0123: She was Supposed to Go Home on Monday


Content warning: The following story contains references to someone losing a parent to cancer, which may be triggering for some readers.

"She was Supposed to Go Home on Monday," Nathanial Garrod

As I entered the convalescent hospital for the umpteenth time, I leave the crisp March Friday morning outside and I am welcomed momentarily by the smell of popcorn before the scent of piss mingled aggressively. Putting the popcorn maker near the front of the hospital was a noble effort, but not quite enough. After over a year of treatment, recovery and relapse, my mom has been in the convalescent hospital since Thanksgiving. 

I visit my mom every day. She is insistent that I stay homeschooled, my family finds a middle ground by signing me up at a local high school for ninth grade independent study. So every day, I come to the hospital. I do my work. I spend the afternoon at the library. I go back to my aunt and uncles house. And repeat.

I turned my CD player off as I headed down the hall towards my mom’s room, watching the Tupac CD slowly stop spinning. 

The friendly nurse, Mary, was on shift as I passed the nurses station.

“How’s she doin’?” I asked Mary.
“Why don’t you go in and find out for yourself?” she said.
“You’re answering a question with a question. It must be pretty bad,” I said.

Mary smiled cryptically.    
“Inspiring,” I said sarcastically, while walking away.

When I walk in to my mom’s room, I think about how she has visibly aged several years in the last few days.

“How was breakfast?” I asked.
“It was good…I guess.” She paused. “It was just the usual pancakes. Hey, can you wipe up the syrup that’s dripping off the table? It’s right there on the corner.”

I pulled the table away slowly, and grabbed a napkin. I was looking for the dripping syrup, but couldn’t find it. Strange.

"It’s right there by your hand,” she said her voice showing a little desperation. I looked again, but still did not see it.

Mary walked in.

“Can I talk to you for a minute, kiddo?” She asked me.
“Yeah, sure. What’s up?” 

She motioned for me to follow her as she headed towards the nurses station.

“I’ll be right back mom,” I said, but she was already zoning out. I shook my head and followed the nurse over to her station.
“What’s up?” I repeated.
“She’s been like that since late last night,” she said.
“Like what? Delusional?”
“That’s what the reports say.”
“Is it bad?” I asked.
“That depends on your definition of bad.”
“You know what I mean,” I said. I was getting tired of people skirting the truth. Not that that had really been an issue. More like people being over-honest. I brought myself back to the moment, where the nurse had just finished letting out a big long sigh.

“She probably won’t be alive next month.”
“Oh! I’ve heard that one before!” I exclaimed, a sardonic smile breaking across my face.
“Yeah, but this time it’s serious.”
“Oh? As serious as it was at Thanksgiving? What about Christmas? Valentines day?” I started yelling: “So what is it now? My mother isn’t going to live to see another April Fool’s day? What?”
"Chill out, kiddo,” Mary said in a stern voice.

“Chill out? Chill out? How can you expect me to chill out when I’ve heard people tell me my mother is going to die every month since November?”

“Relax. Just go for a walk.”
“A walk?”
“Yes. A walk.”
“Now?” I questioned.
“Yes, now. Leave”
“Let me tell my mom.”
“Okay,” she said, turning back to her paperwork.

I walked back into my mom’s room. She was sleeping again. I walked over to her side and shook her.

“I’m gonna go for a walk, mom. I’ll be back a little bit later.”
“Okay,” she said.

--

It started raining lightly as I left the hospital. I walked and watched the rain fall. I ended up by the creek, walking along a recently developed paved path. I stared at the creek and thought about how powerful the water was. There was so much of it, and it moved so quickly. The rain fell around me, increasing in steadiness. I kept walking.

An overpass crossed the path. I sat against a rock, rain falling around me but not on me. Bicyclists pass by, but for the first time in my life, I feel truly, completely alone.

Mom was doing worse. It was obvious. The Cancer was getting to her. The Cancer was… The Cancer was taking her.

I stand and run to the railing between the path and the creek.

“WHY?!” I scream into the rain and wind.
“Why?” I mutter to myself, sobbing.

I kept walking, pushing the hospital out of my mind. I put one foot in front of another. I kept moving forward. I find myself, after many steps, at the apartment my mom and I once lived in. I miss it. All it has been for months is storage. I kept walking. One foot moves. Then the other. Repeat. I sit at the mall for a few minutes, or maybe a few hours. Time is a blur. I walk to the library. I try to put the hospital out of my mind, but it is the only thing on my mind.

--

The weekend passes. Saturday is not notable. Sunday, I go to church with my aunt and uncle. Everyone wants to know about mom. We visit the hospital, but my mom is asleep the whole time.

It’s Monday morning. I wake up. I wake up on my own, not with an alarm, or my aunt playing a grating hymn CD at full volume. It is silent, save for the sound of my uncle eating Grape Nuts. I pour my own Grape Nuts. We sit together in silence. My aunt is usually still home at this time.

She is not home. And then…

A key is in the front door lock. The dead-bolt turns. The key moves out. Aunt Catherine is home? I am confused. The key goes into the knob lock, which pops quietly. The door opens. I feel a gust of cold air. This is weird. Weird. She comes over and hugs me. I know what it is. I think. Aunt Catherine kneels by my chair. I know. My Uncle Bob is quiet. I know. I want another bite of cereal. I know.

“Sweetie,” she grabs my hand. “Your mother is dead.”

“I know” is what I say in my head. “Oh,” is what I say out loud. Funny how that always turns out different. She hugs me again. It is a strong hug. Like you would hug someone who lost the only person who raised them, and you are next in line to care.

“Finish your breakfast, and we’ll go down to the hospital.”
Things are moving quickly. I talk to people. Hug people. Move stuff. I am here. I am there. It blurs by. By the end of the day, we have emptied the room of my moms stuff. It seemed like a monumental accomplishment, yet the entire apartment was next. So much stuff.

It is night, and I am alone in my room. My mother is now gone. One by one, the tears start rolling down my face. 

It does not feel like it, but my mother is gone. I turn the light off, and pull my blankets close. The tears still roll down my face. They quantity multiplies, and the speed increases. I will never be able to hug her again. Or talk to her. I will never be able to listen to her advice or lectures again. I can’t argue with her. Or read to her. Or listen to her reading to me. I will never be able to watch a movie with her, or make dinner for her or go on a walk to the library with her. That part of my life is over.

So I cry.
Before I know it, I am asleep.


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About the art:

I was lucky enough to meet Nathaniel a couple years ago in Oregon, and the dude has such a lively personality. It's so heartwarming. We mostly interact on the internet these days, but he's always full of positivity and support, which is in credible for today's pretty cynical culture (myself included).

Nathaniel's story stands out to me a lot because I know I felt a lot of these emotions when I lost my dad to cancer not long ago. So as I read his wonderful narrative, I felt myself aligning perfectly with much of the circumstances he explained.

