How To Grieve — Buy Postage Stamps as a Meaningful Life Tactic

My buddy ended his life six days ago. At first I wrote, “My buddy put a gun to his head last week,” but since I don’t actually know the details of his method of execution, I can’t say that. A lovely person I barely know was kind enough to hit me up on Messenger to tell me the news three nights ago.

Jim was an amazing human being. (At the risk of this sounding like everyone else who carries on about their newly deceased suicide victim friend or their own children, I will briefly wax lovingly about Jim.)

Jim brought light to others. When I met him he was a personal trainer and leader of group fitness classes at the local Snap Fitness I regularly attended for five years.

Jim and I watching the solar eclipse together in front of Snap Fitness, 2017

My first foray into live, group fitness classes is how I first met Jim. I bought a once a week “6 class, small group package” for core strengthening. Fortunately, my über athlete, ultra-racing runner husband had hazed me for “needing core strengthening,” and I didn’t like that I couldn’t easily move my holiday decoration bins around the garage, so I decided to do something about my physical weakness and as a result of feeling shamed and inadequate.

Jim gave me what I needed. He compassionately offered ways for me to engage with my personal strength and delight in movement in a small group setting. He played high spirited music and made it fun to do HIIT. We became fast friends and he offered to work out with me, which was exactly what I needed at the times. He created incredible routines for us to do together, about an hour each, 2x/week, and I supplied the hard hitting music and over-the-top enthusiasm. We sweat, we talked, we laughed. We would balance on balls together, stare into the full-length mirror, and he would say, “Look at those two SEXY BEASTS!” We lifted each other up physically and psychologically. When he’d share his latest failed Tinder date, and I’d express my latest bad mom moment we would tell each other it would be okay and urge the other to press on. Love and connection are worth it! was our unstated mantra.

Through our workouts and conversations I learned that Jim’s parents both died when he was 18 years old, so the only remaining family he had was his older brother and his brother’s two awesome kids. I also learned that Jim was a (self-proclaimed) “shrimp” when he was a kid, so he got bullied a lot. This drove him to try hard, so he became a blazingly fast runner and athlete in several sports as a high schooler. By the time I got to know him, in his late 40s, he had become a physical therapist in hospitals, a director of a physical therapy organization, and most recently a personal trainer. He gave up the more lucrative route of organizational director he said, because he didn’t like the corporate bureaucracy, and he didn’t enjoy offering care to people who didn’t care enough about themselves to implement his strategies to help bring themselves to health. He wanted a more meaningful life where his impact could be realized. He became a personal trainer because he liked to inspire those who took control of their health, valued their lives, and wanted to become stronger, better, brighter.

Jim had many girlfriends, but he never married. He fell deeply in love with one woman while I knew him, and they enjoyed a two and a half year relationship. It didn’t pan out, because she had two teenage kids and was going through a divorce after 17 years of marriage. Understandably, she couldn’t offer 100% of herself to Jim, because she was still mourning the loss of her marriage and family as she knew it, already replaced by another woman who would be partially raising her kids, without her consent, and beyond her ability to change it.

I know all of this because Jim shared these details with me, as his friend, and the love of his life who I described is the one who texted me about Jim’s death a few days ago.

Back to Jim— So not only was this guy a personal trainer and my extremely close friend, he was a hard core life athlete. I don’t mean Olympian, but the kind of person you just kinda shake your head at when he tells you what he did with his day. With no time obligations to a partner, kids, or a pet, Jim had what I consider a footloose and fancy-free life. He would waltz into the gym and share that he had just road biked 45 miles that morning and would be doing a HIIT session with me, followed by his own additional strength training with free weights. As we held our 90 second side planks with leg lifts he’d throw in that tomorrow he planned to hike a 14er, and ask if I would like to join him. He’d then discuss the details of the free 4th of July workout he was choreographing for the next week. He’d ask, “Is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ better as the first or last song?” Fitness and inspiring others to health was his life.

But then he got sick. From where I stood, it seemed like he was dying of a broken heart over his parents’ deaths and the unrequited love of the woman who wasn’t ready for him. His sickness showed up in the form of all over body rashes, backaches, vomiting, nausea, migraines, hot flashes, fevers, and more symptoms too numerous for me to remember. What I recall is that for the last two years that I knew Jim, he was in and out of the ER numerous times, underwent extensive tests and basically the docs and all their sophisticated technology tools couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Jim tried a myriad of western and eastern meds, yoga, meditation, physical therapies, you name it— and nothing helped. Then one day, a hospital result yielded the information that something was out of whack with his spine that surgery could repair. At last, hope! Enthusiastically, Jim went under the knife, something went wrong during the surgery, and as a result he could no longer walk. He spent the last nine months on his back, on the sofa in his apartment with not a single committed person to provide care for him, and no financial resources to pay for care. He was alone.

