“Grief is a Harrowing Thing” – Personal Essay

TW/CW: Mentions of su*cide, death/dying, etc.

I may have made more phone calls on the morning of October 12, 2021 than I’ve ever had in my entire life.

And that was just yesterday. And the day before that, I had completed a 5000-word story for my first writing competition. I was smiling. I posted on Instagram about it. I was excited to tell one of my best friends about it — he had never read this story, and I was eager to share.

He would never read this story. He took his own life over the weekend.

There wasn’t a reason why.

I just remember the phone call. I was one of the first of his friends to know. His family called me “special to him”. All I heard was, “He’s gone.”

My body seemed to move like clockwork in the immediate seconds after. I remember my roommate clutching my hand, and when I hung up, I said to her, “I have a math test today.” I repeated it, maybe twice, then I said, “How am I supposed to tell everyone else?” I saw her tear up.

(To my roommate, I’m sorry. I hope you get a good grade on that exam you were taking.)

I emailed my professors. Copy-and-pasted the same thing, with a few words different. Each replied with, “My condolences . . .”

I felt telling people about his death became my job. I didn’t want anyone to find out through a shitty Instagram post or a picture on a story with a cryptic caption. I didn’t want anyone to wonder what the hell happened. I called one person. I cried. That person helped me tell others.

I called a second person. I cried with her. I called a third. A fourth. A fifth. I began scouring my contacts. Who knew him? Who knew of him? Who was in his life for years, and who was in his life for seconds?

I began to call, and after a while, I knew exactly what to say. I didn’t cry. I just said it matter-of-factly. Each response was so similar. It was silence, then it was, “What?” Then it was, “Let me know if there’s anything I could do.”

It was those who didn’t reply with silence that I still think about.

He wouldn’t do that, right?

How could I have an answer to that?

In the moments after death (or finding out about it), I began to think of what I should do next. Dress shopping was one of them. Jeez, I don’t even like the color black on me. It brought too much attention to my eyes. My friends and I could do nothing but crack jokes.

“You guys have to send fit checks,” one of them said.

Such normalcy in a world torn apart.

A few of us went to Red Robin afterward. Miraculously, none of us cried. Though, we did laugh about how we dragged our feet across the pavement, and how each of us looked dressed for completely different events. That poor waiter, so down-to-earth, probably thought we had just come from an awful college exam. A friend and I made eye contact across the booth as I said, “Sorry, we just had a day.”

We began sharing memories of him, and laughing about dumb things only close friends could know about him. I knew that if he was sitting with us, he would be pouting. Whining all like, “Shut the hell up! It was one time!” I took my food home but I never ate it. I was just glad the water I had subsided my splitting headache.

Then there was a gathering at my house. My friends and I all had pizza. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t talk about what happened much. I think a lot of us were still trying to process that it even happened. I stood outside and talked to my partner with my soggy Red Robin leftover burger.

He said to me a few things that I would remember. We came to realize that we grieved very similarly. It helped.

Grief is an odd thing. There’s the moment you find out about a death (those breathless moments, those chilling moments, those anger-filled, empty moments), then the moments after. The moments that answer, “What comes next?” The moments where you have to feel the shock, rather than just live it.

I’m still trying to find a word to these moments. I keep finding it all funny. And then I just keep remembering all the stories we used to write as kids.

He was my first ever writer friend, and I hope you all come to remember that. True writer friends are such rare finds in this world. They uplift you in ways a non-writer couldn’t. In the most personal way possible. He did that for me. He had always wanted to read the newest version of my next novel.

I would always say, “Maybe your next birthday. Turn nineteen first, then we’ll see.”

And man, I never took him driving. Never seen him drive. Never saw him get married. Never went biking, rock-climbing, exploring. Never went on a beach trip. A concert. We were planning to do all that. It was always, “Soon.”

He would probably tell us all to stop crying. He’s having a few last laughs wherever he is.

Most feel a hole in their lives when someone is gone. I feel I was privileged enough to be left with a few things to fill it. I knew him for about six years of my life. I got to know his writing, and therefore I got to know his soul. His soul had always been young.

Years ago, he and I’s friendship made it into my novel in the form of two characters: Tabitha and Thorin. I will cherish those two characters. I vow to give them enough page time.

In the after, I thought of what to do. I thought that the only thing I could do was write. That was all he’s ever wanted for me — to be able to write, because it made me happier than anything. He understood that more than most. We wrote for similar reasons — to escape.

Now, at least, I can write for something different. Something healthier. Something whole: myself, in the memory of those I lost.

It’s a privilege to have gained something from loss, as harrowing as it all is.

My First Experience In A Writers’ Critique Workshop (+ Life Updates)

As most of you know, I moved to college around the beginning of August. Not gonna lie, I had a hard first start — there were a lot of tears during the adjustment period (my partner and friends can attest to this), and overall I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I contemplated going home and staying there within my second week. Parties weren’t really my scene, so I wasn’t keen on going to a lot of the college parties happening then. I was always at home with a big school workload that I wasn’t used to, and everything I did felt like I was falling farther behind.

But then, classes passed by, I learned the bus route, I caught up with my work, and I became acquainted with classmates that were just as lost as I. I began to see what worked for me and what didn’t. My roommates had been amazing (Erin, if you’re seeing this, you keep me fed, girl). Streets and schedules began to feel familiar.

And then, my saving grace came: clubs. Oh, extracurricular clubs. A scene so comforting, especially when I was in high school.

Within my third week, I had located the Creative Writing Club (but here it’s called the English Club). Mine back at my high school wasn’t very workshop-y. We liked to announce fun events on slides packed with memes during each meeting and did writing exercises within the club. Overall, it was a pretty loose, unstructured area of writers just writing things in a room together — or just eating lunch while talking about writing.

