A few of us got together to talk about death, loss, and grief—the traditions we inherit and invent as we struggle to live with the pain of losing someone cherished. Rather than imagining that closure is possible when it comes to this kind of loss, we decided to have a conversation about how we keep the memory of those we’ve lost close, while acknowledging that each person grapples with death and grief in their own, individual ways.
Let’s start with the hard question, who have you lost? Who are you losing?
STEPHANIE: I’ve lost three grandparents—all when I was in my late teens, early twenties. The fourth, my dad’s mom, died while my mom was pregnant with me. My mom found her dead of a heart attack. Her name, Eunice, is my middle name, so I have always felt this closeness to her even though we’ve never met. Just a couple years ago, I also lost my aunt to leukemia.
But, I’ll be honest (and I feel sort of shitty saying this), the more profound period of loss, for me, came when I was 28 and three of my friends died within six months. First a college friend, just randomly from a health condition, then a high school friend who also died from a health condition. While those were both shocking and upsetting, the third loss was hardest of all. My good friend Marcel was killed in a motorcycle accident. I wrote about it for Rookie.
SHRIYA: First, I just wanna send love to all here and elsewhere who have lost important people. My dad’s mother passed a month before I turned 16. That was my first encounter with death and grieving and coping, and I found it very stressful and confusing and difficult. I went to school that day and cried in the hallway at least twice, I felt like I was in a state of shock. My paternal grandpa passed when I was 18, and my maternal grandpa passed when I was 20, and the latter has been the most difficult loss I have faced yet. I also wrote about him and our relationship for Rookie. This past summer, my family suddenly lost my maternal grandpa’s sister, and to be honest that isn’t something I’ve even come to terms with yet.
MADS: When I was 13, I was in a church class when my parents opened the door, interrupting my class, with this awful look on both of their faces. I immediately thought they were getting a divorce, and tried to mentally prepare myself as we walked outside.
Earlier that day, my father had the terrible idea of leaving my guinea pigs, Tinkerbell and Sassafrass, in the trunk during New York’s hot, humid summer while we were in church. Both my mother and I expressed our concern over their well being, but he assured us that they would be fine so long as we cracked the windows. Anyhow, when we got outside, my father opened the trunk and I saw Tink and Sass curled up next to each other, dead. My heart had dropped into my stomach, and I started sobbing uncontrollably. My mother was worried about me getting some sort of disease, so I had to wrap tissue paper around them while I held them. Losing my guinea pigs was awful, but it helped prepare me for a different kind of loss I’d experience five years later, when my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia.
My grandma Pia always felt more like a mother than a grandma to me, and she frequently expressed that I was just as much of a daughter to her as my mother and aunts. She helped raise me, telling me stories of mermaid sightings in Denmark, helping me build fairy houses in her garden, creating this beautiful dream world that encapsulated my childhood.
Losing someone to dementia is awful because you have to grieve them twice. First, you lose them mentally and then you lose them physically. My grandmother has forgotten many of her family members, but still retains the cozy sweetness that was always at the heart of her personality. I’m lucky in that I haven’t experienced a person dying, but it is rough to be around someone whom I was once so close to, whom I still feel so close to, only to be reminded that I’m talking to almost a shell of my former grandma, someone who looks the same but feels so different.
STEPHANIE: Mads, I am glad you brought loss of pets into this conversation because I think we do grieve them deeply, and I agree that how we grieve them can sometimes prepare us for how we grieve people. I also grieved very deeply for my cat, Sid, when he passed three years ago. I wrote about him in my journal and then ultimately for Rookie, and the conversations I had with readers in the comments of that piece really helped me. You also make another really important point about how when someone has something like dementia or a long-term illness that you grieve twice, or throughout the process, and that is awful.
ALYSON: While I was away for a month at art school, I spoke to my parents sporadically, and one night, just as I was about to begin painting, they called me. As I walked outside, I heard them tell me that my first friend and childhood pal, D, had died by suicide. The noises I was making, still on the line with my dad, made it sound like I was having serious health problems. I felt so much but couldn’t release that in the form of tears, although some leaked out—but not enough. I spent the rest of the week shaken. The worst feeling was knowing that one of my friends, with whom I’d spent my naive, carefree suburban childhood endured the torture of depression and anxiety. It was only a year ago that I, too, was contemplating whether or not to live. After hearing the news, I thanked my parents again and again for helping me become myself again.
CHANEL: In the past year I lost two uncles and my grandmother. It’s weird to think that three of my family members are gone forever, because it was almost like I was in a movie. I don’t know if that’s crass to say, but sometimes I still can’t believe it’s real life. The causes were all health-related, which I don’t know how to really process either. Would it be worse if it wasn’t their bodies literally shutting down? I don’t know. It’s been an interesting year for my family.
DERICA: When I was between 10 and 12 years old, all four of my grandparents died. During that same period, or perhaps it was just before or just after, my mother had two miscarriages. Later, an uncle who was so much a part of our everyday lives died after seeming like a bastion of health and strength and then becoming sick very suddenly. My mother’s best friend died while I was abroad but she didn’t let me know until I got home to London—that was awful. More recently, my dad’s eldest brother died, and I learned that one of my friends from high school had passed away.