Making Meaning

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Every now and then, something comes along that fills you to the bones with gratitude for this totally messed up, chaotic, stressful, sometimes shitty and also amazing life.

Just moments ago, I finished up a live phone interview. I was invited to speak about grief and the healing power of creativity at DeathExpo – an annual online conference held by the End-of-Life University. It all started by going to another conference about death, in Virginia earlier this year, where I met the founder of the university. We chatted over a few drinks at the bar and after hearing about my story and my photo series on grief, she invited me to be a part of this wonderful expo. That was back in the summer, so I’ve been waiting a while for this event.

Now, I have to preface the rest of this with the fact that I am an introvert. I tend to like talking to one or two people at a time. I don’t like socializing in big groups, much less speaking in front of them. I’m also a writer. Normally, my words are carefully chosen and put to the page, with painstaking thoughtfulness, before they go out into the world. I don’t exactly enjoy anything that makes me have to speak off the cuff or string words together spontaneously in front of people. I also can’t multitask worth a damn, so trying to put together articulate sounding sentences WHILE speaking is sort of a subtle form of torture for me.

But when someone approaches you to share your story about grief and loss, and share what you’ve learned in hopes of helping others, you don’t say no to that. Partly because I’m superstitious. I’ve lost both parents and my fiance before the age of 30… at this rate, I try to listen when the universe presents things like this to me. I mean literally, I am afraid someone else in my life might be smited if I ignore God or the universe or whatever it is. It’s obvious I’m supposed to be doing work that is related to grief and death in some way – or I wouldn’t have so many dead people in my life. And so, despite my fear of public speaking and interviews and the spotlight and all of it… I’m just allowing the universe to drag me into all this uncomfortable shit.

And you know what?

This interview was awesome. I loved every moment of it. I don’t know why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident or assertive when it comes to sharing with others. Tonight though, for the first time ever, I felt like I knew what I was talking about. I felt like I had good, valuable lessons to share about grief and using creativity to heal. And for the first time I felt just a bit comfortable stepping into that spotlight. After all, if there are two things I know, it’s grief and art. It was a pleasant surprise, and felt really good to finally experience that kind of confidence.

It has taken a LOT of uncomfortable feelings to begin to get to this place… a lifetime of them really, but more recently, hours and days and weeks and months of working on presentations and interviews (and also hours and days and weeks of procrastinating because I’m so terrified of it). This is the first time in my life I’ve even been confident enough to just TRY to do things like this. The person I was before Drew died would have never even attempted this stuff. The person I was a year ago wouldn’t have even tried any of this.

It’s got me thinking about a lot of things. Like how trying to stretch ourselves and grow means we have to go through a lot of doubt and fear before we can begin to reap the rewards at the end. We have to be willing to feel pretty damn uncomfortable before we can begin to feel comfortable when tackling something new. I’m also thinking about how important it is to have others be part of our healing… because I got so much energy and strength back from doing this interview tonight. Energy I desperately have needed during these tough times of relocating from Texas to Ohio. Energy that helped me feel less alone and more connected to others again. Energy that I know is going to help me feel motivated to get to making some art soon.

Lastly, it made me think about the meaning of death and loss that can continue to be built over time. I cannot even express how much meaning was poured into my world tonight. It was a reminder that every shitty day, every tear cried, every moment I’ve missed Drew since he died, and every time I wanted to give up and I didn’t… they have ALL been worth it, because maybe something I shared tonight will help someone else on their own road through grief. This was also a reminder that as my life continues on, things like this will come into it and continue to give meaning to Drew’s life. He will continue to impact the lives of others in ways that he never imagined too, as a reach out to give a helping hand to others.

Ultimately, doing this interview reminded me that no matter how difficult this life gets, meaning does not stop being built into it. It continues to build over time… over our lifetimes, if we choose to give it a chance. Fifty years from now, should I be fortunate enough to still be around, there will be hundreds of new ways that Drew’s life will have impacted the lives of others. And even though he would not be in a single picture from June 2012 on… you would still be able to fill a dozen scrapbooks with the meaningful things that his spirit has gone on to do.

Note: For anyone who would like to hear the interview with Death Expo, you can listen and view the slides we discussed HERE.