When it came to making the art, Nathaniel didn't have a direction. So I wanted to make something that was bright, flowy, and had black contrasting letters. The quote comes from the Saul Williams song, "Tao of Now," which is a constant reminder that we don't necessarily lose people when they die. We keep their memories in our lives even after they are gone. The defiance of the statement has always stood out to me and its oddly comforting, so I hope it has the same impact on Nathaniel.

I'm thankful that we had Nathaniel's story to close out our March stories because it's a beautiful narrative for a heartbreaking story, but one that reminds us to keep those we love and lost close to us in both physical form and in memory.

- Craig. 

0122: Nothing More


Content warning: The following story contains references to someone losing a parent to cancer, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Nothing More," Stacy Oliver-Sikorski

I stand in my kitchen, feet bare and hair pulled into a tight ponytail, watching as the timer on the microwave counts down to zero. Warm, sweet air fills my lungs as I pull the oven door open, reaching for the aluminum Bundt pan and placing it on a wire cooling rack. I pace the floor tiles around the granite topped island waiting the requisite ten minutes before inverting the cake pan over the wire rack and saying a silent prayer that the cake will slide out easily.

I learned to bake at my mother’s side, though if I’m being honest, I learned only through the happenstance of being present. I didn’t ask questions or take notes; I barely acknowledged what she was doing as I chattered incessantly to her about school, friends, and books. When I called her in June 2008 to ask what would happen if I substituted lemon juice for all the liquid in a cupcake recipe that I found, she said, “Well, you would have lemon cupcakes. Is that what you want?” It was. 

Weeks later, she called me at work to tell me that her recently developed pain and accompanying limp weren’t the result of a herniated disc as she’d assumed. Instead, it was an effect of lung cancer – small cell carcinoma, specifically -- that was already metastasized to her bones. She told me not to come home for the surgery she was going to have to replace her femur with a titanium rod, that the six-hour drive wasn’t worth it. I went anyway. 

I spent too long deciding whether to tell my supervisor about my mom’s declining health. I was new to my job – we both were, as part of a new housing and residence life program – and I was afraid of being perceived as weak or unwilling to fully commit to my new role. I crumbled and told her only because it became obvious I was going to be making the drive to my mother’s house on a regular basis and would need help managing my on-call responsibilities. And then I had to tell the next four supervisors over the subsequent three years in that same job. Each showed varying levels of empathy and understanding in their responses; only one could be described as kind. I don’t think any were intentionally unkind; they simply didn’t know where to place this emotionally charged situation at a place that was run purely as a business. And because many of them supervised me for short periods of time – weeks or months – there was no inherent relationship or trust. Balance wasn’t a concept I could pursue or adequately advocate for at a time when I most needed it and so I settled for living askew.

It was a hard place to work, a place where few people assumed positive intent and often worked strategically against each other rather than toward a common goal. Being new and unused to such a divisive work environment, I lacked stability and self-confidence. Watching my mother’s health rapidly change from hundreds of miles away, I lacked control. And so I spent three years feeling adrift, never able to find a place where I was sure of myself or the future.

After my mom died in June 2011, I found that place. I found it in my kitchen. Baking became my refuge and the kitchen was the place where I started to once again build confidence and control. Things in the kitchen made sense in a way that my personal life and work life didn’t. I understood why eggs are best beaten into a recipe at room temperature. Measuring flour by weight rather than by volume was logical. Piping meringue into sweet, crisp kisses on baking sheets was a methodical form of art. I scoured the Internet for recipes and for the answers to my questions that my mom was no longer able to provide. And I took the products of my labor to work, where I shared them with colleagues and students, a baked sweetness to balance the raw bitterness. 

It’s been more than five years since my mother died and I left that job. For me, grieving and healing meant leaving and moving a physical place. Since then, there have been new kitchens, each better than the last. And while they look different, they remain the place where I feel most myself and most centered. Each time I open the oven door and feel the heat rush over my face as I lean in to examine my latest creation, I pause to breathe deeply and say a silent prayer.  


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About the art:

Stacy's story resonated with me in a number of ways.  Walking a fine line in a new role while balancing a stressful family dynamic is a challenge I have faced this year with the loss of my grandmother to lung cancer.  

Her experience at work is also significant, and echoes many others I've heard in my short time within our shared field.  Reading Stacy's story reminded me of a song that I'd recently heard: Nothing More, by the Alternate Routes.

"We are how we treat each other and nothing more."

It was such a simple statement that captured so much.  It means empathy.  It means focusing on the people first.  It means thinking before acting, considering the human impact, and seeing beyond the "business" of our purpose.  When you work with people, regardless of the "bottom line," empathy and compassion will always win out. 

I'm so glad Stacy shared her story, because it sheds light on the human side of our work.  Yes, we empathize with students daily (and sometimes we feel too much for and with them).  But that compassion deserves to be extended to ourselves and our colleagues, especially in these difficult and uncertain times in our nation  We are adults, and we are the caregivers more often than not.  But we also need to be empowered to seek support, ask for help, and when all else fails, trust ourselves to find a better place.  

- Beth Paris

Tattoosday 22: Super Ken & Emilio

Content warning: The following story contains references to losing a loved one to a drunk driver, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Super Ken & Emilio," Katy Hamm

I met my best friend Emily Kidwell in high school.

We both played percussion in the school band. We both loved pop-punk and metal music - attending every local show we could get ourselves to. We got our noses pierced together, and frequently drew up ideas for our future tattoos while ogling over members of My Chemical Romance. We both had the strange sense of humor that would lead us to inside jokes about the movie Muppets in Space and "beasts in stairwells." She was Emilio, and I was Ken.

Instead of writing notes to each other, we used to draw these tiny comic books of all the adventures we dreamed of going on as a duo, and occasionally with friends. From Warped Tour escapades, to escaping a R.O.U.S. at school, to traveling to the movie theatre with our friends from youth group - we battled everything as a super hero duo. I was Super Ken, a stick figure with a cape; and she was my sidekick squirrel Emilio... also with a cape.

I still have every single comic we made for each other, including one that we turned in as an assignment for our French class which I can no longer read without looking up the translation. So many memories and those hurt-your-gut laughs attached to those tiny pieces of paper. 

Even with her weird and sometimes dark sense of humor, Emily was one of the most genuinely accepting and loving human beings I have ever met. She was the first person who ever talked to me about being accepting of people of all races, sexualities, gender identities, physical and mental ability, weights, mental health status, and more. I owe a chunk of my drive for social justice and advocacy to her steering me in that direction years ago.



In 2008, Emily was killed by a drunk driver. 

I remember receiving the phone call from one of our mutual friends. I remember slowing falling to my knees in my grandmothers living room, feeling like I should be crying and also not being able to. It didn't feel real. How could she be gone just like that? 

Losing my best friend, and the only person I ever felt truly understood me at that point, was soul crushing. I consistently had nightmares about her crash, and the funeral following. I imagined all the things that could have saved her, and all the things that happened when they didn't.

