Today’s episode is all about navigating the complications of grief – your own grief, the grief of a loved one, caretaking as a millennial, and so much more.
Vivian Nunez is a NYC-based writer and content creator. She is the founder of Too Damn Young, an online community and resource site for grieving young adults. Vivian uses her content and Instagram to put words out into the universe that make people feel less alone as they navigate mental health realities, grief, and learning to find happy, new normals. Vivian has spoken with the United Nations and has been featured by Instagram, and on platforms like Forbes, Mic, and Well+Good.
This episode is in support of Together Rising. Together Rising transforms collective heartbreak into effective action. Since 2012, Together Rising has raised over 2o million dollars, and 100% of what Together Rising receives from every personal donation goes directly to an individual, family, or cause in need. Together Rising identifies what is breaking the hearts of their givers, and connect the givers’ generosity with the people and organizations who are effectively addressing that critical need. To learn more, visit Together Rising’s website or follow them on Instagram.
When I was little, there was a woman who would come over and help take care of me. Her name was Yvette.
Yvette was short in comparison to my mother, but to me, she was just the perfect height for my death-grip hugs. Her short brown hair fell in soft waves that skimmed her kind, present face and almond eyes that sparkled with mischief. Her skin was flawless, her makeup enhancing everything about her feisty, fun-loving, soft yet unmistakably pronounced features. She smelled like florals and Calvin Klein Obsession and adventure. Her chin was clefted just like mine.
As the story would go, Yvette would take me out to run errands with her and people would think I was hers. We shared the same high cheekbones, the same almond eyes, the same clefted chin and curious nature. Even as a small child, I could tell Yvette and I were so much alike. She’d babysit my brother and I but was never a “babysitter” – she was more like extended family coming over to hang. At night, she’d change into “fancy” clothes and I’d watch her do her makeup in the vanity’s mirror. “Are you going on a hot date?” I used to tease. “You’re such a party animal.” We’d laugh and I’d watch her curl her eyelashes and spray her hair into a defined shape on top of her head. My parents would get home, I’d hug her goodbye, and she was off to her mystery evening out in the world way beyond my little West Valley cul-de-sac. She smelled like florals and Calvin Klein Obsession and adventure. If I hugged her long enough, sometimes it would linger on my nightgown. We were so much alike. I never knew where she really went.
When I was twelve years old, I got my period for the first time. It was the day of the seventh grade Disneyland trip, a once-a-year opportunity they gave to the kids at school who had been accepted into the honors program. I learned how to use a pad on the spot (no pun intended) and had a blast at Disneyland with the added bonus of knowing I was 2% more mature and “adult” than I had been the night before. This period thing is no big deal, I thought. Why do people make such a big deal of it?
Well, I found out the next day why people made such a big deal of it. On the bus ride home, I was doubled over in pain from the debilitating cramps I was experiencing for the very first time ever. I slouched down and buried myself in fetal position between my seat and the seat in front of me, the girls around me rubbing my back and looking on in concern. None of us knew what was going on. None of us had dealt with this before.
A friend of mine, bless her soul, walked me home through the rain, except I needed to tie my rain coat over my waist as I’d made the rookie mistake of not accounting for “second day flow.” As I turned my key into the door, drenched in rain and my own tears, I prayed someone would be home…
The door opened before I could get the key through. It was Yvette. Mortified, I showed her my jeans. She looked at me with the kind of empathy that only older, wiser women who have “been there” possess, and she hugged me tight as I replayed my quintessential seventh-grade-female horror story over and over in my brain. She smelled of flowers and Calvin Klein and adventure, and somehow her hugs made my foreign cramps begin to ease. Nothing could hurt that much for that long while she was around.
