Monday, July 21, 2014

That Moment

They said it would happen, but I couldn't believe them.  The pain consumed me and grief fogged my thoughts.  Death seemed to be right around the corner.  There was simply no way I would survive such a profound loss.

Suicide shatters.

My life and the person I was before Dude's death lay in a million pieces on the floor. There would be no way to rebuild without cracks in this new puzzle.  The new puzzle otherwise known as my life after Dude's death.

At first, it took every breath I had to make it through the day.  The excruciating pain harbored in my heart made me question how many breaths I had left.  People I would now consider my dearest friends rushed to my side.  They wanted to help.  I wanted them there too, but could not articulate the help I needed.  A hug. The freedom to cry. Food I may or may not be able to eat. I begged people -  please, PLEASE do not tell me to be happy or to remember the good times.  Remembering Dude loved me was hard enough.  Now was the time to feel however I wanted to feel, and I hated that I felt like I had to ask permission to express my feelings.  I gravitated towards those who gave me a pass to be who I needed to be no matter how ugly that looked. 

Why was I still here? Why did he leave me behind? What was my purpose? What are my dreams? You have to ask those questions because asking why Dude took his own life or what more I could have done to prevent this is a vicious cycle.  I never believed this could be a reality, but he did.  He took care of me despite his own pain.  I did everything I could to help him and show him how much I loved him.  He was thankful and I'm thankful, too. 

Suicide shatters but God redeems.

God put the right people by my side and in my life.  He awakened a dream I had put to bed many years ago.  He opened my eyes to the small things that bring beauty to life. The last two years have not been without struggle.  Who sues LSAC before going to law school? I do.  Who got rejected from every law school to which she applied?  I did.  But none of that was as bad as Dude's death.  And my support structure remained in tact. Dude had given up (or rather, decided to end the pain).  I couldn't.  I wouldn't.  I had to press on.

My friend has whisked me away to NYC for some fun.  Another planned some wonderful weekends in Texas.  My parents and I have been able to travel.  I thank God every day for my newest mentor and our strong bond.  My acceptance and scholarships to law school. The overwhelming response to Dude's fundraising campaign.  Mary and her wisdom. These blessings and many more are not lost on me.

Every day I think about Dude. This experience is life changing and will not go away.  But... slowly but surely joy mixes in with the pain. They said it would happen, but I couldn't believe them.

I can smile without tears in my eyes (most of the time).  I can laugh without feeling guilty.  I can remember Dude saying he wanted all my dreams to come true and I can chase after those dreams no matter how crazy others think I am.  I can remember that he loved me, love him, and still more forward. 

They said it would happen.  I couldn't believe them. But, they were right.  That moment you realize you are embracing your new life is SWEET.

In a month, I will embark on a new adventure.  One that Dude went on before me.  I could have never predicted my life would be like this.  The last two years have been horrific yet redeeming. 

I'm nervous and scared and excited for what's to come.  But I know God is picking up those pieces and building a new life for me. There will be cracks - but those cracks. They leave room for the love and light of God and Dude to shine through. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Just Around The Corner

The night before I took the LSAT I had a dream about Dude.  I have only had a couple dreams about him since he has died, and I don't normally write them down.  Oftentimes, it takes me a long time to tell anyone about them because I feel like they are my secret and nobody should know about it except me and Dude.  I want to write this one down, but I think it is an important message for me to remember -- and an important message for our close friends to remember, too.

Here's the dream --

I went to visit Dude's brother in the hospital.  He had a badly broken leg and had surgery to repair the damage.  As I approached Matt's hospital bed, I saw him playing with some Redskins matchbox cars.

"Matt, where did you get those cars? I had given them to Mike some time ago.  And, you are a Steelers fan!  What are you DOING?"

"Mike just gave them to me."

"What?!  How is that possible?!  Where is he?"

"Jess, he's just around the corner."

"What do you mean?!  What is he doing there?"

"Working at the Verizon store."

"Does he have a phone?"

"Yup.  All we have to do is "call" him and he will be with us."

"But, if he is working there, we have to give everyone their money back.  They think he is dead and have donated to honor him.  I am going to get the list together to give everyone a refund."

