With my small fingers pressing down on one side of the pages, my head down slightly but not too low, I often tried to get away with reading a book at the dinner table. Meals meant a lot to my family. We always gathered at the table, no exception. We always uttered “muchas gracias” and “buen provecho” before crossing ourselves in front of a reproduction of “The Last Supper.” But as much as I understood the gravity of gathering for a meal, that didn’t convince me to put my book down. Reading was my refuge.
But nothing — not my reading, or anything else — could prepare me for the loss of my dad when I was 12 years old. Gone was the head of the table, the man who often chuckled gleefully when he saw that I enjoyed his food. Losing him was an experience that changed forever my relationships with other people.
Now, a few weeks short of the 15th anniversary of his death, I’m still grappling with the effects of losing him so young. I still bury my face in books, and I have been surprised to find comfort in stories not even meant for my age group— YA novels.
In I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sánchez tells the story about Julia, a high school student, who is grappling with the death of her sister, Olga, the favorite daughter. Her grief is mixed with anger, with jealousy, with frustration.
“Here I am, thinking all these horrible thoughts about my dead sister," Julia thinks to herself. "It’s easier to be pissed, though. If I stop being angry, I’m afraid I’ll fall apart until I’m just a warm mound of flesh on the floor."
Anger coursed through me in the same way it did Julia. She continues:
“Though my eyes haven’t produced tears, I’ve felt the grief burrow in every cell of my body. There are moments that I feel like I might suffocate, as if all my inside are tied into a tight little ball. I haven’t taken a crap in almost four days, but I’m not about o tell Amá in the state she’s in. I’ll just let it build until I explode like a piñata.”
I remember that same feeling so clearly. After my father died, I refrained from sharing my own muddled emotions with my mother, because I didn't want to bother her during her own heartbreak.
Julia’s frank discussion about her bowel movements adds a moment of levity to the situation, but it also shows how the body physically suffers in the aftermath of a huge loss. After my dad's death, I — and many other family members — didn't want to eat. I associated food with my dad. He loved cooking for large groups of people. My family and I worked hard to recreate that joy after his death, but it was difficult. To make matters worse, the stomach issues that plagued me in childhood only grew worse in adulthood. Once the man who loved to see me eat was gone, I found myself physically unable to consume many of the things I once loved.
I was angry. I couldn't eat. And for many years after his death, I found myself afraid of getting close to anyone. If I limited my close relationships, I reasoned, I limited my chances of getting hurt again.
In Speak of Me as I Am by Sonia Belasco, high schoolers Damon and Melanie fall in love with each other while dealing with their respective grieving processes. Melanie has lost her mother to cancer, and Damon's best friend has died by suicide.
During one pivotal moment of the book, Melanie feels the sharp loss of her mother while realizing her feelings for Damon. She sits in her bed, tears streaming down her face, and she talks to her dead mother:
“‘How do you know who you should let into your life?’ I ask. “Do you just decide? Like should I trust Damon because he’s nice to me, and he seems like he’s honest?”
What I don’t say: What if I let him in? What if I let him in and I care about him and then I lose him?
What if I lose him like I lost you?”
For so long, I worried obsessively that the people I cared about would be suddenly taken from me. I worried that my mother would be in a freak accident on her way home. I worried that I would be at school, distracted by exams and papers, and one of my siblings would suddenly fall ill. I worried that if I let myself be completely carefree and happy, something bad would happen.
I believe reading about Melanie and Julia would have helped me feel a little less alone and a little less anxious at 12 years old. In my grief, I often distrusted the adults in my life, but hearing the words from someone my age, even a fictional character, would’ve offered me my own type of solace.
People often want to hand out platitudes about grief: How it gets better, how it helps to hold on to the good memories, how we have to be grateful for our lives because we only get one. I don’t disagree, but I wish someone had told me earlier that it would never really stop hurting. I will always miss my dad.
But like an old rubber band, grief stretches and contracts. It gets buried underneath the messiness of the everyday but always stays put for you to find it later. At graduations, weddings, births, accomplishments, heartbreaks, failures, it reemerges.
My loss happened at a young age, which means parts of my grief process will only get clearer as I get older. I needed these YA books as a teenager, but I'm grateful for the solace they offer me as an adult. I'm still that little girl, in many ways, trying to absorb as many books as possible. Because in these stories, I find small ways to heal.