Bring It Forward

When it comes to relationships and vulnerability, there’s a lot of discussion on how to open up and share our experiences, but rarely how to navigate the sacredness and emotion of being on the receiving end. In my nearly three decades of life, I can’t recall a time when showing empathy in and of itself was the norm. Much of my childhood involved problem solving and attempted fixes, and if there wasn’t a solution, you weren’t supposed to dwell on it. Adulthood has shown me that life is a little more complex than that, and the saving grace is having at least a few people who are willing to sit with and or walk with me in various situations. 

I’ve learned a lot about being that type of person, and I think it’s one of the most important things we can do as friends, partners, and just human beings in general. How we do can be tricky to navigate, but there’s always room to grow.

Hold Space

I always try to look at it as an honor and gift when someone confides in me, or even if they’re just sharing more about their life that scratches below the surface. If they broach the subject, I let them have the floor first and don’t speak until they’ve said what they needed to say. Depending on the circumstances (i.e. talking face to face versus texting), I allow a few moments of quiet so that I can process what was said, allowing the opportunity for a response instead of just a mere reaction. If physical touch is welcome, a hand to their knee or shoulder is a subtle but meaningful way to create connection. I’m an emotional person, and I’d say it’s completely normal to tear up at times during the conversation (without changing direction or becoming hysterical). It’s also understandable to not know what to say (in the moment or at all), but you can never go wrong with “I’m grateful that you’re sharing all of this with me. I may not always understand what you’re going through, but I want to affirm that your experiences and feelings are valid And I’m here for you.”

Ask Questions And Check In

Whether before or after a conversation, questions like “How can I support you?” or “What do you need?” are paramount in showing empathy. In the early days of my recovery journey, I didn’t know what support looked like for me right away, but hearing those words allowed me to feel safe and communicate with that person openly once I figured it out (and had the language to express it). It’s not  just limited to a single conversation, and whether or not they say it, people always need something in the midst of all the heaviness. It might be meals, a hot beverage, or invitations to go for walks. It might be rides to or checking in after important appointments/meetings. Basic encouragement texts like “I’m here” and “I love you” mean the world, even if there’s no response. Empathy is not just about the moment, but the ride.

I go back and forth whether it comes to giving and receiving advice. Most of the time if I’m able to process pain or struggle out loud, I can eventually figure out how to move forward. As I’ve written this, I’ve realized my resistance often comes from the fear that the advice itself will be condescending or oversimplified. Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend about an unhealthy situation I had recently taken myself out of. At the end of our conversation, she asked, “Can I give you something to pump you up?” It was much needed wisdom, but with loving and affirming word choice.

Let It Be (Uncomfortable)

The reality is this: you will not be able to take away a person’s pain. You will not be able to change their situation, their heart, or even their outlook. You cannot force people to treat them well. And a difficult fact of life is that most things are not meant to be fixed; they are meant to be experienced, felt, and learned from. So as heartbreaking and frustrating it might be to hear about what a loved one is going through, keep in mind the importance of not making it about you. Be aware of using the word “negative” (a word I loathe because of how dismissive and projectile it sounds), as well as cliche platitudes. If someone specifically asks you to just be quiet and listen, respect that. And when you’re able to process your own feelings, take the time to ask yourself why you might feel the way you do.

As one who is almost compassionate to a fault, viewing myself as a project for a good portion of life, I struggle with the notion that “some people just can’t.” As set in their ways as some may be, I think it’s a matter of whether or not we want to. 

Yet even if the desire to learn (or unlearn) is there, that doesn’t take away the importance of having boundaries.

That can look like pausing difficult conversations, and then come back when one or both parties is in a better head space. 

Establishing that a child should not have to be a therapist for a parent (or any elder, for that matter). Even when the child becomes an adult themselves.

Refusing to be put in the middle of a conflict between people you care about.

Saying, “I care for you and I want to support you, but this is beyond my expertise. Can I help you find professional help?” 

“I’ve already listened, and you know what you need to do. Unless you make a choice, I’m not willing to talk about this anymore.” 

Most importantly, it’s always possible to do these things while still affirming and communicating love. 

And there is Grace. For when we react and project, or assign shame and blame. Grace for when that person overshares, especially at inappropriate times. For when we lash out, or end up completely isolating ourselves from the world. It’s never too late to try, and then try again. 

We can’t go back to pre-internet times, or life without social media. We can’t pretend that the world isn’t saturated with news and opinions, or pretend that it doesn’t influence how we see it. But we can bring it forward, a new way of relating and connecting with those around us. And while it might be different, who says it can’t be better than the decades before?

Inside

Off like a rocket it went

A brother dodging danger

A brief relief with a birthday and the beach

But when spring began it’s usual bloom

The warning signs began to blare

A virus, novel and like no other

From one corner of the world to the next

//

“Stay inside” reverberated some

While a so-called president twiddled his thumbs

Playing it off like a failed casino bet

Omission of truth, for who’s sake?

