This was a really, really hard one to write.
Jon was one of my best friends for nearly my entire college career. We began our friendship drinking Burnett's in a dorm room playing Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, bonding over music videos, and ditching the party crowd of freshman year to go do our own thing - our small group was pretty reckless, but a whole lot of fun. Once I knew he and that group were going to be long-term friends for me, we made traditions of finding the weirdest places on campus to smoke weed, learning to skateboard in the bus lot at 2 a.m., taking midnight walks in the park and sharing nearly every dining hall meal together. When that first year ended, he wrote me the sweetest goodbye note that I still have in a backpack somewhere. It felt so good to know I had the sort of friend who I could count on being a part of my life forever, no matter if we'd stayed in touch.
We kept this up well into junior year, branching out to new people and places, moving into houses and apartments, further away and deeper into our schooling, but still making time to skate, smoke, drink, see shows, and play games. I made it out when I could, but my mental health was taking a toll. It became increasingly difficult to leave the apartment. I buried my head in my homework and said no to most of his invitations - it was all I could do to get through to my degree, at some points. Sadly, by the end of senior year I barely saw Jon. I missed out on a lot of house shows and camping trips that I now look back on with pangs of regret.
The last time I saw or heard from him was the night before graduation, in May of 2019. He didn't have social media and we were never much for texting one another, so catching up didn't seem very likely anytime soon. We had both begun to form separate friend groups and were moving back home to opposite ends of the state. I had always assumed that one of our mutual friends would get us together for a trip or a festival sometime in the future, whenever the time was right.
Fast-forward to April of this year. I got a call from that mutual friend just as I was entering the New York Aquarium with a ton of new people, all packed together for a birthday celebration.
Jon had taken his life the night before.
We talked briefly of a service being held soon for him, and I ensured my friend that I would try to make it down. I didn't know what else to say, other than "I love you" and "I'm sorry." I didn't cry, at least not right then and there. I carried on through the rest of the day and the weekend away from home, then took a few days off work to process. I had never met Jon's family. I had never felt I had a reason to go visit him. I didn't know why. I didn't know anything.
As the news spread to other friends and his family began sharing images and memories online, it became incredibly daunting to imagine going to his service amongst mostly strangers. I wondered if his family would wonder who I was, who my reckless college friends were, and what we were doing at his funeral when we had hardly been around in the years leading up to his death. I wondered if they would blame us. I wondered if I could retain my composure, talk to any of his family, or anyone for that matter.
In short, I was terrified. On the four-hour drive down to the service, I probably reapplied deodorant three times. I knew I had to do this, but a large part of me really, really didn't want to. I didn't want to talk about suicide. I didn't want this to be the only reason I'd be seeing my college friends for the first time in years. I didn't want to see his family in the midst of their deepest pain without knowing a thing about them. Most of all, I didn't want to stand surrounded by a hundred other people asking why this had to happen, or collectively beating ourselves up over what we could have done.
Thankfully, it wasn't like that at all. It was the exact opposite, in fact.
Saturday, May 6th was the first sunny day in over a week. The temperature was perfect. I travelled down I-81 with my windows down for most of the ride, and when I arrived at the funeral, instead of a sprawling cemetery I found a gorgeous forest with only a small gathering room at the front of the property. Nearly a hundred people dressed in tie-dye lined the driveway, laughing and drinking beer. For a moment it felt strange - like, you all know why we're here, right? But soon we crowded into that little room and a few of Jon's friends from camp got out their guitars and a drum. They sang "Riptide" and "Imagine" and the rest of us sang and cried together. We then walked down a dirt pathway into the forest and gathered along a narrow stretch of a hill where Jon's burial began. But this wasn't your typical cemetery burial. Instead, we dug out a small hole for a young dogwood tree. Each person took a few moments to help fill in the hole with dirt as the guitars and drums continued, then we lined ourselves along the hill and stood in solemnity, waiting for something else to happen.
