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The Living Legacy of Untimely Death

After the unexpected death of someone young, remembering is a public act. Bryony Stone writes about the gap between how someone is known, and how they’re remembered.


10 July 2021

n Physics, the law of Conservation of Energy states that in a closed system, energy remains constant, and can neither be newly created nor destroyed. Our universe is a closed system and as someone who lost someone they once loved fiercely, it is comforting to think that every particle of every atom which made him up is still living somewhere.

I know that H is not alive because I watched a coffin holding his body carried shakily down a church aisle. But some dawns, he feels close to me. I see him in the skyward tilt of someone else’s chin; his swagger in the body of another man. Other mornings, he is a presence, unfurling to fill a room right up to the edges. As if walls had ever been enough to house him.

“We cannot choose how we will be remembered”

I’ve been thinking about legacy lately. Like how we all live on eternally in the memories of everyone we have ever met. But we cannot choose how we will be remembered. I don’t know how H would have liked me to remember him, but my favourite memory of us is this; a yawning summer morning when he came to meet me, red-eyed, off a flight just so that he could carry my suitcase home. As day dawned, I leant into the crook of his neck, matching my breath to his heartbeat while commuters around us slid their eyes away from the sight of love so early in the morning. Whole lives are lived without knowing love like ours.

The how or the why or the way H died does not deserve the scrutiny of those who never knew him. I found out when J messaged me:

Please can you call me? It’s urgent.

As I read those two short sentences, my world readjusted itself to accommodate new understanding. At that moment, I knew with absolute certainty that H was gone. It was before J even picked up his phone, before he nervously asked me how I was, before I bluntly asked if he was calling about H, before he swallowed twice, before he told me H had passed away.

“Grief means living in the confines of someone else’s sympathy.”

I went to our local corner shop and bought a Diet Coke, pausing as I clumsily handed Jimmy a pound coin in payment. He knew H — had known him — too. Maybe I should tell him that H had died because didn’t he deserve to know too?

Grief means living in the confines of someone else’s sympathy. It also means having to articulate private feelings in public in sentences that other people understand. In grief, people lean on simple platitudes to give shape to swimming feelings that don’t know language. For days after H died, his friends spray-painted his name over and over again in red letters on the sides of buildings and scratched it into drying concrete paving slabs in Soho Square. Wringing out guilt and sorrow out through white-knuckled grips.

After the Instagram eulogies, worse, aching silence. The burial of the dead. Perhaps the only way to stay in the world of the living is to remain quiet. Even now, years on, I watch a familiar glimmer of panic in people’s eyes when I mention H’s name. Faces swiftly rearrange into masks of sympathy. The gap between encountering grief head on and bearing witness to it is vast.

Saying goodbye to H has meant cutting out parts of myself. The part which loved without question or consequence. The part which held him far too tight because it was the only way I knew to keep him safe. I haven’t been in a relationship with anyone since him. It’s hard to want to give those parts of myself to someone knowing that one day, they’ll die too.

At night, I used to whisper to the darkness, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, as if atonement could bring H back. Now I tell him thank you. Thank you for being alive.

The Short Stack

After the unexpected death of someone young, remembering is a public act. Bryony Stone writes about the gap between how someone is known, and how they’re remembered.


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