Shortly after losing Emily, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This affected everything in my life, but especially school. I was going into my second year of college, and as a first-gen student, I really needed extra help surviving. My mother pushed me into counseling, and it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.

I was able to channel my energy into planning local concerts with my school's programming board - where I found my home at UW Oshkosh. I was able to bring the love and drive Emily and I had for local music to new relationships with new friends. I was finding bits of Emily in new people, and it always made me smile.



I was extremely lucky to have Emily's older sister, Amanda, become a big part of my life during this time as well. Although this didn't happen immediately after losing Emily, when it did happen - it happened fast. We connected on such a deep level on so many things. She has been my shining light through all the rough patches, and I hope I have been the same for her. Amanda and Emily called each other "Skister," a name that Amanda and I have now adopted for our friendship. 

In June, we decided to get a "Skister" tattoo together. We had a goofy inside joke about hedgehogs, so we went on got ourselves each a cute little hedgehog. Hers, looking like it was throwing serious shade, fit her very well. Mine, on my left arm, serving as a constant reminder of one of the rocks in my life. Someone who inspires me daily. One of the most fierce and resilient humans I know. Someone I look up to.

Since losing Emily, I had spent years trying to figure out a way to keep her with me forever through a tattoo. I cycled through ideas, but nothing seemed right until this past July when I came up with the idea to get a squirrel. My sidekick squirrel, Emilio. Always right there on my arm when I need her.

One month later, my little furry super-friend has been inked into my skin. I smile every time I look at it, and it makes me especially happy that it is near the hedgehog I got with her sister. I know Emily would love it, and I am so thankful to have her by my side for the rest of my life.


Thanks to Alex Rojas at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Tattoo in Springfield, MA - I have my sidekick squirrel with me at all times.

Thanks to Alex Rojas at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Tattoo in Springfield, MA - I have my sidekick squirrel with me at all times.



About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

 

Tattoosday 009: Keep You


Content warning: The following story contains references to the loss of a father to cancer, which may be triggering to some readers.

"Keep You," Craig Bidiman

My dad died one year ago today.

Exactly one year ago yesterday, I was in Portland, Oregon, digging through records at Everyday Music and Music Millennium because that morning, my father, Wayne Bidiman, told me to go have some fun on my last day in Oregon.

See, I had just flown out to Oregon from Boston a week earlier because my mom told me that dad's health had taken a turn for the worst. I was unemployed, depressed, and struggling to find work. So I didn't have the money to drop on a cross country plane ticket to get home. Luckily, I have some amazing friends and family members who fronted the money for me.

The trip was weird. I hadn’t been home in 10 months, so to go home with the purpose of saying goodbye to my father felt odd. I showed up, he seemed fine, and we laughed a lot.

He still felt immortal to me.

For those who don’t know my father, he was a train of a man. Wayne the Train—that’s what me and some of my friends call him. He survived lung cancer two times before this, 4 heart attacks, a stroke (or two?), diastolic heart failure, deep vein thrombosis in his legs, sleep apnea, diabetes, and whatever else was thrown his way.

I actually have no real memories of my father being healthy.

But the dude never complained. Not that I ever heard.

I would ask him, “how you doing today, Wayne?”
He’d often respond, “I’m surviving.”

So that’s how I respond to people when they ask me how I’m doing.
It’s something that has stuck with me over the years.

He never complained but we could tell he was in pain.

As the days went by, I watched him slowly deteriorate. I would spend chunks of the day asking him about mortality, and what it felt like to be on the way out. And he was very honest with me. Then again, that was never anything new. He was a quiet man, but when he spoke, we listened.

He told me, "don't worry about death, sweetheart. Worry about living a good life." Dude lived a good life—he was on the cusp of his 74th birthday, and had no regrets.

We tried to keep him comfortable, but as a large man with weak legs, it was hard for him to get around those final days. He kept telling me I didn’t need to worry about him—which was ridiculous. But I always listened to my father, so I tried my best not to worry.

But those final days were definitely filled with doubt about how long he’d truly be around.

Music has always been present in my family—granted, it wasn’t necessarily the punk, hardcore, post-rock, etc. that I listen to today. BUT I was exposed to a lot of Beach Boys, Elvis, Conway Twitty, and my dad’s favorite, Marty Robbins.

Dad used to spin his old records when I was growing up, but that’d before I really cared about vinyl or really knew what they meant. Yet, for the last three years or so, I’ve become quite the vinyl collector. One of my dad’s favorite records is Gunfight Ballads, by Marty Robbins. It’s an old one—somewhat uncommon in the used shops, where most of the Marty Robbins pieces are those missing his crowning accomplishment, “El Paso.” But Gunfighter Ballads is full of songs that I remember because dad always played the album for me and used to tell me the stories behind all of the songs.

I grew up listening to Marty Robbins. He was a storyteller in his music. And I am also a storyteller in my music. Strange how that works!

So, back my last day in Oregon during that final week with my dad when he told me to go have some fun with my friends. So I went up to Portland and had brunch with a few friends and went record shopping at Music Millennium and Everyday Music. In a stroke of brilliant serendipity, I came across a used copy of Gunfighter Ballads for $1. I was stoked! I knew this would put a smile on dad’s face on my last day with him.

I also came across the album, Destrier, by Agent Fresco—which was one of my favorite albums of last year, and it is actually album about losing someone—so stumbling upon it was pretty cool, and it’s still the ONLY TIME I have ever seen it in the wild. So I bought it as well.

And as I left Music Millennium, where I apparently had no cell phone reception, I was flooded with text messages and missed calls from my siblings.

I knew what they were going to say without even checking them.
So I immediately drove back to Salem to be with the family.

When I got back home, I walked in with the records in my hand and showed the Marty Robbins piece to my dad—he was pretty lethargic at this point, but when he saw the cover, he immediately knew what it was. I saw a smile form on his mouth and he told me it was “a good one.” Always one to downplay how he really felt.

After that, he didn’t say much for the rest of the night. Just a few nods. Some creaky smiles. And eventually, he quietly, and without complaint, passed away.

Now, to the tattoo—I got this specific picture of my dad tattooed (in neo-traditional style) on my calf because it is an image of my father that was always on our wall when I was growing up.

The image is of my father’s 1959 Army enlistment photo. It’s old. Dude was old.

This is the image that my tattoo is based on. The image of the tattoo was taken a week after getting the tattoo. The one you see in the main image was taken yesterday, nearly two years since i got the tattoo.

This is the image that my tattoo is based on. The image of the tattoo was taken a week after getting the tattoo. The one you see in the main image was taken yesterday, nearly two years since i got the tattoo.

It’s one of those images that has been cemented in my brain since childhood. So I wanted to immortalize this on my skin. I got the tattoo while in Massachusetts almost a year before he died, so he was able to see it the couple times I flew home before he died.

He said it was his favorite tattoo of mine. I have many of them. And clearly he was biased!

