Coping with death is never easy, but becoming more open about our bereavements definitely wouldn't do any harm.
There's never a convenient time for somebody you care about to die, but you hope to be somewhat able to cope with it when it finally does happen. Life is supposed to help you prepare for these things as you grow older, so it’s fairly jarring when the loss of somebody close to you upsets this model, particularly when you're young.
I was on a trip in New York when my best friend called to tell me that our other best friend, who we had both been close with since our early teens, had died suddenly in an accident in Barcelona. His words didn't compute at first. I think I calmly replied with something along the lines of, "Okay, man, well thanks for letting me know," before casually hanging up. It was only after replaying his words in my head that I had to call him back and find out what on Earth he was talking about.
The following three hours were spent walking around a Queens neighbourhood, confused and developing a gross scaly rash all over my face (apparently a side effect from the shock). Thousands of miles away from any familiar environment, the rest of that trip was entirely surreal, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of total powerlessness. A friend told me not to freak out – that "There’s no protocol for this, no textbook on what to do next." And, of course, he was right. Nothing can prepare you for the kind of gut-punch life is about to give you. There are general guidelines, sure, but bereavement is such an intensely personal experience that nothing can ever really ready you.
Once the trip was over and I'd returned to the UK, I decided against seeing his body. I was terrified of actually seeing a dead person, and worried that the last mental image I’d have of my friend would be him laying lifeless and cold. That was my first mistake, because when you aren’t present for a person's death, you should do everything you can to make it as real as possible for yourself afterwards. Grievance counsellors often give this kind of advice to patients, saying that immersing yourself in tangible reminders of somebody’s absence will act as a catalyst in accepting their death, and I couldn’t agree more. The last you saw of this person, they were walking around, breathing, thinking, doing what they do. Then you're told that they're gone. Your logical mind understands the cause and effect, but inwardly and viscerally you just don’t believe it. The finality of the situation is so incomprehensible that it makes you want to throw up every time you’re reminded that it really happened.
Because this person was so young, it all seemed even more inconceivable. We, as human beings, have this silly innate belief that death isn’t something we have to think about yet, that it’s something that’ll happen someday a long time from now, when our own personal narratives have finally drawn to a close. In turn, this makes the whole experience even more disconcerting when somebody so close to your own age has their story cut short.
I assumed that the death of our best friend would only bring me and my remaining friend closer together, and in some indistinguishable way it did, but not at all how I had expected it to. Our experiences of our friend were so similar to one another's that I thought it would only be natural for us to tackle our bereavements together; to talk about him and all the countless funny things he did, to look over old photos and videos – but this wasn't the case at all.
In retrospect, because we were both experiencing grief at the same time, a team effort probably wasn’t the best way to go. It might have thrown either of us off course, possibly at a crucial point in our own processes. One of us might have caught the other out on a "good day," looking to reminisce for our own sake, when a distraction from the whole thing was all the other really needed.
That friendship aside, I was surprised that some people outside of my close relationships were so unwilling to confront the subject. It's as if people are worried that as soon as you start talking about it you'll wind up crying uncontrollably, and most of the time that clearly isn't true. At times it feels as though there's a conspiracy of silence, as if everybody knows about this whole "dead friend thing", but steers well clear of it in conversation. That's difficult: when people act like nothing has happened, it feels like nothing short of treachery.
Mind you, when you do end up talking about it, it can be even worse. On so many occasions I've found a conversation naturally gravitating towards my friend, somebody asking, "And what does that friend do now?" and then responding awkwardly when I tell them he isn't with us anymore. You feel like you’ve ruined the atmosphere, and find yourself apologising. Apologising for mentioning something that you certainly never wanted to happen, and something that your dead friend, parent, sibling or lover may not have wanted either. I'm then always angry at myself afterwards for having ever said sorry, for the sake of other people’s discomfort, for the sake of social nicety.
Obviously each person experiences the typical stages of grief at different times, in various ways, sometimes partially, sometimes not at all, depending on their circumstances. But the most noticeable transition for me was when the concentrated pockets of sadness turned into longer, more drawn-out bouts of melancholy. To be uncertain of why something previously so recognisable has suddenly become so fragmented is a pretty confusing thing. If it's commonly accepted that bereavement imitates the conditions of depression in some ways, that it feels so similar, then perhaps it should be considered in a similar way, however temporary it is.
Of course, what I’m talking about is sudden and unexpected bereavement – but in terms of how well equipped you are to deal with these things at a young age, I can't imagine that anticipatory grief is much easier. Does having a chance to prepare yourself, to say your goodbyes, do much to deter the anxieties and sense of isolation when surrounded by young people, who – for the most part – are having an absolute blast?
Death is not an easy thing to discuss – especially for young people, who are less likely to have experienced it – and nobody wants to be the insensitive prick who upsets somebody stricken with grief. But bereavement is already an isolating experience, so remember this: if you've lost a friend, or have a friend who's lost a friend, talk about it. Be candid. Be frank. It can help.