As I hit close to the two-and-a-half year mark since my big tragedy in December 2020, I am stunned that I am still here.
Still crying. Still smiling. Still sad. Still happy.
If you know me or have read any of the pieces on grief that I have written on Elephant, you know what a long journey the past few years have been for me.
During year one, all of 2021, I was heartbroken and gutted beyond anything I had ever experienced. During those 12 months, I did not believe, not for one second, that there would ever come a day that I would get past the pain, a kind which I had never experienced.
While I never consciously felt suicidal, I went to bed almost every single night hoping and praying that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. My three closest friends were freaked out enough to check in on me almost every single day of that year.
Yes, I know. I am beyond blessed to have such people in my life.
But I always say that I did not just lose the two most important human beings in my life in December 2020. The following year I also lost many others who are still very much breathing. Nothing shows you more about the wretched face of humanity than when you go through the aftermath of grief.
So, yes. Been there, done that. Have the T-shirt to show for it.
Year two, 2022, was better. One of the ultimate cliches that people will toss at those who are grieving is that “Time is a big healer.” Once the awful thoughts about what you would like to do to people who throw such platitudes at you without ever having experienced loss like you have passes, you realize that no, time is not a big healer. But time teaches you how to navigate living with grief.
This was also the year when the world (post-pandemic) opened up. Given my loss had happened during the peak of the pandemic only added to my agony. But 2022 allowed me to leave the four walls of my home. I was able to travel for the first time in two years, and that helped me navigate 2022 much better than 2021.
By the time 2023 arrived, I noticed myself laughing more. I found myself hanging out socially with people. I found a definite change within me. I am not who I was in 2021. Or even 2022.
Sometimes, I even feel lighter. Better.
And then I don’t feel lighter or better.
This year has been strange. I find myself energetic, happy even, and taking one step forward at a time. And almost a second later, I become sad and take one step backward. So much of 2023 has been about finding myself in the exact same place. I haven’t fallen back to the wretchedness of 2021 or the sadness of 2022, but I haven’t moved forward as I had hoped either.
I find myself stuck in a place where I feel happy and sad, all at the same time. What was this place? Why couldn’t I make any sense of what this feeling was? I’ve been constantly questioning myself about this extraordinary place and space I find myself in. And I had no clue how to get out of this funk.
It was during this uneasy time in my life that I came across a quote from Billy Bob Thornton.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about Thornton. I remember him as being one half of the Billy Bob-Angelina Jolie crazy love story. I mean, who hasn’t heard of them drinking each other’s blood or wearing chains around their necks with vials of their blood?
Over the past few years, I reacquainted myself with Thornton—the actor—from the TV series “Goliath.” So while Thornton was no stranger to me, I knew little about him.
When I found myself doom-scrolling Instagram at 3 a.m. as I suffered through yet another insomnia-filled night, Thornton was the last person I thought would be the answer to my almost six months of agonizing over my 2023 state of mind. But answer he did.
This quote made my grieving heart feel seen:
“I’ve never been the same since my brother died. There is a melancholy inside me that never goes away. I’m 50 percent happy and 50 percent sad at any given moment. And the only advice I can give people for when you lose someone like that is…you won’t ever get over it. And the more you know that and embrace it, the better off you are.”
These words were such an insane OMG moment for me when I heard them. I have replayed the video what feels like a hundred times and I choke up every single time. Each and every word resonates with me because that’s exactly how I feel. Remember what I said above about taking one step forward and then one step backward and finding myself in exactly the same position? Thornton explains that so much better.
I’m no longer gutted by grief; that extreme level of wanting to go to bed and not waking up the next morning has gone away. But I am nowhere close to being the happy person I was before December 2020 or the ravaged-with-grief person I was in 2021 or the extremely sad person I was in 2022 either.
Honestly, I did not know exactly how I felt till I heard Thornton. I now realize that what I feel is a sense of deep melancholy that has become a basic and intrinsic part of who I am. I, too, feel sad and happy at the same time—every single minute of every single hour of every single day. I find myself laughing and crying, at the same time. Every time I smile, there’s a part within me that’s sad.
Thornton is an amazing actor who has even won an Oscar. There is no doubt that he is an extraordinarily talented human being. But I was still shocked and awed at the profoundly simple way he explained the process of grief and loss as it impacts us long-term, especially once the wretchedness that strikes us in the immediacy of losing someone goes away.
I immediately went online to learn more about Thornton’s brother, Jimmy Thornton, who passed away at the young age of 30 in 1988. Apparently, Jimmy died suddenly of heart disease that wasn’t diagnosed until after his death. The above quote is from when Thornton spoke about the creation of art and the journey of an artist and how loss and grief can mold the artist within us during an episode of “Master Class” on Oprah’s OWN network in 2014.
I cannot thank Thornton enough. Watching his video taught me a valuable lesson. While an intrinsic part of me has known this reality, hearing Thornton speak about his brother touched me unlike anything else. Decades later , Thornton’s misty eyes and shaky voice as he recalls his brother’s death is as palpable and visceral as if it just happened.
And that made me realize that my own grief will forever be a part of my life. I realized that I will feel pain and be healed all at the same time moving forward. I also realized that I will, probably, be in continuous a state of melancholy and that’s okay.
What did you think when you heard Billy Bob Thornton speak about loss? Did what he says speak to you? I look forward to hearing from you.
Watch the full “Master Class” video below: