When I was in first grade, my best friend died. I wasn’t old enough to understand what caused her death, only to feel the loss and the gap that her absence created. She wasn’t at her desk at school. She wasn’t on the playground. We didn’t walk home together. She wasn’t riding her bike in the church parking lot after we finished our homework. She was just … gone. This was my first introduction to grief. I learned quickly that people grieve very differently.
Grief can make people sad, angry, mean, depressed, dejected, isolated, frustrated. Grief can make people withdraw from others, or reach out to others for support. Grief can lead to kindness and compassion. Grief you can lead to rejection and hurt.
I had never had much to do with my best friend’s older sister. She was seven years older than we were. For the most part, she just ignored us. That is until after her sister died. Then she noticed me. And that noticing, I understand now, created great pain for her that, unfortunately, for me, led her to be mean.
She wasn’t physically abusive, but she was physically, intimidating and aggressive. She was verbally abusive. Almost every day after school, she would wait for me as I walked to my grandmother’s house. She would taunt me and yell at me. I tried leaving school quickly. I tried dawdling after school and walking home slowly hoping she’d get tired of waiting for me and just go home. I tried walking different routes to my grandmother’s house, but grandma’s house was literally one block from school, and there weren’t that many options. I simply could not avoid her.
Often I would reach my grandmother’s house, red faced, and crying. Finally, I shared with my grandmother what was happening. She talked with me about sadness and loss. She talked with me about the pain my friend’s sister was feeling. She told me that my friend’s sister didn’t really mean that she wished I was dead instead of her sister. She just truly missed her sister. I missed her too. At the end of our talk, my grandmother said that the next time she confronted me, I should say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but your words can never hurt me.” I knew that was not true. Her words did hurt. But it felt strong and powerful to say. I just hoped she didn’t want to hurt me enough that she would physically hurt me, I also hoped that maybe we could support each other through our shared loss.
As expected, the next day, she and two of her friends intercepted me as I took my most circuitous route to grandma’s after school. The three of them blocked my path. She taunted me with wishing I was dead. I stood up, strong and straight, my lip, quivering, my eyes filling with tears, and I used the phrase my grandma had given me, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but your words can never hurt me.” She was surprised. I’d never talked back to her before. She and her friends turned and walked away, leaving me there with tears streaming down my face. For the first time I wasn’t afraid of her. Although I was still crying, I was proud of myself for standing up and speaking.
I ran the rest of the way to grandma’s house and told her what happened. She hugged me and told me she was proud of me. She gave me a Kleenex to blow my nose.
That was the last day my friend’s sister confronted me on my way home from school. It took several weeks before I trusted that it was over, but she went back to ignoring me, and pretending I didn’t exist. I much preferred that reaction.
I would like to say that we became friends over the common loss, we shared, but our age difference, our experience differences, and the nature of our grief kept that from happening.
I mourned the loss of my friend for the rest of the school year, acutely feeling her absence every day. Then the activities of summer drew my attention and my grief became less acute. When school started the next year, I was in a different classroom, and there wasn’t an empty desk. My friend’s sister had moved up to high school. There were no obvious reminders of her, but I did still think of her.
My six year old self learned about the pain of loss and the grief of absence. She learned that grief brings out different things in different people. She learned to stand up for herself a little. She learned that words hurt, even if we claim they don’t.