The Moment that Becomes the Timestamp of Before and After
Life is never the same after experiencing the call that someone you love has died. Tragically. Unexpectedly.
You now know that you can be anywhere, at any time, and get the news that changes your life in an instant. That is the moment of before and after. The timestamp.
Things get categorized in order. Who you were before. Who you are After.
He died on an early Saturday morning. Friday was my before. Saturday afternoon was my after.
The Woman Before
She took a lot for granted. Time was the top of that list.
She felt safe. Certainty. She felt like she understood the order of things.
She got lost in the busyness of life. Schedules. To Do lists. Baseball games and 1stgrade homework. She enjoyed her career. Work life and fun weekends were a balanced part of life.
She felt a calmness in conflict—there was time to fix it. Time to undue it. Things could wait.
She loved. Freely. Without fear of hurt. Or loss. Although she didn’t know the path there…she knew the destination. She thought she had control. She thought she had a say.
She laughed and flirted and went on long trips to be with her love and had years of unbelievable fun and love.
She loved this man deeply. It was a flawed relationship but it was filled with deep love and respect. She loved the place of being his number one. She thought she was his number one. She thought they would work out the kinks. The problems. The fixing was inevitable and in motion. She didn’t feel urgency. She thought she lived in the moment.
She felt…..time. The fullness of time ahead.
During our best times Chris and I lived a life of dichotomies. Private time in Williamsburg. Doing normal family type things. Dinners and movies and walks. School events and cub scouts with Jack. Then there was the public life. His life on the road and on stage. I’d fly or drive to see him play and be with him. It was exciting and exhausting and loads of fun. Sometimes I brought Jack with me and all sides collided. Our relationship was complicated at times but it was rooted and fueled by love.
That was my life with Chris Before.
The Woman During
I was at a football game. My cell phone was blowing up. Didn’t recognize the numbers. Put it away and enjoyed more of the game. But something nagged at me. An unusual amount of calls on a Saturday. So, I checked again and there were more calls. This time I recognized them. All people connected to him. To Chris. Something had happened. I had that terrible terrible terrible feeling. I remember going frantically to a place where the cheering didn’t drown out the voice on the other side.
Breathlessly, I heard “CW is dead. Juliana. Chris. Is. dead.”
I’ve seen that scene on TV. I had wondered how I would react if I got a call like that…. would I crumble to the floor? Ask lots of questions? Drop the phone? Be calm? It is unreasonable to think you can know or control your reaction. Yet you wonder.
I started running. To my car. I ran and couldn’t remember where I parked. I ran and couldn’t remember how to start my car. I held the phone and didn’t realize I had never hung up.
Trauma is like that. Unpredictable. Sometimes our minds become razor sharp when we go through it recording and cementing minute details…. other times trauma makes things fuzzy and fluid and foggy.
I remember every detail of that call. The turns I was making in the intersection as I raced to get home. To safety. To privacy. To us. Then things go fuzzy while I frantically tried to find his mother’s number. I had been tasked with calling her and giving her the news. I didn’t know what else to do so when I knew I was the one calling her, I focused on that task.
Then it gets crystal clear again. Her fiancé answered. I remember his jovial greeting. Where I was sitting. What I was wearing. When I told him to put her on the phone but to stay by. His hesitation. His attempts to will me against what his instinct told him… that I was about to bring the worst of news. Me… breathing a deep, slow breath right before I told her. Knowing she was about to have her Before and After time stamp. The exact moment her life was uprooted.
By me. By my call. By his death.
I am going to leave out the details of our call for her privacy. That is a sacred time for her to share. For me…. That phone call changed my life too. It was another level of trauma. Hearing her grief. Me transitioning too soon from a person needing consoling to giving sole support. A pivot of grief. But that is what you do. You act and react in the During. You survive. Her pain was the pain of a mother losing her only child. In a wave she lost everything she had and all that she would never experience with him. You put aside your own grief to honor that. But where does my grief go?
I needed to transition to be there for her but I needed to attend to my grief. I had no idea how to balance that. I could barely even stand.
Getting off the phone was another phase. The hurricane phase.
