What does it really mean to let go? When we turned this question over to our editors and readers, their responses proved that grief, catharsis, and rebirth come in all forms—whether it's finally moving on from a failed relationship, rebuilding oneself after a painful trauma, or quietly saying goodbye to the person you once were. Our series Letting Go highlights these compelling and complicated stories. Below, reader Carly Olszewski shares a vivid, heartbreaking look at her grief and memory in the wake of her boyfriend's death.
The purpose of this experiment is to _________.
To remember more than just the facts about him, like the fact that he had light blue eyes and dirty-blonde hair, the way a classic surfer boy from Southern California should. The fact that he was a Capricorn, the fact that he didn’t like chocolate, the fact that his middle name was Dolleschel, after his German grandfather. To remember more than just the fact that he drove an old black Ford Mustang, the same Mustang that he died in on Thursday, August 20, 2015. Reed Dolleschel Gorder was only 21 years old.
No, I want to remember the way that he would cut his own jeans into shorts and call them “silly shants” because they were two sizes too small and never cut evenly. He didn’t care, though—he would pull them so far down below his waist and use a black shoelace as a belt, skateboarding down the street to the nearest 7-Eleven. He would buy a pack of Trolli candy eggs and a lime Gatorade to share while we sat on the balcony of his house that overlooked the ocean in Santa Barbara. “Deer House,” he called it, because “Reed spelled backwards is deer—duh.” He stole a yellow deer-crossing sign and bolted it into a wooden pillar of that balcony. “You’ve gotta prance like a deer, flop like a fish,” he said. He’s the only person I know who created a personal motto for life, though I never did figure out exactly what it meant.
No, I want to remember the way that he pronounced “turtle” like “toytle,” just to get me to smile. I want to remember the way that his skin smelled, like pineapple and coconuts. I want to remember the way that his hands looked while he painted the eight delicate legs of a black widow hanging from a lily: soft and slow and patient.
The purpose of this experiment is to leave a verbal record.
During the first few months following Reed’s death, I felt an obsessive need to remember every single detail about him, to document every last memory of us together, to try to recall all of the lessons that he taught me about myself and about the world. I didn’t want to forget or move on or let go; I have never listened to people who tried to tell me what to do anyway.
This obsession led me to develop my “dot theory.” Each night, I analyze the events of my day before I go to sleep, rehearsing new images and old memories in my head. These memories are my “dots,” dots that I string together until I form a circle, until I form something whole, something that makes sense and justifies the most significant events of my life. Once I feel that there is control and structure, an ordered pattern to my dots, only then can I relax and fall asleep.
But when Reed died, my layers of circles and years of memories were all disrupted. The dots inside my head no longer formed a neat constellation but existed as secluded stars, unable to string together, unable to connect. Heavy memories twirling around in my brain, trapped, reverberating off the sides of my skull like popcorn kernels in a pan that were left on the stove to burn. No matter how I tried to rearrange my dots, I could not form a smooth circle again. Nothing fit. Nothing about my life made sense anymore.
Dot #11: I am 4 years old. I meet a girl in the parking lot of my hometown’s Catholic school. Our moms are inside buying uniforms for our older siblings—we are, naturally, strung along. My new friend and I play with a rainbow slinky and eat blue M&M’s until my mom yells from across the lot, “Hurry up—get in the car!” It isn’t until we start driving away that I look back at the girl through the window and realize I don’t even know her name. I am probably never going to see her again. I wave. That was the first time that I learned to say goodbye.
The last time that I saw Reed was in May of 2015. We had spent the day in Los Padres National Forest, hidden in the cliffs of Santa Barbara, the same place where he would die three months later. Our last conversation on top of that cliff was one about death, about how he believed that he was going to die early from “something stupid.” He told me that he wanted to be cremated, his ashes spread in seven different places around the world—places close to home, places that he dreamed of traveling to, maybe one day. He wanted a song called “Let’s Go Home” to be played at his funeral, but “It won’t be a funeral. It’ll be a party. With dancing. And tequila shots. And no one will be allowed to wear black.”
Spontaneous, wild, and reckless. He didn’t plan for anything, so why did he have the details of his death so thoroughly thought through? Why did he tell me these details on what was to be our last day spent together? Why did we spend this day at the very place that he would die? The coincidence of that, the probability, the math… It didn’t make sense. This wasn’t like Dot #11—I knew his name. I knew more about him than I knew about myself. He wasn’t supposed to be another premature, fleeting goodbye. He wasn’t supposed to be compressed into a dot, confined by the limitations of my memory.
There is no procedure for walking hand in hand with grief down the sidewalk to the park where we used to swing.