The banner reads, “KEEP YOU,” which is an homage to the Pianos Become the Teeth album of the same name. The album is the third in a trilogy of the band’s lead singer processing the loss of his own father. Keep You is the absolution from the loss. A light at the end of the grief experience.

This album features a track titled, “Repine” (video above). And in the song, there is a line that repeats, “Your wick won’t burn away, your wick won’t burn away.” This line has stuck with me ever since I first heard it. And at this point, my partner has even gotten sick of me singing it.

But the line is so important to me. It’s the idea that the memory of my father’s life will never fade away. No matter how much I grow up now that he’s gone, he will always live on with me and I will continue to burn on in his memory.

Check out the original version of the song, "Farewell, My Father" by clicking this image of my first album,  Into the Fire.

Check out the original version of the song, "Farewell, My Father" by clicking this image of my first album, Into the Fire.

Music has always given me a release. I'm a pretty outgoing and fun-loving guy, but my music is where things get a little more serious, real, and sad. But I need that release.

Six years ago, I wrote a song for my dad. It is called, “Farewell, My Father.” It’s an instrumental song. For someone that loves words and uses LOTS of them, I had no words for this song. I wrote it shortly after dad’s lung cancer appeared the second time and I had no idea what to write. So I kept it void of words. Ever since writing the song, it became one of my favorites to start off my live sets.

The song structure mirrors the progression of my emotions regarding the news of my dad’s condition. Give it a listen above!

I titled it, “Farewell, My Father” all those years ago because it felt like my farewell to him—even though he was still there with me. But over all the years he struggled with his health, I felt like I was slowly losing him and this song was there with me to keep me somewhat comforted in those fleeting times.

It wasn’t until that final week with my dad that I finally had to say farewell to my father.

The album art for my new EP,  Farewell . Photo: Katy Weaver. Art direction: Nevan Doyle

The album art for my new EP, Farewell.
Photo: Katy Weaver. Art direction: Nevan Doyle

So, I’ve written an EP for my father.
It is called, Farewell.

Farewell was successfully crowdfunded by over 150 people and we raised over $6,000 to make sure that we could press this album on vinyl, which has sort of been a dream of mine.

The overwhelming support has made me feel pretty great about releasing this new project as an homage to his memory. This will be another form of creating a permanent fixture of my memory of my father. The music will live on even after I’ve died. Weird to think about, but valid and somewhat enlivening.

Farewell will feature five tracks.

It will include the first song I was able to write about my father that actually contained words. This song is called, "Active Ghosts," (you can see a live video of me performing it above), and it focuses on my regrets with my relationship with my father. It also centers on his strength as a man who never gave up, and what I learned from being around that strength.

There is also a pretty personal spoken word piece that focuses on a number of aspects of my relationship with my father. I wrote it rather quickly, but made some edits along the way, and it serves to connect all of the other songs together.

Another song encompasses my struggles with depression and suicidality, explicitly through the lens of dealing with the loss of my father. This song serves as an interlude for the EP, in which I ask the listener to be proud of your survival in life. A lyric in this song is represented on the shirt you can snag!

The final track on the album will be a remake of “Farewell, My Father,” which I’m simply retitling, “Farewell,” for this release. I always had the vision that this song would be bigger and more expansive. But I never had the abilities or wherewithal until now. Adding multiple elements to the song has made it completely come alive to me. And I am so glad that we decided to end the EP with it.

The Farewell EP actually features a spoken word cover of “Enamor Me,” by Pianos Become the Teeth. I am covering this track because it is the track on the Keep You album that most reminds me of my relationship with my father. It's full of minor details that fill up memories, many that I try to reflect in my own writing. It also carries a weight of reflection that feels both jovial and tragic.

The repetition of the line, “I don’t feel any closer to you here,” stands out to me so much because it’s a tragic line—it’s a line that reminds me that even though I continue to live with the memories of my father, I will never be any closer to him. I may be able to feel his existence in my life, but I will never see him again.

Losing someone is never easy and it feels even harder when it's someone that has given you a home and a family and brought you into the world. Granted, I am adopted, but my father never treated me like anything less than his own son and for that, I am eternally grateful.

All in all, music has been an integral part of how I process grief, and tattoos are how I mark that grief into permanence. Tattoos are essential to my identity. They tell my story, and I love sharing these stories with people because why else would I put them into my skin? If you aren’t willing to share your ink stories, then why do you have them?

At least, that’s my perspective. I know some people are much more reserved than me when it comes to sharing personal information, but I figure if I’m willing to share, perhaps more people will be willing to do so in the future.

I’m in a much different place than I was a year ago when my dad was deteriorating. I am no longer unemployed. My depression still comes and goes, but it’s incredibly manageable—especially because of the artistic ventures I’ve been busy with lately. The music helps, the painting helps. Work helps. It’s helped me pass the time.

While I haven’t been back home since dad died, there are moments when I deeply miss him. And I’m genuinely unsure what it will be like when I go home for the first time. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Chances are, I will struggle with the true reality of him being gone. But through this tattoo, and through my music, I can keep him as close to me as possible.

Thanks for reading, friends.


About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

Tattoosday 007: Knowing Where He Is


Content warning: The following post recounts the loss of a loved one, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Knowing Where He Is," Rene Sanchez

My brother Jaime passed away when I was 14 years old. He and I actually weren’t the closest and didn’t know each other that well, but we were always brothers, no matter the age difference between us (he was 12 years older than me). Due to his role as my older brother, I looked up to him and used him as an influence in my own life, although he usually taught me by showing me what not to do in life. His death affected me in a very unique way and I never knew how to properly process it after it happened.

Fast forward to when I was 19 years old and in my first year of college. I never thought about getting a tattoo and I always figured that they hurt, so I didn’t see a reason to put myself through that pain. Then one of my best friends who had recently gotten a tattoo (you may have heard of him, his name is Craig and he runs this awesome non-profit with his partner Katy) suggested I get a tattoo to honor my deceased brother. It immediately clicked. I remember how my brother had tattoos and how awesome and unique they looked to me as a kid. Now to honor my brother’s memory with a tattoo just seemed fitting.

My brother lived a fast life during his time on this Earth and that often led to him staying with many people for various lengths of time. I know my mother and the rest of the family would wonder where Jaime was and if he was okay. It was always a treat to see my brother back home, although you never knew what the circumstances for his stay was or how long he’d be staying. When he passed on, there was a tiny piece of everyone in my family that was happy to know that he was at rest. Of course we missed the hell out of him and everything he brought to our lives, but a small part of us also appreciated that he no longer had to go through everything he was going through.

The aspect of my tattoo that I love the most is that someone I consider a brother suggested a fantastic way to honor my brother. Having Jaime’s name on my right arm brings a sense of comfort and calm to my life that may have been missing in his. With this tattoo, I know where Jaime is all the time now.