When I walked into my university’s English Club, I was about ten minutes late. I had gotten an email from the week before containing three student works. If we could, we were to read these before the meeting and leave comments. Simple enough.

It was silent in there. The desks were gathered in a circle. Every person looked older than me, and looked up at me when I entered. I sat, heart in my throat, at the seat closest to the club president — the only member I had talked to beforehand.

And then, the president introduced herself. She went through the basic club expectations, took attendance, all that jazz, and the workshop officially started. An author of one of the pieces was called, and advice, praise, and critiques were dished from left and right. There were little to no pauses in these moments.

I had been in critique groups before, sure, but never with people my age. And never with people with such candidness.

Each person had seemed so calculating, so knowledgeable, so . . . mastered at the art of Creative Writing. Many were English majors. Many were prose writers, many were poets. Some were STEM majors, with stories of fantasy and adventure. There was one particular writer that had invited us to edit the beginnings of his full fantasy novel that he had written at the same age I started writing mine. These people were like me, and in the same vein, knew more than me. They talked about things I didn’t know (sorry AP Literature teacher, I still don’t know what the hell a paradox is), and picked out things even I couldn’t see in the text.

The experience was brutal. It was overwhelming. It was ego-shattering.

It was awesome.

I went home, invigorated, scared out of my wits, and then sent in my story, “Perseverance and the Sea” as soon as possible.

A week had passed right by after that. I remember walking in, early this time, and preparing for my story to be read aloud. I just didn’t prepare to be first. There was a silence that stretched on for ages. No one seemed to have anything to say as I sat there, heart pounding in my chest.

Then, a voice.

Up to now, I don’t remember who it was. But they led off with telling me about my sentence structure, and how it was quite repetitive, and how it could be varied. And then, more people began to speak.

I was met with constructive critiques about my sentences, about my overall metaphor, about how I could’ve done something better using this way, this way, this way . . . Things I was writing down and taking mental notes of for later.

And then I was met with compliments. My face grew red as people began to tell me how solid my story was. How cool it was. How I nailed a high-concept piece right on the head. I had a comparison to The Phantom Tollbooth (I just about cried).

I received questions. I had a few stories to tell of my own, and spoke of the inspiration behind “Perseverance and the Sea”, and how it was written during a time of severe writers’ block.

After everything, I got back to my apartment, and I excitedly told my boyfriend all about it. I mentally prepared to go to more weeks of workshopping. Searched my Google Drive for more stories to send in. I commented on the next week’s pieces and exchanged critiques and sent compliments their way during our session.

It got easier with more attendances. My voice began to rise up more and more within the crowd of writers and speakers.

On Tuesday, I had my third meeting. At the end of it, while I was searching my phone for the next bus time, a girl approached me. She asked my name.

“I loved your story from last week,” she said. “I showed my suite-mate and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this girl should write a book!'”

If bodies could melt, mine would’ve. I would’ve been a puddle into the floor that seeped into the vents of that old building.

I had never thought my writing was memorable. Nor worthy to be passed around outside of a space specifically meant for English.

To me, writing was everything. It took up my entire headspace.

But when I’d talk with others about my writing, I always had to say, “You remember that piece I wrote? So, remember the part when . . .” My writing, to others, always seemed like a strong breeze — it would rustle you at first, shake you in the moment, then be forgotten about.

And here was someone who had thought about it long after my critique week had finished. Who had shown it to others. Who had gone out of their way to approach me and let me know.

It was a small interaction, I know. But there’s nothing that I have been thinking about more than that moment.

I haven’t been able to write Magic-Wielders in a while. Every day has been swamped with work. And honestly, I like to have a few hours to myself to mindlessly play video games. Magic-Wielders, though being something that fills me with great joy, takes a lot of brain power to write — brain power I would never have by the end of the day.

But college has never stopped me from writing. In fact, I’ve been doing more variety than I have in my entire life. For my creative nonfiction class, I had to write a personal essay; I wrote about my skin and my body and my relationship with it. For my rhetoric class, I had to write a speech; I explained how there should be more representation in children’s fiction. Both five pages, one of them double-spaced, one of them single-spaced. Both of them different kinds of writing.

Everyday, I write something. I write about writing and I write about assigned readings. Everyday, I read at least 40 pages of something. My pencils are dull and so are my highlighters. I read, I read, and I learn. I begin to memorize these authors I’m introduced to — I begin to know their sentence structures by heart. I begin to learn their lessons and take them into mine. I begin to know how they write and why they write.

I’ve been made aware of fiction contests held by my university I would be able to send to (I’ve never liked competitions for writing, but now I’m thinking about it, I really am).

And just the last week, I applied for a job for my school’s literary magazine. I wanted to be an editor, just like in high school. But instead, I was offered the job as a staff writer for one of their other branches.

I signed the papers. Today. Just a few hours ago. I have a job!

That’s the life of English majors, I suppose.

Besides writing and the wonderful world of English, I have been attending other things. The Filipino Student Association, for one. It’s great! I went for ice cream with a bunch of strangers I didn’t know (sorry, mom). I’ve joined a musicians club. I sing and play tunes with a bunch of people now! I’m open to learning more about electric guitar. My roommate and I like to get fast food a lot. I can stay out as late as I can in the library. I get coffee with old friends and newer classmates.

Life is still rough, and school is still kicking my ass, but I’m balanced right now. I don’t feel like I’ll fall over easily.

That’s what I’ve wanted ever since I moved out to college.

I persevered, and made it through the sea.

(Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash)