In the months following Abbey’s overdose, I wrote about her endlessly. I made lists about things she loved (frozen yogurt, Pusheen, sunglasses), noted specific details I was afraid that I would forget with time (the way she hummed on the exhale during sleep, the specificity with which she ordered her fried rice (no beef, extra sauce), obsessed over our thousands of text messages I had never deleted, the full archive of our relationship that had been saved without much consideration. I wrote poems about my grief. I wrote fiction in which she exists 10 years into the future. I wrote fiction that is not at all fiction. I wrote because writing seemed my only way to contribute to her preservation, an effort that everyone who loved her was also attempting.
I tried, for months, to write essays about who she was and all of the ways I knew her. In those essays, all which I never finished or considered complete, I was lying.
Grief is a complicated landscape whose layout cannot be fully grasped from its perceived outward appearance. Loss is different in each rendering, the path to forward, varying and distinctively unique in struggle. Before Abbey died, I understood these complexities, but only as a witness. I’d seen my mother’s family wrestle with resentment in the wake of their matriarch’s death; I’d seen my father mourn the too-soon, unanticipated departure of his brother in a quiet but fearful-of-his-own-fate depression. I had been around death and I had understood its potential wreckage, but I had yet to be hit by shrapnel. Although most loss is viewed similarly, as people lose loved ones regularly–friends, family, exes–it is never the same. Who can really see the true scope of one’s relationship to the dead? Who can even begin to comprehend all of the possible loose ends that accompany loss?
In writing about this loss as a method of navigating my grief, I settled on the moments that stuck out in memory, those that held a vivid, palpable joy, the times that appeared in photographs and in iphone recordings from throughout the past four years. I reminisced about our close collegiate escapades, our commitment to my living room couch, the way my dog cried when she would leave the house to return home to hers, how we yelled out frustrations while watching Intervention marathons, the time we lost each other in a store with no battery left in our phones and caused such a scene upon reunion that fellow customers clapped. I talked about how loved she could make you, the person in her life at any given moment in time, tangibly feel. I talked about her confidence, her ability to walk into any store and immediately find an outfit that would steal the attention of the night. I wrote, and I wrote, and all of it felt like bullshit.
In the writing I was attempting, I was writing about an Abbey I knew and then didn’t, an Abbey that existed in her brightest moments, and then disappeared in her darkest. I was trying to transcribe the most palatable version of her, her life, our complicated and sometimes tumultuous relationship. I struggled to step around and pass over boundaries I didn’t know whether I would be allowed to cross, or if allowed, should cross. In writing about her life, who was I to dictate her legacy? And how would I affect it were I to confront the parts of it that got us to where we are now, a place that exists without her?
The part that I struggled most to confess in my writing was the same struggle that contributed to my lack of sleep at night; the unavoidable knowledge that despite our once undeniable closeness, Abbey died mad at me.
In considering the questions of grief, there is one that often goes unacknowledged; How do you go about mourning someone who, at the time of their death, wanted absolutely nothing to do with you? Of course, most people recognize the complexities that can exist in relationships, how nonlinear and chaotic they can become. Still, the shame of losing someone you have loved and loved deeply, without having had the opportunity to reconcile and give reminder of that love, is a burden that carries an immeasurable weight.
My insomnia has found ways to ask questions that in no circumstance would be capable of finding answer. Would she be mad that I attended her funeral? Would she have accepted an apology if I had given it? Would she have given me her own? Does she know how much of my thoughts she inhabits daily? Can she think wherever it is that she is? Does she cry with us? Laugh at us? Does she know how loved she really was? Did she mean to die?
Abbey’s anger was one that was valid in many ways, born out of hurt and what must have felt like the deepest betrayal. The part of the timeline that I had been hesitant to put into words was the part where we fell out, during the latter half of our senior year of college, when the difficulties that Abbey had dealt with before but had since passed, began reaccumulating. While I prepared for graduation’s arrival in a month, Abbey hit a low. Class was an obvious avoidance. Sleep only happened between the hours of four a.m. and four p.m. She went off her inconsistently taken antidepressants. Her Adderall was consumed but never swallowed. When at the end of the year, she sought help in the form of psychiatric evaluation, we were both optimistic.
The thing you need to know about Abbey to best and most authentically understand her, is just how smart she really was. Abbey could win in any debate, make transparent, all of the flaws in your counter-argument, and justify anything as though it were the solution to both world peace and climate change. Abbey was, in more ways than imaginable, a genius. The kind to skip a semester of classes during a flare of depression and still manage to pass, the type who could relay pop culture knowledge and still have room for the academic, the driver who could park in a spot too small for the size of the car successfully, with her eyes closed and without dent or damage. Because Abbey’s genius allowed her to excel in her ability to manipulate, truth, which might have been insight to the severity of her struggle, was often kept at a distance. This genius also became a downfall.
She arrived home to the East Coast for the summer to start mental health related treatment she would ultimately talk her way out of completing. When she returned to California for a week in July, we were both eager for the reunion. When I opened my door to see my closest friend from the past four years, I was relieved. The relief started to fade as the week went on. Abbey disclosed to me, without much hesitation or fear, that she had been using heroin. Showing me the scabs forming between the webbing of her fingers, she nonchalantly told me how they had developed.
To say Abbey didn’t know about risk would be a lie. Abbey knew everything and more. Combing the internet for knowledge at late hours of the night, she would often tell me things I would have never found out on my own accord. This knowledge, the knowledge of her capacity for it, was a frustration I didn’t know how to confront when faced with the present dilemma.
