Eff Christmas, Lemme Grieve in Peace | Part I: Losing Loved Ones


Me, sick with who knows what.

A few years ago, you could have asked me when the last time was that I cried, and I’d struggle to remember. Right now, I struggle to recall a day that I don’t. Life is strange that way, and so is grief. Grief is something that I can honestly say I never really touched the depths of until this year.

You think the start of the pandemic was tough? Well, for me, 2020 was a year of enlightenment and new beginnings. It was a time of renewed clarity when life’s most important aspects came into focus. It inspired me to change my career and shift to working from home so my kids could have at least one parent who was available during the day for homework or whatever they needed. I lost loved ones, and I felt the losses at my core, but I was insulated by something – time.

Time gave me space to breathe and the freedom to navigate my feelings. It made me feel like there was room for grief, room to process.

This year, along with many other significant losses, I felt like I was grieving the loss of time. With everything else that was swirling around me, I was pressed with my back against a wall, with no space between me and all the obligations that demanded my attention, no lockdowns giving me a breather, no time to process or even rest.

If 2020 was a year of 20/20 Vision, late 2021 through 2022 were times of bewildering murkiness. Ultimately, not even my therapist could penetrate the fog. I realized that what I needed most was time, and only God could give me that.

They say things come in threes. Though the losses I experienced this year far outnumber three, I can name three endings that kicked off the close of my inner summer and ushered in the current early winter.

One was the death of an old college friend, Jeff Malone. We went to Old Dominion University together where he was good friends with one of my best friends. We didn’t spend lots of time together, but he was like an older brother, always looking out, checking in, wishing the best for me.

We had spent our late teens in the same church. Our moms knew each other. We attended the same revivals, conferences, and evangelical campus events. We both took our faith very seriously and stayed closely connected to the group of friends that kept us tied into it. Even after I spread my wings, moved 250 miles away, and deconverted from organized religion, Jeff checked in. He was the only person from that church who checked in.

After I got married in 2009, he called me and, with playful indignance, demanded to know why he hadn’t had a chance to vet the guy. His upbringing and our old pastor had instilled in him a certain protectiveness over women, and I got the sense that the feeling we were play siblings was mutual. I invited him over when I visited home that Christmas, and he had a chance to side eye the guy who would ultimately become my dedicated co-parent.

Jeff with his 2 sons in 20

Jeff succumbed to kidney cancer in late October, leaving behind two young sons. I cried through the entire service, damn near uncontrollably. He is the second member of our friend group to be lost, and it felt so unfair.

But I had to remind myself that life isn’t supposed to make the kind of sense we want it to make. I told myself that the good sometimes die young because they’ve earned an early graduation, an early retirement from a world that simply doesn’t deserve them. That’s the theory I’m sticking to, because his memorial service was proof positive that this place doesn’t deserve a guy like Jeff.

It was a packed house with a huge, full parking lot, plus lines of cars down all the surrounding streets. The officiating pastor only spoke a few moments, never having to utter one boilerplate statement or made-up platitude.

A procession of friends, acquaintances, and loved ones followed, each telling a story of the sincere love, compassion, and concern that Jeff showed them, even on his worst days.

One of our close friends said that Jeff showed the kind of love that was True Blue and stuck like glue. He had no guile or ulterior motives and always brought peace with him. His name means “peaceful pledge”.

Some said his kind of love was rare. I rejected the notion.

I don’t think that kind of love is rare at all. It’s all around us, we just don’t always like the packaging it comes in. In our ignorance, we let the loud, shallow types drown it out.

When Jeff died, I didn’t grieve the loss of his loving spirit, because that kind of thing is indestructible. I grieved the life that I thought he deserved. He was a divorcee. I thought he deserved a happier marriage. I thought he deserved good health and a longer life where he’d experience the material successes he worked for and have the chance to see his own sons grow gray-haired.

I grieved for the loss of the notion that life gives people what they deserve, cause that’s a total lie. In life, we don’t get what we want, need, or deserve. We get what we create. We get what we accept, what we take.

No other experience of loss this year brought that truth into sharper focus than the ending of my most recent relationship, a quite destructive one in which I experienced the highest highs and lowest lows that I’ve ever experienced with a partner.

Being in that relationship was like being sick with some kind of superbug. Losing it was like running a high fever, developing bronchitis, and finally having to sit down somewhere and let the toxins ooze out of my pores and orifices while I heal.

That’s a story that warrants its own section—Part II—so stay tuned for it. For now, suffice it to say that there are very distinct reasons why I also count that as a significant death.

James “Bruh” Outlaw and Bertha Mae Welch Outlaw,
my paternal grandparents some time in the early 80’s.

During the same weekend we memorialized Jeff, my 92-year-old grandmother fell very ill, and we knew it was the end. I also had one of my first speaking engagements, kicking off the speaking arm of my business.

That weekend had my head spinning long before it even started. I was already in a state of exhaustion from the full onslaught of single mom life since my mom moved out of state in June. She had been a big help to our family, and the loss of her presence left me feeling completely exposed.