Many Families, One Tree

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Written Oct 4th:
Like with his parents, Drew’s aunt is someone I’ve gotten much closer to since he died. Yesterday was our first time visiting since I went up to Ohio last month. I went to help her move some furniture out of her uncle’s garage. The 2 hour drive out to his place was just what we needed to catch up on all that is changing in our lives with my move to Ohio. Not just my life… our lives. This move of mine is affecting all of us. His parents, who I have lived with since he died… who have become my own family in the process. My closest friends, who I will be very far away from for the first time since we all met 7 or 8 years ago. And everyone else close in my life in some way.

Sometimes life brings you odd reminders though of just how beautiful and seamless even the most complex situations can be. While with Drew’s aunt yesterday, over at her uncle’s house, we began looking at pictures up on the walls. In the hallway was a wall full of old photos, in particular a collage frame with 20-30 photos arranged all together. He stood and shared with us about all the pictures, who they were, who had died, etc. Brothers and sisters, aunt and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and moms and dads. On the surface, it looks like anyone’s family collage on the wall. But there was something very unique about this particular college that really stood out to me…

Within that single frame, it was not just one family tree shown. Nor was it two, of a husband and wife. This kind, old man has been widowed twice. Before me in this single frame was a beautiful blending of old pictures of his family, his first wife’s family, and his second wife’s family. Not only were they on the same wall together, they were in the same collage. He didn’t know my story. He had no idea how completely in awe I was of this simplistic, beautiful gesture of love.

It’s one of those things that people seem to try and make complicated, or think sometimes is complicated… but right there on this man’s wall it was clear as day – they were not different families. They were all one big family together. With shared love and shared losses and shared memories. It was so simple. He also had little trinkets around the house from both of his wives… more of them from his second wife of course, but still, it was clear that his first wife was very much a part of it all. She was not put away in a box, or hidden in drawers. His second wife obviously welcomed her within their home. It was so beautiful.

To make things even more meaningful, I was doing this with a part of Drew’s extended family…  further reminding me of how deep my bonds run with them and always will.

I knew I wanted to talk about this in a post as soon as it happened… because for me, it gave such a tangible visual of the kind of home and life I want to build with someone new after being widowed. At the end of the day, I called Mike and told him about this experience. I told him how, when we eventually move in together one day, I want to create a collage just like that of our great big family. The one that is made up of four families now. That’s how it should be. Losing pieces of our family may mean that it gets a little smaller. Sometimes we even lose more than just the one person when this happens, which is hard. But it also means that, one day, it gets even bigger as we join new and old parts of our families together.

Honoring our Loved Ones

This is Darth Taco – Drew’s big black Tacoma TRD 4×4 truck with black rims, what would you call it? ;) Darth just got a facelift this week with a grill guard added on. I’m thrilled about this for a few reasons….photo

Since I drive it almost exclusively now, and I go pretty far to work and back – often on country roads at night – there’s always the possibility of hitting a hog or deer. So my night drives will now be that much safer. But even moreso, his birthday is coming soon and so it was sort of an early birthday present to him from his folks… which is exactly what he would have wanted. When he first got this truck, all he talked about was getting a grill guard installed and having it lifted a few inches. I can’t blame him, safety aside, its just plane cool and sexy looking. It feels so good to have this done – both for my safety and for him.

It got me thinking about the importance of doing things still for our loved ones even after they have passed on as a way to continue to show our love for them. This is so very important. I cannot express just how meaningful this has been in moving forward from loss in my life. My mom died when I was nine, so growing up I didn’t understand this concept. Our family as a whole didn’t really. We swept it under the rug, as was typical to do. But when I was in my mid-twenties and began to work through the grief of her loss more deeply, I decided I wanted a relationship with her again. She existed. And she’ll always exist to me… and I wanted to acknowledge those feelings. When people die, we sometimes assume that our relationship with them also has to die… sometimes without even realizing it we have this assumption. Well, it doesn’t. Your loved one died, but your love for them did not. And you should still get to show it however the heck you want to.

This is what I started to learn as I began honoring my mom. On her birthday each year, February 26th, I buy her a card and write a letter in it to her as if she were here. And then I buy her some flowers, wine, and a deliciously fancy piece of cake from somewhere extra special that I enjoy for her. Aside from being a great excuse to buy myself some decadence, it has helped me to feel reconnected to her – to give myself permission to still love my mom and show that love, no matter whether she is here or in another realm. This has truly validated me in amazing ways and helped me to let go of painful emotions over time. It has even helped me to feel for the first time in 10 years like I have an actual relationship with her.