The week after the accident, I met Reed’s family at the restaurant where he bartended, and after ordering a plate of fish tacos that no one ate, we went to go pick up his ashes. I watched his mother drop to her knees, her fingers frantically twitching as they tied his favorite bandana around the lid of a blue vase. His grandmother vomited in the bathroom; his younger sister was still and stoic. His father buckled the front passenger seatbelt over the vase before we drove home and said, “Reed’s riding shotgun tonight.”
An attempted procedure, failed.
Previous research has suggested that each time you remember something, you remember it differently, implying that our memories are malleable, that we can distort them without being consciously aware that we are doing so. I panic. Quick—I must document my memories to record the truth…
Dot #403: A high school first date at a drive-in movie theater. But we lie on the trunk in the parking lot, our heads to the domed sky, talking about ghosts instead of watching the film. I tell him about my cousin from New York who swore he felt the devil crawl over the edge of his bed and choke him—he wanted to be a priest until that night. We talk about how God supposedly “tests” his most loyal followers, though Reed isn’t sure that God or heaven even exist: “But if there is a heaven, I just know I’m gonna get there before I turn 30.”
Dot #413: A lifeguard tower numbered 32, after hours. We’ve gone to Newport Beach this weekend to do sun salutations on the sand and race into the waves with our eyes closed. We fall asleep on the wooden tower, waking to the sound of raindrops as they arrive with the sunrise—only, they sound different—their falls are cushioned by the sand, the morning petrichor, dispersing.
Dot #496: A butterfly garden in Santa Barbara. Nestled into the nook of a Cypress trunk, we sit and eat carrots just because they are orange.
Dot #575: Reed believes that an experience should only be repeated if you were sharing it with someone else, witnessing someone else’s first reaction. I’ve never surfed before, so he wants me to experience what that feels like—to be propelled by the water, its natural inertial movement. But there aren’t any waves to catch. My head on the surfboard, sandy wax grazing my ribs, ribs leaking red. But the sparkling pastel spectrum, the sunset’s mosaic on the surface, like the iridescence of spilled oil, floating. He likes to remind himself of this beauty—me, I like the expected repetition of the waves. (People always found our relationship unusual for reasons such as this. Reed chose to live simply, carefree. He was an artist, while my life was busy and predictable.)
We stay here in comfortable silence, basking in the quiet paradox of feeling so alone in the middle of the ocean yet so connected to one another. Lost, safe, together. Could it be possible now, I wonder, to be like the waves: salted yet strong?
Dot #581: At 3 a.m., we drive to Joshua Tree National Park and climb a mountain to watch the sunrise. Reed leaps from one boulder to the next, clearing a large gap that exposes hundreds of feet beneath us. Too scared to jump, I cry, eventually finding an alternate route.
This year, I returned to that same gap to spread the first bit of his ashes. This time, I jumped. Again, I cried. Tears. Yes. Salted yet strong.
Reed sent me one song for each day that we were apart. “Only 38 more songs until I see you again.” He believed that music had the ability to transform chaos into harmony. Numerous instruments, pitches, tones, and rhythms each existing as spontaneous individual sounds, all intertwining to create something whole. Reed taught me to synchronize the chaos of my own life, causing me to believe that there’s a reason life happens and making me excited to live it. In this way, music became life. Music was math. And math always made sense.
His Mustang went off the edge of a winding 380-foot cliff. Or was it more? I do not want to know the details. He once told me, “There’s no reason to look down until you’re falling.” I wonder if he looked down, down when he was falling down through the woods, down 380 feet.
Highway 154. I wonder if 154 souls have floated up amid these cliffs like his.
A 15 mph speed limit. He must have been going 30, but this is an approximation, a fudged number so that the rest of the data fits.
Six feet of skid marks on a newly paved road, 3:02 p.m.
Thursday, August 20, 2015.
Thursday—37, 38, 39 Thursdays have passed since.
There is not enough information given to answer the question.
His checkered navy dress shirt now sewn into a pillowcase, a bracelet with a broken seashell strung through it, a lime Gatorade cap that told me to “JUST RUN WITH IT.”
Old voicemails because I hung up the phone.
Results to be continued after more thorough observation…
Reed lived in Isla Vista, a small pocket of Santa Barbara occupied entirely by college students who attended one of the biggest party schools in California. Broken bottles, cigarette butts, burning mattresses, and cars with shattered sideview mirrors lined Del Playa Drive. But the small square houses lined a natural ocean cliff drop, the waves’ white noise providing a calm contrast. Such a strange feeling to be sandwiched between the beauty of a place and the chaos of the people who inhabit it.
Dot #568: One weekend there’s a shooting. A student drives around and fires at a nearby market, raging about how much he hates the culture of the place, the noise of the place, the disorder. We hear the gunshots over the bass of the music, and I watch as Reed’s roommates hold up a glass and took a sip, one, two, another, eventually leaving the house and continuing to stroll the streets.
