Grief / Suicide survivor

2020 wrapped: 8 things I’ve learned (playlist-style)

This post encapsulates some of what I learned as the ultimate hell year of my life is coming to an end. There’s some good, lots of dark, and mostly general relatability for sad people who need to feel seen today.

Also, bonus, there’s an emo playlist of songs that I felt like matched this year’s vibe.

Enjoy! (Or don’t. Not enjoying is cool too.)

1. “New year, new you” can suck it.

Theme Song: My Tears Ricochet (Taylor Swift)

If you joined the dead loved ones club in 2020 (or ever), you might know exactly what I mean. With 2021 on the horizon, I find myself feeling everything. I can confidently say there are exciting opportunities ahead of me in 2021, but all I can think about is that 2020 will be the last time I ever talked to Aaron. 2020 will be the last time I hugged him, joked with him, talked philosophy, or I had the chance to roll my eyes at an obnoxiously loud Aaron sneeze. 2020 marks the last time he held Sloan. That was it. He’s gone, never coming back. And it hurts in the most inexplicable, debilitating, heartbreaking way.

So, while 2021 is already presenting itself with big exciting things, a promising future for Sloan, and a fresh new start from what has been the most difficult year of my life: I want Aaron to be there with me. The thought of leaving this year without him could not be more opposite of appealing. So we’ll say I’m going in to 2021 with a “new year, new me: missing Aaron 24/7” vibe.

2. Avoidance harms.

Theme Song: I Guess I Just Feel Like (John Mayer)

There’s unbelievable discomfort in allowing sadness, grief, and anger to exist in our body and mind. My gut reaction – like most – is to say it’s time to buck up and adult again after this shitty year. But, as I’ve moved through the worst of the worst the last two years, I can confidently say looking at the bright side and bucking up isn’t always the healthiest route to take. It’s definitely the easiest and most appealing, but avoiding the hard stuff can serve to suppress the emotions we need to feel to truly move forward in life after loss and hardship.

Humans aren’t programmed robots that exhibit only gratitude, positive attitudes, and happiness. And if we can step out of the way society has attempted to program us into that robotic state, there’s peace and contentedness to be had in facing the hard emotions.

So – as we enter 2021 – I give you my full permission (because I know that’s exactly what you needed, you’re welcome) to sit in stoic silence, be sad, angry, and skip the bright side trope for a moment. We won’t sit there forever, and it will eventually lessen and pass by just like everything else, but it’s a welcome (and healthy) place to be sometimes.

3. People suck. People rock.

Theme Song: no body, no crime (Taylor Swift)

LOL. K. This might just be the lesson of 2020 for many of us, amirite? Let’s talk about the sucky people first, because the un-sucky people deserve the final shoutout.

After Sloan’s birth, my mom’s passing, and ultimately Aaron’s passing – it became very clear some people just suck and don’t know how to un-suck. In death and grief, there are always people that will make your pain about them. There are people that are incapable of considering the experience of the person that died, and how their immediate loved ones are feeling in that moment. It sucks, but it’s a thing.

In my experience – I think there are a few key reasons why these sucky behaviors exist. I’ve watched sucky behaviors manifest from things like: the need for self-validation after a rocky relationship with the individual that died, an attempt at avoiding the discomfort and pain of others around them, and performative grief to feel like they fit in to a devastating loss or life story in a bigger way…..Honestly, the reasons probably don’t matter. Because sometimes, people just suck. And it’s not our job, as the grieving, to fix that. (Cue the boundaries section, two down from this.)

With that said…Guess what? Most people just rock. And that’s not even me being toxically positive, it’s just the simple truth. After Aaron died, my immediate visceral reaction was: SHIT. How will I ever tell people? I can’t even handle the pain of losing Aaron, let alone the judgment that can come with how Aaron died. I just wanted love for Aaron – nothing more, nothing less. Through these overwhelming thoughts and feelings, I’ll never forget how quickly I realized I didn’t give others and their capacity for love and empathy enough credit. That is on me and my screwed-up-grief-brain. People knew and loved the Aaron I knew, and I’m so grateful for how so many people still honor and love all of us – especially him – today.

