I’d forget the sound of her voice, I’d forget it all. And I never wanted to forget that. I wanted her close to me forever. But holding on sometimes hurts you more than it helps you. You can only hang on for so long until it starts tearing you down.
And I was essentially grieivng alone. My mom didn’t understand why I was taking it so hard as Jennifer and I had never actually met in person. My dad understood but after about a year he felt that I needed to move on and I was letting this hold me back. My friends I knew in real life never got to know Jennifer so even though they listened and comforted me, I’m sure they were kind of confused.
Acceptance is the hardest stage to reach. And even when you reach acceptance, it’s still not the end of the grieving process. I think the grieving process lasts forever and you just kind of have to learn how to live with it. There is no one way to cope with the loss of a loved one. I had to learn what coping mechanism was right for me and I had to learn it on my own. I didn’t have Jennifer anymore.
Now, this next part may sound crazy to some of you but just stay with me. One night, I truly believe that Jennifer visited me in a dream. I dreamt that I hugged her and I actually felt her arms wrapped around me. I felt her body heat. I thought I’d never get the chance to feel her hugging me and I did. She told me, “I’m okay, I’m not dead.”
I said, “Wait, if you’re not dead you need to go on Facebook and tell people!”
Jennifer just smiled and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Bailey.”
I’m not sure if that helped my grief or made it worse but the fact that she paid me a visit eased my pain a little. If she even did visit me. I believe that people, dead or alive can visit you in your dreams but obviously there isn’t a way to prove that.
A year had passed since the day she died and now that I think about it, my dad might’ve been right. I was still holding onto her and the pain in my soul was still too much to handle. It was affecting my daily life. I wanted so desparately to be happy again but I just couldn’t. I wasn’t coping as I should’ve been. I wasn’t talking to anyone about it. I just sat in my room at night and cried and cried until my head hurt. I reread all the old stories we’d written together and looked over all the old Vines and old Facebook messages. I found an old Facebook post where it said “If I can find the Norman Reedus to my Sean Patrick Flanery I can die happy” or something along those lines I can’t remember exactly what the post said and she shared it and said, “Well I can die happy then!”
It was almost like Jennifer knew she’d die young because she would say things like that a lot. She even sang along to a song on Vine that started with, “If I die young” and looking back at that, it broke my heart even more, dragged me down further.
Then, one day, I woke up and I felt such a weight lifted from my shoulders. I can’t explain it but I just felt like in this moment, I could let her go. I was ready to let her go and let her move on as she needed to. And then I wondered, was she holding onto me too? Was it her holding me back? Or was it me holding her back? Or were we holding each other back? I felt like maybe she was ready to let go now too. She took a piece of me and I took a piece of her. I felt so much lighter, so much more at peace.
Maybe not everything requires a coping mechanism. Maybe we all just need a good cry. Maybe some of us can’t push ourselves to move on. Maybe some of us just need to wait out the storm. Grieving is different for everyone and grief isn’t a straight, narrow path. It is a windy path with dark corners and bumpy roads. And sometimes, you get lost and it takes a while to find your way back. At the moment, my path is smooth but there are still days where I lose my way or I stumble and fall.
But I feel like I have my strength back. I am ready to move forward with my life and know that she’ll help me whenever I need it. She’s always going to be by my side and I know she’ll be waiting on the other side when I get there. And I keep her memory close.
So, I hope that if you’re going through the grieving process and you’re reading this, you understand now what’s coming. It’s going to be hard. There will be pain and there will be times when it’s so much that you cannot function. Just know that one day, you will find your way again. You take your time, grief is sometimes long. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should be doing, how you should be feeling. Grief isn’t a switch you can just turn on and off. It is something that sticks with you forever. It is something that sneaks its way back in sometimes even when you’ve reached the acceptance stage. You don’t have to do anything. Your grief is your own path to take. You move on when you’re ready to move on.
And just know, you’re not alone. You’re never alone.
Our time was so short. But it was the best time of my life.
I miss you every day, Jennifer. Until we meet again…
December 9, 1992-July 18, 2015