We are only ever taught about the ugly side of death. Death is the grim reaper, hiding and waiting to harm us. Death is an illness that makes you weaker and weaker until you can no longer fight. As a society we tiptoe around it, go to great lengths to avoid it, we sequester it to a part of our mind that is barely reachable. We joke about it, as it will never happen to us.
And then it happened to me. On the evening of New Years Eve, while spending time at home with my husband, he died suddenly of an aortic dissection. This rare and often fatal condition has few warnings. One minute, he was there; brushing the hair out of my face to kiss me on the forehead, and the next he was gone.
When first responders were unable to revive him, I was driven in a police car behind the ambulance to say goodbye in the sterility of the ER.
I wish every day that he was still here for me, he was the most special person I have ever met. His generosity, talent, kindness, humor and pure love were unmatched. We spent just more than four and half years together, only one and a half married, but the depth in which he loved and supported me was worth a lifetime.
We would often travel near our birthdays, born 3 years and 3 days apart. 2013 New York, 2014 Mexico, 2015 Austin, 2016 New Zealand, 2017 to be India. I remember so vividly our side trip from Isla Mujeres to see the ruins in Tulum and the Gran Cenote. We were so very happy, in crystal water and warm sun. When other people were taking pictures of the beauty of nature itself, my camera was so focused on him. I was in wonder of this man, so sure of himself, so comfortable in every setting & so easy to please. How did I snag someone this beautiful? He’s perfect for me. Last night I dreamt he came home from work, carrying packages from the front hallway as he often did. He had a big smile on his face, I thought maybe he was carrying a present for me. I had told him not to get me anything. The sight of him startled me awake, shot me out of slumber. I saw what he was wearing and the way he looked at me, but I didn’t get to hug him. Lying there, mad at myself for not continuing the dream, desperate to look at him again, I remember today is my birthday and it is the first I’ll have to spend without him.
I am keeping myself so together, feeling sure of the two feet I stand on when I turn out of bed each morning. Then a song plays and I’m transported, and begin to feel the unraveling. How can everything be okay without him? Last night I found myself swaying, remembering so vividly a moment from our wedding. Everyone was on the dance floor, but the venue needed us out. Music stopped and everyone turned to Michael and chanted “ONE MORE SONG, one more song.” Heart of Gold by Charles Bradley came on, Jacob put his arms firmly around me and we kissed through huge smiles. Trumpets sounded as our feet shuffled. We were the last people to leave, we stopped to thank every person working and assured them that everything was exactly how we had dreamed. We turned back to look at the empty space, in disbelief of how life could be so good to us.
What we rarely speak of is the beauty in death. Through this experience, I have come to appreciate every little thing my husband did to express his care for me. The thousands of love notes he left me through voicemails, texts, emails, handwritten letters, instagram captions, photographs and memories have given me endless comfort.
We spent three summers taking portraits of each other every day of warmth, dubbed it #summerportraitseries and were unapologetic in what my family called Public Displays of Photography. Each one of those pictures is pivotal to my healing. I have so many variations of his personality captured, so many small details to draw from for inspiration. I have been writing a tribute to him on my Instagram every day since his passing. It being the platform that originally introduced us and lead to our dating, it feels like the purest way to continue our story in real time.
Grief is very much a taboo in our culture. As much as we want to help people that are hurting, we are never taught what to say or do to help. We avoid the conversation all together, or talk about something that makes us more comfortable. People have said to me, meaning to be supportive, remarks that are so upsetting it’s mind boggling. “I know what it’s like to be lonely, well not as lonely as you,” or “I’m so happy for you,” or “If I were you I would just want to go back to my routine,” I have no desire to be critical of people, it brings me no pleasure. I want to be thankful, that I am alive, that I am supported. I want to take what they meant to say instead of what I heard, which is “you’re in my thoughts.” For each of the really dark days I’ve encountered since Jacob died, I have had a mechanism to cope. Friends, traveling, my family, his family, great books, massages, nature. If you have a friend or a loved one going through a loss, do not assume what they are feeling. Do not tell them everything will be okay. Do not tell them what you would have done if you were in their situation. Just listen. Be patient. Be compassionate. Be flexible. Show up. Tell them something that you loved or admired about the person that’s gone. If you never met them, say you wish you had. Acknowledge their loss. Thank you to each and every one of you who has shown up.
Our families, friends, coworkers and strangers alike have expressed their sympathies in the most thoughtful and heartfelt ways – meals left on the doorstep, cards in the mail, a valentine’s day playlist to lift my mood, thousands of dollars donated to charity in his honor. Those gestures, link by link, have built a chain for me to grab on to and pull myself up.
Since his death, I have celebrated life each day. I hug each person I love when I say goodbye, as he would have done. I treat strangers with extra kindness, knowing that at some moment we will all experience loss and will have to continue to be out in the world unsure of what’s ahead.