The Transformation of Loss

Two nights ago I went to see the movie The Fault in Our Stars. For those of you unfamiliar with the film or the book by John Green that it is based on, it is the love story of teens Augustus and Hazel, one recently cleared of cancer and one undergoing experimental treatment that has kept her alive years longer than anyone had thought possible. It is a beautifully written, sometimes funny, heartrending story, but it was especially poignant on this particular evening.

Ten years ago on this day, my friend Sean turned twenty-two. Two days later, on June 10, 2004 he was killed in a car wreck on his way to the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. It was the worst day of my life. I have largely avoided writing about it, partly because I don’t quite trust my memory to get the details just right, and partly because of the pain I knew it would cause myself and all of the people that loved Sean. You see, I was there that day. I just happened to be in the right car, the one that wasn’t clipped by a tractor-trailer cab changing lanes at seventy miles per hour.

I have had ten years to mourn for my friend, the foul-mouthed musician with a heart of gold. He was my best friend’s boyfriend, and as such he was a kind of brother figure- making fun of me for my crushes, handing out noogies, telling me that I needed to gain some weight, which I guess is why he forced about half of his breakfast on me when we stopped at a Hardees a few hours before he died.

Every time I see a dragonfly, I know that Sean is okay.
(That’s a story for another day.)

For a long time, too, I mourned for myself. That day altered the course of my entire life. I was just a twenty-year-old girl on my way to a rock concert, wearing linen drawstring pants and a shirt that my mom sewed for me that tied in the back and told the world that I was young and carefree, bras be damned. Moments later I was standing stupidly in the hot, sharp grass by the side of the highway, trying to make sense of the scene that spread itself out before me. (I remember it, but I won’t describe it. What would be the point of that?)

I do know that throughout the ordeal I repeatedly felt as if I were out of my own body, viewing the tragedy from afar, and the strangest thought kept entering my mind: Poor kids.  I stood apart from my traumatized self and watched as two young women, one of them me, embraced in the midst of burnt rubber and broken CDs and waited for a ride to the hospital. The helicopter carrying Sean had already taken off. The EMTs had stopped CPR. We were pretty sure we knew what we would hear upon arrival, but “dead” still felt impossible to process. And the whole time, that thought: Poor kids. We were nearly a thousand miles from home, about seventy miles from our destination. So close. And now we needed to function, to speak to doctors, find a hotel, get on a plane and face the rest of our lives. It wouldn’t be easy. For the next year or so I would experience vivid flashbacks. I would break down at the slightest reference to anything remotely connected to Sean’s death. I would return to college for my senior year and blame everyone in my path for not understanding, but how could they possibly? Slowly, and with the help of individuals that I truly believe God put in my path for just this purpose, I began to piece myself back together.

Grief and trauma lessen, but they don’t go away. I felt it on Sunday night, ten years after the fact, watching this film about two teens who were, for reasons unknown, just dealt a bad hand. But I realized, as I crumpled up yet another tissue, that these tears were coming from a different place. I wasn’t thinking about the loss of my friend, I was trying not to imagine the agony of losing one of my own children.

At one point in The Fault in Our Stars the narrator writes, “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.” Since becoming a mother, ten-year-old memories have taken on a new pain. My grief will become fear if I let it. I could walk around, constantly afraid that one day I will be the one receiving the most terrible phone call imaginable. I could think, every time I look at my children, “This could be our last day together,” which I guess would help me appreciate the little moments, but in all honesty, I don’t want to have that in my head every day; it’s too terrifying to even entertain. Terrible, tragic, unjust things happen all the time, but if I allow myself to think that they might happen to my child, I will be paralyzed by even the thought of that loss.

My heart has always been with Sean’s mother. Now, as a mother’s heart, it grieves with her even more. I hope it gives her even the smallest amount of solace to know that after ten years he is still remembered, he is missed, he is loved.


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