The support I have received has been unbelievable this year. So many people have hustled for me, said and done things out of the kindness of their hearts, and still continue to support me, my family, and most importantly Sloan, in big ways. So, yes, some people behave in a sucky way. But most people rock. And I find myself constantly working on accepting both – while truly (and easily) experiencing endless gratitude for those rockstars of kindness, empathy, and action.

4. Quality of life is a loaded term.

Theme Song: Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967 (John Mayer)

Only a couple weeks after Sloan’s birth, I’ll never forget listening to my mom and Aaron talk about the phrase “quality of life”. There were a lot of concerns about Sloan’s quality of life when she was born (which makes me kinda laugh now) and it spurred a more philosophical conversation between my mom and Aaron.

I remember passing a homeless, neglected, elderly veteran on the side of the road – and Aaron pointed out how he thought that was the epitome of a hard quality of life. Here was a human, fully aware of the neglect and judgment, who served others in protecting our country, in need of support and love. But instead of showing support, we watched as people rolled up their windows and looked the other way when they passed by his camp. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way. Nobody does.

That comment from Aaron sent us all into a longer conversation, one of which I hold on to still to this day. When I traipse around public areas with Sloan and all of her equipment in tow – I get a lot of sad, pitiful looks. Sometimes comments come with those looks. Things like “poor baby, such a hard life” “those leg casts are horrific – she must be in so much pain!”, etc. The thing with Sloan is: she doesn’t know any different. And that’s not a bad thing. She truly lives her best life, even as she’s rolling out of a cleft palate surgery with her tongue literally sewn to her cheek.

I’m the witness to the judgment, discomfort, and fear that her rare presence creates for others. Thankfully, Sloan may never know anything about it. (Unless she reads this post – to which I want to say, I love you Sloan. We got this and our life together is worth it – judgmental looks, discomfort, and all.)

However, over time, I’ve realized these looks and comments come from people who visit the hospital aiming to fix their own ailments. Increasing the dosage of their anti-depressants, receiving radiation, and any other endless list of life complexities and diagnoses they are also facing. And, for these individuals, those complexities and challenges are invisible – unlike Sloan. I’m not sure which is easier.

Sure, Sloan has a long road ahead of her – but as I’ve faced my darkest days this year, I’ve only admired Sloan and her will to keep going and find purpose in the moment she’s in. Even as she’s fully casted in the ICU, hooked up to endless monitors and a vent, knocking on death’s door with COVID.

Okay – now I’m rambling. Here’s what I’m trying to say in all of this: we’re taught to see quality of life at face-value. But quality of life isn’t always obvious. It’s complex. And there’s something admirable about those that we peg with difficult life qualities who actually find their lives to be a higher quality than ours.

To be blunt: I know Sloan’s life currently sits at a higher quality than mine. I’m hella proud of her for that.

5. Set and keep those boundaries.

Theme Song: In The Blood (John Mayer)

Giving credit where credit is due: Aaron was the best at setting boundaries. I always floundered in the face of setting boundaries: but Aaron just did it – especially when boundaries were set to protect me and Sloan. After he died, I found myself re-evaluating the boundaries he set, and doing my floundering-in-the-face-of-conflict-and-boundaries thing for what felt like the thousandth time in my thirty short years.

While I floundered, I could always hear Aaron (and my mom) in the back of my mind telling me to stop it. But I was in such shock and grief, I didn’t know what to do or how to thoughtfully navigate anything: so I just survived and floundered. Fun times had by me.

As I floundered in the face of the boundaries Aaron set – I was given real examples (and the receipts) of why he had set them so many years back. And ultimately that gave me strength and resolve to be better about setting boundaries in mine and Sloan’s future, too. All with the goal of honoring Aaron, Sloan, my family, and myself. Boundaries are important, and sometimes the most difficult boundaries to set are the most important of all.

Setting boundaries is never fun, it always hurts, and it can serve to make you look like the bad guy – even when you are confidently escaping harmful relationship dynamics. But one thing is for sure: there is more peace and contentedness to be had in setting clear boundaries than there is in managing toxic relationships.

