Tag Archives: Grief

J and K in the '80s

Give It Away

When my father-in-law died a couple years ago, I saw my wife struggle with every new holiday. Every special event brought with it a memory shared with her dad. Living with grief may become more manageable as time passes, but it also seems most intense on the one day dedicated to celebrating a life. When there are no longer candles to add to the cake, a birthday can become the lightning rod for accumulated sorrow.

For most of his life, my birthday greetings to Jeff Poehlmann were belated. My memory is reliable, but for whatever reason my brain locked in February 26th as Jeff’s big day. Or the 22nd. Or the 12th. Apparently, every day in February had the potential to be his birthday, and I usually got it wrong. Even back in the years where he hosted a party as a clear indicator, I figured his parents had just arranged it on a different day out of some convenience. It really wasn’t until Facebook offered regular reminders that it finally sunk in:

Today, in fact, is Jeff’s birthday.

Since attending a memorial gathering of friends from his hometown in early December, I have looked for things to distract me from the biggest feelings. At first, it wasn’t possible. I listened to the music he left behind on repeat for days. The necessities of the holiday season, however, coupled with a complicated move across town gave me reasons not to think too much about my grief. It flared up from time to time, but there was always something in front of me that needed attention, allowing me to procrastinate a little longer with the hope it would evaporate as I multitasked.

Today, however, is the day dedicated to celebrating Jeff’s life. Facebook shows me his picture, as if he were still here, and I can no longer set aside my grief and my guilt.

All you have is just a kind word

Last night, I ate dinner at a Buddhist monastery here in Indiana. After food had been served and veggies eaten, a celebration of the Lunar New Year began. Before the visiting Mongolians sang and danced, some locals with guitars made use of the microphones.

One of those songs was credited to Johnny Cash, one of Jeff’s favorite performers. Unearthed from the 5th track of his 55th album, it begins:

Well, I woke up this morning I had something on my face.
It was still there when I brushed my teeth, still there when I shaved.
I showed it to my neighbor, and he broke into a grin.

I gave it away. I gave it away.

Already braced for Facebook’s inevitable reminder, when I heard those words—first written by Tom T. Hall about the time I met Jeff in the 1970’s—my grief re-entered the room.

Much of my online time this weekend was spent digging for past birthday greetings on Facebook and email to remind myself how J and I recognized each other’s special day. The messages were mostly brief and filled with well-wishing of health and happiness. Occasionally, we would express a deeper gratitude for keeping each other in our lives, but they were mostly limited to a sentence or two meant to say simply, “I remember you.”

Jeff also made a point of replying to those messages. He would reflect the well-wishing back to me and turn his day into a shared one that became special for me, too. Looking through emails and Facebook threads, I notice how often this happened elsewhere, on the other special days of the year. Jeff’s way of being in the world was to fill it with kindness.

Smiles don’t cost money. Give it away, give it away.
Maybe all you have is just a kind word you can say.

Give it away, give it away.

The most Jeff song ever.

Love Someone Sometime

Over the years, I watched apprehensively as others around me coped with the death of close family. Though the parade of years has taken grandparents, uncles and a few friends from me, the people I have known the longest in my life—my parents and sister—are still alive, as are the other people who have shared my home. As I suffer my grief over losing a friend, I can only imagine how exponentially more intense it is for Jeff’s family.

Today, as I celebrate his birth, I am compelled to confront his death. It isn’t easy for me.

The thing that helps me the most in such struggles is to reflect on who this man was and list the traits that defined him, both flaws and strengths. I close my eyes and imagine these traits as tangible gifts, ones that can be lifted from his body to take home and use. From my friend now, I take the biggest gift—Love. To love more is the way I choose to honor and remember Jeff.

Although it helps me to think of it that way, Jeff’s love is not really something I took. He gave me this gift a long time ago. He gave it to everyone he met, and to those he never knew. In his best Johnny Cash, he gave it away.

Love someone sometime. Give it away, give it away.

Especially today.

Young Jeff in the dim light of the WHS dressing room

Losing Bits

Earlier this month, my computer broke. It was a long time coming, an inevitable journey for a laptop Apple now calls “obsolete.” Having already suffered everything from missing screws to intermittent lines showing the age of the screen,  the slowness eventually made it impossible to complete a backup. My data at risk, I brought the computer in for care.