I expected a pamphlet with songs and prayers. I expected someone to stand in the middle with a microphone and begin a sermon. Instead, Jon's stepfather began chuckling amid the silence as he pulled a large baggie out of a backpack. He said, "Jon was getting really good at this. I thought we should share the wealth." He opened a few jars of weed and pre-rolled joints, asking all the "hippies" to come down and grab one. Soon enough, nearly everyone stood around the dogwood tree with joints tucked behind their ears. After that, his mom asked for us to tell stories. Though they started off slow - I think many of us were unsure what would be an appropriate thing to say, or who should say it - eventually the tales of long hikes at camp, stopping to observe bugs and trees, his infamous corny jokes, drunken car rides and endless jam sessions began to flow freely. I shared the nights he taught me how to skate. We stayed in the forest for nearly an hour and a half before heading back up the hill to dinner.
So much more happened in that time and in the hours to follow. I remember leaving the next day in the early afternoon, not filled with sorrow as I had expected, but with a lightness and appreciation I could never have expected from a funeral service. As strange as it is to say, it was one of the best, most transformative weekends of my life. I left with so much love and wisdom strung up in the ether all around me; I recalled lessons that we should hang onto for life, but that are also so easily forgotten, swept up in the monotony of our every day.
Here, in this space, I want to share with you those most potent takeaways. I believe that if we can keep these reminders close to our souls as we trudge through the mundane, we may be able to make this life much more special. Celebratory, even. Hopefully with this conversation, it won't take the death of a dear friend to help you find these reminders again.
1. Not everyone will feel or act the same as you. Embrace it.
As loved ones weaved in and out of the day's events, a full spectrum of experiences with Jon were expressed. With quite literally all the circles in his life converging, we were bound to witness different feelings and memories together. Getting the college group back together was beautiful - we couldn't seem to stop reminiscing about our late night house shows and porch hangouts, drug-fueled ventures into town, the messiness of our houses and early 20's, all of it. It brought about a ton of giggles and a ton of great feelings, which absolutely felt strange at such an event. I clung to one girl who I was convinced I would never see again after school, and catching up with her was a genuine joy amongst the pain. This was our energy for much of dinner. It struck me that perhaps we were being a bit too cheery and silly. As I looked around at our other friends throughout the day, some isolated, some tried to engage but were visibly hurting, some couldn't stop crying. Some, like Katie and I, kept themselves focused on the happiest memories. It was a full range.
Maybe I haven't been to enough funerals to grasp this concept, but of all the ones I'd been to before, it felt as though joy wasn't allowed. Either you grieved, or you were quiet. It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, I believe it shouldn't be this way. In times of deep pain and sorrow, we need joy - just as when we're on top of the world, we need to remain humble. It's all a balance, and I don't see how life can grant one their fullest depth of emotion, experience and wisdom without practicing this. In all moments of life, just as in this moment during a funeral, notice the natural balances that surround you. As you ruminate in happy memories, offer the deepest, most heartfelt embrace to the friend succumbed by grief. It's that simple. Allow it all to soak in. All of it is beautiful and necessary.
2. Stay open.
As I mentioned, I didn't know Jon's family at all. I didn't even have a preconception of what they would be like. Upon arrival, though, I could immediately pick his father out from the crowd, with the same stoic face and long hair (turned white), the same lanky stance and calm demeanor. I choked up every time his brother spoke, for they had the exact same voice. With their guidance, everyone - parents and step-parents, cousins and camp family, college friends, exes and high school alum - banded together around this little tree in a way that, for a moment, made it feel as if we were all part of the same lineage. These people were so welcoming and open without having to say a word to me. Perhaps not even a word at all. Had I not noticed this, I might have kept myself isolated. Instead, I held his father's hand in a prayer circle and hugged his mom as she wept at the end of dinner. No words were needed. With acceptance at the forefront of grief, we became a new family.
Had I not been open to the emotions emanating in the wind that day, the depth of wisdom would never have found its way to me. Meeting new people, showing emotion, sharing stories and laughs and hugs made for a much deeper connection to those around me, even after the weekend was over. Without allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and without shame, we may be missing out on so much of our own lives. Leave the door open, and some kind of treasure may find its way in.
3. Go out of your way.
On a Facebook post announcing Jon's death, tons of people left images and memories and heartfelt messages in the comments. One caught my eye - a woman who announced that she would open up her home to anyone travelling for the service. She said the beds were full, but she had plenty of land for a bonfire, more music, and camping to occur. I knew my friends were planning on finding an Airbnb nearby, but I sent them her message and suggested it as a potentially good plan (plus, free).