Declared a pandemic, despite the questioning and ignoring of common sense

Daily news briefs were almost too much to bear

Anxiety, chest pains, and lack of appetite by day

Depression descended as evening fell

//

“Routine, Productivity, Positivity!”

My body responding differently

I didn’t want comfort as much as I wanted personal connection

To physically feel common threads

My extroverted self a little lost in the hubbub

Afraid of losing the confidence I’d gained in the last year

//

So I stayed inside

Detesting “new normal”

Preferring currently reality

Though the unknowns loomed larger 

Than dormancy

A reprieve through walks and sunshine

Access to the water

Mom started a new chapter

The city came alive again

//

Behind closed doors

The desire to walk through fire

To support those who were struggling

To keep living, keep going

They needed me, and I needed them

Late nights

Deep conversations

Protective, patient, and learning how to hold space

Finding different ways

To carry them however I could

Capped by a reunion

A long time coming

//

And then the second wave

Predictable at one point

But could have been avoided

By collective responsibility and respect

The plea to stay inside again

Saved by the grace of changing colors and important milestones

I relished the tv specials

The snuggling up to read, watch, and just be

Real rest, without fear of missing out

My work in progress for as long as I can remember

//

But the fatigue is real

Body aches with unknown origins

Colder weather?

Lack of usual activity?

A response to stress?

//

Yet the most challenging aspect

Was not the confinement of four walls

But the confinement of thoughts inside my mind

Swirling around like storms

To reach out or give space?

To tell the truth, or pretend I’m ok?

Are you ok? Are we ok?

To ask for what I want/need

Or hold it in for as long as possible

//

Distraction could only do so much

When the healthy distractions weren’t always available

Overthinking, deeply feeling

Jealousy, more questions than answers

My prayers feeling dry and without heart

Sitting in the tension

I’m still learning

//

And as the calendar turns again

Cautiously Optimistic comes to mind

With new leadership

New possibilities

Changing seasons

A new year

//

I dream of music and dancing again

Lots of people

Opportunities for living

Being in nature

Assertive

Growing Confidence

Expression

Thriving

Roaring

When You Need A Little Extra Help

I wrote this as I was holding space for someone whom I’m care about very much. This kind of decision should not be made lightly, and should always involve professional evaluation and input. I wrote this based on my own personal experience, and ask that it do not be taken as gospel.

I take a little pill each day
And I was scared at first.
Would it change my personality?
Would it make things even worse?
I had a lot of questions, which were answered with patience and care.
Follow the instructions
Pay attention to your mood and feelings
And then take it from there.

So I took that little pill each day
And it took a couple of weeks.
Over time I noticed that there was a change
But a change involving good things.
I wasn’t crying as much anymore
And the chest pains went away.
I had the headspace that felt lighter and brighter
And the motivation to go about my day.
Some people say I mellowed out
“You’re not as bubbly as you used to be!”
My friend, it’s called the typical stresses of adulthood
Hormones and PMSing.

Haven’t you heard of puberty?

It’s not always magic and instantaneous
I still have to do the work.
Reframing anxious thoughts and coping with uncertainty
But I stay off the edge, for what it’s worth.

It can take some trial and error
Many options, and not all have the same purpose or results.
But it’s better to try and try again
Then to strive for mental wellness
And yet do nothing at all.

What works for me, may not work for you
That’s entirely okay.
But if you’re not a doctor or professional
Please be careful with what you say.
Some people need that little pill, but avoid it due to fear.
Fear of stigma
Fear of criticism
Wanting to be superhuman in the eyes of strangers
But especially to those they most hold dear.

It’s not a lack of faith
Or a desire to numb out.
I’d rather not get stuck inside the prison that is my head at times.
To be able to connect and build relationships.
To seek and experience joy
Is what life is all about!

So if you need that little pill
There’s nothing wrong with you!
Human beings have complexities
Who need a little help, that much is true.

I think it’s brave
I think it’s wise
And who is anyone to judge?
If you take a little pill
You have my support and love!

Take Me To The Water

When the new dawn broke

So did I

A movement

A leaning in

Beyond books and quiet morning prayers

Becoming a face of what I had once avoided

Perhaps even feared

Quenched in me what I didn’t know I needed

 

Connection

Conversation

And Community

 

But something popped up

Which has me at a loss of description

A cloud? A fence of thorns? Surreality? 

Unprecedented circumstances keeping human contact at bay

Unable to open doors, exchange greetings, or even touch

 

Technology, having been soured by old-fashioned rhetoric

Has now become a lifeline to our loved ones

And to the outside world

But so many

Already weary

Stuck between “new normal” and “temporary reality”

 

More recently, on a walk

The rain came down

And I felt it seep to my bones

But I wasn’t cold, or discouraged

I welcomed it

A washing of current anxieties, grief, and fears

 

And I began to envision again

The new dawn of a new season

Not by a calendar year, but one of hope

Where distance is not bound by six feet 

Gathering freely

Dancing, singing, and embracing

Lingering for a little longer

Not rushing from point A to point B

 

Until then

Lead me to the water

Where peace lives, in my mind and in my spirit

Cascading on my like the falls

Sprinkling like rain

Filling my soul

Again and again

And regardless of what happens, or when

May the well within me

Not dry up

A Virus and A Reckoning

 

There were initially whispers of warning

Something is coming, sickness will spread

That were largely quieted by selfish ambition

Self-preservation  over people

Stocks over saving lives

Drowning out concern with cries of “hoax!”