"Jess, we can't tell anyone.  It's just for us to know.  But if you want him, just ask."

He's just around the corner!

Until I see you again... 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Learning to Dance with the Limp

I am finally feeling the deep grief start to dissipate.  This year kicked off with a lovely invitation from my neighbor who invited me to her annual New Year’s Eve party.  I knew I wouldn’t know many people there, but was thrilled to have been thought of and was excited to go.  Last year, I would have immediately declined the invitation because I couldn’t handle the fact that I was in an unfamiliar situation.  It would have taken far too much energy to fake having a good time.  And, yes, I would have faked it because legitimately celebrating a new year was not possible.  This year, I tried on four different outfits before deciding on the perfect one and happily joined in on the festivities.  Almost everyone I talked to I had just met and the conversation did not feel exhausting as it had in the past.  This party was a big step for me and I knew if I had a good time then 2014 would start off on the right foot!

Just two and a half weeks after that I flew to Texas to celebrate my birthday with my dear friends.  Normally I go to Texas in the summer, but it was Carmen’s idea that I come for my birthday this year and what a brilliant idea that was!  I don’t worry about anything with these friends.  I can completely be myself, whatever that looks like.  Last year, I went to visit, and Carmen and Jason had so many fun things planned.  The Houston Rodeo topped the list!  I cherished every minute with them and appreciated all that they had done for me, but it felt difficult to truly enjoy it all.  I was grateful to be there, but I was anxious. I was sad.  But I was trying.  This year it was a true gift to be able to celebrate – to celebrate my birthday, to celebrate our friendship, and to celebrate the ability to feel joy and recognize it as such.  As Carmen noted, last year I was not myself, I wasn’t all there, but this year, I’m back! I boarded the plane back to DC thanking God for a heartfelt and joyous weekend with such dear friends in which I was able to fully participate.  I’ll post a separate blog on all that I did to usher in 32.

I’m also pretty excited about my upcoming ski trip, some fun weekends ahead, and my family vacation to the Caribbean.  Our trip, of course, purposefully corresponds with the anniversary of Dude’s death, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to enjoy some fun in the sun and sand with a drink in my hand.  It lessens the pain just a little.  Grief counselors told me there would come a time where I could mix joy with pain.  I looked at them like there were nuts and believed that might be the case for other people, but certainly not for me.  Now I see it.  There are still days or moments when I slammed with pain, but I can now recognize and appreciate happy times, too.

Ann Lamott sums it up perfectly:

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved.  But this is also the good news.  They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.  And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly – that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
For me, 2014 is the year to learn to dance with the limp.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What I've Learned From Tragic and Profound Loss

When Dude first died, I thought I'd be in relentless pain forever.  I couldn't imagine living again.  People told me time would not ever take away the pain, but would ease it.  That was hard to believe, but now a little over a year and a half later, I see what they meant.  Time does help.  Through doing my grief work I have learned some other things, too...

1.    God is there even when He seems absent.  Wrestle with Him.  He can take it and you will learn more about yourself and your faith from doing so.

2.    You cannot help yourself alone.  Ask for and accept help provided to you.  Some people will be there for you; some will walk away from you.  Both are okay.

3.    It is okay, and sometimes necessary, to say no

4.    Joy without guilt will eventually creep back into your life.  By moving forward, you are honoring your loved one, not forgetting about them.

5.    Deep grief makes you more thankful – for the little things, for every day, for what you still have

6.    People will encourage you to be happy.  That's mostly because they are uncomfortable with you being sad.  Feel however you need to feel whenever you need to feel it.  Experiencing a wide range of emotions is an important part of the "process".

7. A grieving process?!  That's baloney!

8.    Follow your dreams! Life is too short to wait for a better day.  A better day may not come, so just do it now.

“Grief goes with you every day, whatever you’re doing, when there’s great moments, when there’s hard moments…[but]There’s an empowerment that comes with grief.  At some point, you find it.  It’s very hard, but you will find it.  I think at a certain point you can choose to sort of fall from this or you can choose to rise.  And that’s what I am just trying to do…I know that’s what he would have wanted, to just do my best and hopefully make something positive from where I go in the rest of my life.”
– Lea Michelle (couldn’t have said it better) 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Zero to 60 in....2 years?

