My Best Friend’s Death — and My Own Survival — Taught Me the Vulnerability of Joy

You and I turned 20 just a few weeks apart.

On your birthday, you showed up at my dorm room in a loud, fabulous blazer you’d splurged on for our night out with friends, squealing at the sight of the lit-up cake in my hands.

On my birthday, we buried you.

In the brightly lit room where your repast was held, your loved ones sang me happy birthday. My mind replayed the moment we sang for you: your wide smile as you burst through the door, the shimmer of the gold flecks in your blazer. Who would have thought you’d be celebrating your 20th birthday in South Africa? Who could have known it would be your last?

We were back in the little town that raised you — Osceola, Arkansas — and every interaction brought little pieces of you back to me. There you were, in your uncle’s laugh, in the way your granny said my name and, more than anything, in your mother’s eyes.

But I could sense from every handshake and hug that each of them was hoping to find a piece of you in me, too: that, by touching the last hand to have held yours, a final goodbye could be exchanged. The weight of it overwhelmed me. Who was I to have been given the gift of that last moment, when those who’d changed your diapers and wiped your tears had to hear through a phone receiver that you were gone?

As we exchanged sympathies, well-meaning elders patted my shoulder and reassured me that I’d find love again. They had mistakenly assumed that we had been dating, which would have made you laugh. But I understood. In many ways, we were truly two of a kind: both unapologetically loud, extravagantly loving, and involved in pretty much everything on campus. We were both social butterflies, sociology majors, and very dramatic. We also had the same stubborn resistance to being placed in a box of any kind. “I’m an individual!” was one of your catchphrases — one that I still borrow on occasion.

Our connection was evident: so much so, that I still remember the day my therapist asked to see some photos of you and me. He already knew the details of our story: that we had been close friends for two years at Georgetown, had flown to Cape Town together for our semester abroad, had embarked on a spring break trip together, and then… the accident.

But as he flipped through the photos, his face softened into a look of genuine heartache. He could see the uniqueness of our connection in the moments we’d captured. Our culture doesn’t have a category for platonic love that vulnerable and free. But my therapist saw what couldn’t be put into words. He saw our love, and the gaping crater that now stood in its place. He saw my grief. He saw me. That day, he increased our sessions from once to twice a week, and I felt validated in the wake of a gut punch that, weeks later, had left me still gasping for air.

The day that we lost Terrance began with a gorgeous hike down to a secluded beach.

He and I were on spring break with our dear friend, Poetry, and two other students whom we had just met: Tyler and Breonna. After a hilarious trek through the forest (Terrance, Poetry, and I were not the outdoorsy types), we finally made it down to the rocky shoreline. We had it all to ourselves. As we took in the beauty of the ocean, Terrance wandered off for a while, and I heard his unmistakably rich, Spirit-filled voice belting out gospel tunes as he raised his hands to the sky.

At one point, Terrance took my hand, and we walked along the rocks together. Frothy waves crashed in, trickling under our feet, but the rocks kept us elevated and our sneakers dry. Suddenly, a huge one came out of nowhere, splashing us from the waist down. We couldn’t stop laughing, equally shocked and amused.

Then, just as quickly as the first, another wave came — this one straight over our heads. It swept us into the water forcefully, and I felt my hand slip out of his.

The water pounded above my head, and I felt myself being plunged deeper. Though I can swim, my arms and legs were useless against the force of the water. I have no memory of how I physically felt at that moment; my mind seemed to float away from what my body was experiencing, calmly contemplating the fact that I was about to die.

Then, I felt a rock — big, like the ones we’d been walking on.

I gripped it in my hands.

My mind came back into my body.

The water receded for a moment.

Clinging to the rock and gasping for breath, I looked around, but my eyes couldn’t find Terrance.

The next moments were a flurry of emotion and action.

With courage I can’t begin to fathom, Tyler jumped into the water, which had quickly turned choppy and violent. He tried to swim out to look for Terrance, but the waves made it impossible. He eventually emerged, his face full of shock, grief, and anger. The rocks had drawn red stripes across his back.