Denying experts the right and necessity to speak

And hiding the truth from all who needed to hear it

Not a big deal

It will go away

 

But it hasn’t, and now hear we are

Hunkered down to ease the rise and chaos

Daily life, collectively, has come to a screeching halt

Like misbehaved children, we are forced to think about

What we should have done 

In terms of heeding the cries of science

Weaponizing faith and privilege instead

Of being mindful and prepared

 

For extroverts, a new territory

How long has it been since I last stayed home this long?

No social gatherings, church, or bopping around the city

Like living in an alternate universe

How the actual hell did we get here?

But I welcome the resting, reading, and reconnection

 

And from this I’ve seen

That connection is essential 

To the human experience

Conversation, vulnerability

And physical touch

The latter which I crave

And miss the most

 

But where do we go from here

When a lack of leadership and transparency

Have brought us collectively

To such a dark place in history

A legacy stained by lies, corruption, and sickness

Those on the right side of history trust facts and science

More than blubbering buffoons 

 

I pray for healing, restoration, and protection

Accountability for politicians that looked the other way

That we may learn from this devastating season

Taking a damn good look at ourselves

What many have enabled

 

There might be dollars and so-called power in big business

But solidarity in the small and local

Heroism belongs to the every-day workers who cannot stay home

God go with all of those on the front lines of this crisis

Let us support them, honor them, and lend them our hands

For there is speaking truth to power

And power in speaking the truth

 

I anticipate the day

When I can wrap my arms around the people I love

Dance in public

And worship in community

A celebration unlike one I’ve ever felt or seen

Until then I pray for peace and ease

Waiting and expecting

Let it be so

The Weight of Heartbreak

“Hey Alyx, do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure, is everything OK…?”

We entered the conference room normally reserved for meetings. I saw a box of tissues and a water bottle, which brought on heart palpitations, an immediate sign that everything was not okay. 

“We’re so sorry to have to do this…” “We didn’t plan this, but after [previous manager] left…” “This has nothing to do with who you are as a person or an employee…”

All the curse words. I was being let go. 

The HR manager, bless her, was doing everything she possibly could to comfort me during the circumstances, but it couldn’t stop the questions and confusion. I had been on a trial period and no one had said anything about my employment status or work habits once it ended. A number of people had told me to not be the one to broach the subject, and to assume that I was safe. 

But a lot of things had happened that were out of my control, and there was nothing I could do but to accept the decision gracefully. I actually worked through the end of the week, trying to finish up the tasks that I’d started, but more so taking time to thank my coworkers for making that particular experience what it was. The culture was a big part of the reason why I appreciated both the role and the firm, and if there was one thing that I could find peace in, it was that I never took a day there for granted. 

Yet I hated the fact that it was over, and I dreaded the possibility of having yet again disappointed my family. I spent a few days processing the news before sharing it with my parents, choosing to focus on taking care of myself both physically and emotionally. Any sudden/unexpected change is a huge trigger for me to sink into a depression, nearly to the point where I don’t care what happens or how it affects my health. Eat. Shower. Wear something besides sweats. 

It was still a lot to wrap my head around, and a polar vortex gave me an excuse to hunker down and grieve. It was pointed out to me that maybe I was getting too comfortable, and that I might have been creatively stunted had I stayed there by choice. There’s a lot I could say about having the privilege to do what you love, but that’s for another time. It would ultimately be a while before I could go past the office building without getting salty all over again. The organization had been right for me, but I hadn’t been right for them. 

A couple of weeks later, shortly before Valentine’s Day, I met Ben.

 Not his real name, but the combination of the two celebrities he closely resembles. 

I’ll admit that we moved quickly, bonding over similar family backgrounds, personalities, and hockey. Within a month we were acting like a couple, albeit we never talked about dating exclusively or establishing a formal relationship. It was the first time where I felt like I didn’t have to be a guy’s mother or a therapist; he was physically attractive (while respecting the physical boundaries I set), had a good head on his shoulders, and insisted on paying for everything where money was involved. As we continued to spend time together, I could picture us meeting each other’s families, and allowed myself to explore the possibility of being together long-term. 

March turned into April, the first week marking his birthday. We hadn’t talked in a few days, which made me uneasy, but I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal when anyone asked why. 

Happy Birthday! I’m grateful for you. He never responded to that text, or answered his phone when I tried to call him. It was silence from that point on.

And that’s never a good sign.

