I think I’ve always been interested in the ways that people celebrate or carry on the memory of a loved one throughout their lives. Something last time got me thinking again about this topic.
Around this time last year, my new partner Mike took me to see Tom Petty on what ended up being his final tour. It’s not as though I knew this musician personally, but his music has always been a huge part of my life. Almost a year after his death, I am still grieving as if I lost a friend. I suppose a lot of folks are.
It was after Drew’s death that I found an especially close connection to his music. For a year, I photographed portraits of myself to explore my own grief and to tell my story in a visual way. Music was almost always playing in the background… very specific music that helped me to get into the heart of my emotions. Tom Petty became a regular in the background, and the more I listened to his words as I created my own stories, the more deeply those words became woven into what I created. Songs like Learning to Fly, Angel Dream, I Won’t Back Down, and more all felt like they were telling some piece of my story. I guess that’s what he was so good at though… he was telling all of our stories.
Last week, we went to a tribute concert here in town… a whole bunch of local bands were up there on stage taking turns singing Petty’s songs. And at the end, they all came up together – some two dozen people – and sang a few final songs. What an incredible energy it was.
It’s times like that when I think, “This is the way you do it. This is how you keep living on when someone dies. These people get it”. You celebrate them, and you keep on celebrating them. Granted Tom Petty isn’t just any random person, and it becomes easy to celebrate someone who made great, iconic music… but it’s more about the mindset of this idea that I think is a great takeaway for everyday life after loss. Why can’t we all celebrate our dead people and the gifts they left with us so openly? Why can’t we all have a concert or a celebration once a year or whenever the hell we feel like it just to celebrate them? What stops us? Or maybe the better question is, how can we infuse this kind of celebration into our daily lives and continue to keep our loved ones a part of the story for many years to come?
I’ve been coming together with my closest friends and Drew’s family for six years now to continue to celebrate him and the gifts he left us with. He was not a musician or artist. He left no tangible creations for us, but instead he left us with the memory of his sense of humor and silliness and a zest for life. And though I wish I could hold a concert every day of the year to celebrate him, I simply ain’t that rich. Instead, I have learned I can do little things each day. And I can make changes in my life informed by the gifts he left me with and the lessons he taught me.
I quit my career as a web designer when Drew died, to pursue some wandering path as an artist, making things that are meaningful to me. It was precisely the gifts he left me with that made me decide to follow this path. It has been harder than any job I’ve ever had. I’ve had to face more of my own insecurities and issues with confidence, money, success, and so much more than I ever imagined. But it’s been so meaningful, and so worthwhile. And it has enabled me to help others in some incredible ways. But there are a myriad of other small gifts he left me with… just trying to be brave in situations when I want to avoid. Or being kinder and more patient in my new relationship. All things he taught me.
Everyone’s got something they leave us with that is so so valuable to continue celebrating. Maybe it’s a concert or a party, or starting a new direction in our lives… but maybe also it is just as powerful to be mindful in small ways every day of their gifts that we still hold in our hearts.
We can even celebrate the shitty stuff. My dad was an alcoholic and constantly avoiding life out of fear. Yes, I’m sure he has left me with a myriad of issues that I’ll continue to try and work out in adulthood, but one of the greatest gifts he gave me was in what he might consider his failures. Those failures have shaped and informed my choices in many positive ways… because I have made the choice to be conscious in using them for good. Even celebrating the hard lessons our loved ones taught us is a way to carry on the gifts they left us with, and thus keep our connection to them alive for all time.
Even the smallest of moments in our lives can be a big celebration of our loved ones, if we hold them and the lessons they taught us in our hearts and allow those lessons to influence how we choose to be better, and ultimately more loving, in this world. In that way, our lives and how we live them become the very thing that keeps them alive long past death. What a beautiful idea.
Listen to their hearts, it’s gonna tell you what to do.