What I didn't know is that behind the scenes, she and my friend planned an entire brunch for anyone who planned to camp out and stay the night. They made quiches, pancakes, berry compote, salsa, bacon, and went through endless enormous pots of coffee. While they prepped in the morning, I tried to offer help without being that extra body in the room no one needed. They invited me in with open arms as they sweated and moved around one another to bring this feast together. Yet again, I found myself making real, deep connections with people I hadn't met or heard of the day before. This woman felt like a mother, and she made sure we knew we were welcome back forever, anytime, no questions asked. Sure, camping at her house was free, but by the time I started the trek home, that wasn't even on the list of things I was grateful for.
With the power of a few plans, a few extra steps, and putting yourself in the position to offer help, pure magic ensues.
4. It's not about you.
In the week leading up to the funeral, my mind went where most people's do, I think, after a suicide: What could I have done? What if we had stayed in touch? What if I had tried harder? Would things be different?
Though I knew the answers on some level, I couldn't stop focusing on MY ties to all of this - what I knew and didn't know, what I could never know no matter how much time I spent thinking about it. I felt the need to tell my students what was going on and why I might be grumpier and more distant than usual. I felt my brain fogging, the inability to make decisions or put much effort into anything. I was really wrapped up in my own experience. It was only when the service began on that bright, beautiful day, that the clouds in my mind lifted and I could see the bigger picture. As morose as it may sound, I needed to see that there were so many other people involved in his life and that my individual experience and feelings really didn't matter much at all, aside from contributing to the larger landscape.
So much of our own lives and circumstances, inner and outer, are really not about us. At the very least, they don't begin with us. Developmental psychologists have always pointed out that babies and young children have an incredibly egocentric view of the world - that they are, in fact, incapable of seeing the world as revolving around anything other than themselves. I would venture to say that adults struggle with this as well. The more time we spend alone, as we separate and dissipate and rely on social media to do the work for us , the worse this outlook becomes. But if we allow ourselves that connection with other humans, it becomes so clear how much we need each other and how little of this life is meant to be lived or thought through alone. We have each other! That is the beauty of realizing almost nothing is really "about you."
5. Remember the good times.
I had never been to a funeral where sharing stories was a feature of the service. In all of my previous experiences, we were handed church pamphlets with a run-down of the speakers, songs and prayers that would take place. There was a clear timeframe, then we would head outside to the cemetery, bury the casket and stand in silence until someone announced a lunch. This is all I had known and all I could expect. So when Jon's mom asked us to relive a few memories, I hadn't expected to lose all sense of time. There were so many overlaps between friend groups, and everyone was so unafraid to share their stories where everyone in the room was inebriated and out of control. To some it may seem strange or inappropriate, but to me, it was honest.
I had always heard the term "celebration of life," but truly didn't know what anyone was talking about when they said it. Funerals were solemn and quiet. Frankly, they were boring. But gathered here around the little dogwood tree, I finally understood what that meant. Everyone in the forest had gone from tears and pain and agony, to laughter and hugs and smiles within minutes. It changed the entire atmosphere. Remembering Jon for the joy he brought to all of our lives made the reality of death a bit more bearable. Remembering him as we all knew him - goofy, blundering, intelligent, curious, and damn good at skating and guitar and identifying plants and bugs - gave life back into the day a hundred-fold.
This was also nothing short of magic.
6. Accept the present.
The memories we all had of our friend made his suicide a complete shock to everyone around. It wasn't mentioned during the day, thankfully, but I know it was still on everyone's mind. No one knew Jon was struggling, not even the people he lived with. To my knowledge, he wasn't going to therapy or asking for help in any sort of way. Upon meeting his family and friends from camp and high school and all corners of his life, I knew that this group of beautiful people would have moved mountains to keep him alive and find him the right help, but there's so little anyone can do without knowledge or warning. Of course, this is one of the hardest parts of the aftermath of suicide. Anyone who has experienced it knows the desperation.
It had me wishing we could have known, so we could have celebrated him in this way before he took his life. It had me wondering, again, how he might still be here if any one little thing from the past had been different. If he had heard just a few more I love you's. But just as we couldn't have known about his struggle, we cannot go back to do our own part. The best thing we can do in situations like this is learn from it. Allow it to rock your world. Allow the pain to hit you, and if part of that process is realizing you need to be a better friend, do it. If you need to check in more often, do it. If you need to ask for help for yourself, for God's sake, please do it.
We can't change the past, but we can make a change in this moment, right now.
