Live Through This

My Own Terabithia

We weren’t supposed to turn out like the kids in that book.

Illustration by Sonja

There’s a spoiler in here, just warning you.


One of my favorite children’s books is Bridge to Terabithia. If you’re unfamiliar with the book or movie, it’s about a friendship between two kids, Jess and Leslie, and Terabithia, a magical kingdom that they imagine in the woods behind their houses. And it has one of the most emotional, tragic endings in children’s literature. I feel like this book has been following me for my whole life.

When I read this book as a kid, it was Terabithia itself that really gripped me. Like Jess and Leslie, I lived in a rural farming town, and nearly all my friends had an expanse of woods to claim and explore. There were dozens of tiny Terabithias dotting our town, complete with their own mythologies.

One of these Terabithias seemed like a footnote at the time, but ended up becoming inexorably linked to the story of Jess and Leslie. As Terabithias go, this one was rather contrived—it was founded as part of an honors-English project after our middle school class read Bridge to Terabithia. Our teacher had us split into pairs to plan our own kingdoms. While everyone else was trying to figure out if you could have two queens (the class was almost all girls), my partner Leigha said neither of us should be rulers.

“It should be ruled by an angel,” she said. I immediately understood. Leigha and I had a shared past. We’d both known a girl, Jenny, who had been killed by a lightning strike. Because of this we shared a phobia of thunderstorms, and a tendency toward mysticism. But at that point, everyone seemed to be obsessed with death, not just us. Our teacher chose Bridge to Terabithia as reading material, but when she later let us pick stories out of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul for class reading she had to ban the “Tough Stuff” section because all we wanted to read were the stories about cancer and car accidents.

Leigha and I jumped at the chance to create a kingdom dedicated to Jenny. It would be a kind of closure, a memorial that made sense to a couple of nature-loving, magic-believing kids. Jenny was the ruler and Leigha and I were stewards of the land. Frustratingly, I can’t remember what we named it. Something boring and unoriginal like Angel Kingdom, I think.

Leigha lived in the town center, which meant that she didn’t have access to the woods. The spot she chose for our Terabithia was slightly down the street, in a spot of land just off the road but hidden from view by weeds. There may have been a drainage ditch involved. My mother would have been HORRIFIED to know that we had left Leigha’s yard to go play by the highway.

But even if we were playing in a ditch, it was a nice ditch. There were grass and flowers and pretty rocks and imagination. I remember telling Leigha that I had read about a Native American tribe that would thank every animal they killed for its sacrifice. Actually, that’s the only thing I remember talking about, but I know we were VERY SERIOUS. This wasn’t the fun, silly part of Terabithia, this was the sacred place where Leslie and Jess spoke only in whispers.

Then we went back to her house, finished up the project, and never really talked about it again. Like I said, it was a footnote in our lives. But a fairly important footnote, because it gave us some peace.

In the years after that, Leigha and I grew apart. No drama, we just started gravitating toward different crowds in high school—her to the band and me to the nerds. Then Leigha’s exploring gene kicked in and she started getting antsy. She decided to take all her required classes during her junior year so she could graduate early. The high school administration fought her and I think everyone thought she was a little crazy, but she did it. She joined the Air Force and left for boot camp while we were all starting our senior year of high school. She dropped into our Spanish class one day and told us stories about helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Our lives seemed very boring in comparison.

This was around the time that Facebook became popular, and for the next couple of years I followed Leigha’s updates with a kind of bemusement. She finished training and became a C-130 loadmaster, which I’m told is a pretty impressive job. While we were all starting college, she was flying in Iraq. While we were still in college, she came home, became an EMT and a girls’ softball coach, got married, and gained a farm and a 10-year-old stepson. I believe she went to school too, somewhere in that time frame. It was hard to keep straight.

Then, in my last quarter of senior year of college, my dad called. He made some comment about American Idol and then got the courage to tell me why he was really calling: “Leigha’s dead. There was an accident on the farm.”

