Grief lives in the bones. That’s what I know to be true sixteen years after my best friend in high school passed away after a short battle with meningitis. Sometimes it still aches when I see anything reminiscent of the pain I felt that day whether on the big screen or in the news. It aches when I think of how one morning she told me she didn’t feel well and a few days later a friend of her family was knocking on my door telling me that Dena was gone.
See, I was at the dentist and she was dying. It was February 12th, 2003. The ailment she complained about that morning when my father drove us to school was the fast moving, at times fatal, bacterial meningitis. According to an article from the Cleveland Clinic, it’s an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord and can be caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection.
After Dena mentioned not feeling well in the morning, I searched for her after school as we would normally go home or head to our retail job at a mall clothing store on the outskirts of the city. She left early. The next day, I was trying to get in touch with her to go to school and figured she might be at her dad’s house which happened from time to time. By the third day, my doorbell rang.
Dee was a husky woman with a bleached blonde buzz cut and she stood on the porch outside my home with sullen eyes. “Dena, didn’t make it,” were the words that trickled out of her mouth and I distinctly remember replying, “make it through what?” I had no idea what was going on and when she explained to me that she had passed away from meningitis, I learned what it meant for your legs to go weak. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s an interesting phenomenon. I felt so light and lost my footing crumpling to the ground. According to my mother, I also let out a wail, which I don’t quite remember and she thought I’d been bitten or chased by a dog or something to that effect. Dena, my best friend that I went to school with, worked with, and lived two doors down from was dead.
The thing about losing someone so young, a 17-year-old with their whole life ahead of them, is that you are smacked with the reality that you are not invincible. Maybe up until then it felt like only old people died. Not talented writers and singers on their way to Penn State in the fall. Not a mother’s only child. Not a young girl’s best friend.
I went to school that day because somehow being around peers felt like it would be better than staying at home and crying all day. Mourning students lined the hallways, holding one another up, wiping at each other’s tears. And I don’t know how, but I managed. I rode a bus to the mall with another friend to tell co-workers what happened, to check on them, to make sure they were okay, too. We all managed the news in our own way.
I went to the funeral. I saw her mother. I held onto her. I walked down to the casket to tell Dena goodbye because I hadn’t had that chance. I was angry that I felt like that wasn’t her. It was some shell, something they were trying to convince me was her, but the sparkle in her eyes was gone as were the small dimples she got under her them when she cheesed really hard. That was not her.
I watched as a huge church was filled with students and teachers and family members all wondering why and how this happened as Aaliyah’s “I Miss You” played through the sound system. It took me years to be able to listen to that song again.
I managed. But only in my thirties did I realize that I never saw a therapist. I never talked to anyone outside of my family and close friends about it and until this day, it still lives with me. It provides me with the revelation that grief is not this designated period of pain that we go through but that it’s something that stays with us forever. It’s with me in the moments when I can’t get in touch with someone after a few tries and I panic that something has gone terribly wrong. It’s with me when watching the Best Man Holiday or The Hate U Give and seeing fictional loved ones being torn away from one another in death. It’s with me in the moments when something really great happens and I wonder if Dena and I would still even be friends now for me to call and tell her.
I struggle at times with what might likely be considered some type of survivor’s guilt. This awful sinking feeling that something terrible is going to happen to me because somehow I made it and she didn’t. This guilt when this many years later, her mother still lives two doors down from mine and when I visit my mom and see her, I can’t help but see Dena. I can’t help but feel the gravity of her loss, although I’m sure she wouldn’t want that to continue to define her. I wonder, why was I spared? How is it fair that my mother still gets to see me and she doesn’t get to see or hold Dena?
It’s like our friendship is frozen in time. No idea what it could have been and the memories of what we had seem so faint and fuzzy now. I try to remember her voice and I can’t. We had some type of fight not too long before she passed away and I have no idea what it was even about. Funny how memory works, but I know we made up. I’m thankful to God that we made up.
I keep a painting of her in a gold frame in my home. My husband never knew her, but knows the story. Maybe my children will ask someday, who the lady is in the painting and I will tell them about how I didn’t know anyone in a huge high school and she introduced me to her friends. How one night when we were closing up the store, she popped out of the dressing room singing in her long johns. How much she could read energy and see colors around people and wrote great stories like the one I think was called Mint Chocolate Chip.
They’ve tried to convince us that there are five stages of grief and I’ve learned through much more loss over time that grief is so multi-faceted. Well beyond those stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Life simply goes on. And some of us decide that we can’t die on our feet because we’ve experienced loss. Most often, we have convinced ourselves that our loved ones would actually want us to keep going. To keep putting one foot in front of the other, even on the days when it hurts the most.
Sixteen years later, I still think of her. I still miss her. I still well up with tears when I sing Deniece Williams’ “Silly” because I remember her singing that at work this one time. I see her gap-toothed smile. I remember her nonchalantly asking me if I went to Central the first time we both got off the train at the same stop. Dena was wise beyond her years and maybe in that short time, some of her wisdom rubbed off on me.
I’ve learned it best not to try to understand it. Not to think that somehow God is lawless because I lost someone close to me. The one thing that we know for certain is that we will all die. That reality scares me at times, but it’s so anchored in truth that I say it out loud to assure myself, to make myself more comfortable with the idea. I’m doing my best to focus on the living. To cast aside the anxiety of the uncertainty of the when and to simply live more intentionally.
Grief lives in the bones. It aches at times, but it also reminds me of what it means to have loved. I loved Dena. And whether or not you believe that grief is a gift like Stephen Colbert recently said in an interview with Anderson Cooper, I know for sure that love is.