She was at my sixth grade graduation. She was at my first theatre performance. I remember the exact moment of Princess Diana’s car crash and how traumatic it was to the world, and it’s all because Yvette turned on the TV and let me watch with her, like two sisters sitting side by side watching history happen. When I came home from college one winter, after not seeing her for quite some time, she was lounging on the couch laughing and drinking wine with my mom just like they’d always done. It was close to Christmas. She gave me a necklace. She was dressed up to go somewhere, except that “somewhere” was here and the adventure was now. Yvette was there for everything.
Until one day, she wasn’t. We know she’d moved to live near her sister, and we know at some point she was out of the country to help a sick family member. But that’s all we know. Or what we think we know. It all blurs together now. We used to talk on the phone every few months, then every few months became holidays and birthdays, then holidays and birthdays became every year at some point in time.
And then one day, the calls stopped. The phone number we’d been using had been disconnected. That’s it. One day, just gone.
I never knew where she really went.
Loss is a funny thing. Not funny ha-ha, but funny as in it gives you that sour feeling in your stomach and aching feeling in your heart that you hate you can place.
With death, it’s finite. It’s devastating and in some of the worst cases unexpected. It leaves you with dark blank space and a piece of the puzzle that is your heart ripped out and gone forever. Death is obvious and brutal.
But what about the kind of loss that isn’t so finite? What about the characters that come into our lives, making a profound impact, then vanish without so much as a heads up or warning sign?
I think about loss every day. I’ve come to learn this a blessing and a curse when you’re a highly sensitive and self-aware soul. On one hand, I’m constantly reminding myself of the fleeting nature of things. This couch. This room. This kiss. This look. This street. This weather. This moment. On the other hand, I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the littlest and biggest and even the most mediocre middlest-of-the-road things.
From the outside, to people who don’t really know me, I can see how my ever-present gratitude might come off as overly-consistent enthusiasm or doe-eyed naiveté about how the world really works. But I know better. I know the high highs don’t come without the low lows, and every brightest light has a darkest dark. I walk through life constantly balancing the two; I celebrate and mourn simultaneously.
So how does it work, then? When you want to see someone so badly but don’t even know where to start? When you miss something so fiercely, but can barely describe what you’re missing anymore? It’s not a thing, it’s not an action. I miss the feelings. I miss the presence. I miss her being there.
I found Yvette a while ago on Facebook. At least I think it was her. I recognized her sister’s name on her “Friends” list, and her nephew too. There was no profile picture.
I wrote her a message with shaky hands. I used the nickname I’d made for her as a child.
“Ya-Ya? Is this you?”
I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, six months later, I saw a notification under my message.
My message had been read…two weeks prior. I hated the thought that entered my mind, and I hated that it could be right.
What if she doesn’t want to be found?
Loss happens in so many ways. In death, in relationships, in friendships, in people disappearing. But we also lose parts of ourselves along our journey. We lose who we were, become who we are.
That kind of loss usually happens in three ways. In Option A, we go through metamorphosis – those old parts informing the new-and-improved version of us we’re presenting to the world. The old parts of us are still there, just in different forms. The butterfly still has the eyes of the caterpillar; the bird still the same beak of the fuzzy chick.
But if we’re not self-aware, Option B comes in. The old us simply…vanishes. In Option B, we wake up one day and have become unrecognizable to ourselves. Option B terrifies me to the core.
And then sometimes, there’s a third option. In Option C, we lose ourselves intentionally in order to create the new someone we know we need to be.
I vote for Option A. I will always be Team Option A. But that doesn’t mean I have the right to force it on others and pretend like I know their story.
Is Option C necessary for some, I wonder? Is my intense self-awareness blinding me to the fact that some people NEED to consciously wipe the slate clean to get a fresh new start? I’d like to think that we are handed our good times AND bad all for a reason, and each moment is a learning opportunity and chance to grow into the person we know we’re meant to be, and that Option A is the rightest option there is, plain and simple…
But some people aren’t there. Some people need to forget to let go. And we cannot fault them for it. We are all on our unique journeys through this lifetime, and learn the same exact lessons, just not at the same exact times. We don’t even learn them in the same exact WAYS. Sometimes we lose people in our lives because they need to go find themselves in theirs.