I remembered many years ago, my dad had made some comment about how lucky I was that I hadn’t lost a friend yet, and that it would happen eventually. I hadn’t really believed it. Not everyone was unlucky.

But now I thought, OK, it’s happened. I asked him the important questions, he told me he didn’t know much, and I hung up and opened up Facebook.

It didn’t feel real until I saw her wall. Her last status update was a cheerful note about celebrating Easter. After that, there was comment after comment of friends and strangers saying repetitive things like “I can’t believe it” and “Heaven has a new angel.”

It was weird. I hadn’t talked to her in years. We hadn’t been close friends for years before that. But suddenly all these memories came rushing back, silly stuff. We’d bonded because of our shared love of pranks in Girl Scouts, but once I stole her underwear and put it up the camp flagpole and she was PISSED. After that, we stuck to pranking other people instead of each other, and left undergarments alone. I remembered her eighth birthday party, where we played an epic game of Truth or Dare and then shout-flirted with a couple of boys watching us from a window across the street.

I also remembered Terebithia. That day was all about angels, but Jenny was the angel, not Leigha. This wasn’t supposed to end like the book. And suddenly I was freaking out, because of all the people in my life who could have died, it had to be HER. The person who had shared my anxiety about death in childhood. The person who had built Terabithia with me. We were never supposed to be Jess and Leslie, but we’d become them anyway.

I missed her funeral because of some midterms, which I ended up bombing anyway. I sent my condolences to her mom via Facebook, which felt fitting because that was where everyone was mourning, as we were all miles away from home on our separate adventures. Then I cried, a lot. I cried off and on for months, and I still can’t explain why. I was crying for a girl who hadn’t existed for a long time, a girl who had grown up to be a woman I didn’t know and who died a stranger. But I still held on to all those memories of little-girl Leigha, and I cried for her.

Last week I reread Bridge to Terabithia for the first time since that English class all those years ago. The Terabithia parts weren’t what stood out to me anymore. Instead, I was gripped by the strength of Leslie and Jess’s friendship, and I was strangely comforted by the end, as sad as it was. I don’t know what it’s like to lose your current best friend, but I do know what it’s like to mourn, and Terabithia reminded me that everyone feels that pain.

You might not have lost anyone yet, but I bet you’ve gotten teary-eyed over a sad book or movie. Stories like Bridge to Terabithia or even those “Tough Stuff” chapters in Chicken Soup are important. Our society tries to hide grief, so that no one else is “infected” by sadness. As a result, we don’t have role models for how to handle death. That’s why Leigha and I had to reinvent mourning in our own childhood, and why I wondered if it was even normal for me to mourn someone I was no longer friends with. All those sad books and movies have a purpose—they remind us that grief is real and normal and inevitable.

I really hope you haven’t had to face grief yet in your lives. But it will happen to all of us. And when it does, it’s good to know that you won’t be alone. ♦

34 Comments

  • missblack March 23rd, 2012 3:14 PM

    Bridge to Terabithia is one of my favorite, favorite books. Because of that, I refuse to see the movie (though I admit that little twelve-year-old Josh Hutcherson is the PERFECT Jess).
    I actually had a nice conversation about the book with this old man who works at my favorite used-book shop, and he told me that the author actually lives (or lived) in a town about 15 minutes away.
    Anyway, I remember the first time I read it I was stunned by Leslie’s death and I felt like I was finally reading a real book, about real life.

    Little&Trivial

  • KinuKinu March 23rd, 2012 3:24 PM

    This was so sad……but really nice.I read the book and watched the movie.I was REALLY upset when Leslie died.When I watched the movie I was 7 or 8.My mom had to show me Anna-Sophia Robb still alive and well on the computer for me to go on.I was really sad and upset.I loved this.I can add this article to my list of favorite rookie articles.
    On a totally unrelated note ,I remember crying when King Kong died in the 2005 movie.I still don’t remember why.

