Still Hurting: My Journey Through Grief and Into Healing
When Jessica and I hung out, there were a few things you could be certain of: We would be obnoxious, we would get into trouble, and we would laugh until we were rolling around on the floor because our sides ached. I believe we met in pre-school, but my earliest memory of Jessica is from kindergarten, when she was cast as Goldilocks in Mrs. Truitt’s annual production of Goldilocks and The Three Bears. I was jealous, of course, because I wanted to be the star, even if that meant playing the girl (foreshadowing, indeed!). For years we remained friends in the small town of Farmer City, Illinois, and by the fifth grade I had a whopper crush. I invited Jessi to go roller skating at Skateland and eat pizza after, which at ten years old made me the king of romance, I thought, and it totally worked! On the way home we held hands in the back of my mother’s minivan…major big kid stuff. That night we talked on the phone and decided we were officially going out. It was almost Christmas and on the last day before winter break she gave me a gift. It was a tiny key on a chain I could wear around my neck. She then revealed her necklace: a matching chain with a heart, the heart having a key-shaped hole that my key fit into like a puzzle-piece. She had given me the key to her heart. The romance must have last several days, at least, until we broke up over some silly childhood argument. It probably wasn’t the last time we would fight but I only remember good after that.
We made it through our awkward adolescent years both members of the speech team and both acting in school plays. Jessica was legitimately one of the funniest people I knew. She had a bawdy sense of humor, even back then, and was an incredible mimic. One of the Character’s I created for a speech in High School was a donkey that said only, “HEE-HAW!!!” and Jessi would howl with laughter at the performance. Jessi was my litmus test for humor. If it tickled her, I knew it was good. We were pranksters in high school. Once, we cut out pictures from a Playboy magazine and stuck them in the picture frame display at Kmart when nobody was looking and snickered as people hurried past in embarrassed confusion.
Just a few short weeks after we walked down the isle at graduation, arm in arm, Jessica was the first person to arrive at my going away party. I was leaving the next day to start a new life in Hollywood and as excited as I was, I knew I would miss my friend dearly. We cried in each other’s arms and said goodbye. With a 2,000 mile safety net separating me from my conservative hometown, the freedom of living in the world’s most exciting city got into my bones. I was finally able to be myself, and revealed in strictest confidence to a handful of my closest friends that I was gay. Days later I got a terrifying phone call from Jessica. Her father had come home from playing golf at the country club and asked, “Is Lucas gay? (a staff member from our high school) says he heard that Lucas is gay, everyone was talking about it.” I was filled with panic, but glad she told me. At 18, my biggest nightmare had become reality. My cover was blown. Grown men…faculty from my high school, were slamming Coors Light and gossiping about my sexuality. Coming out to my family on my own terms, when I felt ready was no longer an option. I had to spare them the embarrassment of hearing the news from someone else. On the phone with Jessica, I made the difficult decision to call my family that night and tell them I was gay.
I was with Jessi the first time I ever had a drink at a bar. When I returned home for spring break she used her fake I.D. to buy us Amaretto sours all night long, which quickly became my favorite drink. I was the one who moved to Hollywood, but I so admired how worldly and adult she had become. It couldn’t have been much more than a year later when I put on a hideous snake-skin bikini and strip teased for her at her bachelorette party. Somewhere I still have the garter belt I caught the next day at her wedding. I was standing by a lake in Fairbanks, Alaska on my first acting gig when she called to tell me she was going to be a mom. She named her baby Maddy.
From then on it got harder and harder to keep in touch. Her husband was in the military and she moved so frequently I sometimes lost track of where she was living, but whenever we would talk it was always just like old times: effortless, uncontrollably honest, and hilarious. It had probably been a year or more since we had talked when I woke up to a message from another dear friend, Lindsay, asking, “Can I call you?” Lindsay and I had a deep connection, but had fallen out of touch over the eleven years since high school, so I knew something must be very wrong. I couldn’t imagine what she might be calling about but I was afraid enough that I slowly and deliberately cooked my breakfast before writing back, “Call me.”
“Jessi passed away last night,” Lindsay said. This news did not hit me as hard as you might think. I didn’t know the news would be about Jessica, but a natural worrier, I knew something bad was coming and I had prepared myself for the worst as I nervously ate my eggs. “Ok,” I said, absorbing the blow with a catatonic-like calm. I remember being touched that I was one of the first people Lindsay contacted with the news. After all our years apart she knew, she told me, how special I was to Jessi, and how special Jessi was to me. It felt like several minutes before I decided to ask what had happened. Freak accident…unknown illness…it seemed irrelevant, but eventually I wanted to know. In 29 years I had never heard three words more devastating than what came next.
“She shot herself.”
Instantly, I felt as though I’d been sucker-punched in the stomach. Time stood still when I learned Jessi had passed. It started racing again when I learned how. My husband, David, was standing in the bathroom getting ready for work. I couldn’t speak but as soon as his eyes met mine I began sobbing. I’ve been called many things in my life but “cry-baby” is not one of them. I’m strong. I hold myself together. Not this time. In nearly seven years he had never seen me like this.
A loss of this magnitude was completely unknown to me. I already cried about it, and I figured that was it. I got dressed and headed off to work thinking it would be a sad but mostly normal day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was experiencing denial, often the first of the five stages of grief. I was a complete wreck. “What’s wrong?” was all it took before I was reduced to a slobbering snotty basket-case in front of my co-workers. I last fifteen minutes in my busy Hollywood production office before I was sent home. A few days later I was on the phone with my mother, inconsolable. Even she was freaked out, I think. This was a side she had never seen, a pain unlike any I had ever experienced. The pain told me something though. I knew that for her loss to hurt this much, I must have loved Jessi even more than I could have realized, and I hoped beyond hoping that Jessi realized it...but I’ll never know.