I knew from previous conversations that his uncle had been struggling with health-related issues and was in and out of the hospital. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but part of me knew what took me a week to acknowledge: he didn’t want to be with me, and would rather disappear out of nowhere than tell me himself. 

Aside from the fact that it happened, the toughest part about being ghosted (in any situation) is fighting the urge to take full responsibility.  Figuratively speaking, I had to sit on my hands in order to keep myself from overanalyzing our final conversations or searching his social profiles for answers. The initial shock turned to anger, then the desire to close myself off emotionally from men of a certain age. I wrote Ben a  letter (the kind that’s better off burned), opting to read it out loud to my therapist as opposed to hitting “send.” It was as comforting as comforting could be without explanation, and the process of moving on turned out to be far better than I could imagine. 

Though I didn’t want to admit it in the moment, there were things about him that gave me pause. Things, I figured, that would eventually sort themselves out or come up naturally in conversation. It definitely didn’t help that we stopped getting to know each other after the third or fourth date; we talked, but neither one of us asked questions or tried to learn about the other person. It’s hard to do when you spend the majority of an evening cuddling and/or watching TV, and you don’t want to ruin the moment because by bringing up a tough subject. There’s nothing wrong with low key date nights in, and it takes time to learn how to be vulnerable with each other. But when you’re doing that all the time to the point where it stalls any progression, what then?

I’m not sure if there’s anything I could have done differently, or that deeper conversations would have led to a different outcome. After being removed from the relationship for some time, I realized that I liked the stability of our relationship more than I liked him, and I probably would have clung to that, far longer than necessary. 

But I still cared, and  it still hurt, and as I write this I still have fears and potential what-if’s that I’m trying to address. 

I need a man who has a good head on his shoulders, where we can grow both independently and together. 

A man who can empathize and show compassion, and at least recognize that family dynamics are often complicated, and that I’m doing the best I can to navigate it.

A man who prioritizes working on himself, and doesn’t depend on me to fix or make him whole.

It has me thinking a lot about expectations. I’ve been told quite a bit that I can’t expect people to cater to my feelings, but when ending a relationship (and how one goes about it), I get the sense that there’s a slight difference.

Breaking up well (i.e. communicating honestly and gently that either you don’t see things going anywhere or you’re not ready/on the same page) has to do with being a decent human being. It’s respecting the other person, despite your feelings and/or reality not being the same as theirs. And it’s about taking responsibility, rather than putting the entire weight of the relationship on the other.

It would be wrong for me to expect a guy to promise not to leave me (especially when rings and vows are not involved). But expecting honest communication seems pretty basic.

And if the guy disappears, I should not expect an apology. I should not expect that which hurts me is going to heal me. I should not expect my future partner to do all of the healing work for me, or to make him feel responsible for a situation that he had nothing to do with. I should not expect “closure” in the form of chasing after an explanation that I realistically don’t need, because if a guy doesn’t want me that’s all I need to know.

As heavy as it has been, I don’t carry any bitterness what happened or how it played out. I know that God gives and takes away, and despite my lack of understanding, I know that He is still good. I’ve had a lot of opportunities in this particular season of my life, and I’ve learned how to genuinely enjoy being single while still being open to a romantic relationship. I still have moments [of wishing the circumstances were different] but at the end of the day, all I can do is keep going and trust that what’s meant for me will be just that.

And I refuse to let my hurt define my worth.

After A Year

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Please don’t let us be late, I prayed, remembering how rushed and off-kilter I felt when we had all come together for the funeral. This was more of a celebration than a somber goodbye, but there was still a heaviness to the occasion that I had sensed even was we prepared the memorial garden. That morning, his twenty-third birthday, a fishing derby was held in his honor; I had originally planned on casting a line, but gave into the fears of getting hooked (literally) and my lack of patience that often accompanies it. I found more comfort in observing the soon-to-be dedicated patch of land and reminiscing on memories of Connor and our shared childhood gone by.

My family and I found seats underneath the small pavilion as musicians began to play a rendition Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here.” I’d heard it at Country Thunder a month before, the last place (and eerily the last day) that I’d seen Connor before the accident. I held a wad of Kleenex and my mom’s hand as the floodgates opened up rather freely throughout the ceremony, my heart breaking all over again hearing poignant words from my brother, his sister, and especially his mother. Perhaps for the first time since I got the news, I wept out of anger more than sorrow. Rest assured, I was in no way angry at them or even at God. If nothing else, I was pissed off at the world; a world that had only paused momentarily last year to remember a beautiful person. A world that kept trying to tell me in one way or another that supposedly it was time to stop grieving. A world that seemed to go on as life hadn’t changed, and yet so many of our lives had changed irrevocably. I wanted to scream at the world to go stick it where it hurts, and am tempted to do so now at its indifference toward tragedy, disaster, and injustice. But that’s for another time.

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The gathering came to a close with a take on Eric Church, whose music I love for a number of reasons, but will hold a special place in my heart because it was Connor’s last concert. I let go of any embarrassment about crying in public a long time ago; I don’t always see tears or weeping as indications of sadness, but rather a sense of depth to feelings that have no explanation. I feel deeply, and I love deeply.