I felt like 20,000 things were hitting me and swirling. Do I start calling people? Do I sit still? What am I going to tell my son? What am I going to do? WHO AM I WITHOUT HIM?
I started going through our last conversation. The phone call I got from him and didn’t take thinking we’d talk after the game. The things left unsaid. When was the last time I saw him? How do we get his drums back from the gig he was to play? The life he had just lost. The future that is now erased.
I bounced from grief for me to grief for him to grief for his family and band mates.
I was both frozen and in constant motion.
I was overcome with an intense need to see him. To be with him. I called the police back and asked the officer if he was alone. What an odd question to pose. So oddly stated too. Alone? She tactfully answered he wasn’t, he was in the morgue. And preemptively said I couldn’t go see him. I asked if I could sit with him anyway. I’m not sure why. I just needed to be there. The answer was no, I couldn’t do it. I snapped to reality and realized that to be true. Of course, I can’t. I just wanted to hold his hand. To see him. What was so important about seeing him??
I hung up and sat. Now what? What do I do? What has happened? How is the sun shining? How do I look at my son when he comes home in an hour? What is life on the other side of Chris dying? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN??? Why? What happens now? What do I do in a life without him?
Then the wailing hit. The kind you hear about. See on movies. Guttural. Primal. Desperate. I wanted to scream and cry and howl and yell. I held myself and rocked back and forth and I paced. A lot. In circles.
I can’t be alone. I have to get it together. I started the calls. To my sister. To my parents. To my best friend Amanda. To my friends who knew him. Knew us. Loved us. Loved me. I needed people to know.
My focus went into hyperdrive….I went from one thing to the next. Rapidly and without follow through. A scan. I was hosting a Halloween party for my son at my house the next day. It wasn’t ready. How was I going to pull that off? I needed to finish the dishes. I needed to call his mother back. I needed to change clothes. I needed …what did I need? I needed this not to be happening.
How does the day start off happily with sun and football cheers and end with wells of grief and a world of gray? Before. After.
I didn’t ask anyone to come be with me. But I badly needed someone to take charge and take care of me. My best friend got in the car and drove to me. She didn’t ask. She drove. She cried with me. Sobbed with me. Wouldn’t let me be alone. We paced together and walked around in the grief hurricane. Not knowing what to do.
So, we decorated the Evil Science Lab for the party. Numb.
God bless the ones who don’t ask and just do. In the During.
I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t take her advice. She tried. She was right but I was incapable. She hugged me and gave me the look only a long-term dear friend can give you that means everything in one glance. That look said “This is unimaginable. This is the worst. I am here. We will get through this together. You will be okay.” She went to sleep and I went to the far side of the house and sat. Crying. Wailing for him again.
Back then Facebook didn’t exist and their band’s fan club had a site. Don’t remember the domain. Theories of his death were popping up. News and rumors were spreading fast. And so were stories of people, fans, strangers, having stories of Chris ‘visiting them ‘on his journey from here to there. His spirit. Some said the experience was like a light globe and they knew it was him. Others said he visited them in dreams. Some heard his voice.
It pissed me off. All of it. Every damn message.
I wanted them to stop. But I couldn’t. Chris wasn’t just mine. He touched so many people’s lives. And they were feeling through their journeys too. I talked with bandmates/brothers and we tried to figure out what in the world we were going to do and how this was actually real.
I started begging Chris to ‘come visit’ me. For his spirit to give me comfort. For us to have one last moment even if in the spirit world. I was pissed the strangers were writing it. Pissed it may be true. Pissed he wasn’t coming to me. Pissed he was dead. Pissed that we had had a very distinct conversation a few months previously after watching a T.V. show about life after death and we jokingly promised each other if there was life after death that we’d give each other a sign. Visit. Before anyone else. I said out loud that he better know it wasn’t really a joke if it ever became real.
Now it was real.
Such a dumb, innocent, playful promise.
Yet I held to it. Desperately.
I yelled to his spirit. He better not break his word. I needed to hear from him. I needed to know what happened. I needed to know he was with me still.
But really, I needed this not to be happening.
