I think I’ve always been interested in the ways that people celebrate or carry on the memory of a loved one throughout their lives. Something last time got me thinking again about this topic.
Around this time last year, my new partner Mike took me to see Tom Petty on what ended up being his final tour. It’s not as though I knew this musician personally, but his music has always been a huge part of my life. Almost a year after his death, I am still grieving as if I lost a friend. I suppose a lot of folks are.
It was after Drew’s death that I found an especially close connection to his music. For a year, I photographed portraits of myself to explore my own grief and to tell my story in a visual way. Music was almost always playing in the background… very specific music that helped me to get into the heart of my emotions. Tom Petty became a regular in the background, and the more I listened to his words as I created my own stories, the more deeply those words became woven into what I created. Songs like Learning to Fly, Angel Dream, I Won’t Back Down, and more all felt like they were telling some piece of my story. I guess that’s what he was so good at though… he was telling all of our stories.
Last week, we went to a tribute concert here in town… a whole bunch of local bands were up there on stage taking turns singing Petty’s songs. And at the end, they all came up together - some two dozen people - and sang a few final songs. What an incredible energy it was.
It’s times like that when I think, “This is the way you do it. This is how you keep living on when someone dies. These people get it”. You celebrate them, and you keep on celebrating them. Granted Tom Petty isn’t just any random person, and it becomes easy to celebrate someone who made great, iconic music… but it’s more about the mindset of this idea that I think is a great takeaway for everyday life after loss. Why can’t we all celebrate our dead people and the gifts they left with us so openly? Why can’t we all have a concert or a celebration once a year or whenever the hell we feel like it just to celebrate them? What stops us? Or maybe the better question is, how can we infuse this kind of celebration into our daily lives and continue to keep our loved ones a part of the story for many years to come?
Last Thursday, all of my closest friends flew in from around the country for our annual trip to see each other. Since 2012, when Drew died, we have been making it a point to come from far and wide to spend a weekend together celebrating his life and our friendships. We call it Drewfest, and this year was our sixth year. It was the first year having this celebration in Ohio, which was a big deal for both Mike and I.
I can hardly find the words to express how much this group of people means to me. I honestly believe they have made one of the biggest differences in how well I have coped with and healed these past 6 years. They are one of my strongest connections to Drew, because they were there for so much of the happy memories and good times - sharing alongside he and I. I know without a doubt they miss him the same way I do. And I know they remember all the good times as much as me. When we are together, we all feel closer to him.
They also remember the hard times, because they were there for that too. In the weeks and months after Drew died, these were the friends that showed up for me in countless ways and helped to carry me through. They were my rock. They may never really know just how much of a difference their presence has made.
Six years later, they’ve never left. Even though our lives continue on. As I found new love, they welcomed it. As some of us left Texas for Ohio, California, and Florida, we started video calling each other to stay close. So much living has happened since that difficult day in June of 2012. Good and hard times both. And still these friendships have remained. Even though sometimes we may not catch up for months at a time, I know they are there. I know because we have been through an unthinkable fire together and that fire has strengthened our friendship. It is the one greatest gift that Drew continues to give us…Read more
This past week, I had a pretty crazy dream. It’s the first time of this sort that I have ever had. As many of you know, our Tuesday writer, Mike, is my boyfriend. He lost his wife, Megan, in 2014 to Cystic Fibrosis and I lost my fiance, Drew, in 2012 in a crash. We’ve been dating now a few years, and still nothing like this dream has showed up before.
And then came Mother’s Day last week… and the post I wrote about Mike and Megan’s daughter, whom I am now caring for as my own. You can read that post here, but essentially it boiled down to my deep appreciation for this little person being in my life now and all that she has changed for the better.
So that night, the end of Mother's Day, I had a dream... about Megan...