    I really L♥OVED this article.

  • Fortune_Goddess March 23rd, 2012 3:37 PM

    This really struck me. I love that book and I hope that it would never happen that I would lose a friend physically (though it’s possible it could, as you said). When I was little, my best friend and I created our own little world called Beratithia (we loved Terabithia so much) and this made me cry with longing for that simple time.

  • jessd6 March 23rd, 2012 3:45 PM

    Lovely piece. Thanks for making me tear up at work!

    I loved that book as a kid. For some reason, it wasn’t very popular among my classmates. I wonder if my copy is still at my parents’ house, I’d love to reread it as an adult.

  • starsinyourheart March 23rd, 2012 3:51 PM

    I’ve lost two best friends, one when we were both fifteen, and one last year, who was barely 18 while I was 17. It’s heartbreaking – the second girl, I had been soul sisters with until she became too ill and I began to recover slowly. We drifted, when I found out she had died, it wasn’t real. Even the angel, in heaven comments on facebook.

    It was late autumn and so, so hot. I got on two trains and a taxi and somehow found my way to her grave, three hours too late for the funeral and said goodbye. I don’t think I could have let go without saying goodbye to her. I was broken up, because I’m only 17, i’m not supposed to have lost two girls to the same illness we shared and met through. I don’t think I know any books or movies, where loss is there, I wish I had known a few months and years ago though. beautiful article :) ♥

  • Ben March 23rd, 2012 3:56 PM

    I saw the movie. I liked it. Yesterday i was reading the hunger games and when Rue died I cried. I remember the first time i cried at a book was The little match girl. I hope my freinds and I live very long. I love exploring places and creating imaginative kingdoms and stuff. This is a weird comment. Very choppy.

    http://bensstylecorner.blogspot.com/

    • shelley March 23rd, 2012 4:25 PM

      I remember crying aged like seven or eight to the little match girl! It’s actually heartbreaking

  • Andie R March 23rd, 2012 4:06 PM

    I’ve never read the book, but I saw the movie…
    When I saw the movie for the first time, i didnt cared too much about it. I found it sad and all of that but it didnt really touched me.
    Some time later, when I was 15, it happened to me …
    I had a friend. This girl was probably the only close friend that I had, we had SO MUCH in common (even the name). She was older (18) and wiser than me so sometimes I felt like she was my older sister.
    Then she died….. It was a real shock for me.
    Later when I saw the movie again I totally understood it……
    Its not easy at all…. I know, and I totally identified myself with the article.
    Thank you very much.

  • Lu March 23rd, 2012 4:10 PM

    A few years ago a family of friends from abroad visited us in our town. Two parents with a kid – a boy I had grown up playing with. He was 19 and I was 20 at the time. We were seeing each other for the first time in more than ten years, and we spent a great weekend together with our families.

    On Monday we were supposed to meet him and his parents and I planned to bring him to a party with my friends from college later. Around noon my mother called with a weird voice, and told me something had happened. He had been killed by a guy trying to steal his camera.

    The following days were probably some of the most painful moments I’ve been through. For me, it wasn’t the first time I had lost someone, but it was the first time I had lost someone so relevant to my childhood. It took so long for me to get better.

  • RockHatesMiriam March 23rd, 2012 4:53 PM

    I’ve never read the book, but I went to see this movie with my bestfriend when I was 8 or 9. I didn’t really ‘get’ the movie at the time but I understood the friendship between Leslie and jess because me and my bestfriend were that close. We both then moved on to different high schools and I’ve literally not seen him since, I sometimes find myself mourning our friendship which took up most of my childhood. Sometimes I feel like I’m not so much mourning him, but the way that I was, and how life was back then…
    Thankfully, I haven’t yet had to deal with the loss of a close friend, but I’m dreading the day I will inevitably have to.
    Amazing article <3

    http://www.pompandceremony.blogspot.com

  • emine March 23rd, 2012 6:34 PM

    I grew up with my mom’s close friends kids, there were four of them, and we had this little group and as we grew up we would pretend to have crushes on each other and make up code words for swearing and save each other’s ass when needed.
    Four years ago I lost three of them and their father in a freak flood accident in an area that had been flood-free for 7 decades.
    It’s a pain I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy and despite the time that’s passed I think about them every day, and the only thing that keeps me going is the support of friends.

