My first experience with grief taught me about love and loss.
I remember waking up from a nap to see notifications from people that seldom contacted me while scrolling my phone. One message said “COME ONLINE NOW”.
Still groggy with sleep, I texted back to ask what happened. Three people replied to me immediately and their texts all said the same alarming thing: My friend had committed suicide the day before.
By then, I was wide awake.
I read my latest text conversation with my friend. Her “last seen” status was only 16 hours ago. We had made plans to get our favourite dessert, bingsu, in a few days, but she hadn’t responded to my latest message.
It couldn’t be possible, I recalled thinking then. I told myself she was just busy with her internship so she hadn’t replied.
I continued thinking that when I visited her at the crematorium. There was no plaque there yet, just a sheet of white A4 paper with her name and details written in Mandarin.
This lack of closure contributed to my disbelief that my friend had really taken her own life. I expected her to come around the corner and tell me it was all one big elaborate prank. We had already made plans to get bingsu together the next week, right? How can someone just be there one day and not anymore the next?
Maybe it was this refusal that made it easy for me to pretend nothing had happened. I started attending gatherings I didn’t really want to go to, because talking to people who had no idea what happened was exactly the distraction I needed.
I expected to be inconsolable, but I was fine. In fact, I was functioning incredibly well and had only cried a little.
I didn’t tell anyone, not even my family, about my loss. I felt I didn’t deserve to feel any pity – her family members and closer friends were suffering a greater loss and were more devastated than me.
And even if I had told someone, what would they say? What do you tell someone who’s bereaved by suicide? Nora McInery said it best in her memoir No Happy Endings: “If we struggle with what to say when someone dies of cancer, we’re absolutely dumbstruck when they die of mental illness.”
I didn’t realise it then, but I was actually grieving. My way of dealing with that grief just happened to be keeping myself busy.
I didn’t really feel her absence until the holidays ended and I went back to school. I saw someone with the same hair colour as her and had to do a double take, just in case it was her. I frequently dreamt about seeing her around school or receiving texts from her.
Finally, I recognised that I was in pain and gave myself permission to just grieve. I went to the crematorium alone and cried in front of her plaque until I had no tears left. That cathartic experience was exactly what I needed.
This was my very first experience with mourning. I always knew that someday I would have to bid farewell to older relatives, but I never imagined I would lose a friend at just 18.
And while I didn’t expect mourning a loved one to be easy, it was even more painful because it was suicide-related grief. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much worse her family members were feeling.
It’s been over a year since I first heard the news and I’ll be the first to say it hasn’t been an easy year. With time, I’ve been able to gradually accept what happened.
Although I’m doing better now than I was a year ago, my grief isn’t truly gone, because grief never really dies. It resides deep in your heart, and it comes back whenever it wants.
I lost my friend when she died, but I’ve also lost her since. Like Lang Leav wrote in his poetry book Memories, “Losing someone isn’t an occasion or an event. It doesn’t just happen once. It happens over and over again.”
I lose her whenever I think of something I should tell her but realise I won’t get a response, whenever I walk past her place, whenever I’m craving bingsu.
But throughout the anguish and misery, there’s also been strength and peace.
When scrolling through her old Twitter account, I found myself smiling fondly over the dumb things we used to do. I used to disapprove when she overshared on social media, but now I’m thankful that our memories have been archived there.
I’ve found solace in taking time out once every few months to visit her at the crematorium alone. I also take comfort in listening to music about loss and letting myself bask in my feelings of grief instead of avoiding them.
I learnt that grief may be described as a “solo project”, but I didn’t have to deal with it alone. I wish I had confided in my friends as the burden of grief was too heavy to carry by myself.
I learnt that grief manifests itself differently in different people. Just because I was doing well on the surface, it didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling the effects of that grief.
I learnt to live in a world without her – a world where I won’t coincidentally see her at the bus stop, a world where I can’t watch her Instagram stories, a world where I’ll never eat bingsu without thinking of her.
But most importantly, I learnt that grief is a natural by-product of love. If you don’t love, you won’t grieve. As bittersweet as it is, I am grateful to have loved someone enough to be grieving this deeply over her.
If you know of someone who’s in need of help, contact these hotlines:
Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444
Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019
Learn to manage your emotions better during these unprecedented times by ‘Braving The New’.
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