On Coping

Carolina Williams

© Copyright 2018 by Carolina Williams

Photo of a child's hand held by an adult.

If ever there was something easier said than done, it was being a kid. Adults wearing stiff blazers recline in their brown leather office chairs and welcome any wave of nostalgia that takes them back to childhood, when they were carefree and overflowing with enthusiasm for weeds that resembled flowers and dreams that were mistaken for reality. But, unknowingly, they now view childhood through a lens of sentimentality ó an excessive fondness and tenderness that masks the physical struggles and emotional pitfalls that frequently explode in the day to day life of a kid. Though many adults may hold that they first encountered and learned to overcome true hardship as an adult, in reality, the adversity with which they dealt as a child is what shaped them into the adults they are today, and every minor calamity in their early years prepared them for how they face tribulation and tragedy in their adult life. As a child, it is challenging to process the new events and resulting emotions that are encountered daily, but over time, the coalescence of these experiences work together to create a new strength ó a strength with which one is not born, but which must be acquired, and which will carry a person through every travail to come.

I was just four years old when my father told me we needed to talk. I was nestled in my favorite spot that I claimed to be only mine ó the corner of our vintage, blue-flowered wrap-around couch, reading one of my favorite books; at the time, I was convinced I was reading, but looking back, I had most likely just memorized the words from when my mother would read it aloud to me before bed at night. His characteristically warm eyes seemed somber and distant; his tone was, for once, solemn, and reflected the gravity of the circumstance. He asked if we could go for a walk.

Never one to relent to being interrupted while I read, and certainly never one to be excited to go for a walk, I hesitated, but something was different this time ó an unspoken coercion he exuded, compelling me to agree. I followed him out the back door, down the small hill on which our house rested, and onto the curved sidewalk of the cul-de-sac. The sky was bright, the air was still, and the nature around me was seemingly silent. It was the perfect day to be outside, but no one else was. My fatherís pace slowed to match mine, until we walked alongside each other in mutual reticence. On any other day I would have grown bored, but the anticipation of his words were enough to keep my heart beating and my feet moving. I studied his face. I learned nothing.

When he spoke at last, I listened carefully, soaking in the weighty verbal notions along with his earnest countenance. His eyes became glassy as he tried to stop the tears from escaping; I had never seen him like this before. I did not ask questions; rather, I absorbed everything as if I would be tested on it later, and I could feel my expression become more stoic with each passing moment. It was a long conversation, but only my father was talking. And when it was finished, I only took one thing away: my grandfather had died.

I was young. My only previous encounter with death had been a few months prior when I had caught a butterfly in the park and brought it home to keep, and it had died the following day in its Tupperware captivity. I awoke to its wilted wings, wondering why it was so still. But I had not really been affected. I had things to do, other butterflies to see. I moved on.

The fact that my grandfather had died was difficult for my inexperienced mind to grasp. Even as a small child, I felt so close to him because we were so similar. In the moment, it felt like the parts of me that he brought out had died with him. I didnít really understand that I would never see him again until I never did. And there was nothing more sobering than seeing my father cry, as I watched my hero turn human before my eyes. He wasnít invincible.

As the world around me seemed to blur, I thought that the worst thing that could possibly happen to me had happened. My unscarred heart shattered, thinking of everything in my life that would be affected, and how it would affect me. My grandmother must feel alone, my father must feel lost, my mother must be sad, my sister was too young to understand any of it, and I couldnít process my own emotions enough to know how I felt myself. In an instant, I grew up so much. If I hadnít realized death existed until now, what else did? I had been innocent and certain; now I was wiser but unsure.

I did what felt right at the time ó I put on a brave face, and I told my father I was fine. He knew I wasnít, but he accepted my statement, and we walked back home. I went back to reading. Life would go on; the earth would keep spinning. The sun would rise and set; people would continue to wake up and go to sleep. I would be one of those people. And eventually, I would be fine.

But during my adolescence, I learned that going through the motions will not solve your problems. Disaster will strike, and the consequences will be inevitable. There will be fear, and there will be sorrow, and these emotions have to be known and acknowledged before one can move forward. I did not realize how much I internalized and suppressed the passing of my grandfather at the time until I was sixteen years old.

My mother was downstairs in the kitchen, my sister was downstairs in the living room, I was upstairs in my bedroom, and my father was out of town. It was a school night, and the whole house was quiet. From my room, I heard the shrill, repetitive electronic sound of our landline ringing; it startled me, because it never rang. Then I heard my mother walk toward the kitchen counter to pick it up, her footsteps somehow sounding perplexed, and from the long pause between when her footsteps stopped and when the phone stopped ringing, I intuitively knew that she had slowly reached for it. In that moment when I heard her voice answer, I felt suspended in time as there was a long pause before she spoke again. I could only hear her side of the conversation, and I could barely hear it at that, but the thin walls and floors were my accomplices, helping me listen. And as I continued to listen for an infinite couple of minutes, I knew that my grandmother had died. When I heard the beep of my mother hanging up the phone, I immediately opened my door and ambled down the stairs, before I could be left alone with my thoughts. I joined my mother and sister in the living room, and though they cried, I did not. Crying was weak. I wasnít weak.

But then came her funeral ó the first funeral I had ever attended. The car ride to Kentucky, her lifelong home, was long and hushed, interminable until it finally ended, and we arrived in the misty, rural plains home to a Subway and two gift shops. It was a place where one would usually feel so removed, but I felt so connected, because my I could feel my grandmotherís presence ó her impact on the people there, her roots.

And yet, I held it together, until the day of the funeral service. I had just gotten my braces off two days before. I was supposed to be smiling more than ever before, but I couldnít. Alone in a bathroom, I couldnít even see my teeth when I smiled in the mirror, as the tears in my eyes made my whole face a foggy blur. And for the first time in a long time, I cried, for my grandmother was gone, and I was figuring out how to deal with it. I cried, and I felt better. I acknowledged my emotions, and I felt better. It was a hard day, but at the end of it, I felt better.

In hindsight, this day was a triumph, because at such a young age, I had learned how to confront something I had never expected, and I began to learn how to deal with the effects of a tragedy become a reality. When disaster strikes, ignoring it and suppressing emotions is never the way to go about it. Only when someone can recognize how a tragedy has made them feel and accept the effects of the event will that person be able to truly move forward and rise above it. As a kid, I didnít know how to face disaster. I assumed that by ignoring it, its effects on me would subside. As a teenager, I learned the hard way that this was not the case. Disaster is not about being prepared, itís about how you deal with it when it happens. As much as one might try, no one can ever be fully prepared for a death or other tragedy. My experiences in my adolescence taught me that the best way to face a disaster is to fully accept the situation, let out emotions, and go from there. As a child, I learned that life goes on. As a teenager, I learned that emotions need to be felt. And as an adult, I know itís true.

My name is Carolina Williams and I am a sophomore at Auburn University. I have always loved to write and been fascinated by the way words can translate emotions from one person to another. This essay details the way I dealt with my grandfatherís death at a young age and how it has impacted the person I am today.

Contact Carolina

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher