I met Eliza after Kaitie shot her wedding (with a brunch reception, so she’s obviously the coolest) in 2013 and knew immediately that we’d be friends. You know those people? We clicked (we’re mutually weird, which goes a long way in a friendship). Then a few months later, Jon and I were stationed in Columbus, GA where Eliza and her husband live and it was basically a year-long party. We worked, cooked, played, happy hour-ed, and Target-ed together and I’ve only cried a handful of times (lie) since we moved about being so far apart.
Eliza shared her brother’s story with me early on in our friendship and I knew right away how special their bond was. I so admire how she honors his life with hers and am grateful that she was willing to share her story.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a wedding photographer living in Columbus, Georgia, a mom to toddler twin tornados (Hart and Mills) and a tiny English bulldog (Bowie), a wife to a full-blooded Yankee and professional aruger (Mike) and I love fish tacos and David Bowie more than is probably healthy. I’ve recently taken up gardening (or really, the idea of gardening), which is especially comical as I definitely have a black thumb. Whatever. This is my year!
What is your earliest memory of death or loss? What was life like for you at that time? How did the loss affect you?
One of my closest childhood friends lost her father to cancer in the third grade. Like most third graders, my biggest concerns were what I would eat for lunch and how to convince my mom to let me start dressing myself. Needless to say, such a huge loss for one of my close friends was jarring, but not something that I truly understood.
What has been the most difficult loss for you?
My big brother died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 18. He was days away from graduating from his graduate program at the University of Georgia when he had a heart attack at 24. It was the most shocking, life-altering event that I have ever faced. He was my best friend and my role model. As in, I wanted to be him so badly as a child that I dressed like a boy for a solid 5 years (embarrassing, but this is my truth – ha!) He was everyone’s best friend. No matter who he was with, he treated them as though they were the most important person in his life. He was hysterically funny, had the girliest scream, the smelliest feet, was impossibly kind, and really, really good looking (to quote one of his favorite movies.) To go from having him one day to writing his eulogy the next was an experience that changed the course of my life forever.
How did you navigate the days/weeks after his passing?
I have only snippets of memories burned into my brain from those first few days: getting the call from my dad, writing his eulogy on the plane home (I was in school at the University of Vermont at the time), coming home to a house full of people – none of which were my family, the smell of the funeral home (tomatoes, what?), and hating the organ music playing before his funeral (so I switched it to David Bowie, his favorite.) People had to remind me to eat. To shower. To sleep.
How did the loss manifest in the other areas of your life?
A loss of that magnitude consumed my entire life. I immediately transferred to the University of Georgia to be closer to my family and drove home every weekend. Our shared interests suddenly became ten times more important to me. At the same time, though, every song, food, picture, or movie that reminded me of him could send my day into a tailspin. It was rough.
When, if ever, have you sought help in dealing with his death?
I haven’t ever sought professional counseling – not because I don’t believe in it (it is IMMENSLY helpful for some people!) but because I had some wonderful friends and family help guide me through.
Is there an especially negative memory/experience related to losing Taylor?
I think one of the most difficult things following loss is the concept of time. Time felt like it had stopped completely and sped up tenfold, all at once. I remember feeling so shocked when a former teacher told me that she had missed the funeral because she was coaching a basketball game. “They are still playing basketball?,” I asked myself. “Don’t they know that the world has ended?” It was very reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks.”
Is there an especially positive memory/experience related to losing Taylor?
I have so many positive and heartwarming memories following Taylor’s death (and some that I still experience today). From the 1000+ people at his funeral, all with a never-ending stream of stories and praises and thankfulness for his life, to the parties and celebrations afterwards, it was and is so comforting to know that he was loved by so many. To this day, people still stop me in the streets to say, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I loved your brother. Can I tell you this funny story about him?” Truly, I live for those. To know that now, even 9 years after his death, he is still making people belly laugh on the corner of the street is a gift that I am so thankful for.
Is there a specific reaction to your struggle with losing a sibling (supportive or otherwise) that sticks out in your memory?
I think that one of the most difficult things for me was the insensitive but well-meaning comments made by others. I know how hard it can be for people who haven’t experienced loss to know what to say to those who are in the thick of it, but sometimes, their words can come across as insensitive or downright insane. I was told that people knew how I was feeling because they had once lost their dog, or that my parents should be lucky that they had other children (because some people only have one child, and what would they do if they had lost their only child!?), and other ridiculous comments that I won’t mention.