For months, my therapist had been telling me to “Slow down, Joy. Slow down!” How the hell was I supposed to slow down with rent looming, work assignments hovering, doctor bills piling up from my daughter falling ill at the end the summer (marking the death of her childhood), a new car note after my transmission died the same weekend that my daughter went to the ER, people dropping like flies around me, and my business finally leaving the launchpad?

I was invited to Emcee at a friend’s 40th birthday dinner—a significant event that allowed us all to reflect on our love for each other and all that we’d accomplished. In the two weeks leading up to that, we got word of Jeff’s admission to hospice. Days later we were preparing for a milestone birthday bash and a funeral at the same time.

The funeral was a day before the party. I drove from my home 4.5 hours away to southeastern Virginia, cried for two straight hours at the memorial, and had an intimate lunch with the birthday Lady and our other bestie at an amazing Jamaican restaurant in town.

As we rose to leave lunch, I was all set to treat myself to a night of rest in my lovely hotel room, next to the fireplace with several bottles of my favorite libations. Instead, I got the call that my grandmother had refused food all day and was unresponsive.

I took one of those long deep breaths, like the kind you take when you have your hand raised to clock out at the end of a twelve-hour shift and your boss bursts into the room to tell you your relief won’t come for at least another hour.

My friends hugged my neck, said a prayer for me, and dropped me back at the hotel. I jumped in my car and headed for my mom’s place so she could accompany me. My last living grandparent was her ex-mother-in-law, with whom she had a somewhat strained relationship when my parents were together. However, they’d made up years before, and since mom is a nurse, her expertise would be much appreciated.

I spent the next few hours at my grandmother’s bedside with mom and my dad’s youngest sister who had shouldered the responsibility of primary caregiver for the last two years. She was exhausted, and frustrated, and scared, and didn’t want to feel alone. I could relate.

The smell of urine filled the room. My grandmother lay in bed looking more diminutive than I’ve ever seen her. She’d lost so much weight over the last two years. My mom and aunt poised themselves against the bed to carefully change her. I provided backup as they reassured her that she wouldn’t fall from the bed. She had taken a fall and bumped her head a few weeks prior, so the fear was fresh.

I held onto her legs as my mom and aunt discussed the degree to which they had become discolored. The area around her ankles up toward her calves had darkened, and my mom said this was a sign that her flesh was dying. Her flesh was rotting from inactivity, and she hadn’t even died yet.

We all took it in stride. No one thought twice about saying these things knowing that my grandmother could hear. She wasn’t the kind of woman who needed to be doted over or who would want people to sugarcoat her condition. She seemed relatively at peace. She even had that mood of mild annoyance that people often have when they’ve lived long and worked hard, and they’re ready to get the show on the road and just transition. She was ready, and none of us wanted to see her suffer.

I offered to take the bedding down to the laundry room and wash it. Then my dad arrived, and we all hovered around while video chatting with my other aunt (another nurse) as we tried to help break Granny’s fever.

I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was grateful to have the chance to see her again. Thanksgiving was coming in a month, and I didn’t know whether we’d have another holiday with her.

A storm brewing off the coast of Bimini, Bahamas

For Christmas 2019, my brother gifted my mother and I each with a gift card from Carnival Cruise line worth $800. Right after that, COVID-19 emerged, and that card burned a hole in my pocket until I finally decided to take the chance and use it. Around June of this year, I got fed up with the fact that my co-parent and I had been forced to delay taking the kids on the kind of vacation we felt they deserved. Dammit, it was time to book, I thought, and we were going to take the kids cruising come hell or high water.

Both hell and highwater were sure to raise their heads.

The excursion was scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, my grandmother got sicker. Following my October visit, she’d been admitted to the ER and returned home with the doctors suggesting the family just let her rest. Soon after that, she was admitted to the hospital again, and this time everyone assumed the next destination would be hospice.

It wasn’t long before my dad and his siblings were presented with the question of whether my grandmother would want aggressive interventions. They decided against them and made the merciful choice to cease life support.

Bertha Mae Outlaw was the only great grandparent my kids knew. She was the only grandparent I knew well into adulthood. The last time we saw her, she opened her eyes—at my Aunt’s prompting—and glared right at my kids.

She died on Wednesday, November 23, 2022, hours after we all visited. It was like she waited to leave in peace when no one would see her go.

I talk a lot about Joy as a revolutionary act, because keeping one’s spirits up is a skill and a necessity of life. The bible defines joy as strength, and I agree, but strength is also sheer endurance. Life requires this counterbalancing act.

Despite my dogged determination to rail against the notion of the black woman as superhero, I celebrate our unique resilience and I recognize that it is utterly necessary.

I value the tenets of stoicism like never before because I know what it feels like to have to push forward no matter how tired you are or how ill-equipped you feel. I know what it’s like to have to sit in silence and simply block out everyone’s opinions and misguided assumptions while you live life your way, on your terms, finding your own solutions, through your own grit.

Thankfully, I’m learning to ask for and accept help. I’m glad to have a strong community around me and that I can never say I am alone. But I also know that in life, you can’t look on anybody else’s paper. Your test paper is designed for you alone, and you have to find the answers your damn self.

