I sit in the church, surrounded by family. The hand of the woman next to me, a woman I have only met a few times, rests in mine. She sobs. I gaze around, trying to distract myself from the horror closing in on me. A picture of a 15-year-old boy smiles at those who fill the pews, the extra chairs and the back of the room; children and teenagers and adults overflow from the small building and stand in the May sunshine, listening through the windows. Tears roll down my cheeks.
My cousin Ellen, 18, is crouched over, her elbows on her knees in front of me. Her parents, Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bruce, grieve next to her. Ellen's older brother sits stunned. He only heard yesterday. The rest of us had an extra 48 hours. Six months later, that would make no difference, but today, we feel worlds apart.
Ellen reads Scripture, Charlie speaks, and Bruce's best friend shares a few words. I can almost hear hearts break around the room. Watching a young girl standing in the doorway crying, a huge wave of despair hits me. I cannot stand this. Lives do not end this early. Kids do not die this young. I see Ellen struggle quietly, her grief unarticulated, her tears unshed. The photograph of her brother Sam grins unconcerned at the crowd.
A thousand emotions rush through me: guilt, anger, misery, uncertainty. What will happen to my family? I think of the anguish of my aunt and uncle, and new drops squeeze from my eyes.
The funeral ends and the dumbstruck mourners shift to the next room for refreshments. Strength emanates from the family as people form a line to speak to my aunt and uncle. Collages made by Sam's friends line the walls, showing the goofy boy with his happy-go-lucky personality. I wish he could have seen it all.
High-schoolers huddle around the tables, many simply gazing into space. Again and again the thought of my best friend fills my mind; what if I lost her? How could I keep breathing? Every second a new reason to cry pops into my head. I want to escape, but cannot. I have to stay and absorb all this pain, this excruciating pain that guts me and leaves me hollow. Imagining the aches of others leaves me exhausted.
Back at my aunt and uncle's house, I attempt to remain optimistic. We play cards and laugh, and even with the ominous cloud hanging over our heads, we manage to enjoy each other. But outside, I can hear the cries of my uncle. It sounds as if his heart has burst and he is watching it leak to the floor. Sam had filled that hole. Four days earlier Sam took his life and when Ellen found him, the pieces he occupied in his loved ones' hearts shattered.
Sam has taught me more about life in these past six months than I learned in my entire 17 years. He taught me to treasure, to love, to pay attention when I ask about others. For the first time I experienced the permanence of death and the grief of loss. The cliché rings in my ears daily: "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." My family has loved. Sam was blessed with devoted parents and phenomenal siblings and a wonderful extended family. My family has lost, in the worst sense of the word. We lost our innocence, our happiness, our assuredness that life usually deals favorable hands. We lost Sam. Looking back, I would not trade the days of skiing or horsing around or swimming in hotel pools for the chance to miss the pain Sam's death placed in my chest. Pain makes us human. Sam taught me that.
Three months after Sam committed suicide, a high-school senior in my area died in a car accident. Though her name frequently appeared in the papers for her soccer ability, I had never met her. Her friend told me about her agony, of dropping to her knees and crying in complete disbelief at the news. For the first time, I wept for someone I did not know. I wept for the sorrow of her friends and her family. I know that sorrow. I saw it at Sam's funeral, I watch it in my family, I feel it every day. And because I cried for a girl I never knew, I finally became human.
Though I would give my own life to bring Sam back, his death showed me what it means to be human. I never realized the weight of true sadness or the power of true empathy before experiencing pain so vivid it seemed I could reach out and grasp it. For that, I am grateful. I never noticed the strength of human emotions or the beauty of my family at its lowest. For that, I am grateful. I never truly cared for others or shared their pain before living that torture myself. For that, I am grateful. Thank you, Sam.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.