7. Say "I love you." Say it all the time.
The change I've decided I need to make, though I already make an effort to do this, is up my I love you quota. But deeper than that, it's to make time to respond to messages from people I forgot about or got "too busy" to respond to. It's asking intentionally if someone needs advice, a welcoming ear, or open arms. It's taking others seriously when they say they need help, or that their feelings were hurt, or that they're not being heard or seen. I started this blog, podcast and community to foster meaningful relationships, but now more than ever, I need to hold fast to a promise that I will do so in integrity.
These words may not stop a person from their decision, and it wouldn't be your fault if they don't. Know that. But also know that these words can make a day brighter. They may make someone feel visible again. Maybe, after all, it will save them.
When the stories were shared, when people fumbled over their words, when there were different reactions, when some guests didn't have the words at all, it was critical all the same to listen and connect with them. Giving each person the space to love and remember our friend made for, as I've said, the most meaningful experience many of us had ever experienced. Weaving together alchemized the sorrow into something beautiful.
When we can practice radical listening alongside radical empathy in other areas of life, the entire world opens up. We feel ourselves expand beyond what we ever could have imagined our limits were. If you are able to give someone the space to speak and share, even if you oppose them or have little in common, you have still opened yourself up to a new perspective. When we can practice this ability on the regular, that is, opening - we naturally become more open-minded (it's in the name!). It's a never-ending cycle in the best possible way. More doors, more connections, more love and acceptance flows to and through us. All we have to do is stand there and make a conscious choice.
9. Listen deeper.
I mentioned my friend Katie earlier - the one with whom I spent much of the time after the storytelling and at dinner laughing with, basking in the warm sun with, sharing joy with. Through the golden reunion of our conversation, though, one moment stopped me in my tracks. As we were gathering some friends to smoke one of Jon's joints together, she placed her hand on my hand and said, "I just feel like we're missing someone - like I keep waiting for him."
I held her hand there as we cried together for a moment. It was true. His energy was still so profound in the atmosphere; I had been experiencing the same sensation all day. Though not everyone may believe it, I chose to embrace that he really was there with us. He was in everything around us.
Little moments like that caught me throughout the day: I cried to myself entering the forest he was buried in, as the smell of the woods reminded me of him and all his favorite places. He was there. As the last shovel of dirt fell over the tree, I looked down and noticed a baby grasshopper jump off my arm. It was him, reborn. His favorite song, "In An Aeroplane Over the Sea" came on as everyone tidied up to close dinner. He put it on. He was the full moon that night and the little bird who camped out next to our tents. He planted all the buttercups in the field and asked them to rise brightly in the morning. In all of these little moments, he could be found somewhere. Listening for his voice in new ways, feeling his lanky hugs through new sensations, is all part of the process for me.
Maybe you don't believe these things, and that's okay. But it brings me comfort to look for him (and my other loved ones who have passed) in remnants and reminders of them. Humor me sometime - try it. It might bring the smallest sense of peace when you miss them most. Listen for what the unknown wants you to know. It's out there.
10. Take it all with you.
I think it goes without saying at this point that I left that weekend feeling more spiritually recharged than anything else had ever left me. No pain has ever been deeper, no lessons more potent or immediate. As I drove myself home, they came over me like cosmic messages from Jon himself. Though I so often wish to receive these messages of guidance freely, it's a rarity. This is why it felt so incredibly special to sit with them, sift through them, and write them all down. I share them with you now, because I truly believe my life has changed for the better, and forever, because of them.
How will I carry these lessons with me in the rest of my life? How will I carry his legacy of gentleness, intelligence, depth and curiosity?
Days before the funeral, I journaled and meditated. I sent out a message of love, hoping that he at least knew that he was loved before he passed. Jon, I hope you knew you were loved.
(Reader, I hope you know you are loved, too.)
I asked if he would be a guide for me. I asked if he could help me remember.
At the service, I got to bring home a rock from his collection; I chose a gorgeous, rounded green crystal that reminded me of my favorite piece of jade. I cried as I held it for the first time, and again as I placed it on my altar. There, the magic happens. He may be laughing down on me for thinking so, but at least I can feel him. I can thank him for helping me gain back these little pieces of my soul I hope to never, ever forget again.
Most of all, I can thank him every day for being such a gentle friend, even after he's gone.