On February 18, 2009, one of my classmates killed himself by jumping from the eleventh floor of my school in New York City. Two weeks and one day later on March 5, my beloved Aunt Cheryl, my mother’s one and only sister, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. The shock of those deaths and my memories of the subsequent days and weeks still send chills down my spine. And that’s mostly why I’ve tried to avoid thinking about them.
This year, as I sat in the EastFlo conference room — or “dungeon,” as we like to call it — I looked down at my watch slightly after midnight and realized that it was the first day of February. “This month’s going to suck,” I thought to myself and immediately tears welled up in my eyes.
February had always been one of my favorite months — February 28 was Aunt Cheryl’s birthday, one of my favorite days.
Now, this time is bittersweet. With it, I think of sitting in precalculus one grey February morning, hearing sirens outside, the wails of a grieving mother, being told not to look out the windows on the north side of the building and wondering who it was and whether they had survived. With it, I think of the numbness I felt — feeling weak from the impact of my feet hitting the ground as I’d walk home, knowing that Teddy had hit the ground much harder.
There’s the memory of my aunt calling me to make sure I was okay the day that Teddy died. And there’s the final memory of speaking to my aunt on her 42nd and last birthday, late on a cold and rainy Saturday night. I don’t remember what we said; all I remember is how upset I was, and to a degree still am, that I did not send her a birthday card, that we did not drive to see her on her special day.
Fast-forward five days, when I was just starting to come to terms with Teddy’s death. Arriving home, I saw my grandparents’ car parked outside and thought my parents had just gone out to dinner. They were sitting with my younger siblings in the living room watching TV. Everything seemed fine. I pulled out my laptop to check my email, and at 8:15, the phone rang. I assumed it was Aunt Cheryl, who usually called daily to talk to my mother.
Instead, it was Mom. I picked up the phone and walked into the kitchen. “Honey, I have some bad news,” she started. Hyperventilating as she spoke, she stammered, “Au-aunt shh — Aunt Cheryl died today.” I stopped and leaned against the doorway. My initial reaction of “No” had no emotion — I didn’t compute what she said. She told me how it happened, I said I was sorry, hung up the phone and walked downstairs to my room, where I burst into tears.
The following days were a blur. Telling close friends and teachers. Avoiding going home. Trying to lose myself. Numbness. The wake, seeing her face distorted with death and crying. Writing a goodbye note to leave in the casket. Giving a eulogy at the funeral. Seeing strong relatives cry for the first time. And the final goodbye at the cemetery.
And I tried so hard to evade these painful nightmares of yesteryear. I thought by leaving the East Coast, which I associated with death and grief, and coming to California, I could leave my grief behind. I thought that by saying, “No, I won’t let February suck” and working as hard as I could, I would be able to get through it.
And this worked for a while. I managed to “forget,” or rather try not to remember, exactly what date Teddy had died on and it worked — I found myself at the end of February. The 28th came and went, much better than I’d thought it would.
But in retrospect, this didn’t work. What I thought was just a winter slump I now realize was in some part grief. Yes, I did feel overwhelmed by the pace and expectations of my class, upset about friendships and relationships, unsure of myself, but this week, now that I have missed at least one of each of my three classes to sleep, now that I have been unable to motivate myself through my SLE reading, now that I have been hiding my class-cutting and grief from my roommate, I must accept the truth.
What I referred to as “the Illusion” last week is the very thing I was projecting — trying to appear fine by claiming my problems lay somewhere else than where they mostly were. My breathing as I fall asleep this week has been the deep and labored one of my grieving 2009-self. Consistently in my dreams this year, my grief cries from inside my subconscious to come out as I weep in my sleep.
Having completed another Student Grief and Bereavement Workshop at Vaden, I accept my feelings for what they are and wish to share them. Grieving is not a process that just “ends.” It is recurrent; it comes and goes in waves that are as brief as a moment and as long as a few weeks. It does not mean I am depressed — I am generally happy — but this pain will subsist in my heart for as long as I live and right now it feels more “real” than my academic life.
As I approach the two-year anniversary of my aunt’s death, and revisit those dark days from the past, I don’t know what I want or what I need. I just want those around me to be aware.
In memoriam, Cheryl Emma Davis
February 28, 1967 – March 5, 2009
Contact Kristian at kbailey ‘at’ stanford.edu.