I called another friend. He didn’t know Chris well but he knew me. It was past midnight. We talked for three hours. No idea really what about. From two states away he listened as I rapid cycled from disbelief to sadness to anger to overwhelm to nostalgia. He mostly listened. He said some lovely things but I don’t remember what exactly. I don’t know how we got off the phone but I remember I was in my son’s bedroom and the frogs were croaking loudly and all I wanted to do was call Chris and say this terrible, terrible thing happened today and I need you.
The next day I did the party. I don’t know how. My best friend and her guy and my other dear friend and my ex-husband and his girlfriend pulled together and carried it. I walked through it. Barely. Funny though, you would never know in the pictures. Never know the grief pummeling me. Because in the During you survive.
I sat my son down after the party and told him. His innocent eyes and then tears destroyed me. He wanted to know how, why and where he was. He was quiet. He wanted a hug. It’s a hard thing to find words that a 7-year-old can comprehend. Especially when a 35-year-old can’t. This was his before and after moment. He went to sleep that night with Chris’ drumsticks. I went to sleep nauseous. I barely slept. The During Woman was a survivor but she was barely holding on.
I took Jack to school. I called my boss and took the days off. I asked my ex to take a few days to be with him. I needed no responsibilities beyond caring for his mom and helping with the funeral. I had taken myself out of most conversations and quickly learned how to return all focus on others. I couldn’t bare to be silent with me.
At some moment before I was to go see his mother to go through funeral details, I remembered he had sent an email the day before he died. I frantically went to my computer and then took a breath. It would be the last time, the last thing I heard from him.
It was a paragraph of love and reconciliation and then a song. I remember being surprised he could send a song through email. I downloaded it onto a CD and got in my car. I waited until I got to my favorite part on the parkway and parked my car overlooking the water and pressed play.
“I’d walk halfway around the world just to sit down by your side. And I would do most anything girl to be the apple of your eye.”
I felt destroyed.
What if I had opened it that day? What if I had taken his call? Would it have changed the order of his evening and not set his death in motion? Would we have talked all night instead of him going out? Would he have done anything just different enough so that the end result wouldn’t be this? Bargaining and irrational thoughts abounded.
Why did hearing this song feel so awful instead of incredible and a blessing? I wasn’t ready to hear the love message left for me. I was drowning in grief. Was this my sign? What DO I DO WITH THIS? I listened to it over and over and cried and sang it with him and thanked him and cursed him. Cursed that he wasn’t here and now I am doing all of this without him. How could he leave?
In the coming days I focused on helping his mother. Getting the logistics squared away. Taking care of what I could as I knew he would want. Tried to know what he wanted. There were a lot of things swirling around his death and our relationship was in a weird place but that is how things had been for a while and I was at peace with that because we had time. Time to figure it out and say the things that needed to be said. This would hit me in between picking the right picture for the memorial and moving his Jeep out of the way. What had happened to our time? What were Chris’ last thoughts? Where was our love in his last moments? Then back to arranging payments and making sure the right people knew when the funeral was because so many touring musicians and friends from all of his touring wanted to travel in for it.
Planning a funeral is hard. Planning it unexpectedly without having the conversation of what is wanted is awful when you are bobbing and weaving waves of grief. You care about every detail and you care about none of it.
I’m going to skip most of the details of the funeral. Again. Sacred stories and for us all to have experienced privately.
My part to share is this…I stood up last. I read from the pages I wrote the night before. I didn’t know if I should talk at all or first or last but his mother asked me to end the eulogies. I tried to say everything I knew about how Chris loved the people in the room, what he wanted in his life and what made him so special. Even though I wanted to keep him all to myself, I wanted my last words to be a sharing of him. We all loved him. We all had our journey with him.
My voice cracked. My hands shook. I felt like my words were never going to be right. I would look up to see the packed room and catch friends’ eyes and see their grief and it would throw me. I searched the room at one point to find my best friend. She is very irreverent and in the sea of grief, she was my steady hand. She smiled at me, nodded her head as if to say “It is time to do this, you can do this, I am here.” And then rolled her eyes and gestured to make me laugh. Another friend was there and her face was one of the others I zeroed in on. It felt like she was holding my hand up there. The last face I remember was one of his bandmates. His head was tilted and his attentiveness to my words felt like compassion flew out of him in sunbeams. It felt like Chris was there, through him.