The months, if not the year, before Dude’s death were troublesome.  He was so sick and in and out of the hospital.  And he wanted all of it to be kept a secret.  I still feel bad that many of his close friends did not know what was going on, but I encouraged him over and over to share with them.  He refused, and I had to honor that for him. All of the effort put into making him feel like life was worth living ultimately ended in failure, but I hope that it kept him alive for a little while longer.  Towards the end, he took extremely good care of me despite his own pain.  I didn’t know what was about to happen, but he knew, and I am forever grateful to him for the love he showed me up until the last minute.        

April 4, 2012 – the day I was officially notified of Dude’s death is also the day I hit rock bottom.  Intuitively, I knew he was dead on April 3rd, but my fears weren’t confirmed until the next day.  When I hit rock bottom, I hit it HARD.  I felt like I had just been in ripped in two, like my heart looked like the Grand Canyon, and someone took what was left and was just simultaneously and repeatedly stabbing me with swords and punching me.  My prayers alternated between “Please God. Just keep my heart beating” to “Forget it.  I can’t live like this.  I would rather be with him.  I won’t take my own life, but heaven is where I want to be.  Make it happen. ”  My faith, my family and friends, and some grief counseling carried me, but I was in bad, bad shape.  My world as I’d known it was blown wide open.  Forever changed.  I had to start all over.

Law school has always been in the back of my mind.  My parents encouraged me to attend law school immediately after undergrad. I told them that I was not ready for that. It is a HUGE commitment and I feel you need a good reason to go to law school.  At the time, “my parents think I’d be a good attorney” did not qualify as a good reason, so I said no, and ventured into the workforce.  Dude and I discussed the possibility of my returning to school and a move to London seemed much more appealing.  This relocation never (or hasn’t yet) happened.  As I continue to advance in my career, law school kept popping up and seemed to make more and more sense.  After Dude’s death, the grief counselors encouraged me to get a goal to push me forward into this “new life”.  I told them I wanted to go to law school.  Without missing a beat, they said, “go for it!” So I did.

I told my friends and family of my plan and got some crazy looks.  Some questioned my ability to take on such a huge commitment of studying for the LSAT during a time of such deep grief.  A few encouraged me to go find a husband and have some children instead.  Some thought one masters was enough.  Many didn’t say anything discouraging, but I think they were thinking this was a crisis move.  I tossed around the idea with my bosses and other colleagues to ensure I wasn’t just overreacting to trauma.  The response was overwhelmingly positive, so I continued.

And then I ran into speed bumps…but God being as awesome as He is, gave me a mentor.  And not just any mentor, but one who is ridiculously respected in the legal community across the US.  And then I applied to law school and had nothing but a pile of rejection letters. My mentor believed in me when no one else did and backed me 100% when I told her I was not giving up.

I sued LSAC (the testing board) for violating the American Disabilities Act.  We settled three days before the October exam.  I was sick at the time, but was not going to miss an opportunity that I’d worked so hard for, and I took the exam. My score was much improved, which meant I’d reapply. 

I submitted my applications and said a prayer.  Within 4 days, I received my first admission decision.  It was an ACCEPTANCE to American University Washington College of Law.  At first, I thought it was just a second email acknowledging they’d received my application.  I was annoyed because they’d already notified me that they had my package and earlier that day declined to meet with me.  I opened it up and the first word I see is “CONGRATULATIONS!!” Not used to seeing those words, I keep re-reading it.  They just got my application on Monday and it was Friday.  It had to be a joke.  It had to be a mistake.  But it wasn’t.  I now have the paper letter and a magnet to prove it. It was God’s confirmation that despite all of the tragedy and trouble and crazy looks that have come my way over the last 1.5 -2 years, He has a plan for me.  Dude has left, but I have work left to do on earth.      
A firm believer in needing a reason to go to law school, I now have two interests – government procurement law and disability rights law.  I feel strongly about doing disability rights law pro bono because I can’t bear to have others pay the amount I did to simply get the accommodations they need and are lawfully entitled to have.  In addition to my new interests, I also gained the most amazing mentor who is overwhelmed with joy at the news of my acceptance. Best of all, this man,

the “Most Outstanding Student” of UR Law Class of 2007 watches over me.  