It was not just any dream. It was one of *those* dreams… and you all know the ones I mean. The dreams that some of us call “visits” because of how realistic they feel. In this dream, Megan was in a hospital bed and Mike and I were on either side of her. He was not a major part of the dream, except to introduce me to Megan at the beginning. He told her that I was the new person in his life. That I was the one chosen to be here, after her. And then, there was this completely real, completely tangible moment of us looking eye to eye at one another. Silence. Hearts beating, a little tensely. Guardedness. Neither yet saying words… she was taking me in. She was taking in this moment of her life that she knew would always come.
And just as if it had been real, you could feel the presence of protectiveness in her. The seriousness of the situation in her. And she then looked forward a moment, took a breath, and began to tell me in a very matter of fact way what was important to her for me to take care of after she’s gone...Read more
So the book I have been writing about my husband's death, and life in the aftermath, is finished. It is now in editing, and should be ready for publication for July 13th. One of the sections in the book is called "Words About Don", where I asked a handful of his close friends and family to write up a few words/couple of paragraphs or so, about a memory, or what Don meant to them, or anything they felt like saying about Don Shepherd. I have been receiving the last of these writing pieces over the past few weeks, to be added to my draft. Yesterday, I received one from Don's very best friend - his EMS partner on the ambulance for years out in Florida, and his Best Man at our wedding. This man and his wife drove 24 hours from Florida to New Jersey, on very short notice, to be there at Don's funeral and honor him. They were the kind of friends who felt like and thought of each other as brothers.Read more
I’ve been thinking the past few days about Kelley’s Friday post. She talked about how people treat us when widowed, and the frustrations of often being treated like a five year old or misunderstood in some way.
Or how people begin to act differently again once you find new love. That one I can definitely attest to. I wrote to her, saying how it felt like when I met Mike and found love again, all the people who had coddled me and worried over me disappeared, as if to say “Oh thank God, we don’t have to WORRY about her anymore!”
And then the avoiders who had been too uncomfortable with my grief came out of the woodworks to suddenly be more present and express their joy… which really felt more like expressing how happy they were that they could be comfortable with my life again. It’s funny what grief does to those around us... and then to us as a result.
When I moved to Ohio in the name of new love, it felt like a slow exodus I had not intended. Gradually, everyone seemed to just sort of fade out. I got the same sort of story from people over and over again, "Oh I figured you're so busy enjoying your new life, I didn't want to bother you!" Excuse me for being blunt, but that is the stupidest thing to say to someone you care about. Because you think I’m happy you think I’m too busy? Huh?
What the hell does that even mean? And how did virtually no one stop to think that maybe, just maybe, this change was not JUST joyful, but incredibly painful and hard? How did no one see that? Leaving the only place I’ve ever called home… the place where my parents and my fiance are buried, to live 1400 miles away in a totally different culture from Texas. Not to mention how hard it's been for Mike knowing he was the catalyst for my leaving home and for a lot of pain I've experienced by making that choice. Really, truly, almost no one asked at any point “how are you really doing?”. Somehow they all decided that being united with my new love after having dated from far away for nearly a year was all I needed to be 100% happy with no sense of loss whatsoever.
This still annoys me...Read more
Death has been on my mind a lot the past week, and I don’t even know why. There haven’t been any major milestones or triggers. No birthdays of people who are dead. No death anniversaries. No real explanation, yet I’ve been unable to shake these shadowy figures in my mind. The haunting things I know will one day happen to more people I love. And to me. And it just plain sucks.
It could be something as small as not getting good sleep lately, or the muscle strain I’ve had in my neck for the past 3 weeks that won’t seem to subside… or even just the lingering winter weather that will not seem to go away here in Ohio.
I suppose the one thing that has been a trigger was an email from my aunt - giving me some old lab results about cancers my aunt and grandmother had. It's information I needed for sure, but still hard to swallow. They both survived their breast cancer, unlike my mom. Still though, it makes it very likely that either my sister or I, or both of us, will one day be told we have cancer too. It’s quite possibly the most terrifying thing imaginable to me... facing this particular disease showing up in some way in my life again...Read more
I don’t have them very often, but last night was a pretty sleepless night. My mind was going. I couldn’t seem to quiet it. Usually I can put on a podcast and be out in ten minutes… but every now and then I find myself listening to an entire podcast, and then another, barely managing to doze off at all...