The woman who walked up in front of those gathered that day in October was not the woman who sat down. In that moment she became The Woman After. I didn’t know how to verbalize it but I knew. I had changed. Forever.
I was also terrified of the change. The transition to After. There felt some safety in the During part of funeral arrangements. Distractions. Things to do and say.
The funeral ended. Details are blurry. I don’t remember how we said goodbye to each other, if I drove, what I wore. I remember we placed roses on his casket and my son climbed a tree. It was the end of October but it was so hot. We loitered around his burial site. It was hard to leave him. All the evidence that this was real was culminating then. We were saying goodbye.
The Woman After.
Beyond the obviousness of the loss of my love, there was something I never knew happens with death. You begin to fear a call. You wonder if you can enjoy anything fully again without wondering if something tragic will happen. That ache may mean a terrible diagnosis. That gloomy period of your loved one may be a lot more serious than teenage moodiness. Nothing feels innocent anymore.
Nothing feels off limits. A hypervigilance of sorts arises. Flares. It is hard to manage at first. Hard to articulate. The fear. The fear something bad could happen because now you know it can. You don’t feel immune because you’ve had your ‘bad thing’, you feel more vulnerable.
Soon after I went back to work. Way too soon. I thought it was strong of me to go back soon. It was not wise of me, however. I wasn’t ready to start counseling others again. But I did it. I gave talks and sat with other’s problems and I had dinners and went to cub scout meetings. A lot of that time is foggy. But I did it. I put one foot in front of the other. I missed him and I bounced from total isolation to desperately wanting to connect. Somehow. The firsts happened. Without him. I learned things about him and needed to process it all without his input. I learned things about me and didn’t have him to share it with. I grieved the unsaid things. I grieved the dreams he didn’t get to achieve.
I missed him.
But I moved on. Moved through. Reluctantly. With instinct.
What is The Work that people talk about in grief? The work after death? The work to grieve and heal and grow and ‘live a happy life like he would want’? The work is full of questions and having no answers and shifts and empowerment and setbacks and isolation and gatherings. It is late night conversations and unexpected closeness with unexpected people. It is being let down by some people and losing patience in the stupid parts of life. It is about acceptance and surrender and joy and celebration. It is about being lifted and enlightened and changed.
It is a recalibration.
The Work is full of questions that you ask and that are asked of you. When is your heart ready to love again? When is it time to stop reading and rereading his letters, his emails, his love songs? What would he want? What do we do with this shirt? This drum set? Who am I without him? How are you doing?
I did The Work but I also did a lot of avoiding the grief. I did a lot of avoiding the anger part of my grief. It didn’t seem helpful or classy or what a ‘good griever’ does. I lost my bearing on who I was to Chris. I, at times, needed very much to feel like I meant the world to him and other times I accepted that so many loved him and he loved many. I wanted all the recordings and pictures and I wanted to never ever forget his laugh. I wanted a lot of things I couldn’t ever have again.
The year came and went. It was slow and fast and there were beautiful moments that did feel like signs from him. Some of his bandmates really stepped up and cared for me and Jack. Friends and family who showed up in incredible ways. There were gifts in the grief. The band wrote a gorgeous song inspired by conversations I had with one of the songwriters and it captured much of my grief. My loss. They wrote another amazing and heart wrenching song about the last time they saw him and played with him and their grief. Art heals. Creative outlets are powerful for grief. Art was part of The Work.
I thought I was acing doing ‘the work’. I thought I had self-reflected and given myself time. But how do you really know? You do what you have to in order to survive. You do what you think helps make others feel better about not feeling the burden of your grief. You move forward imperfectly.
Some days I felt empowered and in charge of my next chapter and other times I felt like a total mess. Lost. I thought I had really moved forward well and then cut my finger and had to have nerve repair surgery. Apparently in drug twilight I sobbed about losing him through the whole surgery. The doctor patted my shoulder when I came to from the anesthetic and said I had told him what happened, that Chris sounded wonderful and he was very sorry. No memory. Back to The Work I went.
I wrote a lot. I talked a lot. I stayed in silence a lot. I sought God and I sought connection.
