American culture is very grief illiterate. Our culture wants positivity and silver linings. It doesn’t want to accept the permanence of grief. Sometimes people want me to hurry up and get better. They wonder how long it’s going to take. They hope once I’m “fixed” they don’t have to be uncomfortable anymore or wonder what to say. But grief is lifelong. Grief changes with time and it gets a little easier to live with but it never goes away.
My life will forever be plagued with the yearning for Caleb, a searing hole in my heart. Even when I am happy, I will always be a little sad. For the rest of my life. This isn’t me being negative, its just how it is. But our culture doesn’t like that.
I know people who refuse to keep pictures up of Caleb because to them it feels awkward or they think its a reminder only of his death. I’ve had someone try to change the subject when I mention Caleb. Some people stopped saying his name as if he didn’t exist. Friends have abruptly exited my life in painful ways because they think I’m a liability to their carefree happiness when I’m around. Sometimes I’m treated like a walking disease as if the tragedy is contagious.
I remember before I was a grieving person, I didn’t feel comfortable with grief either. I would scroll past grief posts quickly on the internet and sometimes I even felt annoyed at how much some people talked about it. Sometimes I thought they were attention-seeking or trying to push an understanding of their experience on unassuming passersby. So I get it. But its still harmful and its important to educate ourselves on grief. It’s important to ask questions “What do you need right now?” “How would you like me to support you?” and also to just listen. You don’t have to have the right words to say. Sometimes its better not to, but to just be there. Let the grieving person feel whatever they feel. Don’t try to fix it. Let them talk about their person. Ask about their person. Talk about their person like you would if they were still here. Don’t be afraid of “reminding” the grieving person of their grief. That’s not possible because it’s an ever-present reality. Often we are excited to talk about the person we love so much. It is a way for us to keep loving them, to keep interacting with their life and to honor them.
In that vein, I want to share here what I said at Caleb’s memorial service.
“Loving Caleb was the greatest gift I have ever received.
Something I deeply admired about Caleb was that if he was going to do something at all – he would do it all the way. A good example of that is his love for me.
When Caleb first met me, he fell for me hard – and I hardcore friend-zoned him. But Caleb was very persistent (in respectful ways). Finally after 8 months, I decided to give us a chance, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Caleb was all in in our relationship. He there for me, heart and soul. Early on I told him I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I warned him it would be difficult at times. It’s hard supporting someone with PTSD, but Caleb always believed in me and he saw past my diagnosis. He saw my potential, my character, my heart. He would tell me all the time “You’re going to get better, the PTSD isn’t you. No matter how hard it gets, I’m going to be there for you.” Whenever we would notice progress with my mental health, he would get this huge grin and tell me “Seeeee, I told you you would get better!” He was so proud of me.
Back before we were even dating, I was leading a PTSD support group that met in my home, and Caleb showed up to the first meeting – Even though Caleb doesn’t have PTSD. As we went around the introduction circle sharing why were were interested in the group, Caleb said “I have someone in my life whom I care about deeply who has PTSD, and I want to learn everything I can about it so I can support them better.” He meant me. He showed up faithfully every week.
When Caleb first discovered that he could give me CBD for my anxiety and that it actually worked, he was so happy he cried. Helping me quickly became one of the most important things to him – a life calling, even.
Caleb and I were inseparable from the first day we started hanging out – I went from being about 15 minutes early to everything to about 20-30 minutes late to my frequent community events, because he and I were trying to squeeze in time together. Hilariously, people definitely started to notice and knew what was up. But we didn’t care; we only wanted to never be apart.
Once when we were just friends, Caleb and I were sitting on the roof of a building downtown that we had climbed up, being the adventurous daredevils we were. We were watching the lights sparkling on the water and the stars coming out. I had been going through a particularly rough patch with my mental health and I was feeling frightened that if I got too close to the edge of the building I might throw myself off of it. I had been feeling very unstable and being too close to any danger triggered something in me. He asked me if I could pinpoint where that urge was coming from, and I said “I just don’t think anyone loves me, like really loves me.” Caleb got this look on his face where he seemed deeply moved. He put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me in a little so I was looking right at his face. He said slowly, emphasizing each word “Sarah. I. Love. You.” He repeated it and said “I don’t mean that like I just want to date you, I really love you. Even if no one else does.” At that point, I wasn’t ready to say it back to him, even though he wasn’t saying it in a romantic way. But I felt seen. I felt safe. Caleb helped me see my own value that day. I went through some very dark times and I firmly believe that Caleb saved my life.
On another particularly difficult day mental health day, Caleb heard I was struggling with the will to live and he immediately came to get me. Caleb took me for a little walk on the landing at the downtown waterfront. He held my hand and told me stories about his childhood. He pointed out the boats and sparkling waves and complained about the noisy seagulls. He was tender with me, telling me much he loved me, and calling me his Sarah Bear. He spoon-fed me chocolate ice cream, made me laugh and helped me see the beauty of life that day. Caleb gave me hope; he gently pulled me back from the precipice just by being himself.