There’s not a week that goes by I don’t miss Yvette. I wish I could call her, I wish I could tell her about New York. I wish I could joke about us going out and hitting the town, but really just have her visit and come over and drink wine and laugh on my couch. I wish we could reminisce about the time she was there for me when I walked home in the rain, I wish we could remember about when big history-making happenings happened, I wish she could remind me of things I said or did that I’ve long forgotten about now. I wish she could meet my husband, I wish she could learn my life. I wish I could see that she’s happy.
But I can’t. All the above is me thinking of myself, of my own journey and the way I do things. And my journey is my own to be accountable for, just like Yvette’s is all her own. We cannot create opinions about someone else’s story based on how we want them to fit into ours.
Who knows what seeing my Facebook message might have brought up for her, if that was in fact her? I will never know. I never knew where she went after leaving my cul-de-sac, and I never knew where she went after that last voicemail I remember receiving around the time of my 19th birthday over a decade ago. I need to be at peace knowing that the time we spent together was beautiful and funny and warm and it served its purpose to show us off onto our separate ways.
I do know that wherever she is, she is discovering her own journey and learning who she is meant to be, and has been all along. I am able to both mourn the loss of her in my life, and hope that there’s cause to celebrate the presence of her own self in hers. Because she was lightness personified. I always saw it. I’m not sure she did. I can only hope her eyes have been opened to her brilliance. She sparkled with mischief. Her chin was clefted just like mine.
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No sweet without sour, no peace without war, no joy without sorrow.
We’re all well-versed in the laws of opposition and the truths of our world: in order to have the good we must know the bad.
Still, is this any consolation when tragedy strikes? It’s unjust, unexpected, and grossly unfair.
Whether it is a personal tragedy experienced within our own familiar circle or an international tragedy experienced on a global level – we feel. Empathy is instinctual. It could have been me. It could have been my sister, my brother, my best friend. I could have been there.
As I’ve discussed before, I honestly believe we are all equipped with the exact same tools to learn the exact same lessons, just at different times (or even different lifetimes). So if this is true, then it also must stand true that our minds and hearts each possess equal capacities for thought and feeling.
And if this is true, then the reality of our world is that we are all interconnected. Life is an energy exchange; we are all responsible for the education and growth of everyone around us. We are all gifted with the exact same capabilities, we simply learn to access and use them in different ways.
So when tragedy hits one of us, it hits all of us. It awakens that primal feeling of grief and loss, of where-do-I-go-now?
To me, “The News” has always been akin to watching a horror film, but in real time and real life. I set up Google alerts about topics that matter most to me, I follow my favorite news outlets on Facebook and Instagram, but for the most part, I trust my highly intelligent friends, podcast hosts, and NPR reporters to give me the information I need. The anger, violence, and hatred are too much to soak in (and I always soak it in). Constantly diving into such information, as a highly sensitive person, spirals me into a kind of sadness that’s crippling
It’s somewhat unfortunate that we haven’t even needed a regular TheNews-watching practice in our lifetimes to have had to cope with large-scale tragedy on a very consistent basis. The earliest I can remember being shaken by a tragedy was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. I was in fourth grade. Since then, I’ve bore witness to the planet we call Home being torn to shreds, built back up, then beat up all over again. I remember the first Clinton election and talk of prosperity and change even though I had zero clue as a five-year-old what it even meant. Two wars in my lifetime, watching the response to terrorism change everything from the way I boarded a plane to the way, to my horror, I heard adults speak of others. I grew up in Los Angeles, in quite the inclusive environment. Never before had I realized that even the most seemingly inclusive weren’t all exempt from racism.
We’ve learned a lot about each other in these times of darkness. Some bad.
And, some good.