It’s been a slow climb up from rock bottom.  I am still working on it.  Law school brings with it loads of work, but a hope for the future – a new life.  I get sad that Dude is not physically here to be with me on this new adventure, but as two of his friends told me when I shared the news, “Mike knows.  He is very proud and is smiling down on you”  Yes, yes he is. And life is getting much better.

“If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there;
if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath.”
- Psalm 34:18, The Message
         "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you - plans to give you hope and a future"  - Jeremiah 29:11

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I am one of ten classmates on our tenth reunion committee and we are making calls and emailing our classmates to encourage attendance at Reunion and to ask them to make a donation in honor of our 4 years spent together at 28 Westhampton Way. I should be a pro at fundraising and encouraging attendance at reunion because I have been raising funds for Mike's scholarship since May and am proudest Spider you will ever meet, so without a doubt, I'll be back on campus and would love to see all of my classmates as well.

If I'm really honest, I went back for our 5 year reunion and didn't have the best time.  The University has completely revamped the way reunions are run, and I mean I know I am on the committee, but y'all, it is going to be FANTASTIC!  If you are a UR'04 Spider, you should be super excited to come!

As I set down the phone, I got to thinking about what it means to honor.  To me, it means a couple of things.
  • You are acknowledging what your time on campus meant to you.  Maybe you met your spouse, forged indelible friendships, acquired the skills and knowledge that have contributed to your success today or just had some epic parties at The Row (I hope The Row is not all UR meant to you, but whatever it takes!)
  • A donation, no matter the size, is a way to ensure future Spiders are able to have those same experiences that were so memorable to you.  Or, dare I say, your gift could be allowing them to have an even better experience.  Either way, past, present and future Spiders all share a common experience and that wouldn't be possible without the help of those that have gone before us. 
One of the reasons I wanted to establish the scholarship fund for Mike was to honor his life and the incredible impact he had on our campus.  He would want to help future Spiders share in the academic and extracurricular experiences and friendships he held so dear. With your help, we can do our part to impact the next generation of Spiders for years to come.  Right now, legally I am not allowed to give a lot of specific details about the scholarship, but I will say that it will not be a one-and-done type deal.  While the fundraising campaign will end on May 8, 2014, the funds will be given for years to come.  It will impact more than just one Spider.

So, as you think back on your time on campus, as you think back to your friendships/classmates that/who may have contributed to those fond memories, consider giving to University of Richmond and specifically, the Mike Clements Memorial Fund. Your donation will get you a ticket to the party in the Greek Theatre on May 30 (if you are Class of 2004). And you should know, the University makes me aware of your generosity, but does not divulge the amount of your contribution.  As far as I am concerned, every dollar counts and I am just so thankful you would be a part of something so special.

If you'd like to help, go to, select "Other" and type in Mike Clements Memorial Fund.  All of the donations are tax deductible. If you've already donated, THANK YOU doesn't seem like an adequate expression of my gratitude.  We currently have a little over $15,000 thanks to you. 

Honor your time.  Honor your classmate/friend, Mike.  And, of course, GO SPIDERS!


Thursday, November 14, 2013

The First Time

Yesterday was a difficult day.  My parents and I drove up to Washington, PA to attend Jim’s (Dude’s dad) funeral.  Jim passed away on Saturday, November 9, after a long but well fought battle with Alzheimer’s.  I remember the day I learned that Jim had Alzheimer’s.  I remember exactly where I was (and what Dude was wearing – strange).  He and I decided that we would go check out this new cupcake place that had just opened up by me.  We had just had a fun night with our friends in DC, but as we sat across from each other munching on our cupcakes, his face got long and the conversation turned very serious.  The fun that we’d just experienced was miles away.