If you’re in the midst of setting boundaries with loved or un-loved ones, you’ve got this. It’s extremely difficult, but you can do it. And I promise it will be worth it: if not now, you’re doing it for your future self.

6. Chosen family: f-R-amily.

Theme Song: You’ve got a Friend (James Taylor)

I had no idea how many people supported my family, me, Aaron, and Sloan until this year. I don’t mean that in a “look at me, I have friends!” way – but to say I think all of us have a larger support system we’re totally unaware of until shit hits the fan. This support system rallied around me and Sloan in the biggest ways, honoring Aaron the entire time, and they’re the reason I’m sitting in the cutest apartment, wrapped in a Minky Couture blanket, writing an update on this perfect website, and eating the most delicious snacks from Trader Joe’s today.

Me, my dad, and sister were so heartbroken after Aaron’s passing we just couldn’t function for several months. I’ll never forget my dad trying to help me manage Sloan’s home health orders, while laying in bed for most of June, unable to move or process what just happened. His son-in-law and best friend just died. And this was just after he lost his other best friend, my mom, back in September.

I say this because there was a larger community that stepped up – and it gave me, my dad, and Kassie the relief we needed to have space to grieve. They helped me move, sell the house, keep Sloan’s medical life afloat, stay on top of basic adult things, sent me lists of all the logistical stuff that needed to be done after Aaron’s death, etc. I’ll never forget the big ways our chosen f-R-amily stepped up: these friends mean everything to me.

Chosen f-R-amily, man. These relationships are the ones worth fostering, loving, and growing.

7. Hope in the darkest moments.

Theme Song: Evermore (Taylor Swift)

Just like the support from f-R-amily above, I’ve had so many moments since Aaron died that established hope and purpose in my life: even when I felt there wasn’t any left. If you know anything about me: then you’ll know I’m anti-toxic-positivity. Like, I love jokes and fun, but you’ll never catch me stating everything happens for a reason. Um, nope. News flash: this shit doesn’t happen for a reason.

However, just because I’m anti-toxic-positivity doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced small glimpses of joy, hope, and endless love from others in the darkest moments of my life. I’m so grateful for that. That hope and purpose has kept me going.

If you find yourself in the darkest moments of your life, I promise there’s a reason to keep going. Even if it’s so you can snack on cheese and watch the latest episode of The Bachelor tomorrow. Like, let’s just make it to see if Brendan Morais ends up on Bach in Paradise, okay?

8. S/O: thank you mom and Aaron.

Theme Song: You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me (John Mayer)

This one is selfishly just for me, my mom, and Aaron. (Helloooo therapeutic writing!) But, as ironic as it might sound, I couldn’t have survived the painful gravity of losing my mom and Aaron without having them in my life to begin with.

Wait…Does that even make sense? I don’t know. But I’ll press on.

Thank you, mom, for teaching me to be a realist, advocate, and hustler. I aim to carry that legacy of yours forward, and will continue to hustle for the underprivileged until my last day on earth comes too. And, for Aaron, thank you for teaching me the true meaning of partnership. I know what it means to have someone truly love and respect you. Not just in a romantic way – but in the most respectful, equal way. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you. You taught me what it means to work hard to grow and make progress toward being a better, kinder, more empathetic person. You also taught me the true meaning of this quote from Albus Dumbledore: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” I’ll continue to work hard to make sure I’m always standing up for what feels right, too. I still want to pinch you, but I think I’d hug you first if I got the chance.

2020 = the shittiest year vibes. Plus a lil’ hope too.

Find my full emo 2020 playlist here on Spotify.

Overall, 2020 made for an unforgettable year. While it had its ups – it realistically had major downs: including unexpected, devastating illness and loss for way too many people in the world. Myself included. I hope as we move in to 2021 we can continue to support each other in our life’s experiences – the good AND the bad – and find empathy for others in all moments.

Especially the moments that seem impossibly difficult; challenging our own beliefs and institutions.

If you end this year by sitting in bed staring at the ceiling in utter shock and silence, just know I’m in my bed doing the same. Who needs fireworks when you have this shit-show of a year?

I’m right here with you.

<3 – Kari

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