Most recently, a popular blogger and pastor described it as the grieving one does after the funeral. The heaviness might lift after a while, yet the heartache still remains in the shadows of every-day life, ready to hit you in the most unexpected way at perhaps the most inopportune times. However, I’ve learned not to be afraid of those moments, to embrace them as they come and let them teach me what they need to. If a song comes up on the radio that sparks a memory, I’ll listen to it. I genuinely enjoy talking about knowing Connor and growing up in the backwoods of suburbia when it’s appropriate, because of how it has shaped me both as a kid and an adult. I’m grateful for the memorial garden, a place that I can come back to when I’ll no longer be able to come back to the house that I was raised in.

I find peace in knowing that his family is my family, that I will forever be connected to them and others through the life and memory of an amazing man. I hold close the traditions we’ve created to celebrate him, and those we’ll create in the future. To some it seems morbid, or refusing to let go, but for me it’s a way to create beauty out of something beyond tragic.

I cry. I reminisce. I write. I pray. Grief teaches you so many things, many of which are talked about in the most cliché ways. But if nothing else, the last year has taught me to lean in and be fully present, even the midst of a weird combination that is both pain and joy.

Yes, he should be here. And while not in the way any of us would want him to be, I believe that he is.

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When Loss Comes Closer

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And only the good die young…

 My mom and I had gone to see Billy Joel at Wrigley Field that Friday, and that was the song he closed with as we began to make our way toward the exit. We stopped for a little bit to dance and sing along with the rest of the boisterous crowd, but part of me was (and still is) unsettled by the song’s popularity. I had a really funny feeling that drove straight into my soul, and I remembered how I had lost a friend from high school to a drunk driving accident three years ago. But as I would come to find out two mornings later, that wasn’t the only reason why.

I will always remember the day he died, and the day I heard the news. On August 27, 2016 I was in Chicago for an unofficial high school reunion, sipping wine on an apartment balcony that overlooked the city. The next day, I was getting ready for a date when I noticed that I had two missed calls from my mom and brother, and they texted that I call them back immediately.

“There’s been a car accident and it was fatal,” my brother said. I called my mom and she confirmed the little that she knew. I don’t remember the actual feeling of being sucker punched, but all I could do was put my hands over my face and cry.

“Why?” I kept asking over and over to the empty bathroom. I had known Connor and his family from the time I was a baby; they were our neighbors and we had all pretty much grown up together. The accident happened during a rainstorm, and he was only twenty-two years old.

I laid down on my bed and instantly grabbed hold of my favorite blanket, a Hawkeye theme where the edges of the material had been tied together. His mom and sister had made it for me before I went to college, and I held onto it in times homesickness or stress. Even though I was no longer in Iowa, it continues to be a source of comfort, my “blankie,” if you will. I spent the rest of the day battling a splitting headache, probably because it was all too much to process at the time. I wanted to reach out to Kaitlyn, his older sister and one of my best friends. I knew that bullshit clichés and platitudes would be of little comfort, and more than likely more than one person was trying to pile them on.

The days leading up to the funeral were filled with anxiety, part of it relating to being in shock over the tragedy that had taken place. This wasn’t the first time I’d been faced with an unexpected passing in my life, but it was the first time I felt like I was allowed to openly grieve because I knew the person really well. On one hand I was numb, silently going through the motions and merely observing everything that was going on in the situation. But I also wanted to be strong for the others that were in mourning, as Connor was not only my brother’s best friend, but also my best friend’s brother. She has held me up during many difficult times in my life, and now it was my turn to do the same for her.

I arrived later than intended on the day of the service, so the process of saying goodbye while simultaneously offering support felt rushed and all over the place. Certain aspects of that day will remain in my memory forever: the look of anguish on my brother’s face as he helped bear Connor’s casket up and down the church aisle. My mom’s arms around me as we both stood and cried together. The way my legs shook in anticipation of finding the family and silently hugging each of them (and the way they seemed to be comforting me more than the other way around). It was all very much surreal, and I’m not the only one who felt like they were existing between reality and an unfathomable nightmare.

I had hoped and expected something inside of me to break, where the floodgates would be opened and I could get everything out and be done with it. When that didn’t happen, I became frustrated and uneasy, wondering if there was something that I needed to tap into or a switch that I needed to hit in order to find closure. I had heard that one of the ways to process the loss was to have a conversation with the deceased person. Knowing that I’m a much better writer than a conversationalist, I decided to write him a letter.

It was two pages of me reminiscing, grieving, and ultimately thanking him for being such a large part of my life. I had an amazing childhood, where the six of us practically lived in our own little world for at least a decade. At a more private memorial, I relayed stories that our parents hadn’t either known about (or had forgotten about) until then. I then did one final sendoff at sunset, releasing the words into the lake in us kids had grown up on, and would now hold a tender mixture of joy and pain. I began to understand that the grief would come in waves (which it still does) and would often hit me when I least expected it.

