I will never stop thinking about you.
And I feel like a fraud because, really, I didn’t know you that well. Not as your family or your friends do. We only had three months or so after two years of passing ignorance. But we connected. Those were three months of daily Tumblr inboxes, liked photos, tweeted support. It sounds silly, but all grief between friends today sounds silly because it’s modern – we don’t languish over old letters, sob at gravesides, pick the petals off flowers. We go through old photos and scroll through feeds searching for hints, cries for help, indications that our friends could have been saved. I know I do, but I also know that messages back and forth, a night out or two, a promise to visit you in hospital – they aren’t anything close to what your family and real friends have.
But that is testament to you, I suppose, that I could know you properly for three months and that even the memory of you after four years is still a fucking punch in the gut. It was hard for me to imagine that your sickness, the cystic fibrosis that promised to kill you before 30, lived inside you. That your eyes and your laugh and your accent could conceal something so dangerous. “She didn’t look sick”, I have said, even though you were tiny and had a tube in your nose and spent most of the university year in hospital. I say it and what I mean is that you didn’t act sick. You spoke honestly and fluently of the way your sickness held you back, but you also danced and sang and joked about how your hospital bed was stopping you from getting laid. I went out with you one night and I just wanted to get to know you, instantly, this girl whose absence I had sometimes noticed in lectures. I didn’t know you were ill until a friend told me in the bathroom. It didn’t register how sick you were, that you could die while I knew you. Mortality was abstract.
I want to commit everything I know about you to paper before it’s swallowed into the depths of the internet. Whenever I dare to get sad or pathetic or serious about you I have to remember the image of the Emma I knew: tweeting on the news. Joking about her fanny. Dancing to Fall Out Boy. I actually credit you, privately, with getting me back into emo. Which again, sounds silly. When people die everything they ever did, every part they ever played in your days takes on a new significance. But how can I not find it significant that until that night together I had suppressed my love of emo for five years? I associated it with sadness and with the worst time of my life. Then I saw you: beautiful, funny, normal, dancing and laughing to Sugar We’re Goin Down. We screamed along in each other’s faces and the words came back to me. I went home and I listened to it again. I let myself love it. And it does seem silly, it does seem insignificant, but it was a great fucking night. You suffered for it: I had one day of a hangover, you had a week. But it was fun. You taught me to find the humour and joy in music again.
Grief is cruel and it has made me feel so fucking guilty, so aware of everything I could have done. I have to remind myself that there is no clean, perfect way to grieve. I feel like I’m betraying your memory when I get so sad and serious about you, when you were so optimistic and so funny about your illness. I feel like I’m betraying your family for caring as much as I do when I, really, hardly knew you. I feel guilty for promising to bring you cake in hospital but only when i got back from my holiday, if you felt better, anyway. You died while I was in Florida. My friends didn’t tell me, but the internet is cruel. I couldn’t miss it: post after post from people who I didn’t even realise knew you at all – such was your reach. “We’ll miss you Emma”, “I’m so sorry to hear @betseybunny”, etc etc ad infinitum. Screaming their grief into the void. They still comment on your posts. I did the same. I am doing the same.
The first thing I did, after sobbing in the shower and apologising to my boyfriend for my ugly grief, was sign up to be an organ donor. I urged everyone else to. I hadn’t done it before because I didn’t understand mortality and because it grossed me out. I instantly realised: why the fuck do I care what happens to my body when I die? When my lungs could save someone like Emma? Maybe if we were all less selfish she would be with us. Next I went downstairs and broke the news to my auntie. She asked: “how?” I told her you were sick. She said, “oh, so you knew then” as if any girl dying at 20 can ever be truly prepared for. As if dying ten years before you were expected to was predictable or acceptable. As if we are ever ready for death.
We went to Miami the next day. My overriding feeling was that it was temporary: the worst part of grief was forgetting, briefly, and wanting to text you. I would remember and burst into tears in a Starbucks all over again. I had the sun on my face and I was gasping for air. I felt so utterly alive and in the world and so aware that I was doing things you never could. I felt that, really, I did not deserve to be there any more than you did. I didn’t deserve to live when you couldn’t. I was homesick for my dirty grey city: I could not be in Miami, with the hot sun and my freckled skin and the palm trees. I wanted to die. I wanted my own bed. My sister stayed in my room that night and I sobbed silently so she wouldn’t hear. Being so far from home made it harder for me to comprehend that you were actually gone. That it wasn’t a lie, an accident, that it wouldn’t change. I still feel like that sometimes.
I wanted to speak to you because you were always so sweet when I was down in spite of your own problems. I couldn’t. I would buy a bag and expect you to like the photo of it. You couldn’t. I went to tag you when I spoke about you but it seemed wrong. I scrolled through the tweets and blogs I had missed while I was out having fun: I read back your fears about dying. You knew it was happening imminently, you were afraid, your family were having “big chats”. I read them now and I feel guilty, still, as if I could have read that you were at the end of your life and done anything to help. Your awareness and your ability to share that awareness with the world is both evidence of your honesty and another facet of how the internet has impacted grief. The paper published some of those blogs, but not the funny ones or the ones about sex. They censored you because they didn’t want to cause disrespect or distract from the matter at hand. You would have thought it was funny, but they didn’t know you.
Twice a year, every year since the 7th of July 2013, I am reminded of you cruelly. Facebook doesn’t give a shit about the grieving. There are other things that pop up, when I want to read your tweets or your friends post photos of you, but it’s your birthday and the anniversary of your death that really sting. On both my newsfeed is full of your face, and on the anniversary I actually get a notification about those posts we all made when you died. The pathetic attempts we made to summarise how we knew you. Twice a year we all remember, we all post, we donate some money, and we move on. For another six months or so before we are reminded again that you are no longer alive, anyway. Your blog and your Twitter are not comforting, but if they were deleted, it would be another death. They’re a time capsule now – I am 24. You are still 20, eternally. They show how cruelly your life was cut short; that you never had a job, a husband, a home. That you never will. The winter after you died I spiralled into the worst depression of my life, in part because I could not handle the fact that I was still alive. Me: cruel, selfish, narcissistic. When you – sweet, hilarious, selfless – were dead. Every birthday, every Christmas, every party reminded me that I was still alive and you were not. At our graduation they didn’t mention your name and we all collectively sighed and muttered among ourselves. Perhaps it was on us to remind them you existed.
Nobody really warns you that grieving never stops. It fades, a little, but in moments it hits me as quickly and as painfully as it did on that first day. It still surprises me sometimes that you aren’t just absent or on holiday. I didn’t know you for very long, and that complicates my grief further but ultimately it doesn’t matter. I feel selfish for being so hurt and traumatised but I know that were you here you would comfort me, call me silly, take me out if you felt up to it. I know you would see my posts and reach out. Maybe it’s unhealthy to read your blogs and tweets so often but they remind me who you were. When the memory of you is enough alone to make me burst into tears, sometimes I need to remember who I am grieving. You were not grief. You were not death or sickness. You were kind, you were funny, and you are gone.