A Letter to My Younger Self: What I Wish I Knew About Grief As a Teen
Dedicated to all the young women who have lost someone dear.
My father died 10 days after my 14th birthday. That was 15 years ago. I thought I was over it. I went to therapy, journaled, wrote sappy poems, and cried a lot. But that was not enough.
Grief does not decay as quickly as our bodies do. It's sticky, like the gum you can't get off your shoe. It arrives unannounced and ambushes you from behind, like a rear ender when you're already late. If you're lucky, you let yourself sob to a stranger on the street. Mascara smeared under eyes for a raccoon surprise.
Feel the feels my friend. Feel them now, so they don't get stuck inside you and make you sticky.
Below is a letter written to my adolescent self of what I wish I had known then, that I am finally figuring out now.
Dearest 14-year-old Barrett,
I am so sorry you lost your father so young. I am sorry you feel abandoned, unsafe, and completely off-kilter. But you don't have to stay in that pain. The catch is, in order to move past the grief and guilt you must sit it the discomfort of its dark shadow. Cry. And then cry some more. When someone asks, "How are you?" you are allowed to say "Not so great today."
You will not help your cause by numbing the pain with alcohol, drugs, over exercise, anorexia, or drowning yourself in homework. When you are 21 (or younger and rebellious), please remember there is a difference between enjoying a glass of wine with a friend and gulping six shots of gin on an empty stomach, because you can no longer bear the sadness.
Wounds just want to be acknowledged. They're like crying babies. Usually they cry for love and gentle touch. And even when you heal from this deep grief, you will still experience sadness. There is no magic potion to fast forward. But you are magic my dear.
Don't become morbid and obsess over how things could have been. Don't fall into feeling sorry for yourself. And don't numb with escapist activities when the pain is exquisite. Instead, use your magic. Use this sadness to fuel the fire of creativity.
How can you express and let the sad anger move through you?
Dance, write, cry, scream, run, savor nature, write a letter to dad with things you wish you could have said, and serve others who have similar experiences.
Remember when you were on the verge of nervous tears before swimming the 500 freestyle (20 laps), or before going on a three week backpacking adventure camp? Dad would always say, "The ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what they are made for."
As he hugged you tight and said, "Go get 'em sweetheart" the smell of his Brooks Brothers cologne and the softness of his blue cashmere sweater, and those words transformed those anxious butterflies into powerful ones. That is the magic. Knowing that nothing good ever comes from anything easy. And when we are scared, it means we must.
Feel the sorrow. When it bubbles up your throat, don't choke it in. Let that bad boy rip and weep. Weep loudly. Even though it may scare you and your neighbors. Let it move through and out you. Like a virus, you must ride it out. It's a long ride, but it's worth it.
Unstick yourself from being stuck by sailing into the dark harbor and go get 'em sweetheart.
Originally published on Elephant Journal