Whenever I would get depressed Caleb assured me it would be okay with such a steadfastness that grounded me. When the world seemed like such a dangerous and negative place he helped me see the beauty of life. When I felt insecure, Caleb would stroke my hair and my face and tell me “I love you, I’ll protect you, I’ll be patient with you, I’m committed to you …” he would repeat that sentence over and over until I felt calm. He was so healing to me. Even just his touch – laying a hand on my neck or my shoulders, my muscles would immediately relax and I could feel the trauma and the negative energy that was trapped in my body start to dissipate. It was as if his hand could literally pull it out of my body.
When we first met, Caleb and I viewed the world pretty differently. We had the same values but different approaches. Over time we learned from each other and both moved toward each other on various issues. But I remember being so impressed that he accepted me for exactly who I was even though we didn’t agree on everything at the time. He didn’t categorize me based on my views but wanted to see into my mind and heart. He told me he admired my writing, that my heart for the world was so pure and good. He wanted to help me set up a blog to amplify my voice – even though my voice was different than his. I so deeply respected that. I remember thinking “This man is safe – this man accepts me now even when we were different, so I can trust that as I grow and change throughout the course of my life and as my beliefs grow and change – no matter where I land he’s going to continue to accept me.” And that actually is one of the main reasons I originally decided to give us a shot.
Caleb sacrificed so much for me but I know that he would want the world to know that I healed him as well. In the almost 4 years that we knew each other, I saw Caleb grow and heal in his own mental health. I have seen his smile get bigger over the years and he lit up anytime I walked into the room. I’ve heard from lots of people who knew him for many years say that they could see a physical change in him – he became lighter and brighter, more confident, more joyful, because he knew that he was loved. He told me he had been searching for me his whole life. I am so honored that I could love him the way he deserved.
Our connection was so magnetic that numerous times strangers would stop us in the streets to tell us how happy we made them, or that our love was so tangible that they could feel it. It happened so often it became an inside joke.
Caleb was so intentional in his commitment to me – He was always looking for ways to improve, to work on himself, to do better. He would tell me he wanted to be the partner I deserved. He was always researching marriage and long-term relationships and how to do those well. He would come up to me sometimes with a new idea he got from a podcast or a book and he’d be so excited. Once he said “I learned about this idea called marriage-meeting and you set aside time regularly and you talk about your affirmations for each other and your plans for the week and you work out any conflict – I want to do that, and I think we should do it every week.” And we did for a long time. It made our relationship healthy and strong and a safe place where we could trust each other. Thankfully I wrote down all his affirmations for me in those meetings and I have them to look back on now.
About a year and a half before his death, Caleb decided he was going to start hiding me little love notes around the house and in my things. Out of the blue they started popping up everywhere. I kept discovering these little handwritten notes in my pockets and my purse, in my makeup bag, in my car, on the bathroom mirror – these little tokens of his love for me, saying things like I meant the world him, that I was his Sarah Bear, that he loved me so much.
Caleb always kept a note on his dashboard that I had left for him under his wipers while walking past his car downtown one day. I didn’t have a pen with me so I wrote “I <3 U” with my red lipstick on a piece of scrap paper. He proudly displayed that for the rest of his life.
Caleb and I spent hours adventuring together, and we never ran out of things to talk about. We filled our evenings and weekends with longboarding, and chatting on long drives, camping and hiking hundreds of miles. Caleb was always so prepared when we went backpacking, with all of his nifty gadgets. He had a tool for everything! He once lent me a camping flashlight that came with five paragraphs of instructions! On one backpack trip we packed an entire carton of raw eggs 45 miles into the backcountry on a bumpy trail for five days because he wanted to make me a tasty breakfast over a campfire.
Caleb and I became deeply attuned to each other, we usually could always tell what the other person needed – sometimes even what they were thinking. It was very early on in our relationship that we knew that we were each other’s person for the rest of our lives. It happened out of the blue one day when we were just looking into each other’s eyes and at the exact same second we both realized that we wanted to get married to each other. I don’t know how we both knew that the other person was thinking this but we just did and in that exact same second, right after Caleb realized that I wanted to marry him too, he asked me right then and there he said so much emotion in his voice“Sarah, I want to marry you! Will you marry me??” and I paused for a brief moment, realizing that in this split second in time I was both realizing and committing to the decision that I wanted to be one hundred percent devoted to Caleb for the rest of my life. And I knew without a doubt that it was the right decision, I said “yes I want to!” Seeing the emotion that just poured over his face – I will never forget that moment – he started bawling happy tears laughing and crying and he pulled me into the biggest bear hug and held me there and cried for a long time. He was so happy. We were so excited to marry each other.
After committing our lives to each other, Caleb immediately started calling me wifey. He started telling me that he (and I quote) “was going to marry the fuck out of me”, he kept talking about how beautiful we were both going to look on our wedding day with our luscious long hair. He wanted the whole world to know how much he loved me. He told me, “I will never get divorced. I’m committing to you for the rest of my life. This is it.”
‘Caleb – I never got a chance to publicly declare my wedding vows to you. But today I will declare these vows to you. Caleb, I vow to keep my love for you alive every single day. I vow to spread your story throughout the earth wherever I go. I vow to be an extension of your life and to live for both of us – to do the things that you never got to do, to finish the work you began, to love the people you loved and to care for them, to embody your values. Caleb, I vow to honor you by rebuilding my life. I vow that wherever I go, people will know your name and they will know how much you radically changed my life. Caleb, I vow to be your legacy.’ “