Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
“I just want something bad to happen to me,” I said as my friend and I sat in a corner of our school library, our homework spread out in front of us, “so I know what it’s like to be sad.”
This could have been your run-of-the-mill insensitive eighth-grade comment, but I was making it to a person who was just short of a year past losing her mother to a rare disease.
She gave me a critical look and said, “Don’t ever wish that pain on yourself. I don’t wish that on anyone.” Rightly chastised, I turned back to my math problems. I’m still not sure why she didn’t tear up our friendship right then and there.
When bad things did happen to me, I told myself they weren’t of a great enough magnitude to unlock this mythic knowledge of pain. Grandparents die. People get sick. Everyone has acquaintances unexpectedly pass away, though not usually in college.
Losing a parent, however, wasn’t something I could minimize. I finally couldn’t deny that I had met the monster, watched it grab and dangle my life by the ankles.
Recently, a different friend mentioned off-hand that her dad’s cancer had taken a turn for the worst. “It’s just… you know how it is,” she offered. I nodded with the phone against my ear while my heart clenched. No, I don’t, is what I truly wanted to say.
I’ve met the monster, and I’ve walked beside it, but I do not know it.
I know how it feels to lose my mother: suddenly, from eight hundred miles away, after texting each other an hour earlier, before I graduated college and truly began to shape my own life.
I do not know what it is like to watch my father go in and out of hospitals for years, not knowing if scans will come back clear this time. To lose my grandmother to a deadly virus. To journey with my mother through a disease and squeeze her hand for the last time. To wake up to a phone call that tells of a friend who took their own life. To bury my sister before I am old enough to comprehend the permanence of death. To say goodbye to my father before surgery and never have him wake up from it. I do not know grief’s many faces.
In eighth grade, I believed that a bolt of true pain would give me a new understanding—unveil a secret handbook for being a better support person. But there is no secret handbook. Experience is neither a prerequisite for nor a shortcut to empathy. You still struggle to find the right words when someone else is hurting. You still don’t know how to fix your friend’s life when it falls apart at the seams. Even after you know your monster, you cower from the teeth of theirs.
Now a few years removed from my earth-shattering event, I listen to podcasts like Everything Happens and try to glean, through Kate Bowler and her guests’ wisdom, how to witness other’s pain. I like tweets, short windows into people’s walks through grief. I read poems centered around loss. I still seek out other people’s experiences of death to better understand my own, and I still strive to love my family and friends walking through their darknesses the best I can.
But I am not naïve enough anymore to believe that I can know someone else’s monster merely because I have slept enough nights beside my own.
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.