  • Adrienne March 23rd, 2012 6:38 PM

    Oh my gosh. I really love this article. I’ve never read Bridge to Terabithia, but I did see the movie a while back. I’ve never lost a loved one or close friend before, and I can’t imagine how hard the grief hits you. I try to keep in mind that life is short, and don’t take it for granted.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Miss Erin March 23rd, 2012 8:01 PM

    This made me cry because of childhood memories and thinking of losing somebody and maybe too because I’m really tired. But also because it is beautifully written, and moving, and thank you for sharing something like this.

  • Mustachefan March 23rd, 2012 9:02 PM

    This was really beautiful. I don’t know what else to say, besides recognizing how sweet it was.

  • cleobea March 23rd, 2012 9:37 PM

    Luckily I read the How To Hide Your Crying article before this one!

  • AnguaMarten March 23rd, 2012 10:12 PM

    oh my god this is beautiful.

  • sarahbrooke March 24th, 2012 1:06 AM

    your friend sounds amazing.

  • dearmia March 24th, 2012 2:11 AM

    This is such a great article. I’ve lost a few friends this past year and it’s been really hard. Our town is the kind where knows everyone, and there have been six deaths of people that everyone knew. Most were in the same graduating class, too. My friends have had a hard time staying positive, because every time our wounds begin to heal there is more bad news. All except two have been car related accidents. It still seems so unreal. Thank you so much for this article, really <3

  • Tyknos93 March 24th, 2012 2:48 AM

    This was so sweet. I remember the adorable relationship between Anna Sophia and Josh Hutcherson (both really talented at so young).
    It’s always tough losing people. It my not compare to some, but my dog passed a few days ago. Instead of bawling my eyes out like I wanted to I spent most of the night consoling my little brother who was in hysterics :( Just saying I know where you are coming from. If you do believe in life after death I’m sure your friend is somewhere better. You’ll remember her fondly I’m sure.

  • starcollector March 24th, 2012 9:13 AM

    Wow, that was a gorgeous story. I have my own little Terabithia by my grandparent’s house and it made me think of that and my childhood best friend Shelley. I wish I kept in touch with her still :(

    http://china-lily.blogspot.com/

  • whodatgal March 24th, 2012 9:17 AM

    Omigod this is so beautiful. The same sort of thing happened to me. Well, not really, but close sort of. When I was little I did tonnes of dance classes, mainly with my friend Charlotte, but when I stopped, she carried on and we hadn’t seen each other since we were literally 6 or something. About a year ago she got hit by a bus, right in front of her mum, whilst running to a dance class. It was weird because I hadn’t seen her for years, but still, her death affected all of my family and we cried tonnes for months. It was even sadder because we were all planning to reunite in a week or so, but we never got to.

    Bridge to Teribithia is such a good book, but I stopped reading it. It was too sad. This was so deep. Thank you for sharing. You have to have courage to share something that mournful.

    http://www.opheliahorton.wordpress.com

  • purplebabaushka March 24th, 2012 9:29 AM

    I used to love the book- and still do, but after reading it I went into a “Leslie Burke Phase” where I challenged myself to see how many layers I could possibly wear. I was totally obsessed. I haden’t thought about that in a while- thanks for reminding me!

    -Megan

    http://purplebabaushka.wordpress.com/

  • MichyMich March 24th, 2012 10:57 AM

    Although I never read Bridge to Terabithia, your story reminded me of a family friend who died on Halloween.