There are parts about Abbey that can only occupy space in questioning and conversation, parts that are not quite capable of accurate transcription. Abbey was not simple. Her struggle with mental illness was not textbook. The lines between what was revealed and what was kept are so blurry that attempts to map them out have been unsuccessful and have felt impossible. Abbey’s genius contributed greatly to her fearlessness. When you find out that someone you know is using, a first question that pops into your mind is often, “how can someone so smart do something so stupid?” It is a question that is far too simplified and binary for actual answer. We know that intelligence doesn’t keep us from things that can potentially harm us; we know that even the smartest of humans have turned to drugs for a source of relief. Still, approaching that situation objectively when it has hit close to home is easier said than done. My frustration with Abbey’s indifference toward her life reached its limit. When she left my house, I called her mother and told her what had been revealed. When Abbey found out, she was enraged, upset with my breach of trust. She was mad at me and I was mad at her and instead of finding resolution, our communication ceased. I hoped that by withdrawing from my place in her life, she would take steps to get help and find her way back to the self she had so completely lost sight of, a girl who was once content with a mall trip and an ice cream-fueled sugar rush. For reasons I can only contemplate in retrospect, and in my naïve, possibly purposefully avoidant mind, I believed in her resiliency. Abbey, as I had known her, had always been unstoppable. The worst possible outcome considered at the time was an arrest. The worst possible outcome was the one that happened.
My mom recalls the haunting memory of me howling to her over the phone that Friday morning in November. Beth, Abbey’s mother, whose contact would light up my screen moments after waking up, would face the unimaginable. At the age of 22, Abbey had died of a fentanyl overdose, a few days after reaching one month of sobriety.
As with trauma of all kinds, there are feelings that can be relived as they are remembered, bringing with the physical manifestations of their initial conception. I will never forget the first punch of grief to the stomach that morning, its lingering fist print, the phantom pains that now and then still mimic its initial arrival. I often find myself breaking out in random fits of tears, tears that make no sense, that arrive without warning and at the slightest reminder of Abbey, which in my daily life, can be attributed to anything and everything. There are moments I yearn to reminisce on but then realize that she was the other half of those memories, the only witness to them.
Everything in the weeks after Abbey’s death felt like a lie. Printing photos of us from mindless times to bring with to the funeral felt like a lie. Talking about good memories as though they were the only felt like a lie. Telling people I hadn’t talked to in years that I loved them in the wake of her absence simply because we had both loved her, was in many ways, a lie. Still, loss tells you that the acquisition of new love can replace what has been taken. There is little to lose from the expression and so, I told everyone who had ears that I loved them because my inability to say it when opportune had become an incessant taunting.
Everything was a lie because I wasn’t there the way that I could have been. Now, there would be no room for the reconciliation I had dreamt about but had been too cowardice to choose in the weeks before her death. There would be no annual birthday dinner for her at Benihana, no facetime calls to spell out the details of a love that might be coming to fruition, watching her deliver a Power Point presentation about the men in her life, no trip to the wedding dress store from Say Yes To The Dress that we planned on visiting when we’d someday found our respective halves. There would be no career to witness, no gossip to receive, no reunion imagined eventually, somewhere down a line we would both be on.
Regret is a sensation whose entrance into my life has been normalized. Regret sits next to me while I apply makeup I only know how to use because Abbey taught me. Regret is in every store I’ll never watch her try on clothes in again. Regret is both burden and reminder, a chance to be better to anyone who gives me the opportunity. Regret is her name carved into stone memoriam on the campus where we met and where I will be teaching in the fall. On her birthday, we cut into a cake she would have fawned over, filling her absence the only way we knew how, with laughter and recollection. On my own birthday, I was overwhelmed with guilt, for celebrating, for existing, for reaching a year she will never get to.
There is no guide for what happens when someone dies mad you. I am still navigating that rocky terrain, with therapy and vulnerability, by being honest with myself and the people in my life. There are few grief “how tos” for what should have, could have been done, for the wanted and the wished that cannot exist. I can’t tell you about survival, or what will come in the years after, because I am still working to get myself there, but I can tell you what you can do. You can continue living. The person you lost, at both their best and worst, would want you to. You can forgive yourself. You can also improve, be better than you were. A better friend, a better ally, a better ear. You can keep alive the parts of you they loved. By continuing forward, you provide a gateway for them, too.
Part of my coping is a commitment to learning. If that struggle reappears elsewhere, as it statistically will, I want to rewrite the script of my being there. I want to, without fear or hesitation, be a system of support. I have found passion in the call to action for harm reduction, understanding and supporting the lifesaving ways in which overdose can and should be reversed. I have released my grudges. I tell people that I love them in spite of frustration. I tell people I love them more often than is thought appropriate. I tell people I love them with the small belief that maybe, for one of those people, it will get them to the next hour. Would it have with Abbey? Who is to say? All I know is that effort always outweighs its alternatives.
I am comforted in reminiscing on moments, in the time I spend with mutual friends and the family that loved her with every part of their existence. Her mom and I keep the conversation about her going, because we understand that in doing so, we keep her legacy as well. I am doing my best to write about her, about the space that exists in her absence, with honesty and much like Abbey, without fear.
At the visitation before the funeral, a friend of her family’s sat down next to me, rubbed her hand on my upper back in consolation. Having recognized me from the pictures shared online during four, seemingly infinite years, she had been looking for me to talk to. She held both of my hands and offered me something she knew I would need.
“I had lunch with Abbey a week ago. We spoke about you. She was mad at you, yes, but she told me she still loved you. Boy, did she love you. So, so much.”
Danielle is an MFA student and associate professor at Chapman University forever trying to make the transition from poetry to fiction. She has a fear of commitment in regard to novel writing and an affinity for wiener dogs. When she’s not staring in awe at her newly installed bookcase, she’s most likely consuming short story collections or curating her list of Orange County’s best eats. Her work have been published by TheNewVerseNews, Calliope, Rhythm & Bones press, and MTV.