Disclaimer – this post will be personal, it won’t be chipper or filled with pictures and I will cuss… because some feelings deserve expletives.
With holidays looming those who have felt loss know that this time of year is a big shit storm of emotion and trying to navigate it can be daunting. Some unlucky few also know that things as joyful as wedding planning or being a photographer at times can also be super daunting when you’ve lost someone. As I meet more people who have been through it, going through, may soon go through it we immediately relate and our hearts connect. And I know there’s so many people in the world who may be in this boat and have no one to talk to or relate to, so I’m digging in to share what I’ve felt and what I’ve learned…
I’ll start with some backstory. Before the age of 30 I lost both my parents. My dad went suddenly via heart attack. My mother went gradually of uterine cancer. We were once a perfect family, our four person unit was as thick as thieves filled with bad scifi movies, spaghetti nights and beach days. And then one day out of nowhere we were all screaming inside rooms of broken hearts.
So what do you do…
As a Human: To survive the death of someone nearest to you takes an inordinate amount of strength. And I wont sugar coat here, for a time, it will rip your soul apart. It can feel like you’re a tendon that someone has cut and there’s just a few fibers barely connected to your surroundings anymore. You cry deep wallowing chest crushing tears and you get fiercely angry (this was a big surprise to me). Well intentioned things like “I’m so sorry” can make you want to punch a wall, because those words feel meaningless, an apology just doesn’t fit here. Or when you hear someone say phrases like “you’ll never believe the day I’m having” in relation to something like a flat tire or a food order gone array. Those people are now assholes for not realizing what a bad day actually looks like. Even smaller things you’ve never noticed before can elicit an emotion. You wont believe how many family deaths there are in movies, or how many radio ads are geared towards fathers/mothers/husbands or wives. And they’ll all make you feel something unintended now. Four years after my dad passed I still scream at father’s day advertisements.
There’s times where you start to see the world differently, maybe slightly, maybe drastically. And you can get lost in the new view to the point that you’re not sure which thought process is the more logical route.
For me personally, I freaked out. Both my parents died before 60, that means I could be halfway dead. I started new business ideas, I plotted a course for massive travel and I started donating more time to charity. I also barely slept and started being a real dick to those near me who weren’t adopting this new world view. Why are you sitting on the couch relaxing like a normal human being, what are you crazy?!?!
But what I’ve learned and am still learning is that to make it through the mental roller coaster and survive death you need others. The fibers that connect you back to your surrounding are your family and friends. You’ll learn quickly who the amazing people are that are more than willing to go through some rough seas with you, maybe punch a few sharks just so you both can be back in a mental sunshine together. You’ll also (unfortunately) learn quickly who will let you down… who forgets to call or who doesn’t have time to hear about your sadness. At the time that’s going to feel like a knife in the back but trust me, it’s a blessing, like clearing out your FB friends list during an election year – you won’t miss them. Your mind will feel like barbed wire, but the good people… the mental sunshine people, let them in and they’ll make that stuff feel like yarn a cute wee kitten is batting around.
As a Photographer: As a professional event photographer we don’t get reschedules, sick days or personal time. So you get two options when it comes to shooting… power through or find a replacement you. I’m a power through kinda gal. Three days after my father died I had a 2 day back to back shoot for the AKC. I debated going… my eyes were practically welled shut from tears, how could I make it through full days of looking through a camera, let alone talking to people? I enlisted my best friend to assist me (aka mental sunshine) and figured worse comes to worse I can fall back on her to shoot and I’ll direct from a corner with a box of tissues and a gallon of chocolate ice cream. But what ended up happening is a learning experience. Turns out that while going through trauma, distractions are straight up mental gold! The moment I hit the set I was only thinking about my shot list, lighting set up, and which squeaky toy to use. We were super swamped with dogs so I actually ended up with two full days of total focus on something other than my life which was AWESOME! Plus I got to play with dogs, talk about therapy.
Unfortunately I can’t say this works the same for editing. Being in an office by yourself staring at a computer screen and hoping it’ll distract you always seemed to have the opposite effect. You can either warn your clients it might take longer than expected and push through slowly, which was my route and I was blessed with incredible and understanding clients or outsource your editing and give yourself a breather.
Then there’s photographing a wedding. The day after my mom passed I had an engagement session and the week after I had one of the biggest weddings of my year (a local news celeb). Most of it was still glorious artistic happy mental distraction. Weddings are go go go, which is a great scenario to keep emotions from creeping in. There are portions of a wedding day though that are dangerous land mines you’ve gotta be ready for. A father walking his daughter sweetly down the aisle can make you want to curl into a ball. A first dance with mom or dad can make you cry uncontrollably. Even if a couple hasn’t hired one I highly advise hiring a second shooter for those first few weddings so if you do lose it, you can do so without stressing that moments will be missed. The first wedding after either parent, I cried behind my camera. I longed for them and got jealous of the moments and photos the couple have. But it also became a very beneficial learning experience. I started paying much more attention to family, taking more photos of them and realizing to the full extent how important they are. I still wish I had some professional photos of my dad as an adult but I was able to snag some of mom which I’ll forever cherish. These days there’s no jealousy and on the rare occasion of an incredible dad speech or a super sweet mom moment I still cry a little but in a happy way, because I’m honored to capture the love of a family.
As a Bride: This was both the hardest and easiest part of dealing with loss and that still makes me feel pretty bizarre really. So the hardest part was indeed the lead up. I wanted my dad alive, I wanted that father daughter dance I know he would have cried during, I wanted to see what he’d look like in a fitted suit, I wanted the kiss on the cheek he always gave me and I wanted my mom not to be sad. All of those things I wasn’t going to get and it tore me up during the planning process. I wished for an elopement almost every day and we did actually change our wedding from a huge thing to a 15 person destination in large part because I couldn’t handle my dad not being there. But also because I wanted days of memories, not hours, with those closest to me I had left. And that totally paid off by the way so if you’re not destination-ing I highly recommend planning a small thing for your closest folks near wedding day, a morning after brunch or a bar-b-que two days before. I stressed about having people ask off more work or spend more money here and there but 2 years later I can’t recall the exact dollar amount we spent but I often look back at our memories and know it was so worth it. The best news though and what surprised the shit out of me (and still does) is the weekend of our wedding was easy. Maybe it’s just going back to that distraction thing, the million moving parts of a wedding. But more than likely it’s that you’re surrounded by love and happiness from every angle. Even the moments I feared break down the most, like the father daughter dance were replaced with the joy of dancing with my little brother… who by the way mocked my song choice, thanks bro. It was emotional, it was awesome… and at the end of that day I wasn’t thinking about how I was missing a parent but how someone loved me enough to want to permanently make a room in my heart.
To all those that are part of this terrible club … if you ever need someone to talk to my email is always available email@example.com or feel free to share your own stories, advice or lessons learned in the comments for others to read.