    My fam and I had dinners with his fam and he often came, but the last time I saw him was his last dinner with us. I remember having a conversation about Halloween and he asked me about my plans. I said that I wanted to stay at home. Larry (that’s the aforementioned family friend who died) told me that he wanted to party on Saturday to celebrate Halloween and dress up as Deadmau5. The next day, my mom told me that he’d got into an accident and died. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I knew that Larry would end up dead after my mom told me about the accident.

    I have to admit that I never felt so close to Larry when he was alive, but when he died, I grieved. I couldn’t concentrate in class and I had to see a counselor at school. Even today, I still think about him.

    Despite the loss of Larry, I learned that I should never take life for granted and appreciate my friendship.

  • MissKnowItAll March 24th, 2012 6:00 PM

    Oh god. I cried so much when I watched (and read) bridge to Terabithia. After reading this, I cried a bit more.

  • shjaron March 24th, 2012 8:11 PM

    It’s this kind of articles that make me love Rookie so damn much.

    Thank you for your honesty and your pain.

  • lavendersparrow March 25th, 2012 4:35 PM

    I have always loved Bridge to Terabithia and I really enjoyed this article. The story inspires me. It makes my imagination run wild….

    http://lavendersparrow.wordpress.com/

  • abigail March 25th, 2012 5:42 PM

    This is amazing! Also, did you know that Bridge to Terabithia was written after the author’s son’s friend was struck by lightning, just like you invented your Terabithia after your friend died in a lightning strike? Quote from Wikipedia: “Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from a real event that occurred in August 1974 when a friend of Paterson’s son was struck by lightning and killed.”

  • Abby March 25th, 2012 8:50 PM

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

  • Mags March 26th, 2012 10:50 PM

    This is so touching. My childhood best friend and I had a little world of our own too. It was in her backyard which was gloriously full of beautiful trees and rosemary bushes and birds of paradise. I named our little world “Ethiopia” because it sounded cool and at the time I had no idea it was actually a country in Africa. It really helped keep us sane when we were dealing with all the weirdness of elementary school and the cruelty of kids who just didn’t get us. I’ll always hold that memory dear to my heart. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Mags March 26th, 2012 10:53 PM

    Btw, another great book that deals with loss and mourning is Say Goodnight Gracie by Julie Reece Deaver. It’s about a friendship between a boy and a girl much like Bridge to Terabithia. It’s amazing but, fair warning, it’s also incredibly sad.

  • Babs March 27th, 2012 8:25 PM

    This is a truly lovely article. A classmate of mine who I was not very close with died December of last year, and I have been very jumpy with my feelings. He was in a few of my classes this year, and I’ve known him since eighth grade, so although I did know him, like I said I did not really know him that well. I think the most I had ever said to him was ‘hi’ a few times. I wish I could have said ‘hi’ a few more times, but I guess I shouldn’t dawn on the past too much in the sense to remember the things I should have said rather than the things that I did say. Anyways, thank you Rachael.

  • marisasays April 2nd, 2012 12:11 PM

    This is a truly lovely piece. Always good to remember we aren’t alone, especially when facing death for the first time. xx

  • lelelikeukulele April 5th, 2012 9:31 PM

    I’ve never experienced losing someone so close to me, but one of my best friends did when we were about 7 or 8. She was my next door neighbor, and we had been best friends since we were three, but the year I was in 3rd grade, she started playing with me less and playing with this girl Vanessa a lot more. I was jealous and hurt, and I thought Vanessa was weird. It turned out that Vanessa had a step-brother or step-father or someone (I never found out the whole story, I was too young) who had some mental problems, and got really angry and stabbed and killed her one night….it was horrible. The whole school was grieving, but it hit my friend really hard. I remember not understanding why she wouldn’t come out and play anymore, or why she didn’t want to talk to me at school.
    This story didn’t really have a point, but this was a really beautiful article and it made me remember times like that when I was too young to even understand what death or grief was. Kids have to grow up so fast sometimes.

  • erika k April 26th, 2013 1:32 PM

    Lovely ♡