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MIT student blogger Alexa J. '20

The Aftershock by Alexa J. '20

In memory of Kate Hunter ‘20 (1997-2017), who will always be remembered for her big heart, bright mind, and beautiful smile.

In memory of Kate Hunter ‘20 (1997-2017), who will always be remembered for her big heart, bright mind, and beautiful smile.

According to psychiatrists, when you hear terrible news, you go through 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But that’s not quite how grief manifested itself in me. Instead, it was a tangled balloon of emotions that when released, flew around the room in every which way, confusing everyone, making weird sounds, and refusing to be consoled until it was a slobbery, deflated mess on the floor.

For the sake of writing a cohesive post, I will relabel and map out this process like it was linear, but it really backtracked and sped forward and took 3 steps backward every few days. And I’m sure it all is a fraction of what her family is feeling as they process everything.

I got a missed call notification sometime before the New Year’s countdown. Thinking it was just to wish me a happy new year, I figured I would reach out the next day. The next day, Val, Kate’s sister, called me again, and I picked up. What followed was one of the most heart-wrenching phone calls I’ve ever had, during which I learned that one of my closest friends Kate had passed away with influenza.

1. Shock

For the duration of the phone call, I don’t remember much except for the voice on the other end. I’m not sure how many of the words I remember either. I just remember pacing the sidewalk for the first half of the call, and then ending up crouched down on the side of the road for the second part. A few key moments:
“Hey.” The somber tone didn’t sound like the Val I knew and definitely not what I was expecting.

“Remember how Kate got the flu a few days ago?” Wariness came, and this was probably when I began to wear the sidewalk cement thin with all the pacing. I dreaded whatever was about to come next because what good could possibly come from that question? It was so simple, yet had the potential to be so earth-shattering. I started to imagine the worst-case scenarios. I’m a pessimist and generally cope by dreaming up the worst possible scenarios, in the hopes that anything better will be a relief.

“She passed away last night.” This was probably the first time that the most horrible scenario actually occurred. I have been fortunate and haven’t experienced death on such a close scale before, so none of me knew how to react. My head was reeling, my heart dropped, and my body didn’t know what to do, so it decided to sink to the ground too.

In that moment, I felt nothing. There was just numbness. I started to wonder if I had somehow become emotionally detached since I last heard bad news.

2. Tears 

I suppose the shock was the calm before the storm because as soon as the waterworks came, they wouldn’t stop coming. I cry during rom-coms, unapologetically during Up and The Notebook, but on a scale of sobs, there are tears of sadness, and there are sobs that rack your body, and then there are tears that flow freely without an end in sight. These were the latter.

And what was this feeling? Sad is when you get an undesirable grade in a class or your favorite TV show character dies. What do you call this firehose of emotions? It was all 5 stages of psychologist-documented grief bundled into an unwelcome package. There was hurting, lots of it, and anger over the unfairness of death. There was guilt that the last text she sent to me promised to get a flu shot with me next year, something she neglected when it fell off the semester’s seemingly infinite to-do list. There was empathy for her family and selfish, irrational fear of mortality that if influenza could take out a healthy, happy 20 year-old girl, nobody is safe.

3. Remembrance

People, places, and things associated all become exponentially more precious. I wrote a letter on social media to her that I wish she could have read but I’ll share with the rest of the world instead:

“Dear Kate,

Remember telling pick-up lines at the FLP talent show? I was scared of making a fool out of myself before college even started, but you gave me the courage and confidence to do it because you reassured me that even if nobody else in the room laughed, we would still have a great time.

Remember our late-night sauna sessions after grueling rowing practices? We would talk about everything from line-ups to the future, and I felt like I could talk to you about it all because you were always on the same page as me about things.

Remember building Wasteland together? I don’t think the Maseeh basement conference room will ever see a girl who’s more hardworking and driven as you when we built the world’s best/worst (and only) VR anger management platform.

Remember summer hikes in wintry Chile through deserts, to temples, and up mountains? There is no one I would’ve rather bumbled through weird Chilean slang nor walked on stilts at a circus convention with.

I remember all of it and a million other times that you were the most wonderful friend, teammate, and classmate and made the lives of everyone you met a little bit brighter and better. I miss you so unbelievably much already, but I’m thankful to have met and been friends with someone as kind, smart, funny, and beautiful inside and out as you.

I love you <3


4. ???

I’m not sure that I know how to describe exactly where I am because it falls somewhere between commemorating and accepting. It’s a processing of feelings, conscious or not.

On the bus, in bed, for that next week, my mind would wander and replay a memory or just sit and talk. As unsettling as that sounds, it was actually kind of calming. Or I reached out to friends, who helped diffuse the shock and pain and made me feel less alone and scared.

I guess it could also be labelled Blog about it because this has helped too.

5. Acceptance

I agree with the professionals on this one.

I just finished A Gentleman in Moscow, as part of my reintroduction to literature since MIT pointed its firehose at me, and I read a quote on death and loss that I think sums up this phase adequately:

That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.

There comes a time, although the light at the end of my tunnel is not visible yet, where you follow life’s relentless lead and move forward. That doesn’t mean you forget but rather you embrace everything in a way that keeps her memory alive forever.