I had been working at Bowdoin for exactly seven days when my only niece, Emily, was killed in a traffic accident. She was 20. I was 2,000 miles away. My bosses and colleagues said “go, go now,” and that’s what I did.
(Note: if something like this happens to you and your employer doesn’t say “go, go now,” you should start looking for a new employer.)
When I came back, I could barely look at Bowdoin students. It felt like I was squinting, they were all so bright and loud and 20 years old. I was angry and jealous and also fully aware of just how unfair that was.
But that didn’t last, because all of them—all of you—are hilarious, wonderful weirdos. Something shifted, and the small things became more precious. Bowdoin students helped me just by being themselves, without knowing anything about what I was going through.
In grief, it’s easy to picture our hearts shrinking to small stones: dense, hard, black rocks at our core.
But I think it works the other way: grief makes our hearts enormous. Like a swollen sprained ankle, our hearts are networks of nerves. They change shape. Sometimes they take up too much space and bruise too easily. Our pulse is right there at the surface. And our hearts stay a little bigger, and a little bit more vulnerable, forever.
In a weird twist of cosmic laws, grief itself makes us big enough to survive grief.
To be clear, this big stupid puffy heart is a liability. It makes me corny and sentimental. Sometimes the sky or a text or a porch light is so lovely that I can’t stand it. When I think about Emily, Henry, Theo, Finn and Omar, fury and helplessness make the blood rush to my ears. I love my friends so much that my jaw hurts.
Right now it’s tempting to get small, to grow a shell, to protect yourself.
Please let your heart get bigger. It will press on your chest and make your laughter louder. It will pulse like a lighthouse in the fog, never knowing who it has helped. It will hurt like hell.
Mine does, too.