HOW TO SAVE A LIFE
Loss is an unpredictable stalker, often prowling in the darkness just waiting to blindside its unsuspecting victims. Sometimes, loss is more obvious in its inevitability, like the promise of death in the sterile confines of a hospital. And each loss bears a subsequent specter of grief, which haunts those who are left behind. Most of us who have encountered loss, have met this phantom at some point in our lives, for bereavement is a manifestation of love. Each time we meet it, we always come away changed. As excruciating as sorrow can be, it has the potential to change lives around for the better. For instance, without experiencing loss and the ensuing grief, I would not be alive today. My personal encounters have led me to believe that positively channeled grief imparts compassion and gratitude, which can ultimately save more lives than loss can take.
Born into an attentive family and raised in the secure suburbs of Pennsylvania, it would seem unlikely that I would experience much danger in my formative years. At the time, pain was simply falling from my bike and scraping my knee. I would cry, but then I would get over it. Little did I know there were more lasting kinds of pain in the world. When I experienced rape, I was much too young to understand what it was. At nine years old, it was my first taste of pain that I could not just simply get over. It would take five more years of suffocating silence, intense distrust, and self hatred to drive me towards suicide.
While my attempt was thankfully thwarted, my teenage self remained unconvinced that such a result was fortuitous. In the depths of my depression, suicide had seemed like a win-win situation. It would alleviate my burdensome presence from others, as well as relieve me of an existence I could not reconcile. The rage that had roiled inside of me sought other ways to lash out at my family and anyone else who had intervened, for I believed death was the ultimate freedom. However, true understanding of death came in the form of an unlikely friendship.
His name was Tian-Tian, and I thought he was the most garrulous six-year-old I had ever met. Adopted from China when he was three, he understood his parents were not his birth parents, and yet he returned their love unconditionally. I had never seen a child dote on his parents so much, and I assumed he was a sycophant. Bitter and skeptical, I initially kept my distance during our family potlucks, but he befriended me against all odds. Before I knew it, I was spending my weekends babysitting and watching cartoons with him. It became clear that Tian-Tian was genuine, and wanted nothing more than to become an astronaut-artist on Neptune. His dream occupation varied every time he pitched it, and he never stopped trying to invent something new. Refreshed by his ingenuousness, I found myself learning to be a kid again.
One afternoon, his parents called us from the hospital. Tian-Tian had leukemia, and would undergo treatment there until he got better. He never got better though, and I spent the following weekends watching his body waste away in bed, growing wane and skeletal. One day while our parents were speaking in the hall, he asked to confide a big secret to me. Accepting his request uneasily, I wondered what he could possibly hide from the two people he loved most in the world. In the end, his secret broke my heart. He could not sleep, because he was afraid of the dark and never waking up again. He could not tell his parents, because then they would not be able to sleep either. With certain longing, Tian-Tian divulged his most fervent wish to grow up like me, so he could adopt his parents one day and take good care of them – the way they took such loving care of him. In response, all I could do was give him a flashlight keychain from my backpack. I explained that as long as he left the light on, he would never get lost in the dark.
My friend never lived to see his ninth birthday. Tian-Tian, who wanted to live so badly got to die, while I, who wanted to die so badly got to live. Fate juxtaposed our lives so cruelly that for a while, I lost my way again until his parents reached out to thank me. They knew I had given their son the toy flashlight, and they wanted to tell me that he left the light on until the end. Since then, I have dropped all notions of suicide and I am infinitely grateful to have crossed paths with him and his family. Without understanding his wish and his undying love for the people around him, I would have surely tried to throw away my life again.
A decade has passed since he left this world, but his influence remains through me and all the other lives he touched. And now I pay it forward by sharing my story with other people, including fellow survivors of sexual violence and depression. I have come to learn the hard way that we grieve because we love, and I would have never respected this life without that grief. Although loss can blindside the unsuspecting and haunt the bereaved, we do not have to become its victims. Instead of pushing grief away, let it motivate us to seize opportunities, appreciate our loved ones, and perhaps empower us to save a life.
2017 Daniel Gerstein Award. "The Gift of Grief" Short Essay Competition.