Off the beat: On loss and open wounds

Autumn is always the hardest time of the year for me. This I can say with a certainty that is shockingly absent from my life — I can hardly decide what to wear each day and can barely hold my laughter when people ask me what I want to do with my future, but I can say with authority that fall is the most heartbreaking season.

It’s the one time when I can see that things are changing and will continue to change. When I walk through campus, I can see leaves on trees sigh from green to orange, and I can breathe in air that gets crisper as the temperature drops. In the back of my head, I think about how I’ve changed and worry that I haven’t. I’d be lying if I convinced myself that I was somehow more mature or worldly or intelligent than who I was at this time last year, but I do think that I’ve changed.

I walk around with open wounds. Around this time last year, my friend Valentine died in a car crash. When I look back at where I was this time last year, it’s impossible for me not to think of seasons changing — of her.

It was my first experience with death. It was a Sunday morning in November — I was sitting at my desk, poking at my oatmeal and scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. A picture of Valentine pops up, and the caption reads, “I miss you. RIP.”

Something fell down inside me, and my head began to feel heavy. I pushed my oatmeal aside, and for the next 15 minutes obsessively read news articles that talk of four girls — including Valentine — in a car crash on an icy highway and things spinning out of control.

I met Valentine in the summer between freshman and sophomore year. We lived in the same small town and interned at the same small newspaper for two months. For two months, we worked the same shift, laughing at the odd characters we covered in our articles. On Wednesdays, we walked through downtown and asked people questions like what they think a good neighbor is and how they feel about the mailbox near Safeway being moved across the street. She asked the questions with a smile, and I would stand behind her, taking notes.

I cannot remember anything we talked about, but I do remember some moments — like walking beside her as we circled the downtown area five, six times; watching her throw back her head to laugh. I remember eating pumpkin bagels with her, surrounded by families, children and their dogs.

By no standards were we close friends. Yet it was impossible for anyone to not want to open up to Valentine, and that’s what I did for those two months.

But afterwards — after her death — opening up and giving into my emotions seemed unbearable. I felt nothing, and fooled myself into thinking that an absence of emotion was my personal method of internalizing my grief.

For months, she sat in the back of my mind. In dreams, she’s smiling and talking about anthropology, poutine and the things she wants to do — travel, eat, explore and discover how the world works. I dreamt of her, but refused to address my emotions; I persuaded myself that I simply did not have the time to handle them and if I did, I would fall apart.

If I didn’t feel anything — not grief nor sadness nor pain — I wouldn’t have to think about how my life had changed now that she was not in it.

I cried for the first time the week before Christmas. I went back to the downtown area to get coffee with a friend — the place I knew so well because I walked there with her, and I came home and crumpled. I sobbed for hours on my bed while my mom hovered around me.

Giving into my emotions and recognizing that grief was all too accessible was terrifying — recognizing that I was vulnerable, and not the strong person I wanted to be, was horrific. I wanted to be stronger than having emotions. I thought that was what growing up meant.

Autumn will always be hard for me. When I think about who I was last year and who I am today, I can’t quite track the changes, besides a new vulnerability. I tried for months to bury my emotions with work and school, but there is a certain futility in being upset about feeling emotions, no matter how much they weighed me down. I made grief inaccessible, and that was far worse than recognizing that I was mourning.

I walk around campus with open wounds. When I step on leaves burnt crisp with the change of seasons and when I breathe gulps of cold, almost winter air, I relish it — the shifts of the world around me, the cycle of emotions and growth. Time moves forward, no matter how much I wanted it to stop, and no matter how much I wanted to stop feeling so deeply and so strongly.

It’s hard to say whether or not I’ve grown emotionally or mentally. But I intend to start this year recognizing I can be vulnerable and that time moves forward, no matter how much I try to smother my emotions or steep myself in apathy. I can move on, even though it hurts — and that’s all I need to know as I look forward to this year.

“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

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