Grey and red converse. Holey jeans. A grey Kings of Leon concert shirt. The concrete floor and walls closing in on me as I process snippets of the words pouring out of my cellphone.
“Suicide…” “Shot…” “At home…” “Gathering tonight…” “Need to attend…”
My chest tightened. My stomach churned. I fell to my knees, pulling the trashcan to me and threw up until my stomach felt as empty as the rest of me.
He was 15. Nearly 16. His life had barely started.
Travis* was the kind of kid who never really said much. He liked to sit back and watch, but when he spoke, he had a way of commanding the whole room’s attention. He was bright and funny, loved chinchillas, and had a beautiful perspective on the world that one day would bring about big changes. He wasn’t the typical kid that I got in my youth group; he was an old soul in a young body. We never talked much, but I was fortunate enough to have him in my small group on a religious retreat. That night, I went to do bed checks and found him awake, sitting in the grass, just watching the stars. I sat out there with him, laughing, thinking, at times on the verge of crying as he shared his perspective.
If I had known that would be the last memory I would have of him, I would of sat a little longer. I would of listened a little deeper. I would of noticed the little things that should’ve struck me as odd. I would of realized that that was the last night someone would of been able to saved him.
And I would’ve done my best to save him.
The days between that first night and the funeral were a blur. I couldn’t bring myself to go to work, or school or even get out of bed. I laid in bed, the covers over my head.
The evening before the funeral, we held a gathering to help explain to the teens what was to come in the following day. Many had never been to a funeral before. More had never seen attended an open casket service. We reached out to other youth groups in the community, asking for other ministers to help us provide strength, love and understanding in this difficult time. Ministers came from hours away, their hearts heavy, unsure of how to help in a situation no one had ever found need to prepare for.
Hours into the evening, I found myself in need for a moment to myself, to pull myself together. Walking out, I bumped into one of the youth ministers from out of town.
“How are you holding up?”
“Don’t worry about me. It’s my kids I’m worried about. I’m fine.”
He looked at me and pulling me into a hug said, “No, you’re not. And that’s okay.”
Three and a half years later, when I think about the after, that is one of the moments that sticks with me the most. The after. My life has forever been divided into two time frames. The before and the after.
“I’m fine.” It is a phrase I repeated so many times in the after. To myself, to my friends, to my boss, to anyone who asked.
It is the biggest, most frequent lie I told. No one talks about how hard it is to be the one who has to live in the after. To ask yourself, “What could I have said differently? What shouldn’t I have said? How could I have not seen the warning signs? He would still be here right now if…”
The guilt overwhelmed me to the point I couldn’t even grieve. It seemed like everyone else had cried, said their goodbyes, and then had been able to go back to their life in the before. I asked myself repeatedly how that could be the case. How could they go on like nothing had changed? Everything had changed. In addition to guilt, I felt shame. Shame that I couldn’t just shake it off and be okay. Shame that I wasn’t strong enough to move on.
So I said, “I’m fine,” until people stopped asking. I smiled and laughed during the day, and at night I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling and wondered if I would ever be able to forgive myself. Then I would be angry for thinking about myself. How could I think about myself when he wasn’t here anymore? I was burned out but I didn’t know how to help myself.
Until my friend asked me how I was and instead of “I’m fine,” the truth came pouring out. I talked. I cried. I screamed. I cursed. And to my surprise, somewhere in all that, I began to heal.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I let myself smile at the happy memories or cry for the sad. I let myself feel the feelings that demand to be felt.
No one tells you how hard it is to live in the after. It’s messy and frustrating and sometimes, downright unbearable. But it allows you the opportunity to feel every emotion and then let it go or ask for help.
To quote Joss Whedon, “If you can’t run, you crawl. If you can’t crawl– you find someone to carry you.” So run, crawl, or be carried, until one day the after isn’t the after anymore. It’s life.
*Name has been changed.