Even though nowadays, my sleep is pretty much back to how it was before he died, sleepless nights still feel fragile. I guess they bring back the memory… the weight of the sadness through the nights. It reminds me of sleepless nights for an entire year after he died, when I didn’t sleep for more than 3 or 4 hours a night, ever. It reminds me of the heavy dread when I would manage to sleep and then wake, around 3 or 4am, and realize all over again that he was dead and it was in fact not just a bad dream.Read more
My fiance died in 2012. In the spring of 2014, I began creating a photographic series about my grief, called "Still, Life"… sharing weekly self portraits that captured my pain, hope, confusion, anger and everything else that comes along with grief.
I worked on this series for about a year, creating 40 haunting, hopeful, honest images… with each one, I wrote a brief essay that talked about what that particular image represented about my own story. As it turns out, sometimes I wasn’t even entirely certain what the story was when I would go out to photograph myself. Sometimes I just wandered, with the camera, and let my intuition guide me. So when I would sit down to write about each image, many times, the personal meaning would begin to reveal itself there. More times than not, I would end up in tears as my typing fingers led me to the true, deep feeling of the image.
I wrapped up that series in a rather unceremonious way.... I just sort of faded out, from the pure exhaustion of it all. There was no grand finale. No final profound photograph to end the journey of the project. I just sort of lost my desire for it, or felt ready to stop looking so deeply at my grief after a full year of intensively doing so.
Looking back, I realize now, the way the project ended was just like everything in this “after” life. It was exactly like making it through the first year of his being gone… something I’d imagined would feel pivotal, like I’d graduated to the next level or something. Only it didn’t feel that way at all. Instead it felt gut-wrenching all over again. Because still, after making it through a whole year, he was not going to come back...Read more
I was talking with a friend the other day about new love after being widowed and it got me reflecting on the idea. I ended up describing to her how my fiance and my now boyfriend are like two different colors of love. I really liked this idea the more I thought about it…
There is no color in the spectrum that is better or worse, more or less, than any other. And loving another after loss is just the same. I’ve now been with Mike for a little over 3 years… roughly the same amount of time I had with Drew before he died. Having had about the same amount of time to grow with each of these men, I can say for certain they each have their own distinct color. By that I mean the feeling of them has a color to me. Their personalities and demeanor, while having many similarities, are still quite different.Read more
Today an exciting milestone has happened for me. One that runs deep, and is stitched with so many remnants of a past life and of every day since that I've fought for. Today I was accepted to be a contributor for a major photography agency that works in the book publishing industry. They work with publishing houses all over the world to help them find the perfect photograph or artwork for a particular book cover. I am now one of the photographers that helps to provide those perfect photographs to their clients. In the near future, I may just be able to visit the nearest Barnes and Noble and find my photographs on the cover of beautiful books.
This milestone means so many things to me. I’ve wandered around trying to find a sense of direction ever since Drew died. I’ve tried countless directions with my art… and each one has had a feeling like it just didn’t quite “fit” for me. As I’ve learned, there are about as many different ways to be an artist as their are types of people. But this one - which marries my love of photography and storytelling - feels like a perfect match.
I can’t help but think back… I’ve been picking up a camera and capturing the world as I see it for almost ten years now. The first of those years, was the year Drew and I began dating. It was the year that he bought me my first DSLR camera, excited to see what I would create. In the three short years we had together, he continued to support and foster this direction in my life… buying me nearly all of the lenses and gear that I still use today. He was my photo assistant when I needed a helping hand or some strong arms for carrying ladders and lighting. And sometimes he was just there to observe. I still recall mornings at sunrise on the beach in my hometown when he would just sit back and watch me while I got lost behind the lens, capturing the sun-kissed waves. He loved to watch me seeing the world that way… to see how it lit me up inside.Read more