Grief is brutal, but it can be beautiful

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      They say–whoever “they” are—that when a person dies, the first memory that disappears is of their voice. But with Jimmy, there’s no risk of that happening. His voice was so distinct, so memorable; a tool wielded to deliver such hilarity and intelligence that it’s lodged deep in the ol’ memory maker.

      His mannerisms and turns of phrase, the way he rambled down a sidewalk, even the distinct way  he belched—it’s all been obliterated. But like a big bang, the particles have spread out and been absorbed by all those that loved him. I occasionally belch like he did. I express joy in a way informed by how he did, with a gesture of the hand. It’s subtle. It’s not intentional. It just is.

      This isn’t unique to me, either. Our other friends have reported similar experiences. I see it, too, in the mannerisms of my mom, who’s absorbed some of the same mannerisms of one of her best friends after she died. Maybe it happened before that, during the 30 years that they influenced each other. But you never really notice it until they’re gone.

      Because that’s how the tunnel of grief works. When the shock wears off, when the How’s and the Why’s fall away, all you have left is the emptiness. It’s weird how someone close to you can be lodged so firmly inside you, but be so completely absent at the same time. This is the one truly painful thing about loss.

      The tunnel is really a state of unreality, of suspended animation. All firmly held perspectives and ideals turn to soup. You swirl. Even the most stable of us will come unmoored. Those who have their footing and their wits about them will clamour back to reality eventually, but it gets the better of us every single time.

      It took me eight months. Jimmy passed away right before Halloween in 2021. When the calendar turned, I was still out of my mind. Light was flooding through the tunnel in larger gaps every day, but man alive, I was stunted. Writing every day with the feverish belief that I was going to make it in Hollywood (which, hey! could still be true), but really just channeling the grief into strange new worlds. 

      I should note that Jimmy’s not his real name, but an alias used originally in the pages of this very paper, during a travel story I wrote about a particularly debauched experience in Amsterdam, a year into our friendship. He understandably didn’t want his real name in the paper. But Jimmy stuck. A true Gemini, he had his two sides. Jimmy was his dark companion, the wild man inside, the id when the ego had been cast aside.

      These are things I only realized after the fact. That’s how it works, you know. The whole person comes into focus. We spend our time with loved ones fitting them into some kind of a shape that we need them to be. They are, for better or worse, characters in our lives, filling a role that we need them to. A sounding board,  a security blanket, a villain. But when they die, the complexities reveal themselves. The other mourners share their own ideas of the person, spouting off from the pain, raw and unfiltered, so you gain a clearer picture of the person. The contours are more defined.

      Turns out, Jimmy was a very complicated guy. His death wasn’t easy either—made all the more difficult by the fact that we still don’t really know what happened. We know he was unhealthy, and isolated because of COVID. He smoked way too much. He was found in his car, two days after last seen by his hockey teammates; the result, we’re told, of natural causes. 

      It’s one thing when your great-grandmother passes away at 96. It’s sad, but inevitable. A 41-year-old, in what should be the prime of his life, is a whole lot more complicated. 

      But death is complicated only for the living. For the dead, it’s a whole lot simpler.

      As 2021 turned into 2022 and I was still in the tunnel, I asked Google, “how long does grief last?” One of the searches came up with an article. I can’t remember everything it said, but I remember the line: grief will change you. That seemed ominous at the time. Like, fuck, I don’t need to change, man! I need to get through this.

      And yet, the battering that ensued beat me into some new kind of shape. I felt myself getting older. Wiser yes, and more mature, maybe. But literally older. I notified the skin sagging off my face. My eyes sinking in. My posture… let’s not talk about my posture. 

      But if you’re tuned a certain way, the grief can be a spiritual experience. It’s raw, like when you skin your knee and the skin underneath is sensitive to the air passing by. Grief feels like that: senses heightened, connected more to the mysteries that envelop us. 

      Where did he go? It doesn’t feel like he disappeared exactly. He’s, like—how do you say this without sounding like a crazy person?—inside of me. When people say “I feel them in my heart,” I guess that’s what it means. They enter into your molecules, take up residence inside of you, brimming with the love that you shared.

      I felt it especially in the early days, when the intensity of the loss crashed in like waves. I thought about him constantly. That waned over the next five months, to the point where I was thinking about him every hour rather than every second. By the sixth month, I’d go entire days, only reminded by a line in a song, or a joke on a TV show. 

      I left the tunnel for good on his birthday. Two of Jimmy’s best buddies, on a California road trip he was meant to be on, now a tribute instead. We stopped at the ocean and took a dip in the frigid Pacific. It wasn’t intended to be symbolic. It just kinda happened. 

      We sat on the beach after, refreshed, laughing about something. I thought, without really thinking, where’s Jimmy? Like he was there all along. And then I remembered, silly me. His voice then called, from back there in the tunnel.

      That voice isn’t going anywhere.