Survivor's Guilt

My father read a book on mourning and told me that my grief would start with denial and end with acceptance. When you died, I grieved, but it started with tears and progressed to guilt, and I am not so optimistic as to assume that I will ever come to terms with the haunting way you looked but did not see me that last day at the hospital. The way I watched you deteriorate from spunky boy to sickly creature. Oh, Don. I may not ever accept your death.

As I said, it started with the tears that spilled out of me at Walter Reed Hospital the day I watched them flip the switch that was keeping you alive, and they continued into the night as I lay awake crying in my bed and finally moved down the hall to cry into my mother's neck like a little girl, much younger than fourteen. When I collapsed against the shower wall the next morning, defeated, tears ran down my exhausted body to mingle with the dirty water gathering at my feet. Not strong enough to deny that you were gone, I cried because I knew you were never coming back. That was when I realized the five steps of accepting loss are an imaginary comfort. My grief would be, as all grievances are, something indefinable and alien. No five steps could outline the process. Mourning is never so neat.

I trusted in the steps—denial, bargaining, anger, grief, acceptance—and came to realize that they did not apply. Paradoxically, I experienced something I had never expected: that elusive and nonsensical emotion, a seeming psychosis, known as survivor's guilt. While I never despaired over the senselessness of my life versus your death, my mind raced for hours considering all the ways in which I should have been a better friend. How foolish of me to invite you to homecoming when your left leg could barely walk, let alone dance; how insensitive of me to bring my boyfriend, who is whole and well, to the same movie as you, forcing anyone to make a comparison; how wicked of me to read those poems you gave me, your own compositions about fear of death, and sob over them for you, and never bring them up. You were my best friend. You died on your fifteenth birthday, six days before mine—how you used to lord those six days over me! How you would taunt me the week between the fourth of June and the tenth! But now I'm older than you ever were, maybe old enough that if you were alive, and came to me with those poems and fears, I would listen and know what to say. But then

I was too selfishly locked in my own fears to tell you how I loved and would miss you, and so you never got to tell me all the ways you loved and would miss the world.

And oh, that last day in your hospital room—standing by your bedside, holding your bloated hand—it was my father who read to your unconscious body from Me Talk Pretty One Day (oh, how you loved to laugh…) because I was crying too hard to choke out the words from the page. That was the day I studied your face and realized what I needed to tell you, but even then I was too cowardly. I never told you I loved you before you died.

Now I am suffering from a highly unselective memory. You wore stonewashed blue jeans, and I see your gimpy walk in every pair on the street. You loved Green Day and Nirvana, and I hear your voice in every song on the radio. We used go bowling on Fridays, you and I, and the last time I went bowling I had to leave before the game was finished. Like a phantom limb, you linger. I leap at chances to mention your name. The past tense has never seemed so cruel.