I watched my grandmother quietly live her own answers for decades. I watched people perceive her as stuck up and proud for toeing a very thin moral line and bragging profusely on the good things her kids and grandkids did, despite the abuse, addictions, and mental illness that raged behind closed doors. I watched her put up a strong front despite a far from perfect marriage. I saw her go to and from work as an anesthesia aid and grow stiff from arthritis in her fifties.  

I used to think she was cold. Affection was not her strong suit. She was secretive, seemed controlling at times, and she and my grandfather together created a den of codependency in their home that left some serious scars.

But, for better or worse, they were staunchly dedicated to their family. She and my grandfather held on with their fingernails and did the best they could with what they knew. In a time when the mental health establishment might have left two of their struggling children locked away in an institution or subjected to inhumane therapies, they chose to keep them at home.

We thought maybe she did that out of fear and codependence, but maybe she simply did it to keep the police from shooting them in the street or to keep them off meds that might do more harm than good. She made hard choices that people didn’t understand, and she didn’t seem to flinch.

At 80 she developed colon cancer, and when I took her to her weekly chemo appointments, she was always hopeful. She was happy to follow the doctor’s orders and had faith that her discomfort would be minimal. She beat it without even losing her hair.

One of my favorite stories about her and my grandad comes from a night when my dad’s temper got him mixed up with some neighborhood guys. After a scuffle, they chased him through the streets. He ducked into the apartment where my mom and infant brother sat by bewildered. He jumped out a back window, hopped a fence and snagged his ear on some fence wire.

Meanwhile my mom called my grandad in a panic asking for help. Apparently without hesitation, my grandad got in his pickup truck with my grandmom by his side. She rode shotgun—with his actual shotgun in her lap—as they drove to the neighborhood and surveyed the streets looking for their son and the guys who were after him.

This was a woman who never learned to drive because she was too timid behind the wheel. On any other occasion, she’d spend her time in a vehicle pressing her hands against the dashboard and yelling at the driver to slow down. But on this night, she was a damn G.

I’m certain that she experienced pain, but she rarely showed it. She had six children, and she lost the oldest two before she herself passed away. Her oldest son, my uncle Jerome, died of Parkinson’s in 2018. He was sick for a few years, so the family had time to prepare emotionally, but losing her eldest was still, no doubt, a shock to her system.

Then in 2020, her oldest daughter, Jesse, died suddenly from heart problems that no one knew she had. My aunt hadn’t been to a doctor in over 30 years, not apparently since she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and swore off doctors. She had no idea her own heart was giving out when she collapsed while shopping with her son. It was fast and unexpected, and much of the family couldn’t even travel to the funeral because of the pandemic.

The decline occurred shortly after that. The following summer, I visited Granny in her upstairs bedroom where she had begun spending most of her time. I could see she had lost, maybe, 40 or so pounds. My aunt had to jog her memory to let her know who I was.

When I spoke to her over the phone, she would go on and on reminiscing about what my aunt Jesse was like as a child when they still lived in North Carolina, and how smart she was. In her final year, I noticed that Granny had adopted the peculiar habit of holding spit in her mouth while she talked, just like Jesse used to. She was clearly trying to work out something in processing the thoughts about her daughter’s life and death. She did it quietly, in her own way, without complaint.

I grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia. For most of my life, most of my people have lived in southeastern Virginia or close by—and I have a lot of people. I’d estimate that there are 200 or so family members from both my mom and dad’s families hovering around that area now. I was born on a military base in Georgia and stayed there for a very brief period until my dad ditched the service, so I call VA home.

Chesapeake isn’t the kind of place many people know much about, and unfortunately, some may have heard of it for the first time on the day my grandmother died. That night, the tradition of American violence, set in motion at the nation’s inception, gave rise to yet another mass shooting. This time it occurred at the Chesapeake Walmart located five minutes from my mom’s home. If I hadn’t been so exhausted and already in a grief-stricken haze, I might have been doing my holiday shopping there as the tragedy unfolded.

I heard about it early the next morning, checked Facebook to see how many of my friends and family members had marked themselves safe, and whispered the news to my mom while my daughter lay on the couch eavesdropping. I tried to protect her, but I think she heard me anyway.

It was Thanksgiving now, so we had a quiet, small dinner with mom. We wished my brother safe travels via Facebook Messenger as he prepared for a last-minute flight from Italy for the upcoming funeral. We spent part of the day calling and sending love to my dad and his family.

Saturday morning, I sat at a table in a lovely funeral home with my dad, aunts, and cousin planning Granny’s memorial. Sunday, we drove back home. Monday, I cruised far out into the Atlantic with my kids and co-parent for a reprieve which we all thoroughly needed and enjoyed. Thursday, the winds kicked up over Bimini and our return to Florida was delayed by about seven hours.

I was afraid we wouldn’t make it back in time for the funeral, but we flew back into Philly just in time for me to get a 2-hour nap and drive us back down to VA for the 11am memorial.

I literally cried myself sick. By the reception, I didn’t have an appetite. By 5pm I was in my mother’s bed with nausea that made my head spin and a temperature of 101.8. Thankfully, it wasn’t COVID, but it knocked me on my ass for a solid week and forced me to get the rest that I had been needing all year.

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