We had no cell phone reception, so someone had to go find help. Breonna rushed back up the hiking path, but we knew it would be at least an hour before she would reach the top.

Somehow, something protected our spirits from hopelessness. As the unrelenting waves beat the shoreline, Poetry and I clung to one another in the sand, praying, shouting to God, as if our volume would rouse Him to action. I remember praying for helicopters, and when I finally heard the roaring of blades above us, I wailed in relief.

We just knew they would find him. The night before, we were like kids at a sleepover; we’d climbed into the bunk beds at our hostel and told stories, laughing late into the night. Terrance was so full of life that our minds literally couldn’t entertain the thought of him dying. It made no sense.

The tide kept rising and rising, making it impossible for us to keep vigil any longer. Soon, the water would cover the beach and reach the forest behind us. The only access to this beach had been a steep hike downhill. Now, the rescue workers were begging us to leave the beach — to leave Terrance — and begin the hike back up.

Only the clamoring waves could convince us to obey. My limbs felt like concrete, yet the rescue workers — one ahead of us, one behind — implored us to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It felt absurd, like being asked to run a marathon after being hit by a car. Poetry and I were delirious, howling and screaming and praying and sometimes pausing long enough to breathe and remind each other: “They’ll find him. He’ll be at the hospital soon.”

That’s the image that kept me going, as strangely specific as it was: Terrance, alive in a hospital bed. We kept repeating that vision aloud, over and over. “We’ll get to the top, and we’ll go to the hospital, and we’ll bring Terrance some flowers and some food, and everything will be okay.” Over and over, like a mantra.

The rescue workers were silent.

When we finally made it to the top, we sat in the back of the paramedic’s truck. They offered us water and granola bars and then, as if ripping off a band-aid, they told us:

“There’s no chance your friend will be found alive.”

The intricate vision we had spent the past hour building to keep us afloat was shattered in an instant. My knees buckled, and I was given oxygen to stabilize me.

The next few days live in my mind only as snapshots: an emotion, a conversation.

I remember the voice of your mom on the phone, her grief unhinged. A rescue worker had broken the news to her first, but she flatly refused to believe until my voice confirmed it. My heart ached for her as I imagined her receiving a crackly, international phone call from a stranger, telling her that her child was dead. I couldn’t fathom it.

I remember barely eating for days. I remember pastors coming to my tiny dorm room to pray with me. I remember friends who had become family in the blink of an eye shedding tears alongside me, their grief making room for mine.

I remember the pain of phone calls from friends back at Georgetown who, like Poetry and I had convinced ourselves on that hike, just knew you’d be found alive. Those conversations were the hardest, because who was I to tear that vision down? Why pry someone’s grip from the hope they so desperately clung to? But their faith felt like daggers as I fought to accept reality.

I remember the day they found your body after five days of searching, my deep sense of loss and release woven together.

I remember playing Kirk Franklin’s latest album on repeat the whole flight home. You’d loaded it onto my iPod before you passed, and I let “The Appeal” wash over me like a lullaby. (When our classmates sung it at your funeral, I burst into tears and knew it was a gift straight from heaven to me.)

I remember the wild look of relief in my mom’s eyes when she first saw me: the look of a mother who had almost lost her daughter and wondered why another mother hadn’t also been spared the ultimate grief.

I remember — even though next week will mark thirteen years, and I wonder why I’ve suddenly decided to write this all down. Why I’ve spent far too much time returning to these paragraphs, making sure I don’t miss a detail.

Maybe it’s because grieving hearts so desperately want to be seen. In the wake of loss, we want to scream and rage and throw things and curse the world for daring to keep spinning, for not collapsing alongside us. And even after time has softened the ache, we yearn to make our hidden wounds visible, knowing they’re the marks of our loved ones: what they gave us in life, and what they taught us in death.

Your death changed me.

It challenged me to make the most of each moment and brought me to faith in God.

