Making Grief Your Victim

Making Grief Your Victim

We've all lost people close to us, or we will.

When I was 18 I lost one of my best friends abruptly. I was destroyed by grief, more specifically what I now call regret grief, in the aftermath of losing him.

The last time I saw him he came by my dorm room.  I had my feet up on my desk listening to something and scrolling socials. When he walked in, I took one headphone out but kept scrolling, mindlessly wasting brain cells. I heard bits of chit-chat. I jumped in every once in a while as he talked with my roommates and said a few words here and there. All in all, I didn’t participate much; I was worn out and not in a social mood.

After some more small talk between him and my roommate, I heard him say, ‘Alright, boys! Y’all have a good night!’ I mumbled under my breath something along the lines of ‘Alright, see ya’ and remember looking up to see his hand release the handle and the door closing behind him.

I never saw him again.

I was a pallbearer at the funeral, where he had a military burial and ceremony. Every gunshot of the 21-gun salute went straight through my chest and echoed in the walls of my heart. I felt physically sick. I felt sad. Worst of all, I was helpless. There was nothing I could do. I was left broken, with words unspoken and questions unanswered. Did he know how much he truly meant to me? Did he know I loved him like a brother? The last time I saw him, I was too involved in meaningless bullshit on my phone. I didn’t give him five minutes out of my day. I don’t even remember what I was looking at. Even if I did remember, I know it was irrelevant. The last time he looked at me, he saw my eyes glazed over, mindless, brainless, and more interested in my phone than his presence. Only he knows what he thought of our friendship leaving that night. It’s one of those things I’ll never know and always wonder.

This put me down a multi-year road of being afraid of dying, but I've come out the other side now. I founded Perspective Chasers in its aftermath and wrote an Amazon-bestselling psychological philosophical novel about a kid's search for meaning based on my own life. The entire book is a conversation between a sage and a pupil based in a coffee shop. The sage asks more questions than he answers and so on... learn more here if you want.

One of the things I learned on the road and after losing more people close to me, was that I felt two different forms of grief: regret grief and dealing with the absence of someone grief.

Regret grief is something we can control. It's the grief I felt at his funeral asking all of those questions about our relationship. It's the grief you feel wondering how someone who passed felt about you. It's wondering if they knew how much we cared about them. Did they know how important they were to our life? It's the regret we feel when we think back on our relationship: not messaging back as much as we should've or not calling and checking in as much as we wanted and should've. Not being present in our conversations nor being intentional in the friendship/relationship.

When I lost my close friend at 18, I wasn't intentional in what happened to be our last encounter. I was distracted by meaningless stuff on my phone and only watched his hand leave the door as he left. Throughout our friendship, I wasn't intentional about telling him how good of a friend he was or how much I cared about him. So as I carried his body in a casket, I was destroyed by regret. It's the worst kind because I am never going to get answers to those questions and I can't change any of it. Regret grief took a lot out of me and it takes a lot of emotional strength, energy, and time to deal with.

Simultaneously as this regret grief was tearing me apart, I had to come to terms with his absence in my life. Where his absence is a constant reminder of him not being here but also a reminder of our last interactions and the regret I feel doubling down on it and making it worse.

The good news is it doesn't always have to be like this. I made a few adjustments and it changed my life.

About 3 years after losing my friend, I lost a cousin who I was really close to. My parents are his godparents and we have been close my entire life. With everything I had learned at 18 I was able to be intentional, to have the tough conversations with him, and make sure he knew how important he was in my life and how much he means to me. He told me I'd have to be a father figure for his kids when he's gone coming to terms with someone's death while you're in front of them is very difficult but simultaneously incredibly important because it allows you to say the things you need to and be incredibly intentional about how you spend those moments. In the aftermath, at the funeral, afterwards, I was in such a better emotional place that instead of barely having enough emotional strength to deal with my own grief, I was able to be a rock for some of my family. I learned that the more we can do to decrease our regret grief, the more more energy and emotion we have to help others and to deal with the absence of that person we love.

Dealing with the absence of someone we love can and often is very difficult. It's difficult to really carry perspectives or thoughts to help us get over their absence because they are simply not here. No matter what I think about, I can't message my cousin or call him anymore. I can't ride in his Mustang like I did as a little kid, in awe of how cool he was.

