Life in a fishbowl

The morning after my beloved wife Jamie took her last breath, I found myself in the car with my parents heading to the church to plan her funeral.

None of this felt like something that should be happening. Funerals should serve as the punctuation mark on a long life, celebrating the life of someone who has lived 80, 90, 100 years. Those in attendance should include grown children and grandchildren, in-laws, and those who were impacted by decades of living.

Planning a funeral for a 29-year-old didn’t make sense.

The world without Jamie felt wholly disorienting. Why was the sun shining when the whole world felt darker? Why were people going on runs down the sidewalks of downtown Raleigh when Jamie would never run again? Why did I notice two people laughing over a shared joke at the crosswalk? Didn’t they know that the person with the best laugh wasn’t here anymore and that jokes just weren’t funny?

In this disorienting world, I sought out one comforting ritual during the morning after Jamie’s death — I turned to my phone to type out some thoughts.

It was second nature. I had found friends, explored new interests, deepened my own knowledge, and built connections around the world through digital media. Digital was my job and it had been my job for the past several years.

At a time where I felt like I couldn’t speak to my beloved adopted parents who were driving me towards the church, I typed out a few tweets over the course of the morning.

“I lost my best friend last night. The sadness is overwhelming.”

“I have no idea what I am going to do without @jamiehahn. She was my center, my rock and my soulmate.”

“I have to believe that @jamiehahn now knows what she means to this community.”

“It is almost unfathomable that the sun can shine without @jamiehahn here. Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you daily.”

Any time I spoke to my family, I dissolved into tears, so it made more sense to me to type out some thoughts and send them into the universe. Looking back, I think one reason I tweeted was to connect with someone, anyone who had undergone a sudden, tragic loss, so I wouldn’t feel so alone in a world which suddenly felt so very lonely.

After sending out the series of tweets, we found ourselves at the church which Jamie and I called home, and I was faced with a series of decisions no one wants to make.

Burial or cremation?

Which songs should be played at the funeral?

Who was going to speak and try to capture some of the essence of a person who had lived life wholly and with so much love?

After the decisions were made, I stepped back out in the blinding sun, and pulled my phone out of my pocket to discover a series of texts from friends noting that various media outlets were beginning to publish my tweets in their stories.

My immediate response might best be summed up as, WTF?!

I realized I was at least temporarily living in an environment where the media attention was going to be intense because mine and Jamie’s beautiful, simple life had been blown all to hell by one of our mutual best friends who happened to be the best man in my wedding.

For those obsessed with true crime shows and documentaries on Netflix, driven in part by a generation raised on CourtTV and Law and Order, it must have seemed like a story they couldn’t look away from.

A beautiful young woman. A loving marriage. A best friend. A quiet, suburban neighborhood.

Our pain wasn’t entertainment. Jamie was dead. My injured hand was going to require surgery. All of us would have holes which would never truly heal. But that didn’t stop Good Morning America from asking my mother-in-law for an in-house interview the morning after the funeral. And it didn’t stop other journalists from calling friends and family who were in mourning to try to gain their perspective.

All of a sudden I was faced with the reality of finding my path through profound grief and tragic loss while also living in a fishbowl.

As Nora McInerny recently Instagrammed on her Instagram story, “Grief is a chronic condition.” And chronic conditions change the world for those living through them.

I was sure of the world before Jamie died. I was confident of our love and confident that no matter what struggles might come we would have one another. During our low moments, Jamie would always remind me, “As long as we have one another, we are going to be okay.”

I wasn’t sure that things would be okay without her — and as I spent the months ahead struggling to find my footing I would again and again experience the fishbowl effect.

All kinds of people came up to meet me at restaurants, bars, in the park, on the street. Sometimes this would be off-putting — such as when someone remarked they were shocked to see me out in public so soon after Jamie’s death. At other times, I felt constrained to even begin to imagine what love might look like because well-intentioned people would start calling around to other mentors if they even saw me being friendly with a female.

Silver linings did exist. The fishbowl effect also meant that I was forced to assume the role of what one friend would later dub “the mourner in chief” for people who shared stories about the murder of their sibling, their miscarriage, their own suicide attempt. I think many of them felt freed by knowing that I, too, had endured something so terrible.

No matter whether the fishbowl moments were off-putting or uplifting, I had to live them.

It made me question why my life was being treated like a true crime drama as opposed to a life that I was trying to rebuild.

These moments also made me think about the narrative of life.

The narrative of Jamie’s life, my life, and our life together.

Jamie was more than a beautiful, young, rising star in politics who was murdered violently.

Our life together was rich and full. We endured challenges and heartbreak. We enjoyed life and loved deeply. We had many friends, yes, including the one who betrayed us. We were committed to our families.

My life before Jamie’s death wasn’t a caricature either. I had overcome hardships, experienced events I would not have thought possible as a young kid growing up in a small town, and married someone I had been in love with before we even kissed.

I was concerned that my life after was also being reduced. The young widower who had to face challenges every single day. The person who was trying to “turn tragedy into triumph.” A tired phrase and narrative if one ever existed. The heartbroken man who might one day find happiness again due to a relationship.

Elements of truth existed in each of these narratives. I was struggling to get out of bed and overcome the challenges of living life without Jamie. My work after was focused on my and Jamie’s shared vision for North Carolina and it gave me purpose. I did hope to find some form of love again.

But life before and after tragedy was more than those narratives and life couldn’t be easily fit into a single episode on Investigation Discovery or Netflix or a true crime podcast.

This led me to consider whether our society’s narrative around tragedy allows for space for people to learn to find their own way in the aftermath of loss.

It also begs the question of what more we might do as a society to provide space for complex narratives and emotions.

Would it be possible for us to start by stopping? Primarily by stopping with labels.

I didn’t feel strong just because I delivered a eulogy. Nor is someone weak because someone didn’t deliver a eulogy or because they chose to not return to work.

Jamie was beautiful, but she was also kind, decent, and strong. She could be challenging and supportive in the same day. She could be fierce. She was ambitious, but her ambition was rooted in a desire to make life better for others. One election loss led her to burst into tears, when I pressed her on why she was crying she replied, “Because I don’t think the person who won is going to represent the people we met along the way.”

A widow can be heartbroken, but also find joy. They can miss the person they lost profoundly while finding love again at the same time.

A widower can endure trauma without having their life spin out of control. They can find their way through a newly complex life without being lost. They can be lost and found again.

Would it also be possible for us to start looking for reasons and lessons in every single thing?

During the trial for our attacker, I learned how little the reality of the criminal justice system resembles both the fictional television shows and CourtTV. A mentor taught me that as much as we want crime to begin with a reason, it often doesn’t. As he told me one day, “Murder is fundamentally without reason.”

We want neat and tidy lessons, but those aren’t always possible either.

Five-plus years after the death of my beloved Jamie I know that I have learned a lot during grief, but the most fundamental lessons come from the recognition that life is rich and full. We can fall short, and lose our most essential self, and find ourselves again. We can mourn and love. We can have holes in our heart, but our heart can expand at the same time. We can find gratitude again, and beauty, and even some peace. And, yes, five-plus years later we can still mourn what we lost while celebrating what we have gained.

My life isn’t linear. It isn’t a forty minute podcast, or a sixty minute television show, or a mini-series on Netflix. I am passionate about nuance, even when the fishbowl wanted to make my life simple.

My life will always be shaped by my loss, but I hope it will be defined more by love.

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