 


About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

088: Carrying Separate Halves


Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, a drug overdose, and the loss of a family member due to a drug overdose, which may be triggering to some readers

"Carrying Separate Halves," Jaran Stallbaum

On Halloween of 2015, I found myself swallowed by Sixth Street in Austin. During the day me and some co-workers were attending a student media conference, wide-eyed and diligent. On the last night, we celebrated the holiday as any twenty-somethings would. We drank too much. We crumpled into our hangovers on separate planes. That morning, I had an hour to get myself from a stranger’s apartment, to my university funded hotel, to a shuttle that would eventually lead me home. My mother and grandmother picked me up from the airport, a burrito and water bottle offering in hand. I scowled at them. I wanted nothing but my cat and the sinking hole of my mattress. An aggressive one-night stand in Texas left my body bent, ribs cracked. I was feeling awfully sorry for myself.

My brother would be dead in less than 24 hours.

The following evening, I unpacked just enough to visit a friend-or-something-like-it’s house for overdue affection. I’d been single for two months at this point, and craved an exit from loneliness. 

My mother has always called me too much. My phone buzzed somewhere on the mattress, between blanket folds. I let it ring six, maybe eight times before I couldn’t kiss through the sound anymore. She needed me home. She refused to tell me why. I yelled my apprehension at her until it ran out. My guessing game fizzled. My grandmother didn’t die, or my cat, dad was fine. Her car hadn’t broken down on the highway. Possibilities were running out. I knew then.

And then I was driving on a dark highway, sobered from the call but still whiskey punched. I was calling my best friend for 20 minutes straight, but she wasn’t answering. I walked into my house at quarter to 2 in the morning. My parents had their shoes on. We were going, somewhere, we had to, but where do you have to run to when your brother is dead? Where do you go now? I can’t remember if the car radio was on.

My brother’s fiancée found him slumped in her bathroom, blue and sticky with puke, all needles and dried blood and stillness. 

We stopped at my eldest brother’s first. My dad banged on his door and collapsed with sobs when it opened. When we all reached the hospital, the secretary pointed with no sounds to a closed door.

I went in first. I still don’t know why. They warned me about the tubes shoved all inside him, taped to his lips. He still had color, no heartbeat. My dad came in just to scream at his dead face. “Look what you did to yourself!” And then he wept.

I stood there and felt the blood dripping around my stomach. I almost threw up my own heart. I didn’t cry until the next day. The sun rise looked ugly through the gaps in my bedroom. I could not rise with it, not for hours at a time, and then days. Everything I ate tasted like salt.
Justin was my half-brother, but the fraction never counted. His mother asked me to compose a eulogy and I did, unblinkingly, read without one tear in front of a hundred people. I sat down next to my mother after and collapsed in my own cries. People I’d never met told me how beautiful it was. They blinked around tears and said they liked my dress. I was being complimented in front of a body. It felt wrong.

I bawled over the casket when everybody left. My father was more worried about my dead brother’s fiancée than me. At the cemetery, someone’s little niece handed me a flower after the casket hit the dirt. I stepped on it with my heel. It felt as though someone had aborted all my emotions, except for numb and angry.

Between edible arrangements and sympathy cards and the solemn, understanding eyes, I found myself sick of saying “I’m okay,” or even worse, “Thanks for asking.” So I stopped apologizing. Eventually, they stopped asking – about me, anyway. “How’s your father?” “Is his mother doing okay?” “Your mom, I know she wasn’t, but…she knew him his whole life.” 

My own ball of grief weighed even heavier when no one wanted it anymore. 

And then I just floated in this new version of routine—my father wearing Justin’s clothes and my mother picking out flowers for the stone, the way you’d pick out a new blouse. Christmas morning two months later and all eyes on Dad, sullen in the space at the table where his son would have sat. Forget about the way my oldest brother keeps his eyes on his plate, how he can’t look up at the gap.

Forget about me, Justin’s only sister, how I sat detox program lobbies with bags of socks and underwear and new toothbrushes, or courtrooms with crumpled proof that my half-blood enough could section him behind bars. Baby sisters to their brothers are just play-things or parasites, sometimes both, never more. “At least now,” a drunk family friend tries to relate to me once, “You don’t have to see him suffer anymore.”

They were wrong. I see it every day. I can still hear how my feet sounded on hospital tile. I remember how glassy Justin’s eyes got when he got off his bike and barreled into my house for dinner, and how angry his highs made me. I can recall the hung silences as he walked away injured from my bedroom door when I didn’t want to talk to him, not really, because he was so selfish in choosing the needle over me. When I look in mirrors I see his tiny eyes and his sneaky grin because they match mine; because in ways we were the same, after all, since now I’ll just go out and drink to forget him just like he went out and got high to forget me--

And the rubber band snaps back, because that’s grief.  It’s harsh and then it disappears. When, for a second, I feel almost at peace, but there’s days where my lungs just don’t fill up right and I want to sit with him again, feet crushed under his weight. How I’d rather him here and hurting me over hurting me while being gone.

I don’t know why they aren’t asking anymore, but I think I’ll eventually stop wondering. It’s just, I think people assume that loss is concrete, and since someone says there is nothing worse than a parent losing a child, that means all the other floating victims of loss are only hurting for a phase. That phase could be a month, or a year, or on the schedule of whenever his birthday comes around, but a phase nonetheless.

I would like to stand up and say that my grief as a sister is not a phase. My panic late at night or my memory bites making me ache until I’m dry, and hard, and then soft again, it’s not going to leak out.

I no longer feel resentment for the people that don’t ask me if I’m okay anymore. I should have known this a lot sooner, but now it’s definite – not asking doesn’t substitute for not caring. Just like, not crying doesn’t substitute for not hurting.

While I appreciate your tip-toes around the subject and the way the air hisses between your teeth when you think you’ve said too much, I sincerely disagree. Losing him hurts me all the time, every day, nearly every second. You can numb me up or hug it out, but the ache’s not going anywhere.

My grief has taught me that my brother’s death has not caused a bruise. It’s broken something in half. I’m learning to carry both halves now, that’s all.

The first time after my brother’s death that someone asked if I had siblings, I stammered. I almost cried. One was still alive, after all, but where do I go from here? I tried to explain. It felt artificial. Now, I say two, there’s two brothers I love, and I leave it there.

Grief breaks you forever. You won’t heal, and that’s okay. You’ll learn to carry your separate halves.


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About the art:

I ran through a few ideas for this piece before coming to this concept.

As someone who has also suddenly lost someone close to me, I really connected to the idea Jaran had about floating through time with a constant ache, and hitting hard ground on certain anniversaries or birthdays. The pain never goes away, but you learn to live a new normal. That new normal can sometimes feel unreal, or like you're floating and watching everything happen around you like you aren't there.

I created an image of Jaran floating in what could be sky, space, or water - finding herself hovering over and looking down at time passing below her as the seemingly unreal reality continues around her.

It may be damn near impossible on some days, but I hope Jaran continues to float on.

- Katy 

084: Roseann


Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, addiction, associated loss, and murder.