It also made me intensely fearful. Nearly every day, a terrible thought of some kind flashes in my mind: I walk under some scaffolding and imagine it tumbling down and crushing us all. My children sleep in on a (rare) morning, and my heart races as I envision them going to bed one night and never waking up. I look into my husband’s eyes and a picture invades my mind of what our life would look like if he suddenly died, the grief so tangible that I want to open my mouth and scream.

I thought I was alone — that I was forever damaged by my near-death experience and the devastation of losing you. I thought no one could understand.

And then I came across Brene Brown’s writing on the concept of “foreboding joy” — the phenomenon in which, as we reflect on the good things in our life, thoughts of us losing it all interrupt us. We wonder, what’s the catch? We wait for the other shoe to drop. We know, of course, that emotions like fear and shame make us feel deeply vulnerable but, strangely, so does joy.

Why? Because every time we embrace joy, we embrace uncertainty. We risk the heartache of losing the source of that joy, and we feel exposed as we lay our deepest, truest emotions bare. Brown writes that when we “rehearse tragedy,” as I do almost daily, “we’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated.”

It makes me wonder how you lived your life so unencumbered. How love bubbled out of you so effortlessly, despite everything you had been through in your brief 20 years: losing your baby sister, being raised by a single mother, and living without so many of the comforts and privileges that our peers at Georgetown were accustomed to.

Maybe part of the answer is in what Brene Brown writes next:

“Don’t squander joy. We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope.”

You never squandered joy. You threw your whole being into it.

Your hugs would knock the wind out of us, and you offered them to strangers, acquaintances, friends, and professors alike. You said you wanted to remind us how loved we were — by you, and by God.

When you spotted a friend on campus, you’d shriek their name and run up to them as if you hadn’t seen them in years, wrapping your arms around them and covering their cheeks with kisses.

Whenever someone asked you to pray for them, you’d literally close your eyes where you stood and murmur a prayer right then and there — so you wouldn’t forget.

Your love touched so many hearts that crowds overflowed at every prayer vigil and service from the day you died until your funeral — hundreds and hundreds of people coming to pray for you and memorialize you. Even in Cape Town, where our semester had only begun 6 weeks prior, your memorial service was standing room only.

When I think of how you lived, and my own walk through grief — through the impossible question of why you died and I survived —the power of being vulnerable to joy begins to crystallize.

My healing never manifested the way I expected, as a slow but steady process of becoming free from fear. Instead, healing came when I allowed myself to take in the joy on my daughter’s face as she jumped into the ocean’s waves with abandon. It came when I let that joy propel me through — not past — the deep, familiar ache in my heart that the salty ocean breeze always brings. My healing rests in surrendering to the knowledge that grief and joy will always coexist.

In the year that marked a decade since your passing, my husband and I had our second child.

He has the purest, most radiant smile and twinkling eyes, and I call him “my joy.” He carries your name in his — as his middle name, technically, but of course your mama calls him “lil’ Terrance.” As she absolutely should.

On the tenth anniversary of your death, lil’ Terrance and I flew to Arkansas to be with your family. Your sister had just had a baby boy of her own, and they studied each other as sweet, drooly babies do. That night, I rocked lil’ Terrance to sleep in your old bedroom, surrounded by your pictures and trophies and books. My mind drifted to a letter you’d written me, which I only found after your passing.

The night before our trip, you wanted to stay up and watch movies together; you couldn’t sleep, because something you’d left unspoken was weighing on your heart. So you came over and we put on Waiting to Exhale as I finished packing. At some point, I fell asleep, and you left a note for me before you headed back to your room. In it, you told me how grateful you were that we’d become so close, and you jotted down a quote from Waiting to Exhale:

“You know what inspiration is? It’s someone who lets you know life will go on and something beautiful can be waiting somewhere, when you least expect it.”

Ellie writes about parenting, social justice, faith, mental health, embracing autism, and more at EllieHunja.com. She believes that empathy and vulnerability can change the world, and she shares about her journey to cultivate a life of purpose, authenticity, and joy on Instagram.

I write about parenting, social justice, faith, mental health, embracing autism, and more on EllieHunja.com. I love cheesecake, Motown, and good conversation.