My girlfriend, Alana Joy Gaines, was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend during a dispute.
Closing my eyes used to be hard, because all I would do is see her. For a time it was painful, and why wouldn't it be? The woman I thought I would spend the rest of my life with was gone. No more date nights; no more slow dances; no more anything.
Like the cliché goes, November 22, 1997 was a day that started like any other but by the end of it my entire world was turned upside down. Alana Joy Gaines was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend during a dispute, and all of this happened while I was getting a haircut.
I got the news at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. I was driving home from the mall in the middle of holiday shopping traffic, wondering why I hadn't heard from her all day. I figured once I got home, there she'd be.
Instead, the phone rang and it was my boss (Alana and I worked together at an airline). My first inclination was that I was getting fired.
As soon as I heard her voice, I knew the worst was coming. My boss asked me if I was sitting down, to which I told her I was driving. She asked that I pull over for a moment.
"Joy passed away this afternoon."
Although it was night by then, everything turned white. Nothing made sense, yet somehow I remained eerily calm. I thanked her for her call before hanging up. I managed to drive home before pouring out of my car into a puddle of sobs. Luckily, my mother and grandparents were in and they plied me with Valium until I slept more than I cried.
In the days and weeks after she died, I tried to make sense of my forever turning into a never and it was a mix of selfishness, desperation and hopelessness. I remember putting up a brave face but for the first time, I considered killing myself.
When I found myself standing in the snow on New Year's Eve, just moments from midnight, staring over a bridge into the icy black water below, I was in my moment, searching for a reason not to jump and suck in as much water as possible until everything went away. Maybe it was the sudden gust of wind, maybe I just came to my senses but I backed away from the bridge, got back in my car and drove home.
When the police showed up at my apartment because someone at work found the suicide note I left on my desk, everything changed. Not because they took me away or because I went into therapy, but because I realized that if I didn't jump the night before, I would have to spend the rest of my life actually living.
In the nearly two decades since Joy died, I've learned quite a bit about myself, what it means to lose someone, and how to survive the grief and loss. Here's a few of them:
1. Tomorrow is possible.
When tied so closely to a significant other, it's hard to imagine what life will be like without them. But when they die, you still have to live. Even though things look bleak short-term, one day you'll realize that not only does tomorrow come, but you absolutely have to live for it.
2. You're not the only one hurting.
When Joy died, I internalized all my pain, and even though I knew plenty of people were just as saddened by her passing, it was hard for me to fathom that anyone could possibly feel what I was feeling. Through conversation and connecting with her family and friends and remembering the best instead of mourning the worst, healing truly began.
3. It's OK to cry, but it's also OK to laugh.
Before Joy died, I didn't do a whole lot of crying in my life. After she died, I forgot what it felt like not to cry. But for all the crying I was doing, I thought it was wrong to laugh or joke. It took a friend to remind me that laughter wasn't only the best medicine, but it's necessary medicine at that. I wasn't spitting on her memory because I could laugh at something and in the years since, laughing was a huge part of the healing.
4. You will learn to love again.
I remember telling someone at the funeral — and I don't know why I said this — that I would be with someone new by the beginning of the year. It took quite a bit longer than that but in about a year I was seeing someone new. I allowed myself to feel affection for someone else and it was amazing. At first, it felt like a betrayal, but it was everything I needed.
5. You will lose someone else.
Just because it rains once doesn't mean it won't rain again. New love becomes old love and hearts mended can break all over again. I never thought after losing Joy I could lose someone again but I did, and while she didn't die, everything between us did. But I survived. I learned people leave sometimes and there isn't much to be done about it but to hold on and hope for the best.
6. You can survive loss and be better for it.
So here we are, almost 20 years later, and in the time since Joy died, I've had girlfriends, lovers, another engagement go south, and a little bit of everything else in-between. And yet, I'm still here: A little older, a lot wiser and grateful for every moment, every memory. And if there's one lesson learned about myself from losing my first fiancée, it's this: Everything will work itself out.
I know, another cliché, but it's the greatest one of all. It's the thing we have to tell ourselves when stuck in our darkest moments and it's the sentiment that took me from a sad 20-year-old who lost his whole world to a 38-year-old who isn't perfect and not always happy, but totally at peace with everything that came before.
Joy is my history, my past, and I'll never forget her. She's also part of another life, and all the happiness and pain involved helped make me into a better me, even if that path was bumpy along the way.