But, I frame relationships in my life that I'm just grateful I had any time with anyone at all, the fact that we made any memories was more than we were 'owed' or 'deserving' of, because we were never guaranteed to be here nor to be alive, so I'm just happy I had any time with him at all. When I think about the people I've lost throughout my life and how awesome it would be if they were here, I think about how wonderful it is that they had such a positive impact on my life that here I am still living, doing something where I wish they were here a beautiful ode to someone who is no longer here.

These are a few of the perspectives I carry that help me deal with absences in my life but at the end of the day, they aren't here. But by decreasing the regret grief or getting rid of it completely, their absence doesn't remind me of that regret and I can focus my energy on the perspectives that help me deal with their absence.

Now, this is fairly simple in theory but takes increased vigilance to continue all the time. When the people you care about show up every day, or answer the phone when you call or get into bed with you every night -- you're constantly given data that contradicts your intentionality to reduce your regret grief. This data is telling you they aren't going anywhere and that they'll pick up next time but we know they could die anytime -- even if it's unlikely.

I'm not saying that in every conversation or interaction with someone you love to remind yourself of their mortality but rather hold all of our mortality a few thoughts back in your mind at all times. It helps make beautiful moments more beautiful and bad ones less bad, and gives life a beautiful aurora of "Man, I can't believe I'm here and get to experience this."

Mortality may in fact give our life meaning as I've written about here. We have to choose who to spend time with and who we want to spend the rest of our life with and what to do as a career or what to do next weekend because we have finite time. There are only so many summer weekends or coffee dates. Would we have the urgency to do anything if we had unlimited time?

Anyways, the good news is we can have some control over our grief, mostly just the regret grief. I hope all of this helps, it helped me and it took some really dark times to come to this current understanding.

I wrote in my book:
“When people used to say, ‘Tell the people you love that you love them. You never know when it might be too late,’ I thought it was the biggest cliché ever. I heard it so many times, and I thought I was taking it seriously enough. In classic human fashion, though, I didn’t really understand or believe it until it happened to me. It’s always different until it happens to you. Unfortunately, it seems many things in life have to be experienced before we really understand or prioritize them. If only we could gain conviction through listening. We wouldn’t have to go to the dark places others have to figure it out. And this goes for a lot of things. Some have to go to the brink of death to learn how to live; others have to understand despair to appreciate happiness. The experiences of life, I guess…” Jake trailed off.”

And a bit later in the conversation, Jake continues:

“As I alluded to in the journal, a few weeks before this encounter, we were at Thanksgiving. He took me aside and told me I was going to need to be a ‘dude’ figure in his kids’ life, someone they could call for relationship advice or anything else. I told him without hesitation I would be there. For the same intentional reasons, in that conversation, I also told him how much he meant to me and how influential he was in my life.

“We don’t always get moments like that—to profess feelings to people we care about—especially when they are suddenly no longer with us. But daily, there are opportunities if we look for them, and if we can’t find them, we can always create them. It’s of the utmost importance to me to make sure the people I care about know it. And I mean know it. No beating around the bush, telling them straight to their face exactly what they mean to me. They need to know it to the point that if I never saw them again, I would have no regrets. And if I died, they wouldn’t wonder either. That regret ate me alive, and I don’t want anyone else in my life, including me, to have to live through it for something I didn’t do. Don’t be the me who didn’t know if John knew; be the me who made sure Rian did.” Jake spoke the final sentence with conviction in his eyes.”
No matter what I say, it's impossible for you to live with the conviction I feel for this for the reasons I feel it. I thought I understood what people meant about telling the people you love that you love them, but I was wrong. In a lot of areas we have to experience things ourselves to really understand. If you've lost someone close to you I'm sure you feel the conviction. If you haven't, try your hardest to have intentionality in this, because when you do inevitably lose someone close to you, you'll understand and be in a better place emotionally because you decreased your regret grief more than you would've otherwise.

Lastly, be patient with yourself. If you read this, live more intentionally for a few weeks, then forget - try not to beat yourself up when you have to deal with all of this in the future.

The grief will do that for you.

All love. See you in two weeks.

Til' our last breath,

James

P.S. What are some significant things you've learned from loss or grief? Feel free to share below <3

Click here for more information on James’ book Smile Your Last Breath Away
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Making Grief Your Victim

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