Girl School for Grownups

Like having a big sister, but better because I can't boss you around!


Barry died on Christmas day. He was 21.

I met Barry just once. He was tall and muscular and had a smile a mile wide. He gave off a feeling of rock solid goodness. He was a senior at UC Berkeley, studying business. He was fluent in Mandarin. He was going to make a difference in the world. He was already making a difference.


Tucker and Barry, August 2014

In 1993, Wallace Stegner died. He was an amazing author who was still writing at 84. He died in a traffic accident. I remember feeling cheated when I found out about his death. There are millions of shitty people in the world, people who are doing nothing with their lives, and and many 80-somethings who are just waiting to die. Not Stegner. It seemed brutally unfair and empirically wrong that he was gone.


Barry and Austin, October 2014

So now a bunch of college kids, at the height of their feeling of invincibility, are forced to deal with death and grief. They are learning the brutal truth that though it may feel like you have all the time in the world, the reality is that our time on earth is limited. Both my sons loved Barry. And my mom heart hurts to see them hurting. And when I consider Barry’s mom — the tears rise to the surface again.

Most things happen for a reason, but this? No way. I can’t go there.

My counselor Melinda lost her mom at age 17. Her mom was diagnosed with cancer and just a month later, she was gone. In my view of how the world should work, 17 year olds should never lose their mothers. Never. And yet the grief counseling Melinda received was what compelled her to become a therapist. And 4 decades later she was saving my life as I desperately tried to keep going while my father-in-law was dying and my dad’s Alzheimer’s was progressing and my mom was slipping further away into mental and physical illness.

So what do I know? Not much. But having lived through the deaths of 3 parents, here are some tips (that word sounds disrespectful in a way, but you know what I mean) on dealing with grief:

1. Take exquisite care of yourself. Grief is a motherfucker. It’s exhausting and at times all encompassing and can hit you out of nowhere, even on a good day. So eat good food. Rest when you need rest. When you can’t stop crying, put yourself in water and let the tears mix with the bath/shower/lake/ocean. Wear comfy clothes that feel like a hug. When your insides feel like shit, it’s important to make your outsides feel as good as you can make them feel.

2. Talk about the person who’s gone. This is most helpful when you can talk with people who knew them too. Somehow talking about them helps to ease the jaggedness inside, at least a little bit. One day just a few weeks after Troy died I had a wave of sadness overtake me as I was driving. I considered calling my mother-in-law and almost didn’t call because I didn’t want to make her sad. But I called. And I told her I missed him so much that it hurt. I could hear the relief in her voice as she said, “Oh, me too.” We were together in our sadness and that felt, if not good, at least less bad in that moment.

3. Make it mean something. Those who are gone can live on through us. My dad was friends with everyone he met. When I behave like that, it honors him. Mental illness stole much of my mom’s joy and I think a lot about how she never got to truly enjoy her adult kids (me and my brother). When I delight in the relationship with my kids I think of her and appreciate what I have even more. When you find something you learned from your friend and practice it in your own life, it keeps a part of them alive in this world.

4. It takes time. Lucky me — I have several close friends who are therapists. When I asked them what makes grief easier, they all answered “time.” Fuuuuuuuck. I want something to DO, something to make the hurt go away RIGHT NOW. As I write, it’s almost 2 years since Troy died, a year and a half since my mom died, 11 months since my dad passed, and just 5 days since Barry’s death. And I can say with certainty that although the pain is still there, it’s not as sharp and I don’t feel it as frequently. My promise to Barry’s friends is that this will happen for you too.

A local 19-year-old died this year from smoking Spice, an incense that’s marketed as a legal, natural alternative to weed. His story made national news as his parents fight to remove Spice from smoke shops in the hope that this will never happen to another kid. His dad got a tattoo with his son’s birth and death dates and the words “forever changed.” I recognize the truth of this. Barry’s friends are forever changed. Never the same. Much of the beauty in the world — the music, the poetry, the art — is birthed from brokenness. (Even as I type those words, they taste bitter. Barry should be alive.)

So what about God? People can say “it’s God’s will” or “God has a plan.” I hate people who say stuff like that. I believe the words I spoke at my mom’s funeral: God knows and God cares, beyond what we can comprehend.

The world was better when Barry was in it.


Thoughts about death

In January 2013, Tim’s dad died. In August my mom died. And in January 2014 my dad died. In the last week, two of my much loved friends have lost parents. In honor of my friends, and for anyone who has lost someone they love, here’s something I wrote shortly after Troy died.

For most of my life I’ve known virtually nothing about death. I took a course in college titled “Death and Dying” and I learned about the five stages of grief. I knew what I learned in Sunday School and what the Bible taught about death and heaven and hell. But I’ve rarely experienced death in a way that touched my everyday life.

My father-in-law died 3 weeks ago.

Troy was a vital part of our lives. He and Margaret lived 10 minutes away from us.  He worked until a month before his death. He celebrated his 60th anniversary last June. He loved his family and friends and wanted to live. He was one of my favorite people ever and I know he loved me. I miss him like crazy. And I hate that he’s dead and that awful people are still alive.

I don’t know much about death and grief, but here are the things I’ve learned so far:

  • Every time someone says “I’m so sorry about Troy” it eases a teeny tiny bit of the pain. So I will always acknowledge, in person or by sending a card, the loss of a loved one. 
  • Sending food is one of the best ways to help people who are grieving. The people who are alive still need to eat. I will always bring food when I can. It’s a tangible way to express love.
  • Talking about the person who died is good. One day shortly after he died, I had a wave of sadness that came out of nowhere. I was driving home from Trader Joe’s and crying, and I thought “I’m going to call Margaret.” Then I was scared because I didn’t want to make her sad. Decided to call anyway. She answered and asked me how I was doing. I said “I miss Troy so much.” She said, “Oh I miss him too” and we talked and it helped.
  • If you pay attention, you can find a way to help. In January we practically lived at Troy and Margaret’s house. And we used our house as a pit stop. One of my friends, unbeknownst to me, snuck into our house while we were helping Margaret and cleaned our kitchen. (I still get tears in my eyes when I think of this.)

As far as my beliefs about the afterlife, again I don’t know much. I used to think I knew some stuff. But in the last 4 years it’s like everything I thought I knew was stripped away (which is not a bad thing, but it’s a hard thing) and every belief has been challenged. Here’s a little list of what I think I know for sure:

  • There is a God.
  • I am not God (if I was, things would be a LOT different around here!).
  • God knows and cares beyond what I can possibly imagine.
  • Troy has a new body that works perfectly.
  • There is a balcony. I read a Joyce Meyers book years ago where she said that people who die can be in our balcony. And we can choose who’s in our balcony. I like to think of the upper deck seats at a Giants game, with people leaning forward and cheering, “You can do it!” I think Troy is in a lot of people’s balconies.

I loved Troy. You would have loved him too.