What are some specific fears or struggles you faced in that season?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always struggled with anxiety. And, strangely enough, I had always been terrified of losing Taylor. Since childhood, I had dreams that something would happen to him. I’d call him, sometimes late at night, just to make sure he was okay. Inevitably, he’d be out with his fraternity brothers at a bar, reassure me that he was just fine, and always say, “I love you” before hanging up the phone. He was never embarrassed to say that to his little sister, even in front of his friends. When my biggest fear did come true, it was paralyzing. What was to say that this wasn’t just the beginning of a domino effect – wherein I’d lose everyone I loved? It was an all-consuming thought that took me years to shake off – though I still feel a hint of it today.
What/who is/was your “saving grace” in those struggles?
My family and my faith, without a doubt. I wouldn’t have made it out alive without them.
What are some specific fears or struggles you still face?
Now that I have my own children, those fearful thoughts still lurk in the back of my mind. I remember bringing my boys home from the hospital and not sleeping for a week – not because they were awake and crying – but because I found myself constantly checking to make sure they were still breathing. What’s to say that they couldn’t be taken at any given moment? That’s the hard part: they could be. But that’s not my decision to make. All that I can do is love them as well as I can until they go Home – which is, hopefully, long after I’m gone.
How does the season you’re currently in compare to the darker seasons where loss was more difficult to navigate?
It’s night and day, to be honest. I can, without hesitation, tell you that I am genuinely happy. I have a career that I love, a husband that is more than I could have dreamed of, two sons that make me weep with gratitude every day, and those forever, we-are-totally-going-to-rock-the-nursing-home-together type of friends that you wish you had in high school. There was a time that I couldn’t even speak my brother’s name without dissolving into a mess of hot tears and snot. Now, I can speak about him openly and happily and (usually) without ruining my makeup. There are still a few songs that I can’t listen to without crying, but for the most part, he is my happy thought.
What was the most helpful or powerful encouragement you have received during this journey?
No question: the love and guidance of our family friends who had experienced this same loss themselves. We were immediately inducted into a club that no one ever wants to be a part of and whose dues are astronomical. But, at the same time, we gained a support group like no other. They knew to come over right away– not to wait until they were asked. They rushed to our side and comforted us with words that no one else could say, “You will not always feel this way.” “Don’t play the ‘what if’ game.” “Here, eat this bagel. I don’t care; eat it anyway.”
Now, when our community experiences a loss like ours, we always do the same – no matter how gut-wrenching it is. And we always see those same faces who showed up at our door in the middle of the night, because we probably wouldn’t have ever made it this far without them. We’re like the angels of death. It’s awful, but it’s true.
Any particular resources you found helpful?
Poetry, oddly enough. “Death is Nothing At All” by Henry Scott-Holland and “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou were especially meaningful to me.
What do you wish now, a bit down the road, that you had known in those first days?
If I could go back to those first days and tell myself one thing, it’s that I would one day be joyful again. The thought that now, 9 years later, I’d be married with two precious little boys (one of whom is named for my brother, and the other who looks EXACTLY like him) seemed truly impossible in the beginning of those dark days.
What have you learned about yourself from this experience?
I’ve learned so much about myself, but mostly that I am strong and that I can survive anything. Everyone’s biggest fear looks different. Some people are lucky in that they never have to face it. But I know now that facing my own has made me more resilient than I ever thought possible.
What have you learned about your relationships with others from this experience?
People are important. Objects are not. It’s given me a perspective that I don’t think I could have achieved without this experience. If I lose all of my money, and my home, and all of my possessions – would it be hard? Absolutely. But would I survive? Of course. The only loss that matters is that of a person and not a thing.
What would you say to a woman currently experiencing loss who may be feeling hopeless, angry, or lost?
What I want you to know is this: that choking, chest-crushing anvil of pain will slowly lift away. It takes time. So much time. It is a horrible, awful walk through fire. But I promise you this: it will get easier. Somehow, over time, it all becomes bearable and you create a new normal. Life will never be the same – but you won’t always feel the way you do right now. I promise you that. Joy comes in the morning.