Knowing that Jim was never one to ask for help, I reached out to him via text and phone a few times the past year. I moved from Colorado to Minneapolis seven months ago, so I was unable to see him in person. I felt Jim suffering, and I knew that my occasional texts and calls helped. These are the last two images he texted to me, December 7, 2020:

Jim’s photo of his Christmas tree, December 7, 2020
Jim on his sofa

This is a portion of our last email conversation:

I am deeply struggling to take my own advice today. So much so, that other than crying during yoga, crying in my car to my mom, and crying in front of the computer, all I have managed to do is express myself as Nutty Nut Case Extraordinaire at Costco last night and at the post office an hour ago. Here’s what a crazy person sounds like,

(at Costco)

Me: “Hi. Yes, you may scan the items in my cart. Thank you for helping me out. May I use the restroom while you scan them?”

Masked cashier: “Sure!”

(Upon my return from the restroom)
Me: “Thanks! Now you didn’t scan anything twice, accidentally, did you?”

Masked cashier: “Nope! I double checked. It’s all accurate!”

Me: “Great! I figured. You have an honest face.”

Masked cashier: “Awww… thanks! Some people say it’s the kind of face that only a mother could love!”

Me (grieving Jim’s death, with no idea how to process this event without engaging perfect strangers doing their jobs): “Oh, that’s not true! I think you have a face that many people could love! But you should be thankful that you HAVE a MOM! My buddy didn’t have a mom beyond 18 years old and he just ended his life a few days ago. So you should be REALLY GLAD you have a MOM and FRIENDS, and you should TELL THEM ALL HOW GRATEFUL YOU ARE THAT THEY ARE ALIVE! SERIOUSLY!”

Masked cashier, eyes WIDE: “Ok! I will!”

Then an hour ago I went to the Joint Chiropractic to get my back adjusted in hopes of feeling better. When I learned that this was my 5th visit of the month and my prepaid monthly contract only allowed 4 visits and that I’d have to pay extra for this visit, I left in a rage….. not at the Joint, but at my failure to have been using a tracking system (Notes app, Google calendar, a piece of paper, my own memory — what’s that?) where I noted all of my prior month’s visits to preclude this wasted trip.

From there, I furiously drove off to the post office (If I had a “CAUTION: Mourning Driver” sign to display, I would have used it) to mail my daughter’s week-late Valentine gift to her best friend in Colorado. Crazy, grieving lady at the helm again, so after the postal worker weighed the Valentine package of candy and Ella’s handmade, heart-shaped box covered in tissue paper and sparkly gems, she asked me if I needed any stamps. As only a nut would do, I enthusiastically exclaimed,

“YES! YES I DO! One of my closest friends just killed himself a few days ago, and I would really like to look at pretty pictures right now!”

Astonished and wordless, the sweet lady pulled out a folder, and one-by-one she showed me 17 sheets of stamps, all with different designs on them. Lovingly and deeply focusing on these tiny bits of visual artistry to distract myself for one whole minute from the pain of Jim’s death, I absorbed the patterns and colors and moved myself into the worlds and symbols these artists had created.

I contemplated design history, art history, cultural history, and what elements had to come into play for each of these miniature images to be mass produced and offered as a form of currency. For a philosophical and semiotic understanding of why I was drawn to the miniature in this moment of grief, check out Susan Stewart’s, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. In it, she writes,

“The miniature is usually an ‘island,’ uncontaminated and perfect. It has an immense effect on the viewer: The interiority of the enclosed world tends to reify the interiority of the viewer.”

As a UX designer, visual designer and art history enthusiast I’ve always wanted to design a stamp, and thankfully, anyone can,

Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/ceciliabryan/

but this doesn’t hold the same appeal for me as an offset printed, widely distributed stamp that folks can buy at the post office that doesn’t have a distracting scanning code or company URL on it.

But I digress…

The Meaningful Life flow chart I created a week and a half ago was the impetus for me to write this for you, dear reader. I thought that if even only one person somehow benefitted from reading this, or I gave one person a minute to distract themselves from pain in their own lives, then I will have done something important today.

Feel free to reach out to me, especially if you have your own grief process story to share. I’d like more evidence to support that not only are death, taxes, and change our only constants, but that love, not sorrow is too.

Me and Jim at Dart Warz in Colorado
Jim

Meaningful Life Advocate, UX Designer, Educator, Performer, Mother