I dated. At times too much. And then not at all. I felt like I was cheating on Chris. I felt angry it wasn’t Chris. Everyone had opinions. And told me. I did thoughtful things for his mother and I visited his grave a lot and I tried to keep in touch with his friends and bandmates but I quickly felt like I was the ghost who walked in the room. The reminder of Chris’ death. I knew they needed space from that feeling and me so I let those times go too. Which made me miss him. The life with him.
The Woman After lost some innocence but also gained a depth of compassion this is hard to describe. The Woman After wanted to live life for him and then realized I needed to live it for me. I dove into work. I eventually married. I learned to go to football games and not dread a ‘any moment things could change’ call.
His birthday, which is in a few days, reminds me. His death date, which is in a month, reminds me. Every time I see the band name or band mates, it reminds me. When I heard their song randomly playing at the grocery store playlist, I was thrown to him. Every time I see something extraordinary my son does or a dumb teenage thing he pulls, I think of him. Chris’ love for him. I hear him in drumbeats and iPhones he never got to see or movies he would have loved. I see him in so many parts of my life.
I am many years into life after his death. Over a decade. The Woman After has experienced a lot of amazing joys and some horrific things as well. I had two experiences where I ‘felt him’. He made good on his promise. They are gifts and are a mystery but they feel long ago. He feels distant from me. I feel like such a different woman now. Some of that change is really good. Some of this isn’t.
I feel like he and I have a peaceful relationship. A calm love. A settled conversation.
I don’t share this story very often. Not in my new life, new chapter, new friends. Eventually it comes out but the story is shortened to a few sentences. The Woman After needs some of it to stay sacred and private. There are some in my life who probably think I talk about it too much or wonder why he still comes up after all these years. I still fight comparing others to him. I still fight remembering the problems alongside the beauty of him and us.
There is no rule book or How To in the Life After. You just do it.
You try. You want. You make efforts. You try to learn the new you. You try to set new rules. You try and you try and you stop trying and you try again.
The unmistakable truth is that you are different. The Work is in making that matter.
I am different. The intensity comes and goes but I do feel the truth of mortality and when things are crushing me, I try to remember my gratefulness for being alive. I am different and those differences matter. So are the things about me that stayed intact or grew. They matter too.
The Woman After has more fear than Before. I worry more about my kids dying tragically and still feel some unsteadiness in situations, in relationships. I thought that would be ‘done’ by now but it isn’t. The Woman After struggles with certainty. Needing it. Feels relief within it. But certainty is almost always visited by ‘but you never know’, ‘the other shoe’. Naysaying. I thought that would be gone too by now but it isn’t.
All of that is okay. The not done yets and the beautiful growth. Grief is messy and imperfect and beautiful.
We all have our losses and growth in our After. Some of my details may be remembered wrong and my perspective may be different than others. Trauma and grief does that. Softens things. Protects. Details can sway. All of that is okay too. The Woman After knows that. She didn’t Before.
I’d love to talk with him. I’d love to laugh with him. I’d love for him to pull a prank on me or drive me nuts with his unending drumming. I’d love to see him on stage again. I’d love to see him play drums with his essence pouring out of him. I’d love to share that exquisite moment when he would shift from being so incredibly present with his bandmates and the music then he would lock eyes with me and he’d share it with me. The synergy of their connection then on to ours. I’d love to experience the moment when he’d wipe off the sweat backstage and grab my hands and tell me seeing my glasses reflect the stage lights knowing I was watching him, being there with him, made his life complete.
I’d love to sit with him and talk about the end. His end. Our end. I’d love to thank him for the way he loved me. Saw me. To thank him for how he loved my son.
I’d love to change that night for him. For all of us.
Grief does that. It highlights the woulda, coulda, shouldas. The what ifs and if onlys and if I coulds. I believe that is part of The Work too. You meet those needs other ways or let the needs be unmet. The Woman After always feels the presence of him and the weight of grief but moves forward and moves on because that is the choice to make.
I am a different woman because of being loved by him and loving him and I am a changed woman because of his death.
Chris was a part of my love journey, my life journey and he is an integral part of the Woman Before, The Woman During and The Woman After.