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There are no words to aptly describe the pain of losing someone so suddenly, and especially when they have so much life left in them. And it’s been painful to see people that loved him (and he loved just as much, if not more) in so much agony, although that’s not to say I regret bearing witness to it. In a weird and morbid way, I’m thankful that I allowed myself to see and feel everything that I could, even if it hurt like hell. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that death is part of life, although no amount of knowing and preparing will decrease the weight and impact of the loss. It fucking hurts, and it fucking sucks.

I don’t know if Connor’s passing happened for a reason, and I don’t think that everything does happen for a reason. Yet I have learned a lot about compassion, and what it means to show up for people in their darkest hour(s). For the love of all that is good in this world, please stop with the whole “If I can’t take away the pain, then it’s pointless to do anything” way of thinking. There is always something that you can do! Go to the person that’s hurting and let them know that you love them and that you’re there. There is so much love and power in the simple act of merely being there: sitting with them. Holding them. Letting them be sad and mutually sharing in that sadness.Listening. And if you can’t physically be present, you can still send flowers or a card or something. How much time does it really take to type out and send a text message that says, “I’m sorry for your loss”? Pick up the damn phone. Write a letter or an email. Whatever you do, know that the smallest amount of support and tenderness is better than nothing. Show up and show love.

Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but walking with someone through tragedy is NOT about your level of comfort. It’s not about you. I’ve learned how to be extremely vulnerable in those moments where I have no idea, to say, “I love you and I’m also terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing right now.” I understand that’s where a lot of the hesitation and resistance lies, because no one wants to make things worse or end up being the insensitive jackass who meant well but epically failed. There is grace in that, because at least the person is making an effort. Questions are always better than assumptions: “What do you need?” “How can I be there for you?” “Do you want to talk, or do you want to just sit in silence?” Never assume that you know what a grieving person wants or needs, just because you might want or need to do that in a difficult situation. Again, it’s not easy and often requires stepping out of your own box of comfort. But if it makes people feels less alone, then damn it, swallow your pride and do it.

I waited at least a day or so to tell anybody on the outside (unless I absolutely had to). I’ve had this habit of telling people too soon (when bad things happen) because it keeps me from being sucked into a black hole of depression and despair. Contrary to popular belief, it is helpful to have the support of those who didn’t know the deceased, or at least that’s how I feel. There were times where I needed to breathe emotionally. There were times where I desperately wanted the perspective of those who had already been through it, or whose minds weren’t shrouded in the clouds of unspeakable loss. When another friend died three years ago, I ended up turning to alcohol and random strangers for comfort. I didn’t want to numb the pain, but I wanted to feel connected.  And now I would rather be a raw, emotional wreck than go down the path of functioning alcoholism again.

Maybe it is expecting too much, or maybe it’s wanting to know that you and your experiences matter. It’s a lesson in real friendship, about who’s willing to be there and who isn’t. People make mistakes and they mess up, but pure silence does say a lot.

It’s been over one hundred days. One hundred days where I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that he’s no longer here on earth. I miss his smile, his laugh, and the way he made fun of me whenever I got tipsy. The memories still keep popping into my head, though most were from ten or twenty years ago. I post old pictures and am still hoping that somewhere in one of our houses, there is a picture of all of us together, at least one. I still feel a little guilty over moving forward with my life, especially since there are a ton of people who are still living with the pain as if it just happened yesterday. I know he would want me to live my life to the fullest, to love people around me with everything I have, and to not spend my days in darkness. I think about things that I’ve been too scared to mention out loud: weddings, babies, and a plethora of occasions that will never be exactly right without him. I continuously find small ways to honor him, whether it’s occasionally drinking his favorite beer or leaving his name on the wall at Wrigley Field after the Cubs won the World Series. I’ve never been into hunting or fishing, but those things now remind me of him. Country music is more meaningful than it ever has been, especially Eric Church and a variety of songs that now make me happy and sad at the same time. This is all neither good nor bad, but it’s reality. It’s the new normal that we all have to live with.

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It is said that pain changes with time, although I’m fully aware that it will never go away completely. I don’t know how I’ll feel a year from now, or what I’ll have learned from it in the next three or five. I understand that grief is the price we pay for loving people, but a broken heart is also an indication of a life well lived. I’m blessed, fortunate, and honored to have known such a kind soul, and I thank God for all of it.

Life is really is precious. He left a mark on the world, and I hope somehow he knows that.

I miss him. Now and always.

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When You Don’t Know What to Call It (Call it Good)

 

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It was like doing a cannonball into the deep end of a pool; last spring I attended a singles mixer for the first time in months, not really expecting to meet anyone special, but still curious nonetheless. One in particular did end up catching my attention, and after introducing ourselves, we were inseparable for the rest of the evening. We left the place early due to the crowd and the noise, opting for exploring the surrounding neighborhood while getting to know each other. At the time I was typically wary of being alone with a man who I’d only just met, yet his personality didn’t set off any alarms; he was a sweet nerd who hadn’t dated much and had a thing for cars, guitars, and skinny jeans. We swapped numbers and kissed several times before I let him drive me back to the train station, simultaneously asking myself what just happened and wanting to do a happy dance.