“Roseann,” Jessica

I’ve known my fair share of people who have lost their lives as a result of drugs, alcohol, or the lifestyle associated with such. There was Casey, who overdosed on heroin in a halfway house; There was Derek who tried to rob a drug dealer and was shot in the head. There was Anthony who died from falling off a roof – and no one is quite sure if he jumped or was pushed or just fell. 

None were as impactful as the death of a woman I hardly got the chance to know.

Roseann was 49 years old when she died.
Stephanie was 13 years old when she found her.
Robert was 29 years old when he murdered her.

On Monday, August 14 2006 I cheerfully walked into my home after returning from a hardcore show in New York City. I was a pipsqueak, just fifteen; My dad had driven and picked up myself and my buddy Zack. We felt like grown-ups at a concert in the city by ourselves. We were invincible.

I walked into the kitchen to let my mom know I was home before retreating to my room; That’s where I saw her hysterical at the table. I initially assumed my great-grandmother, Nana, had passed away. After all, Nana was ninety-something and the family somewhat awaited the still-dreaded phone call. 

“It’s my sister Roseann,” my mother managed to get out between tears. I did not immediately reply. I did not know my aunt well, or at all really. I did know she was the “black sheep," for lack of a better phrase, of the family. I knew that she had struggled with drugs and alcohol, and had left the house she shared with my mother, her siblings, and their mother, at a young age. I wondered if this distress was a result of the end of those struggles.

Over the next few minutes I learned that this death was not attributed to an overdose, or a drunk driving accident like I, and perhaps some others may have initially thought. My aunt was struck and killed by her boyfriend with a baseball bat the night before. He later noted alcohol and anger as the driving force for his crime, reporting that he drank a 12-pack of beer as well as most of a bottle of vodka prior. After killing her, my aunt’s daughter entered the bedroom. She was initially told that her mother was sleeping and not to bother her. After he fled the house, my 13-year-old cousin entered the room once again to find her mother bloodied and lifeless on the floor next to her bed. 

A few days later my family went to my aunt’s apartment to gather belongings and clean it out. Her daughter was there, as well as her older children. Many of the family members did not have a close relationship with my aunt, likely because of the path she took in life. Robert took away my aunt’s chance at ever repairing those relationships. 

Robert stole more than my Aunt Roseann’s life that night. He also stole her daughter Stephanie’s life, who has never remotely recovered from this trauma. She entered the foster care system after her mother’s death, and went from home to home. She was aggressive, belligerent – she was traumatized, and always will be. Robert stole a child from a mother, a mother from a child, a sister from a family. 

He was charged with third-degree murder, also known as voluntary manslaughter. This crime is often referred to as a “crime of passion.” It is described by its lack of intent to kill prior to the time of the crime, an on-the-spot killing, and states the crime is committed under such circumstances that would “cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed.” The intent to kill is present, however is not considered before the action. While I am aware alcohol and anger can certainly cause a lack of judgment, I cannot believe or understand the idea that his actions were reasonably provoked to the point that murder should be the intent. 

He did not address my family in court. News articles say my family agreed with the plea and the sentence. I think they were worried he could get off completely. I would hardly say the family agreed that his sentence was fair. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.  When he gets out, he will be younger than my aunt was at the time of her death. He was recently denied a chance at parole; My mother was told he lacked signs of remorse. 

My family is strong, and has very seldom discussed the pain this loss has caused. My grandmother, a rock, sometimes recluses around the anniversary of the death, however remains stoic throughout the rest of the year. My mother, the strongest person I know, almost always holds her own. She does not discuss the impact this loss has had on her, but every year around the anniversary of her sister’s death, she struggles a little bit more. This year I expect the impact to be greater, as it is the 10-year anniversary. 

My family will never overcome the loss of Roseann, but will forever remember the time they had with her. Ramble on baby, settle down easy. Ramble on Rose. 


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About the art:

This painting was inspired by the song "Ramble On Rose" by the Grateful Dead. This song is one of Roseann's sister's favorites and it has really resonated with her. Jessica wanted a traditional red rose because roses have become symbolic of Roseann to both her and her mom.

I started this painting by pasting dictionary pages to the background of the canvas to give it dimension and depth. The color splash behind the rose symbolizes the instability of her life with drugs and alcohol. But the white in the color splash surrounding it represents her purity and kind spirit. As this is the 10th year since Roseann has passed, I hope this painting will be a comfort to them as well as help keep the memory of Roseann alive.

- Emily Silkman

081: The Choices You Make Affect More Than You


Content warning: The following story references an incidence of drunk driving, and associated loss, and the grief thereafter, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"The Choices You Make Affect More Than You," Amanda Myers

There is one specific day in my life where absolutely everything changed. I don’t mean in a poetic sense where I had an epiphany, or in a reflective looking back, what I know now way. But in a truly life shattering way that caused a schism between my old self and who I am now that runs incredibly deep.

On July 10, 2008, I had gone to bed somewhat early after a day of running errands. A phone call on our apartment phone rang in the distance, and my husband came into the bedroom, and told me my dad was on the phone. It didn’t alarm me immediately- this was far from normal, but I was sleepy. After I said hello to my father, he told me my sister was dead. After a stunned moment of disbelief, he told me she had been killed in a car accident. That she was hit by a drunk driver, head-on, about two miles from my parent’s home, and was killed instantly. I told him I was coming home as soon as I could, and hung up the phone. And then I started screaming.

I had read the word “keening” before as a way to explain a profound grieving cry, and I realized in that moment that I understood what keening really meant. It was heartbreak leaving my body through my voice.

We left almost immediately, and drove for 15 hours to get back to my parents. Once the sun arose above the horizon, somewhere on the far side of Nebraska, I had to start making phone calls. I called friends. I called family connections. I called neighbors. And I listened as I broke their hearts, one by one. As they started crying and didn’t know what to say. I listened to their shock. And I hurt.

My sister was 18 years old when she died; it was just over two weeks before her 19th birthday. She had been out for dinner with her fiancee, and was killed on a Friday night by someone I vaguely knew from high school, who was incredibly drunk by 9 p.m. It was the other woman’s birthday, and she did not have a designated driver. She was leaving one bar and heading to another when she crossed the center lines, and hit my sister. The other woman died shortly after the accident and left behind a young son.

Emily and I at an early morning family breakfast. This was the last time I saw her.

Emily and I at an early morning family breakfast. This was the last time I saw her.

Emily was my only sibling, and was truly one of my best friends. We were very close throughout my time in high school and college, and I was lucky that we spent most weekends together my junior and senior years of college. Even though I had spent the last year in Denver, Colorado, quite a distance from home, we still talked regularly and saw each other as much as we could. I cannot fully describe the pain and grief the loss of my sister caused in my life. It changed everything. I no longer had my best friend. I was an only child. I was heartbroken. And it was someone else’s fault. Someone made the choice to drink and drive, and it didn’t only kill that person, but also killed my innocent sister who was trying to get home.