“My dad has Alzheimer’s.  We have to close the practice. “
“What?!  Your dad is 55.  What the heck does that even mean?!”
“I don’t know, Jess, but it’s bad.  It’s going to be bad.”
In that moment, neither of us understood the impact Jim’s illness would have on the family, and on Dude, in particular. In the succeeding years as Jim’s illness progressed, I was excited when Jim still remembered who I was and was touched by the fact that Dude visited his dad in the nursing home as often as possible, lighting up as he would tell me about the moments he shared with him each time.  We both understood the importance of constant contact with Jim and I’d encourage Dude that, no matter the circumstances, that contact was essential.  He agreed.  The last email Dude ever sent to me contained a photo of his dad at Falling Water, an outing the two of them shared just shortly before Dude died.  I remember the excitement in Dude’s voice as he recalled the fun they had visiting that landmark and then he exclaimed, “I’ll email the picture I took!”  He was close to his dad.  And, as Jim’s illness claimed more and more of his mind -- but not his spirit, sense of humor or faith – Dude struggled, too.

I always knew I would attend Jim’s funeral.  I had never imagined attending it without Dude.

As I drove up yesterday, I anticipated things.  I looked forward to seeing all of the family.  I didn’t think the funeral would be as hard on me, but it was incredibly difficult.  Not only was it the first time I was attending a family function without Dude, Dude and his dad were so much alike that as I listened to the eulogies, I felt like they were talking about Dude.  Technically, Dude’s funeral was the first family function without Dude, but I was in such shock, I didn’t remember my name and can’t really recall one detail of that whole day.  This time, I was alert and it was painful.  Really painful.  I cried for his mom and brothers.  I cried because I always thought Jim would make the best grandfather and he didn’t get that opportunity.  I cried looking at photos of Dude when he was little and remembered the stories Jim would share.  I cried because as much as Jim was not my father, he was a part of my life for 12 years, I traveled this long road with Dude and now it was over.  I cried because the two of them were reunited in heaven.

 Dude’s family has always been welcoming to me, but they’ve been even more loving and supportive in the wake of his death.  It was wonderful to spend time with all of those with whom I was familiar and to meet a few I hadn’t met.  This time I ate my whole lunch – at Dude’s funeral, I didn’t touch it – and the reception was full of love and laughter and

Then it got hard again.  Ava asked if I wanted to go see Dude.  Of course I did!  I tell her at least once a month that I need to come up and see him.  Yesterday was the day.  The first time I would get to see Dude’s grave. I expected pain that would split me in two to creep into my heart.  I even asked if I needed to stop on the way to get a bottle of wine and a bucket of Sarris chocolate to make it through this experience.

As we drove up to the cemetery, we passed his high school.  At Trinity High School, they are named the “Hillers” because their school sits on a hill.  And, Dude was King of the Hill – class president, prom king, you name it.  Just past his school, we approached these beautiful gardens that held tombstone after tombstone.  We found the undertaker’s house and went in to find out exactly where Dude was.  He highlighted a map and off we went.  The mausoleums were right by a lake – just a beautiful spot.  As we were getting out of the car, we looked up, and this graceful deer ran right in front of us.  I reached for my phone to take a photo and the deer was gone.  The sun shone down, and despite what the thermometer said, it did not feel cold.

I walked up to the first mausoleum and opened the door.  There were walls of marble slots with names and birth and death dates.  My parents and I looked and looked and didn’t see Dude.  This was the one the undertaker said he was in, but we couldn’t find him.  We went inside the little room contained within the big building and looked.  No Dude.  We went in the building next door.  Again, we searched and searched to no avail.  There were a bunch of chairs in the middle of the room, so I sat down and pivoted to try to get a better look.  Frustrated, I called Ava, but she didn’t answer.  Back to the other building we went to look again.  This time in the little room, we find a note someone left and family photos of him and a candle with his name, but where on earth were his ashes?!  Now, I am getting really mad and Dad offers to go back to the undertaker’s house to ask again.  He does, and comes back and says Dude is up high.  We look and look.  No Dude.  At this point, I sink into the chair tucked in the corner leaning up against what look to be empty graves because there are no names on them. I yell “Dude, where ARE you?” and just relax my hand on one of them and continue to look.  About 30 seconds later, the door opens.  It is the undertaker.  He runs in saying that he had totally forgotten that he just moved Dude into a bigger grave last night and has yet to put his name back on the grave because he is about to put his dad in and will put both names on at the same time. 

“Where is he? I asked. 
“Right where your hand is”, said the undertaker.    
 It was a very difficult, but very special day. 
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