That’s true for a million reasons, but especially because I’ve only had to face the realities of death a handful of times in my 23 years so far.
I first dealt with the much less enormous grief of losing beloved pets, including the sudden death of my youngest dog just days before I left the country for two months.
In high school, there was a snowboarding avalanche accident which killed a senior I barely knew, but I had gone to school with him for many years. It hit me really hard, probably largely because I was at that age where every emotion feels monumental before you learn to work with them. His funeral will always be in my mind for a number of reasons, not limited to the fact that it was the first I’d attended.
Then, when I was 20, my grandfather died, and that has left marks on me that I will never really heal from.
He’d been dying my whole life. To make the story as short as I can: he first had cancer before I was even born, and continued to beat the odds, living through cancers that doctors would normally have called terminal. More than once, I recall rushed trips to Regina, where my extended family lives, to have my “last visit” with him because doctors said this was it. He always made it. The last time, the doctors said the same thing they’d said before, so while I was told to expect it, I’d already learned that doctors were wrong when it came to his chances, so when he actually died, it was a shock. It had been a long time since he’d been himself, but I’d always been close to him, and I still deal with many moments where I can’t even process the grief I feel about the absence of him in my life.
Other than that, my experiences dealing with death had always been second hand. Like I said, I’ve been extremely lucky.
On August 1, the world lost a great young journalist, Alan Mattson. Truthfully, I have a feeling he’d hate being described as a “great young journalist,” so perhaps instead I’ll call him another thing that he was: a friend of mine.
I met Alan when we started in the journalism program at Mount Royal in the same year. He struck me as one of the smartest and most capable people in the program. More than that, he was popular and seemed to be able to make friends with everyone; I was totally jealous. But, by the end of first year, I’d actually spoken to him, and honestly, it’s hard not to like him. Part of the journalism program is the social aspect: parties, pubs, communikoke. He was fun to be around.
In third year, I was on the Journal’s editorial team when he was editor in chief. Weekly editorial meetings, plus many hours of budgeting, production and post-mort. He was far from the “tyrannical” editor stereotype. He was the editor who was there doing his job from early until late, and then went out for drinks with you afterwards. Even if something was falling apart because of someone else doing everything wrong, he was patient, and though there were many, many times when it seemed like that damn paper was never going to get finished, it always did.
I’ve had two days so far to figure out how to respond to his death. I don’t think I’m responding well, because my logical mind which knows it’s true refuses to connect with the rest of me. I only know he’s gone on an intellectual level, and I keep feeling confused by that. To be a bad cliché for a moment, my head knows something that my heart doesn’t. I can’t reconcile the two things. At least, not yet.
This experience for me is totally new, I suppose. With my grandfather, I was devastated, but my feelings were relatively uncomplicated; I was sad and grieving, both for myself and for my family members. In no way was that a simple experience to deal with, but I understood what exactly I was feeling for the most part.
With the other student in high school, it was slightly more complex, though much less difficult for me, as much as that sounds contradictory. I remember thinking I felt worse than I should since I didn’t know him well, and I remember very acutely feeling my own mortality for the first time ever, since he was 17, and I’d never had to deal with anything but the abstract knowledge that death was always possible. I also distinctly remember writing helped me untangle those feelings. Eight years later, my feelings on his death are really only the abstract sadness I would feel for any 17 year old’s death. Age and time have helped me, I suppose. Maybe wisdom, I hope.
But this time...I’ve never had to deal with the death of a friend. But it’s more complex than that too because I wouldn’t have called us close friends. Not because we couldn’t have been; we got along both when working together and at the social functions we saw each other at. I guess the problem is perhaps that I’m trying to decide how upset it’s socially acceptable for me to be, when I know that everyone experiences death differently, and putting that kind of expectation on myself is ridiculous.
This really isn’t a rhetorical exercise for me anymore, just for the record. I really am figuring things out as I write this down.
While I have, for the most part, felt numb since I found out, in the sense that I’m still overwhelmed by the impossibility of it, I had a few minutes last night where it felt real. I’d just spoken to my mom on the phone (some MRU people might know her, and I’ll add too that she actually taught Alan a couple years ago), and as I hung up, it felt real and heavy and I didn’t stop crying until the impossibility of it set back in. I think it had something to do with seeing articles on the Cochrane Eagle website written by people I don’t know, talking about his death. That was, somehow, so much more real than seeing all the messages people are posting to his facebook profile right now.
I haven’t been able to do that. I can’t figure out how I would write it. It’s ironic, actually; I’m literally writing a book where the entire project is writing addresses to dead artists and yet I have no idea how I would write an address to him now.
I suppose I’ll figure out how to write something there, because I want the people who read his page to know that I too thought he was an amazing guy, and that I’m glad I knew him, no matter the pain it’s causing me now. And I know that however affected I am by this, there are people whose grief is so much deeper and wider and harder to live with. If me writing down that I’m happy I knew him has any potential to ease even a tiny bit of their pain, then of course, I’ll figure it out. It’s just taking me some time.
“So there goes my life/Passing by with every exit sign/It's been so long/Sometimes I wonder how I will stay strong/No sleep tonight/I'll keep on driving these dark highway lines/.../But I will see you again/I will see you again/A long time from now”
-“Hello, I’m in Delaware” by City & Colour