I’m petrified of losing people, and that fear manifests in unexpected ways.
I remember thinking at age 12 that I only saw my family at funerals. Of course, there were Christmases and Thanksgivings, but there’s a different level of intimacy shared when you’ve kneeled in front of your third coffin in four years.
Our tragedy eventually turned morbidly comical. Here we go again. I remember standing in front of my mother’s casket, cracking jokes with my aunt and cousin, because I didn’t know what else to say to the swarms of people shuffling by with stiff, outstretched arms, offering their condolences. After your 100th “I’m sorry,” you start to crack. Or in my case, crack up. (Someone needed to lighten the mood at the Fortin Funeral Home.)
Standing there, it’s hard to realize how death will affect you. After the initial shock wears off and you’ve run out of tears, you think, “That’s it. I’ve dealt with it. I responded.” But then you grow up and randomly lose control of your emotions without ever understanding why. You drink too much and lash out at your best friend or drive to the top of a parking garage and just cry. To outsiders, that’s what loss looks like. To you, that’s life. It’s not always easy to make the connection.
I was recently sitting in a volunteer orientation for a summer bereavement camp. There, the camp director shared examples of how children might respond to grief. With each example, the last 14 years of my life came more clearly into focus. Every overreaction, time I pushed someone away, or aching desire for a prolonged, near-suffocating hug made sense. I was experiencing grief, and I didn't even realize it.
Rather, I didn’t want to admit it.
The voice of a former summer camp roommate still rings in my head. I had overheard her call me dramatic for experiencing homesickness. Given the camp was a seven-minute drive from my house, I almost couldn’t blame her. But that wasn’t what she thought was odd.
“She’s sad because her mom isn’t feeling well,” my roommate said, “but she told us her mom has had cancer since she was four. Shouldn’t she be over it by now?”
I felt like I got a soccer ball to the gut. (Which is something that had actually happened to me that week. I was never very good at soccer.) I felt misunderstood. At the same time, I also couldn’t help but think she was right. Now, 14 years after my mom’s passing, that 10-year-old voice nags me, saying the same thing. Shouldn’t I be over it by now?
I can’t sit through an emotional mother-daughter scene in a movie or sitcom without bursting into tears. At weddings, there’s a wad of Kleenex in my clutch because watching the ones I love dance with the first person who’s ever loved them—my favorite tradition—makes me instantly well up. I shift uncomfortably on my piano bench, wanting to drop my head on the keys instead of my hands. All I want is my mother there on the other end, scolding me for not turning on the metronome like I promised my piano teacher I would. All I want is to play one more round of “Heart and Soul.”
When things like this happen, I scold myself. Buck up, Lauren. You’re stronger than this.
That’s also what I repeat to myself after another “Shit, I did it again” moment. One of those moments when you wake up feeling emotionally bruised, realizing you had just been taken advantage of. As mad as you want to be, with clarity comes acknowledgement. Often, I knew it was coming, but I didn't want to admit it. Admitting it would mean I needed to deal with the situation and dealing with the situation likely meant experiencing loss. And after all the loss I couldn’t control, why couldn’t I make a relationship, which I thought I could control, work?
Of course, you can’t control how someone thinks or feels, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try. I often waver between two extremes: I either push people away at the slightest sign of “disaster” or I jump too far in. On one side, I’m protecting myself from the inevitable pain, saying goodbye before any attachment. On the other, I’m turning a blind eye and opening my whole heart, because then, how could someone leave?
Saying I love love because I’m trying to fill a void seems too obvious. After all, I’ve been like this since the second grade. My mom came home one weeknight to find me clad in my First Communion dress, rummaging through her costume jewelry. I got my first boyfriend that day and I was elated. So elated, I wanted to know what wearing white felt like.
But after years of trying to lift myself up, I’d also be lying if I denied wanting help. There are times when this immense loneliness washes over me. When I try to describe the feeling to my friends, they say, “But you’re not lonely. We’re here.” And while they’re right—and I couldn’t be more grateful—there’s a difference between friendship and romance. You want to know that one day, at the end of the day, you can open that front door and there’s someone inside who you know has committed a lifetime to hearing every word you have to say.
I’ve learned a lot over the last few years. Call it growing older or becoming an adult. What I’ve learned is that it’s OK to cry and ask for help. Acknowledging your grief doesn’t make you any less strong or your voice any less impactful. What’s not OK is devaluing your self-worth or apologizing for how you feel.
My mother once wrote in her journal that I did whatever it took to get what I want. And while I’ve always felt that professionally, it’s continued to be a personal battle. By acknowledging my grief, I’m hoping I can turn what I once perceived to be my biggest weakness into my biggest strength. Rather, I can now be fully self-aware. I can stand up to my fear and, with that, stand up for myself. I can set myself free.