By Ashley Young
(For Debbie, Shek, Cheryl, Francine and Grandpa Young)
I’ve lost five close family members in the last three years, most recently my paternal grandfather. He died at the age of 96 and to date, is the oldest Black man I’ve ever known. Every death has given me a greater appreciation for life and a better understanding of how I stay connected to my ancestors. But I’ve stopped believing the saying “time heals all wounds” as it simply does not. Time only makes us stronger in dealing with eternally open wounds and healing gifts us with healthy tools to live with them.
The trouble with death is that it brings out the worst in people. Humans all react to pain differently and, unfortunately, some react with anger, blame, greed and selfishness. Death becomes an opportunity for the self-righteous notion that one deserves more than they were left and some take material objects they believe are rightfully their own. Some allow death to be the vehicle they use to express years of pent up anger towards family members or caretakers. Some only know how to deal with pain by being mean to others.
Every time I gain another ancestor, my newly found spiritual practice strengthens.
The one advantage of losing the people I have in the last few years is that I am in a time in my life where I am learning how to properly deal with pain.
A year ago, I decided enough was enough with my excessive, unmanageable use of drugs and alcohol and entered into an outpatient treatment program. I learned how I had been self-medicating my bipolar disorder with a combination of weed, alcohol and ecstasy and that there was a better, saner way for me to seek balance.
In treatment, I started attending meetings but what has ushered me so gracefully through my dealings with loss was going to meetings for adult children of addicts and alcoholics.
At the time, I was a co-caretaker for my mother-in-law who struggled with a drug addiction much of her life. I went to meetings to gain an understanding of what it looked like for me to care for myself instead of erasing myself in the care of others. I learned how much I like to dictate everyone else’s lives, to serve as their personal savior so I could define my own existence. I started to see that caring for myself actually made me feel guilty and that if I stayed focused on others, I would not have to deal with the reality of how much I chronically neglected myself.
I realized that I have no control over the people in my life who choose to stay sick using drugs or any of the unhealthy behaviors they partake in or whether or not they live or die. No matter how hard I try, my love cannot dictate their personal outcomes.
The only thing I can control is what I say, what I do, how I choose to live and how I choose to care for and love myself.
It is the knowledge that I don’t have to continue numbing with addiction that has set me free to feel pain so I can come closer to ways of healing.
My mother-in-law passed in January, my aunt-in-law in May and my grandfather in July. In every case, I thought there was so much more I could have said, more I could have done, ways that I thought I could have been to possibly make them stay.
But I continued to go to meetings to remember that everything I said, did and who I was before they passed was exactly who I needed to be and who I decide to be now is how I can continue to heal as I grieve.
I discovered that I had never properly mourned for my grandmother who passed away a decade ago. She raised me, taught me how to write and taught me about deep spiritual beliefs. I had never accepted what cancer did to her and I had never learned how to allow her to continue to walk with me in life, instead of wishing I could join her in death.
Every time I gain another ancestor, my newly found spiritual practice strengthens. I have learned that prayer is personal intention toward action. I started building alters for my dead, quiet places where I can meditate and hear their voices guiding me through much needed tears. I do not simply value the objects they left behind. I cherish the moments I remember them smiling and hold the lessons and the life they gave to me. I have learned how to practice daily gratitude that their aching bodies have left the physical world and transitioned to their proper place in the spiritual world.
I thank my clarity in sobriety for giving me these understandings. It is the knowledge that I don’t have to continue numbing with addiction that has set me free to feel pain so I can come closer to ways of healing. In the wake of all these deaths, I get to feel living and I have the privilege of feeling my ancestors guide me through this life.
Ashley Young is a queer feminist poet, author and teacher. Her work has been published in three anthologies, Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press), All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press) and Glitter and Grit: Queer Performance from the Heels on Wheels Femme Galaxy (Portland Studio). She has been a contributor for ELIXHER magazine since 2011 and has been featured in various online magazines, such as Autostraddle, Rvkvry Journal and more. She is a 2010 Voices of Our Nation’s Foundation Poetry Fellow and a 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Nonfiction Fellow, to return summer of 2016. She has taught her biomythography workshop at the Fire and Ink Conference in 2015 and at the Northeast Queer and Trans Conference at NYU. She performs her work at various readings throughout the country and will be reading at her first solo show at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe and Activist Center in New York City. She is currently working on a collection of poetry and prose entitled Chronicles of Bipolar Living and is completing her first novel, a biomythography entitled The Liberation of the Black Unicorn. Ashley lives in New York City with her wife, four wild cats and her sweet service dog.