During orientation for my grad program, it was drilled into our heads that the 13 strangers in my cohort were about to become my family. Over the next four years we could expect to study together, learn together, argue, cry, be pushed to our wits end, lift each other up, and be each other's greatest support and motivation. I looked around.
Knowing that we need to form a cohesive unit to get through this journey, we decided to get together for a pot luck on Wednesday night. As a bonding activity, each of us was asked to bring an item and share a story. This item was supposed to represent an experience that helped shape us into the people we are now. The story needed to be something personal, a way for us to really get to know each other, to understand what we've been through. So with that in mind, I knew my item and story had to have something to do with Blake.
I've really grappled with the questions of "if/when/how much" I should share with new people about what I'm going through with the death of my boyfriend. Does everyone need to know? If I tell people too soon, will they be blinded by their pity for me and not really get to know me for who I am aside from it? Will telling them too much make people afraid of me and back away from getting close to the mess of a person that I am right now? But in the spirit of allowing these strangers to become my family, I knew this was something I needed to share with them. I needed to share it now and I needed to share as much about it as they were willing to listen to. I put Blake's cologne in my bag, and walked out the door.
When it was my turn for show and tell, I immediately started crying. The first couple of minutes I looked down into my lap at Blake's cologne, insuring that I wouldn't make eye contact with anyone. I didn't want to see their eyes fill with sympathy. I didn't want to watch as I transformed in their minds from the bubbly, smiling girl they met at orientation to a broken, lost soul in pieces in front of them. I blacked out as I started talking. I'm actually not even sure what I said. All I know is that the more I talked, the more I was able to breathe.
I finally looked up at the strangers around me. As I saw their faces, I realized maybe it wasn't just me who was changing in their minds, but also them in mine. But this wasn't a negative thing like I originally thought. They changed in the sense that they didn't feel like strangers anymore. And suddenly I wasn't a stranger in their eyes either. By sharing this personal piece of my life, we became familiar.
One by one all of the strangers took out their items and talked about their lives. And each time, that stranger became a person, someone who was real to me. The stick figure on their page in my book was colored, shaped, and detailed into their own unique form. When I looked around now, I saw friends.
Sometimes I trap myself in my pain by thinking I'm the only one who's ever been hurt this way. In a way I'm right, because no one will ever truly know how it feels to be me in my exact situation as I'm experiencing it now. But it would be foolish for me to think that just because that's true, it means I'm alone in my pain.
That night with my cohort reminded me that everybody has a story. Although there are a million different ways a person can experience pain, it all hurts. We are all united in our struggles because we know there is no cure for them; pain will always exist, and it may even increase. But every time I turn a stranger into a friend by sharing a piece of my pain, I can breathe easier. And when they share a piece of their pain with me, they can breathe easier as well. The beautiful thing about pain is that it bonds people. And that bond turns strangers into friends and friends into family.