I’m now taking all that I’ve learned from honoring her and bringing it into my grieving for Drew. I’m sure to some people, the fact that I continue to do many things to honor him and talk of him still daily might seem sad. It might seem like I’m holding on, clinging tightly or like I’m not allowing myself to move forward. But its just the opposite actually. Doing things to continue to honor him allows me to establish what our new relationship will be, two worlds apart. It gives me a positive way to still love him and to continue to show that love so that I’m not just bottling up my love and trying to hide it away or let it die out. It’ll never die out. Just like my mom, he existed, and he exists still to me. Its just becoming something new and different. Honoring him helps me to focus on the evolution of this relationship instead of on everything that I have lost. I haven’t lost it. It’s always right here, in my heart, everyone we lose is. And if we can learn to honor them – whether its with flowers and cake or a new grill guard – we can have a relationship with them that will never die.

Our Pilot’s Gravestone

Back in December, a friend of mine in the creative group I am in asked us all to share our favorite thing that we made in 2012. It has taken me a while to get around to editing the photos for this.. and also has taken me a while to finally feel ready to post these photos, but her prompt seemed to create the right setting in which to finally share this.

While this is not by any means my favorite thing I have made (in fact, more like my least favorite to have had to make), it is and will probably always be the most important thing I have ever had the honor of creating…. Andrew’s headstone at his grave site.

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Somehow in the midst of every horrible thing, this was one thing I found myself able to jump into action on. It gave me purpose. A mission to help use my skills to give honor to the man I love. While other designers might have shiny awards for the most significant things they have ever designed, I will have the knowledge that I helped to create something that will represent my best friend to everyone who loved him as they continue to visit it throughout their lifetimes. No better honor.

We chose the stone together, his family and I… the red granite with an unfinished, rough top edge seeming more rugged and fitting to his personality. There are an unbelievable amount of choices involved in designing a headstone I soon realized… as our heads were overflowed and overwhelmed with choice after choice of how to treat everything. Big stones, little stones, formal ones, black ones, gray ones, pink granite, red granite, black lettering, natural lettering… they can even do color photos printed onto stones now. It was daunting to say the least. We at least were able to pick the type and style of stone that day, leaving the rest to figure out soon. That is where I went to work…

Color photos was out. Drew was traditional and would not want a color photo of himself plastered on his gavestone. But he would want a helicopter. I searched for the perfect helicopter image to use. After hundreds and hundreds of photos and graphics, I ended up finding one of an R44 (one of the types of helicopters he flew) at an angle that looked like it was taking off into the sky. Perfect. I had my friend out in California – a fellow designer – create an outlined/graphic version of it (Thank you Betsy!). Then we picked out the poem and quote – the poem was something he had on his Facebook page and was sort of a code that he lived by as a pilot. The quote came from a helicopter forum he was on… a friend who had written in response to another pilot who recently had been lost. The quote read “His perpetual flight continues, now unconcerned with such earthly things as low rotor speed, torque limits, and settling with power.” It was just the sort of technical pilot jargon he’d have wanted.

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I sent it all off to the Memorial company, and his mom and my sister and I went in a few days later to see how they’d laid it out. I take one look at the computer screen and “Oh my God”…Floored! The proportions where all wrong! It looked chunky and not tasteful. No no no, this will not DO. I kindly announced that I’m a graphic designer and asked the man at the desk if he would step aside. This had to be done right. Not just right, MORE than right. Perfect. My man deserves nothing less than complete perfection. Fortunately, the man was happy to let me have the reigns, so I sat myself behind the desk and started to learn his graphics program and change everything around. We edited it into exact perfection… including adjusting the letter spacing between the letters of his name so they were exactly right and replacing all the commas because the ones in the original font looked chunky and girly. Yes, there is such a thing as a girly looking comma. And my man will NOT have girly commas on his gravestone! After more than 2 hours of tweaking every last detail and making sure that is was exactly honoring what his mom wanted, we were done. It was and always will be the single most important thing I have ever used my design skills for. Although it is not something that – at 29 years old – I should have ever had to do, it is one of the biggest honors of my life.

The poem I realize is a bit hard to read in the photos, but here is how it goes:

“Should me end come while I am in flight
Whether brightest day or darkest night
Spare me your pity and shrug off the pain
Secure in the knowledge that I’d do it again
For each of us is create to die
And within me I know, I was born to fly”

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I read it out loud every time I visit the cemetery now… these words have become a reminder not only to find peace and resolve about losing him, but also to live my own dreams as fiercely as he did… as I am learning to fly in my own way, with my own dreams. He reminds me each time I visit that I was born to fly too.

Thank you Suzanne, for prompting me to finally share this. <3