Last week, an old friend died.
I found out on Sunday, when I saw an obituary a mutual friend posted on Facebook. There’s a whole lot we could discuss regarding this new era of discovering deaths on social media and the evolution of performative grief. But that’s not what this story is about.
Shocked, I clicked through to read the obituary for my friend, who we’ll call Ellen. It led down a rabbit hole of combing the internet for clues as to what I’d missed. The short story is that she was struggling, and I never knew. I didn’t even notice when she suddenly stopped posting to her Facebook over a year ago.
I don’t want to make her death about me, and my heart aches thinking about them going into the Christmas season with this heavy loss fresh in their minds and their hearts. But at the same time I can only speak to my own feelings and reflections on this tragedy and more generally.
The fact that Ellen’s struggles were such a surprise to me felt even more damning in light of stuff I’d written previously about checking in on your friends. I didn’t reach out to her. I last spoke to her 13 August, 2012. And while I happily assumed everything was fine, she entered a period of darkness that as far as I can tell swallowed her whole.
What I’m left with is a lot of different emotions. Anger at whatever failed her (myself included). The ache of knowing a person isn’t there anymore. And a strange cowardice, like I ran away from everything to live in a soft, warm cocoon of privilege.
Ellen’s death is the latest in a long string of tragedies to befall the demographic I went to school with in West Virginia. Our water is being poisoned. Our futures are being hamstrung by a past loyal to coal country. Our politicians are beholden to a culture of plundering the people and land while exporting jobs and profits. Pharmaceutical companies are killing us for profit. Our depression mimics the real economy’s.
I’ve attended three high schools, and people from the two schools in South Carolina aren’t addicted, convicted, and afflicted at nearly the same rate as those from West Virginia. As a friend succinctly put it, Appalachian lives are disposable.
And yet, here I am, writing this from my comfortable suburban three-bedroom house in the United Kingdom, which I share with a well-educated British man. I escaped, and now I’m safe from all of the things that plague my peers.
This gnawing feeling of cowardice has been there all along, but I really came to grips with it in the grieving process. For two years now, I have diligently donated to groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. I have retweeted, shared, and curated content reflecting my strong leftist politics. I have railed against Republican and Tory politics, written short think pieces on the evils of capitalism and armchair activism, and lambasted people who hide from politics behind riot shields of positivity and sunshine. I even waded into the war of attrition that is Facebook comments and reported back.
All of this I have done knowing full well the hypocrisy. Very little Trump does will directly affect me. Kavanaugh can’t touch me. But neither can I attend protests or drive people to the polls. I ran in the face of a rising tide of fascism. Even Brexit, if that still happens, won’t be so bad compared to living in a nation that swears by a Hunger Games, ‘screw you, I got mine’ mentality and regularly guns one another down while everyone gives a weary shrug and creates another trending hashtag. In fact, while writing this, I got a notification on my phone about another shooting in America.
As a socialist, a bisexual, a person with depression, and a woman who talks over men at work, I know that leaving America was the right decision. You can’t pour from an empty vessel, as we say, and we have to do what’s right for us. But what do we do when what is objectively right doesn’t feel right? What happens when being safe feels like betrayal of your values?
There are no answers in this article, I’m afraid, but I’m learning how to reconcile my values, my safety, and my sanity, day by day. I’m also relearning how to grieve, and be with my feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they are. It’s a discomfort we should all wrestle with once in a while.
And if you find yourself thinking of someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile, reach out to them.