'My Best Friend Died Too Young. I Still Feel Guilty'

The morning I found out my best friend died, I was at my parents' house in Houston.

I'd had a slumber party with my mom and was lying in their bed when a number I didn't recognize called my phone. Initially, I thought it was spam, so I ignored it.

On the fourth call, I answered—it was Maddie's mom and she was crying.

Maddie and Alexa
Alexa Lubel (right) met best friend Maddie (left) at the University of Kansas in 2011. Alexa Lubel

"Maddie got in an accident," she said.

"Oh shoot, is she okay?" I asked.

"She died."

The only thing I remember after that is screaming.

My parents ran into the room while I screamed and cried. I couldn't believe it was true; I kept asking her mom whether she was sure. My mom took the phone and had to reiterate to me what had happened, but I couldn't understand it.

"We're just little girls," I kept telling my parents.

We were in our late twenties at the time, which I know may not seem like little girls to some people, but I just didn't understand how something so wrong and awful could happen to someone so good and young.

Finding friendship with Maddie

I met Maddie in 2011 at the University of Kansas. We were both from Texas originally, and she was the first person I spoke to during sorority rush. One of the first things I noticed about her was how naturally kind she was; she was a sophomore and made me feel instantly safe in a place that was so new.

She quickly brought me into her life and friend group. Being a freshman in college can be really scary, but Maddie had this effortlessly inclusive energy. She chose me to be her sorority little sister, and we stayed friends all the way through college. After graduating, I moved to Denver, Colorado and Maddie later joined me. We were together every day.

In 2021, my sister announced she was planning a gender reveal party and asked when would be a good time for me. So, I picked a weekend and booked a flight home. Maddie and I were attached at the hip and she didn't want to spend the weekend in Denver alone, so she decided to plan a girls' trip to New Mexico with her cousin at the same time.

On January 30, 2021, I flew home and she started her road trip. At the time I was sad about some boy I was caught up on, so the last thing she said to me was to keep my head up and that she loved me. I said I loved her back and asked if she had started the drive. She said yes, and that was the last time we ever spoke.

I hold a lot of guilt about that day. What if I had chosen another weekend for my sister's gender reveal? What if I hadn't flown home? Would Maddie still be here?

First weeks after Maddie's death

I don't remember the first three days after Maddie's death. I went to my sister's reveal and a week later had to ask my mom what gender the baby was. I couldn't even remember that my sister was having a girl.

For some reason, I couldn't change out of the clothes I was wearing when I heard about her death. I had slept in one of my mom's pajama sets and I couldn't put anything else on for almost two weeks.

I spent weeks in a zombie-like state; my parents never really left me alone. I didn't eat for around a week and a half. There was a lot of nothing at that stage—I was just going through the motions.

I don't think I really started to "snap out of it" until I began hearing details about the funeral. I knew I needed to get myself together so I could be in contact with her mom, figure out when we were driving to Dallas and write my speech.

The day of the funeral was really hard, as I expected. When I went up to the podium it felt like the room was blank; I just saw a casket next to me. I had my dad standing next to me and looked at him in the moments I needed support.

Maddie passed away on January 30, 2021. Alexa Lubel

The funeral was filmed and four months afterward I was still watching the video twice a week. I knew watching the video on repeat wasn't very healthy, but to me it offered an ounce of comfort.

My mom became concerned and advised me to see a grief counselor, but I went through quite a few pretty quickly. I found it really hard to find someone who could give me advice I actually found helpful.

At the time, I was experiencing moments of serious distress and periods where I felt as though I was frozen in time; I didn't feel as though I could continue on with my life because I didn't know how.

I have dealt with progressive death many times, but to have someone so close to me here one minute and gone the next, in such a violent way, I didn't know how to cope with it.

The world around me changed after Maddie's death. My perspective, my outlook on things—everything that mattered seemed so trivial. That was hard, because things I had cared so much about just felt so unimportant. My relationship with a lot of people changed after Maddie's death. I lost many friends because they just didn't know how to have a relationship with me anymore.

My fifth counselor taught me that leaning into my grief and sitting in my sadness was okay. It was okay to acknowledge how hurt I am and how angry I am that someone took my best friend away.

I needed to hear that, because I found it really hard to hear anyone say to me that I should: "live for Maddie." I instantly disconnect when people say things like that. In my eyes, my friend didn't need to die for me to live my life.

Moving to Hawaii

After Maddie died, I could no longer live in Denver. It was so painful to get out of bed and see the same things I saw every day when she was alive. Everything stayed the same, except that she wasn't there—it was really hard for me to understand.

So I packed my bags and moved to Honolulu; I wanted to surround myself in a different environment completely and give myself space to grieve.

Alexa Lubel
Alexa spent two years living in Hawaii after Maddie's death. Alexa Lubel

Even when I was in Hawaii, I found it really difficult watching people who knew Maddie move on with their lives. I felt angry, which I think came from a place of jealousy. Why did they get to live their lives normally again and I didn't?

Although I didn't know how they were feeling on the inside—after all, people probably saw me in Hawaii and thought I was having a great time—I was still comparing myself to everyone else.

I recently moved back to Houston after living in Honolulu for almost two years and I'm doing a lot better. On the two-year anniversary of Maddie's death in January, myself and my friend Krista, who was also super close with Maddie, spent the day together doing all the things she loved to do.

We decided to videotape ourselves doing it, just to look back and see how far we've come in the last couple of years. But as we were filming, there was something very cathartic about the process.

I remember calling my mom afterward and saying how different I felt. For the last two years, I have been struggling immensely and until making that video, there wasn't a day I didn't feel heavy.

It felt like Maddie had granted me this amount of relief, because I felt this entire weight lift off me.

Finding a community on social media

Afterward, I decided to upload the video to social media, and the reaction was incredible.

There was just so much love and a part of me thinks that Maddie set me up to meet all of these people online, who have given me so much peace and this space to grieve that I didn't have before.

Since sharing videos online about life after Maddie's death, I have seen this entire community come together. I've had all these direct messages and comments; people reaching out to me and telling me their stories, which in turn makes me feel equally less alone.

The biggest lesson I've taken away from this experience is that I'm not alone. I didn't realize how many young people there are who are going through the same thing as me. I have found my space to feel safe.

Something about this whole community is so moving to me, because it goes to show that while grief is one of the hardest things you can go through in life, it's also not spoken about and leaves people feeling so isolated.

I have felt so immensely different in my grief journey now I have so many on the other end of a phone to relate to and connect with. Being able to create this community of people and space to feel safe and together has changed my perspective on grief completely.

Alexa Lubel, 29, is a marketing brand manager who lives in Houston, Texas. You can find her on TikTok @lexilubel or Instagram @lexilubel.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek's My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.

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