Sometimes, my first impulse is to feel furious that we exist in such a cruel, awful time. I’ll find myself nodding when I hear “We live in a sick world” and using a word I rarely speak: “Hate.” In the last few days, it was hard not to.
But then…without even thinking of it…into my head popped my favorite passage from a favorite poem. Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: A Poem for a Way of Life. “In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul,” it begins…
I see the images of strangers comforting strangers. My Facebook page is filled with not just memorial posts and photos, but articles about how to help and where to donate. (ps – here, here, here, and here)
And I remember that all of life is an energy exchange, and my anger is doing no one any good. It is not helping families and friends heal. It is not saving the injured, repairing the city, and it is certainly not tipping the peace:destruction ratio in favor of the former.
In times of tragedy, we feel in unison. That equal capacity for thought and emotion we spoke of is rarely as apparent as in charged times. The same door unlocks in each of us, and our reactions become a harmony.
We have a choice in the song we sing – so choose wisely amidst the hurt and pain. Choose to put aside the maliciousness and bitter notes, and instead sing a beautifully dissonant song of mourning and reverence and compassion and hope. One that lights up from the inside like a pulsing candle flame – not a forest fire of destruction.
We will never not know tragedy or sadness. But how we react will inform the collective heart of our planet. We must never lose sight of the fact that, yes, we CAN conquer hate with love. Yes, we have the power to heal. Yes, only light can drive out the darkness.
Our hearts are crying, but the best thing I think we can do is keep loving the world and seeing the best in it, even with its nicks and cuts and shattered pieces. “In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
[p.s. I posted an update on Facebook that read “I wish there was a world flag, so we could all raise that together.” A friend sent me this link.A proposed flag for Planet Earth, united as one. Can we make this happen please, NASA or UN or whoever? I’ll even change my profile pic.]
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This is the time of year we’re usually the most contemplative about where we are in our own lives, and it’s for that reason I’m so excited to introduce you to today’s guest.
Lynn Chen is an actress, activist, and food blogger who is serving up some major inspiration to me lately. She’s been seen in countless TV shows and films, serves as an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, and has not one but TWO blogs. The Actor’s Diet, which Lynn started in 2009 as a sort of journal to help her make peace with her food after years of eating disorders, it’s now one of the most influential food blogs on the web, with some of the most longevity at that. (it’s also got a podcast, the Actor’s Diet Podcast) Her other blog is Thick Dumpling Skin, a phenomenal body-image blog that’s centered around the Asian American community.
(You can also read her WANT Woman spotlighthere– she’s already a WANT vet! :))
So I don’t do TOO much heavy editing with these episodes, but I’ve got to say that this one was tough. For all the right reasons. We ended up talking for close to two hours – and Lynn shared so much of herself that I really, really wanted to be mindful I was doing each word and thought and story and lesson justice.
Lynn is in a majorly transitional time in her career right now, and that can be really scary – you’ve built your identity being one thing, and then you decide to change course entirely. I don’t care what kind of career you’re in or what your life looks like, it’s something we all experience…but we usually hear people talking about it AFTER it’s happened. Lynn’s in the thick of it.
We dive deep in this episode, but the one theme that kept popping up was learning how to accept what is, and then moving forward from there. We talk about the way blogging’s shifted over the last six years, Lynn’s choice to move away from acting and why success isn’t always what it seems, the lessons she learned while she was trying to get pregnant, and the unexpected strategy she’s used to cope with everything from the sudden death of her father a few years back to her long history with eating disorders. We also talk about rejection, comparison, and how to make your mark by being exactly who you are.
If you’re struggling with any sort of transitional time in your life right now or have ever experienced a huge life shift, I really think this is going to speak to you.
Like this episode? Shoot me a comment below, leave a review on iTunes (the more reviews, the more Lynn’s message is spread), share it on Facebook, tweet it out on Twitter, or post it on Instagram. Be sure to use the hashtags #WANTcast, #womenagainstnegativetalk, and/or #WANTyourself!