Emily’s death was also the first death I really experienced. I was too young to remember the loss of my grandfather or my infant cousin. I had no experience with death, and this was life altering change. Most of the first year after Emily died is foggy; I don’t have many memories. I know I felt disconnected, aloof, and overwhelmingly alone. I considered my own death, however, I never took any action toward it. I thought about how nice it would be if I was killed in an accident myself. I was so broken.

To cope with her death, I did find several things that worked for me. I wrote in a journal, and in the journal I not only wrote about my feelings and thoughts each day, but I also wrote down as many memories as I could think of about Emily. All the details about what she liked, adventures we had, music we sang to in the car, and what made us laugh together. Having that journal is a huge comfort to me now, as time marches on and I sometimes forget the details about certain events or things she liked. I go back and read about memories I have forgotten, and it makes my heart happy instead of sad.

My other major source for coping with Emily’s death was learning how to knit. I read a book about loss where a woman learned to knit after the death of her child (Comfort: A journey through grief by Ann Hood), and I signed up for a knitting class. I truly think that knitting saved my life. It was calming, and it gave me something to do that didn’t require a lot of energy or intense thought. I could just knit. In the book, it said that with knitting, “every stitch is a way to say I love you.” I would meditate on that as I knit, and would find some sanctuary in the repetitive motion as I created something from yarn.

It has been a little more than eight years since my sister was killed by a drunk driver. I am still passionate about driving sober. A choice to drink and drive doesn’t just impact you. It can potentially impact hundreds of others in profound ways that can never be repaired.

So I have two main messages:
1) Take an Uber. Call a cab. Get a friend to drive. Drink at home. I don’t care, just don’t drink and drive.
2) If you’re grieving, find what gives you some small semblance of peace. Write, read, knit, sing, write music, travel, get a tattoo, join a group, cry.

Take each day knowing that some days will better, and some will be impossibly hard. Eventually the hard days are fewer and further in between, although they never go away completely. Find a way to say ‘I love you.’

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About the art:

Emily was my best friend in high school. Losing her was also a very huge shift for me, one that really affected the way I would live the rest of my life. She was literally the coolest person I have ever met, and had such a big heart for bettering the lives of others.

I met Amanda my senior year of high school, but we didn't become close until after losing Emily. We both found our own ways to cope, and eventually found a new normal together, years later. Amanda is now my closest friend, confidant, dance partner, inspiration, and most of all, my Skister - a title that had been held between Amanda and Emily growing up.

I've become a part of Amanda's family, but I always think about how things would be if Emily were still with us. I think about how much fun Emily would have with her nephew. I think about how much closer Amanda and Emily would have gotten over the years. I think about how I would fit into that picture.

With this piece, I wanted to be able to give Amanda a slice of that life by creating an image of Amanda, her son, and Emily were walking down a street together. I looked through old and new photos to make sure I created an accurate enough image that would make Amanda so happy she might cry (which she did). 

Although 'what ifs' can become a painful part of losing a loved one, sometimes imagining them as a part of your current life years later can be a rewarding experience. Thinking about how proud they would be of you, or how much they would love you regardless of where your life has gone, can be one of the most comforting things.

I like to think that Emily would be extremely proud of me, and I know with certainty, that she would be so proud of Amanda, thankful for her friendship and advice, supportive of the challenges she faces, and how much of a fun, loving aunt she would be to Amanda's son. 

I miss Emily every day, and I'm so thankful for Amanda. This project was really soothing to me in sort of a therapeutic way, and I'm so happy Amanda chose me to do this piece.

- Katy

078: Dealing with Traumatic Loss as an Atheist


Content Warning: This story contains some language pertaining to violent experiences that might be upsetting or triggering for some survivors. 


"Dealing with Traumatic Loss as an Atheist," Katy Hamm

So, I’m an atheist. I always have been. But in high school I went to a Christian youth group with my best friend from school, Emily. Mostly because many of the kids in the group were into the alternative music scene. We became close with a few of them, and a group of us even went to our first Warped Tour together. 

When a new group leader came along, I didn’t think much of it. I walked in wearing my black winged eyeliner, Silverstein hoodie, ripped jeans, and Avenged Sevenfold shoes as always ready to hang out with my friends. Instead I was sat down, and told that the skulls on my shoe were a sign of my sin, and that I would go to hell if I didn’t change my ways.

I left with a bitter taste for religion in my mouth, and never came back. 

On July 11th, 2008, I received a phone call from one of our friends from youth group. He asked if Emily’s parents had called me yet. I said no, and thought something might have been wrong with her mom. I told him I’d call Emily and find out what was going on. He said, “it’s Emily.” I stayed silent in confusion. “She was in a head on collision last night,” Adam said, “She didn’t make it.”

I lost focus and everything started buzzing.

Life was never going to be the same. 

After her funeral, I watched as so many found peace in God, and felt it was His decision to "bring her home." But I was angry. There was no reason for me. There was no higher power in which to look. There was just an end to a life that had been really important in mine.

I spent years grieving. My depression and anxiety spiraled out of control. I spent countless hours in therapy, suffered from panic attacks so intense I would be incapacitated any time I couldn't get in touch with a loved one. I felt a spot of emptiness in my heart that could never again be filled.

Luckily, I found my a wonderful sense of self and purpose while on my college programming board planning concerts featuring local musicians. Things were tough, but life was looking up. I found life-long friends, and someone I wanted to spend my life with in my partner Jon. We had started a clothing company together, and I was about to head into my fifth year of college.

After nine months of making things work with the distance, he left me, citing not being over his ex of 7 years. My soul felt crushed, but I still wanted him in my life - so we continued running the clothing company together, with my hopes that eventually we would be together and things would be perfect. 

Then on April 4, 2011, I received another phone call. This time it was 4:00 a.m., and I just missed answering it. “Lori Kwiatkowski,” my phone read right before the screen turned dark. I picked up the phone and began to text Jon, “why is your mother calling me?” Halfway through that message, it hit. This was THAT call. It was happening again.

No. No. No.

I called back, and I was met with my worst nightmare. Jon had been murdered. He had been stabbed in the neck by a monster of a man who lived a few houses down from their family right in front of their eyes.

There it was again. The buzzing. Everything was spinning, and I fell to the floor. 

The years following were some of the hardest years of my life. I developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which was amplified after attending the trial. I feel like I remember every detail. The size and shape of the knife. The angle and place of which it entered and left his body. The sound of Jon's voice on the 911 call yelling, "he slit my throat!" The way his mother, father, and brother looked when they had to relive each horrifying moment with the monster who did it in the room. The explosion of anger I felt watching the lies and fake tears pouring out of the murderer to try and escape his punishment.

I found myself angry and frustrated daily as I was told by family and friends that Emily and Jon were in heaven meeting each other, and playing with their dogs again. That, “everything happens for a reason,” and it was their time to go. 