The following Thursday was one of arcade games, watching playoff hockey, and being incredibly vulnerable with one another. We came from different backgrounds, and I was grateful for his compassion and understanding, despite not always knowing how to respond. The physical connection was just as strong, and he was affectionate in a way that I absolutely adored. I appreciated not having to hold back, that we didn’t have to hide that we liked each other. It was fun to sneak around places while trying not to get caught, something that I hadn’t even dared to do while in high school or college. And by the time we parted ways after midnight, it was like we were officially a couple.

Our relationship moved quickly, but I felt safe and natural being with him. I didn’t see any reason to wait for the “right” moment to enjoy what was between us, having over-calculated previous dating situations in the past and ultimately ending up frustrated and stressed out. Certain topics came up sooner rather than later, but it was good to be honest about where we were both coming from and what we wanted in that respect. There was no pressure or force, nor was there a need to rush anything. He definitely brought out a side in me that I knew I had, but had tried (and failed) to conceal for years; it was almost like he flipped a switch, but I was relieved instead of freaked out.

The ending was just as unexpected as the beginning; I went out of town to see my brother graduate from The Air Force Academy in Colorado, and hadn’t heard from the guy in several days. I knew something was off because we normally kept in contact regularly, though I tried to hold it together in front of my family. I woke up one morning and got a text from him saying that it was over, for reasons that I believe we could have discussed and worked through. I responded as if I accepted his decision, but on the other side of the screen I was devastated. I cried just about every day of that whole week, confused and wanting an explanation. I worked up the nerve to call him when I got home, and sadly he hung up on me when he recognized my voice. He didn’t want to be with me and that’s all the closure I would get for some time.

It took a while for the sadness to truly dissipate, because not only was I upset over what no longer was, but what would also never be. We had all talked about the things that we wanted to do together, and I’d hoped to introduce him to my best friends and family at some point. I should have been angry at him, but I took the usual route of blaming myself; it’s what I’ve done when I have no idea what’s going on, and am trying to fill the question marks for the sake of not driving myself crazy.

It’s as much speculation now as it was back then (as far as what exactly happened and why). I’m aware of the possibilities; that he could have been using me, met someone else, or freaked out and ran the other direction. Ultimately I choose to trust my instincts and believe that his interest was genuine, and that he meant what he said about me. I have compassion for him, knowing what he has struggled with and how it shaped him. Men have pain and fears and complexities just as women do, and those deserve to be acknowledged and honored. It does not excuse disrespect or taking the easy way out, but we’re all human here and each person should be viewed as such.

I don’t regret investing in him or spending time with him, nor do I regret the way we were with each other. If anything, I wish I hadn’t confided in so many people about what was going on, both before and afterward. I over think relationships enough as it is, and a multitude of opinions and theories became paralyzing. It was wishful thinking to be vulnerable and not expect a reaction, especially since most of my close circle didn’t know him. By now I should be able to let cynicism and unnecessary advice go in one ear and out the other, but that’s challenging, given that I second guess myself a lot. I’ve learned to be much more protective about what I share, and selective with whom I share it with. Everyone means well, but not all end up being helpful.

So what do you say when something might or might not have been love, but it was no less real and meaningful? It was more than just an experience, not “right” but not necessarily wrong either. It was beautiful and amazing and I’m grateful that I met him. Initially I was scared that I wouldn’t have something like that again, but as time has passed I’ve seen how each individual relationship is unique, and it’s unfair to make comparisons or box yourself in. It really comes down to whether or not you feel like you can be yourself with someone, and whether or not he/she motivates you to be a better person. That takes time, patience, and grace. Don’t panic if you don’t figure all that out within the first two dates.

It was brutal at first, but I let it be and kept going. Eventually I met new people and put my energy into those who were present, as opposed to those who were not. I occasionally wonder where he’s at now, and various places and songs will momentarily bring back memories. Writing (and reliving) this was somewhat painful, bringing deep-seeded fears to the surface again. I’m still trying to come up with a confident way to explain to a man, please don’t leave without telling me. Please, whatever you do, don’t just disappear.

I hate the way that he left, but I don’t hate him. And despite not knowing, I’m glad for all of it. He woke me up, and in turn, I stayed away from my shell and trusted what was to come. Heartbreak is an excruciating bitch, but it’s also the price for love. When you’re willing to love someone despite the risk of heartbreak, it’s not a sign of naiveté or bad decisions; it’s a sign of a life well-lived.

That in itself is worth celebrating.

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If You’re Lonely, Read This.

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Why am I lonely?

. I’m no stranger to this feeling, having experienced it for a number of years and still do as I approach my mid-twenties. It’s incredibly human, but unfortunately it’s seen as something to be avoided rather than embraced.