Dot #533: We walk down the road to get a cup of blueberry coffee the morning after the shooting. Looking down from the cliff, I see a large group of people swimming out into the ocean. “It’s called a paddle-out,” Reed explains. “Each time a student passes away, everyone goes out on their boards with flowers and letters and stuff, and they make a circle and share stories and—say goodbye, I guess. I would definitely want people to do that for me. But I would want some of my ashes to be spread in the ocean, too. I love the water.”
As time went on, I worried that the culture of Isla Vista was beginning to heighten Reed’s unstructured side. I wasn’t there to keep him out of trouble, nor did I want that responsibility. I became frustrated that he had no plan for life, and I began to judge and misunderstand him the way that so many others did. After that last day we spent together in May, I hogged the covers and left in the morning without saying goodbye.
These results cannot be replicated.
Discussion (Analysis of Results)
I convinced myself that I was responsible for Reed’s death. I sincerely believed that it was all my fault. Had we never broken up, I would have been in the car with him that day, and I would have told him to slow down, just like I did when I was on that same road with him in May.
Reed had taught me how to appreciate life, but when he needed me, I left him. And I hated myself for it. I couldn’t allow myself be “okay” without him now. I don’t deserve to be happy. I deserve to be punished. Was “God” trying to teach me some sick lesson? Regardless, what was the point? What was the purpose to any of it?
Initially, it didn’t feel like Reed was really gone—it’d just been a long time since I’d seen him, maybe 100 songs or so. Everyone’s advice was to “remember the good,” to ignore the bad observations that did not lead to the desired result. But that just made me forget all the reasons we had ever grown distant. I felt even worse if I tried to spend time with other people, because their company either brought me comfort—a forbidden feeling—or they just didn’t understand. And how could they? They only reiterated the fact that Reed did; he did understand.
On the one hand, it seemed as if the universe had prepared me for Reed’s death, almost hinting at it, again and again. Many of my dots informed me of his opinions on death, and I knew that he got precisely what he would have wanted: He had a colorful celebration instead of a funeral; his ashes were beginning to be spread all over the world. But was that supposed to bring me comfort? Instead, it made the kernels pop even louder against the sides of my skull: Was it Reed’s fate to die young? Did he know? But the timing was all wrong. Why did we have to be in a fight when he died? Why didn’t I have the chance to say goodbye? Did I cross his mind, in his final moments?
Searching for the answers, I experimented with new experiences, decorating his absence with new adventures. I hiked to the highest peak of every mountain I could find because I wanted to remind myself that the world still had beauty, and because I thought that maybe I’d be able to feel him, up there. But there was a thick line between me and all things real, a thick band of pollution painted across the horizon: hazy, gray, and pink.
Repeat the experiment.
Revise the method. More materials are required.
I resorted to spending long nights in the basement of the library, burying my head into the pages of a science book. I thought that I could figure out how death worked. I could understand how each body system harmoniously shut down, one after another, slowly, synchronized, all at once. Like layers of music. Like math. I could figure out what happens to your mind, to your energy—does it transfer to someone else? Energy must neither be created nor destroyed.
I was determined to uncover the deeper meaning, the purpose to it all. And if there wasn’t one? I would create it. It is through written language that I learned to create a harmonious connection between sound, image, and meaning. I discovered the power of direct communication, a way to write all of the things I never had the chance to say.
Now, each Thursday night as I leave the library, biking back toward my room in the cold, I pedal. Pedal, stop, glide. Pedal, glide. But my eyes are closed. Pedal, stop, glide, as fast as I can. Still, I keep my eyes closed. Is a car coming? The truth: What if I don’t care if it hits me? That might feel nice—to be with him again. This is the only time I feel as though I can breathe—when I pedal, glide. Creating my own quiet wind, my own artificial heartbeat, my own artificial freedom. I chase this feeling. I miss the authenticity with which he brought me that feeling. I peek at the empty road after a couple of seconds… Maybe I do still care.
I wonder what my mother would say if I woke up in a hospital bed and told her I’d been hit by a car because “I like to bike in the dark with my eyes closed.” She’d probably call me a child, say that I should know better by now. (Should I know better by now? And should I be better by now, now that 39 Thursdays have passed?) I would respond to my mother by reminding her of Dot #23: The time when my dad teaches me how to ride a bike. He unscrews the training wheels and pushes me down the street. I’m so scared of falling that I instinctively close my eyes as I pedal.
What if I had been hit by a car back then? Back then, it would have been okay—it would have been an accident. It’s acceptable to close your eyes when you’re a 4-year-old and you’re scared. Now, 21, still scared, I pedal, stop, glide. Pedal. Glide. Further down the road.
Thursday, and next Thursday, and the Thursday after that.