It SUCKS to deal with loss and trauma as an atheist. That comfort that others find in believing their loved ones are in a better place doesn’t exist. The comfort found in knowing your life is only the first adventure isn’t there. So what do you do?

Here’s what has worked (for the most part) for me.

-------

 
FUCKING BREATHE.

When you have lost someone, especially through senseless violence – you will often find yourself encountered with people who will think they are helping, but are in fact doing the exact opposite.

Maybe it’s a co-worker who says, “Oh no honey, my sister’s best friend’s cousin once knew a guy whose wife died from cancer. I feel you. So tragic.”  Or an acquaintance on Facebook who says, “Thoughts & prayers to you. She is in a better place now.”  Or even worse, a friend hits you square in the face with a big, “He’s in heaven now, and everything God does is for a reason.”

No. Your sister’s best friend’s cousin’s guy’s wife’s death from cancer is absolutely NOTHING like the murder of my partner. 

No. She isn’t in a better place. She’s in an urn because some irresponsible mess decided to get plastered before 9PM and drive home taking my best friend away from her family, friends, and a job she loved taking care of young adults with disabilities.
 
No. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. If it did, why is this so called God giving me, and so many other marginalized folks the short end of the stick? 

Muscles tensing up. Heartbeat increasing. Hands shaking. 
 
FUCKING BREATHE ALREADY. 

You need to do this to live. 

It seems silly and simple, but concentrated breathing is the only way I kept myself from unloading a ton of anger and swear words on anyone who said these things to me. They are trying to empathize, trying to give you comfort, trying to assure you that you’ll be okay.

They aren’t doing any of those things, and may very well be actively hurting you by trying.

Just breathe, and if and when you find it in yourself - share with that person how those things affect you. They will most likely understand.

 
Stop asking yourself “What If” questions

Yes. They are tempting. I’ve spent my fair share of time with them.
 
What if he hadn’t broken up with me? He would still be alive. He wouldn’t have been coming home from her house. He wouldn’t have been out that late. He probably would have been across the state with me.

What if he had just stayed in the house when he called the police? He’d still be alive.  His family wouldn’t have had to see their son killed in front of them. I wouldn’t have the ringing in my ear of his voice on the 911 call.

What if they hadn’t given up their big dog just a few days earlier? He would still be alive. The dog could have attacked the guy. He could have saved him.
 
What if I had been there? He’d still be alive. I would have convinced him to not interact with the guy. I could have told him to stay inside the house.  I could have saved him.
 
What if he was still alive?

What if.

 
Give up your what ifs. Don’t let them haunt you. It just causes more pain, more flashbacks, more panic. 

Maybe each time you find yourself thinking, “What if…” – instead, think of one thing the person you lost was really passionate about, and share that thing with someone. Think of something that made you smile each time you were with them. 

One thing I like to think about is  when Jon and I would listen to The Devil Wears Prada's Zombie EP, and each time the music paused for the "Oh my god, they're everywhere," line, he would instead yell, "Oh my god, Pokémon cards," while miming a motion for making it rain. Makes me smile every time.
 

Cry all the cries.

Self-explanatory. Don’t hold back those tears. Even if you have to be the weird kid crying on the train, or in the bathroom, or on the sidewalk, or in the park, or under your desk at work, or in class, or in an elevator, or at the printer when you can’t get it to work, or any number of other places I have found myself crying over the years. 

I know there is stigma with certain identities about showing sadness, depression, and anxiety. Do your best to not worry about what others think. Crying is good for you. 

I’m with you. You’re not alone. 


Therapy.

If you are lucky enough to have access and funding to go to therapy, go. I'm not going to lie, it sucks sometimes, because you’re reliving moments of your past you would rather keep buried, but doing so can help you process and have lasting benefits. 

There is a type of therapy called EMDR. I swear it is witchcraft, because it did wonders for my PTSD. I was only able to go once, but it helped immensely. I held these two vibrating things in my hand as I retold the traumatic event I wanted help reprocessing. My therapist would alternate the vibrations frequency and intensity throughout the story, and I guess it somehow helps rewire what parts of your brain fire when you recall that memory. Or something along those lines. I’m not a therapist. 

Either way. It can help.

Stigma is stupid. If you think you’re weaker because you go to therapy or take medication for your mental health, I’m happy to tell you that you’re wrong. It takes a strong person to take control of their health. This shit isn’t easy! Let’s be real, continuing to live after experiencing trauma is one of the strongest things you can do. 

And if you don’t have access to a therapist. Talk it out with someone. Find resources online for survivors of trauma. Never stop searching for something that could help improve your life.


Advocate for others.

Triggers are THE WORST. Those words, phrases or actions that send you spiraling into panic attacks, flashbacks, and tears. Those things that rip all the light from your eyes, and the energy from your body.

Don’t be silent. Don’t suffer to keep others comfortable. Tell those who use your triggers what they do to you. Anyone who cares about you as a person will quickly change their behavior. You’d be surprised at how willing people are to change, especially when they were doing something they didn’t even know was harmful.

Now that you’ve got the power to advocate for yourself, do it for others. Make the world a safer place for those who have experienced trauma. 

When you don’t believe in a higher power, karma, the good of the human race, or anything else; believe in yourself.

I believe in you.


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Things are honestly still tough. July is such a hard month for me with Jon’s birthday, the anniversary of losing Emily, and Emily’s birthday. It’s been years, but I still cry thinking about how Emily and I will never draw comic book notes to each other again, or how Jon and I will never smile at each other again. Or how neither will ever get to see their niece/nephew is as they grow up. 

In my victim impact statement for Jon’s trial, I wrote, “I feel as though I’ve had my one chance at lifelong happiness taken from me.” For years, I thought that was true. 

I’m really thankful it wasn’t. I’ve worked my butt off to make sure it didn’t. I made sure I surrounded myself with genuinely caring human beings. I’ve found a partner in someone who makes me a better person, and will never ever pressure me to do something I don’t want to. I made sure I landed a job that felt less like a job, and more like a calling. I made sure I discovered myself, and learned to be comfortable in my identities. I made sure to stay creative, and find an outlet for my expression. I've made sure to accept and embrace my mental health.

Happiness in the wake of trauma is not easy, but I promise it is worth it.
You are resilient. You are worthy.


katy breathe.jpg

About the art:

Nevan made this piece of art for Katy using massive amounts of sorcery and probably a computer because the man is an absolute wizard. No one truly understands the source of his craft, but we know that when he shares his magic with the world, we are meant to stare and take it in with awe and not question the methods by which it was created.

This image reads, "Breathe," which Nevan says was a reminder he needed more so now than ever. If you remember, he shared his coming out story last month. And he joined our artist team shortly thereafter. Since sharing the story, his life has been a bit chaotic, so Nevan said that this piece was actually incredibly therapeutic to create because needs this reminder when his brain gets all tangled up in itself.

And as you can tell from reading Katy's story, this is a perfect reminder for Katy as well.

- Craig & Nevan