As a child I was pretty comfortable with being by myself. While other kids played tag or wall-ball on the playground, I preferred to simply watch and observe. I wasn’t purposefully trying to be anti-social, but not everyone saw it that way. By the time I hit puberty, solitude no longer felt like a safe haven, but a depressing black hole where that was tough to get out of. I had it in my head that if my social calendar wasn’t booked on the weekends or during the summer, there had to be something wrong with me. Being alone made me question if I was lovable, or if anyone cared if I was around. I had no idea that I just might be an introvert, or that it was possible for my personality to evolve.

Unfortunately, living in a dorm and then an apartment didn’t make it go away, despite being surrounded by my peers and the ability to be physically independent. There was a lot of self-imposed pressure in terms of what I “should have” been doing, and I would get frustrated when it seemed like I was the only one not having the typical college experience. I was tired of watching rather than living, which is why I went out nearly every weekend once I was legally able to. Not only was I making up for lost time, but excessive drinking and dancing was an easy way to connect with people, even if they were strangers. It was a typical phase, so I won’t say that I regret it, but I wish I’d had a better understanding of what I really needed back then.

I’ve been out of that bubble for nearly three years, and the differences in lifestyle and culture have forced me to face several fears and discomforts. I realized that it’s perfectly all right to stay in with a bottle of wine and watch Netflix. Its fine to get sick of being in a crowded bar after an hour or two, or to go home before midnight. And it’s definitely possible to feel alone in groups and in specific relationships, especially if one feels misunderstood. But it’s not just about acknowledging reality, but also realizing that many others (more than we probably know) share in that reality too.

We’re lonely, because the world is lonely.

Communities, countries, and beyond are starving for some real, genuine, and heaven forbid, human connection and interaction.

We’re lonely because we don’t know how to be human anymore.

It’s true that social media is part of that, and that is plays a huge role in mental health. But it goes a lot deeper than just internet fasting or taking breaks or doing our damndest to avoid checking our phones every five minutes. We’re still glorifying busyness and productivity and acting as though anyone who isn’t like us is out to hurt us. We’re plastering smiles on our faces while shielding our tears. And we’re supposedly doing it all without any help.

It makes me sad, and I’m done with that kind of living. I’ve been done for a while

Life becomes an unrecognizable mess when we constantly keep ourselves bottled up, and I’ve experienced this on both sides of the fence. I know of the pain seeing someone hiding in plain sight, desperately wishing that they would quit avoid tough questions and be willing to do the hard things. I also know the pain of hiding, the fears of being found out, and the desperation that manifests itself in physical symptoms like chest tightness and an overactive gag reflex. And part of that relates to wanting to tell the fucking truth.  It doesn’t have to be a no-holds barred confessional; start with acknowledging the truth to yourself, using statements like I am…I feel…I struggle…I want…I need. It’s a form of self-care, and one that keeps resentment from building up in the long run.

When I feel confident enough in the truths I’ve realized about myself (and my life), I then discuss them what are often referred to as Safe People. These are the ones who completely accept my past and present, and walk alongside me so that I can create a bright future. They know when to give me advice and when to just listen. Their focus is being present, and opposed to fixing and rectifying.

What I am now just gathering the courage to do is learning how to interact with those who might not be the safest emotionally; they might not realize it, but they have a tendency to invalidate my feelings and experiences, invoking shame instead of empathy. I don’t engage for the sake of understanding or support, but because it teaches me how to be myself, regardless of the situation. It helps me not to depend on a reaction, because realistically I have nothing to lose. The boundaries are still there, but I’m cowering or hiding anymore.

I accept being a work in progress, that I’ll never quite get “there” and know everything. I’ve gotten to the point where I stifle every time someone mentions that I should “work” on myself, because I imagine retreating into a shell again and doing so out of fear rather than the desire to rest. I understand taking a step back and resting every so often, but does that have to include disengaging with the world around me? Whenever I took that route, it had less to do with being healthy and more so with trying to be perfect.

Real healing comes from help, and help comes from wanting to heal. When I was in college, I wouldn’t have started the journey without the encouragement and support and my best friends. I wouldn’t have been willing to face some hard truths (and grown from them) had I not been called out by those that knew me best. I would not have the motivation to become a better person without positive and real examples to look up to, and for opportunities to learn from others and learn with them. Three years later, I can still recall when a beautiful soul looked me in the face and said, “Let yourself be loved, right where you’re at, and exactly as you are.”

It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. Post-grad communities can be murky and confusing because no one is in the exact same place or season anymore, and none of them will be like the ones you had in college, high school, or even childhood.  You might have to take the lead for a little while in terms of making plans and actually making an effort and that gets a little frustrating. In those moments, remember that many are living under the assumption that this is the way the world is and that there’s little anyone can do about it. If you have the courage to get up and get out there, you’re already doing a lot better than you think you are.

Somewhere, there is at least one person who wants the same things that you do.

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