Another way denial hit me was in denying that I had a right to feel how I felt. My instinct was to write Jessi’s parents to assure them that whatever doubts they may be having, I thought they were perfect parents, or to write her husband and try to comfort him by telling him this is not his fault, but I was sensitive to the fact that even a letter crafted to bring them peace may do just the opposite. How presumptuous to think I could offer any words that might be comforting to them! How audacious to think my suffering was even close to what they must be feeling! How dare I make this about me? This man of many words was at an utter loss. The truth is though, we have a right to our feelings and we have a responsibility to ourselves to feel whatever is authentic to us in the moment. We can encourage ourselves to be strong, but we must sometimes allow ourselves to be weak.
Eventually, I learned that the most powerful tool I had to get me through this insanely difficult time was my own perspective. I’m no Pollyanna but I knew that if I wanted to get through this, I was going to have to try my hardest to see the love in each aspect of the situation. I was going to have to be gentle with myself, and gentle with my memory of Jessica. In other words, I couldn’t change what happened, but I could choose how I would respond to it, and I challenged myself to make the choices that would bring me the most healing.
I chose to open up to my friends about my feelings and emotions. Lindsay and I grew close again as we supported each other through picking up the pieces of our wounded souls. Having someone to talk through my experience with that knew what I was feeling was tremendously helpful. Being honest with my friends and coworkers about what I was going through was also quite helpful. If I was grumpy, distant, or if being brought the wrong dish at a fancy Italian restaurant in Sunset Plaza set me off on a crying fit, they understood and responded kindly. I remember weeping uncontrollably as my husband and roommates held me. When they offered their love in the form of a shoulder, a hug, or a listening ear, I chose to take it.
When the anger stage hit, it was unexpected. I was in the shower one day feeling sad, probably crying, when suddenly I got so mad I think I slammed my fist against the wall. “A month ago everything was fine! My life was going great, and then THIS had to happen? I’m SICK of feeling this way,” I told myself. I just wanted it to stop hurting. I had a million, “How could she’s” and “what if’s,” phrases commonly associated with the bargaining stage of grief. I wanted to scold her for doing it the way that she did. I wanted to blame myself for not being a better friend. I wanted to stick my nose in the air telling myself that I would never do what she did, no matter how bad things were, but again, I had to chose the perspective that would bring me the most healing. I chose compassion. My dear friend must have been suffering unimaginable pain. The woman who ended her life is not the woman I knew and loved for 25 years. Period.
Depression, another of the five stages of grief, hit me hard and fast. I wanted to outsmart the devastation I was feeling by running to my doctor and asking for an antidepressant drug, Wellbutrin. I wasn’t a fan of antidepressants but I had tried them in the past and figured this is what they are there for, to help me get through a rough time and discontinue use when I’m better. I realize now that this was the wrong choice for me. Pain is a natural reaction to painful circumstances. Just as using caffeine or other stimulants to avoid feeling tired will leave us feeling depleted when we should have listened to our bodies and rested, avoiding emotional pain by using medications that numb us to situational depression can rob us of the opportunity to become more resilient to it. It can also make it harder to notice when our emotional state is improving. Healing is nonlinear; there will be healing moments of joy on your painful road to recovery and you don’t want to be numb to those when they occur. My healing process included learning to tolerate pain and dissatisfaction so every disappointment wouldn’t knock me on my ass again.
Even in your deepest pain you’ll find reasons to be grateful if your heart is open enough to notice them. Count your blessings. This may sound absurd, but one thing that helped me get through is water. Water! As I was in a depressed stupor one day, I lifted my empty glass to the dispenser on the fridge and when I heard the click that sent water streaming into it, there was also a click in my brain. “My God,” I thought, “There are children to whom the idea of being able to simply hold out a glass any time you want and have it filled with clean drinking water would sound like science fiction fantasy.” Surely I can get through this.
Some people say you should talk to your departed loved ones. I used to think those people are crazy…and maybe they are. Do the departed exist on another plane? Can they hear you speak to them from the other side? Maybe not, but I chose to do it anyway. After all, this wasn’t about knowing the secrets of the universe, this was about my own healing, and it made me feel better to speak to her, to have imaginary conversations with her, and write notes to her. I even left her a tribute in the Temple at Burning Man, which to me is as sacred as any church, and is set ablaze in a beautiful closing ceremony. I believe that when you die only love survives. Not only is the bad insignificant, it melts away entirely, an illusion from the past. So in that context, when people say those words that used to make my skin crawl, “Heaven gained another angel,” it’s actually true, because the kingdom of Heaven is merely the love in your heart, and all that’s left after death of the physical body is the essential goodness of the soul. So I talk to and remember Jessica as the angel that she is and always was. This helped me get to the final stage of grief: acceptance.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that we’re all cool and everything is fine. Acceptance means deciding that despite our pain we will live as fully and completely as we can. We will go on. Hopefully we’ll be stronger in some way. We will still hurt from time to time, often even, but we won’t dwell on the pain. For me, accepting my loss meant knowing that my dear friend Jessi exists only in my heart, and letting that be enough. After-all, that’s where she’s been my entire life.
Lucas and his husband, David, run a healing practice in West Hollywood called Embrace. To find out more visit embraceheals.com.