A week and a few hundred dollars later, a new solid state hard drive lived in my laptop with most of the age dusted off. However, the replaced drive wouldn’t release all of its data and cost me some applications and my bearings. Some of the bits have not yet returned. Some never will.

I’ve experienced other catastrophic computer failures in my life. Despite devoted backup practices, a screenplay was once eaten by the clicking of a SyQuest drive, and a similar thing happened with Iomega a few years later. In both cases, large chunks of my life disappeared, including my first decade of email activity. While I don’t need to every day, more than once I have wanted to look for something old, something that did not survive the waves of technology.

Much of my anxiety about this particular digital crisis stems from the death of my friend, Jeff. The last complete backup I was able to get came in July. I was therefore confident I would avoid starting completely from scratch but assured that no new writing or other correspondence since would be recovered from that backup. Many of our thoughts and interactions are on social media, but some files I wouldn’t be able to recreate.

Death never disrupted my home. Meaning, I have never had the experience of walking past a silent room knowing someone I love used to occupy that space. TV and movies tell me this is a thing the bereaved have to face: what to do with the silent room.

One of the things I have done over the past few weeks is to look at old yearbooks, the social media of my youth. I paged through surviving yearbooks from Freshman, Sophomore and Senior years—what happened to my Junior year, I don’t know—looking at pictures of Jeff and for the words he left for me. This, and a handful of artifacts preserved in some Tupperware box, are the tangible proof of our connection. As long as I keep them close and don’t write on them further, they remain as they were and always will be.

In the decades that followed high school—constituting the bulk of our relationship—the artifacts are mostly digital. While J was always a good letter writer, we embraced email to embrace each other. From politics to entertainment, these remote exchanges left a sizable digital footprint. I don’t have many pictures of us together as adults, but I had the emails. Like the yearbooks, to preserve them I only had to keep them safe.

As I type, I still hope to read them again. Most of my email was sent through a POP account, which ultimately means that the only copy likely in existence is what was on my laptop. Through much effort, I believe I have my email files back on my laptop, but they remain invisible to me when I open the application to view them. Leaving them in that state for the moment, I draw comfort in the uncertainty. I don’t know if they are forever lost, which is better than knowing for sure.

These bits comprise the digital life I have created with Jeff. Every time I open my laptop, I walk past this virtual room, knowing there is an open invitation to walk inside and sit. I can venture in and see him exactly as he was. I can keep my memories fresh. Maybe that is what I fear most about losing these messages: Without them, my memories will fade and Jeff will disappear.

There was a moment in this process of restoration when I launched my computer and saw nothing familiar. My Chrome browser lost all of its open tabs. Many applications reset to scratch. Once I found where that information lived—and realized the techs had not restored a hidden directory—I was able to get those things back.

I launched Chrome to check my work. In my Facebook window, a chat with Jeff reappeared, right where I left it. It contained the last interaction I had with him. I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me, and we ended with a joke. In this new moment, I am relieved to see his room still exists. I read it as a new message saying everything will be all right.

Today, that’s enough. I’m walking away knowing he’s in there, somewhere.

hands on wall to make 50


“How do I begin?”

This is the question that paralyzes me most when facing the death of someone I know and love. As I start to consider possible answers, my mind and my heart talk over each other with a swirl of suggestions that avoids consensus. I get stuck between a desire to connect with others and the guilt over not doing enough while my friend was alive, between fixing the unfixable and making a bedsheet fort where I will live the rest of my days. I want to do everything and absolutely nothing. How do I begin?

Just Bad for You is an archive of my friend Jeff Poehlmann’s experience living through a serious health challenge that ultimately cost him his life and us his voice. It is a space he made to help himself and others understand the particulars of lung cancer and how to live beyond the prognosis. From the testimonials on Facebook and LungCancer.net, where he spent the past year as a contributing writer, Jeff’s reach proved considerable. While he may not be here to continue publishing, Jeff did leave works-in-progress and a community of friends who can curate and contribute to the continuing story of what makes life meaningful.

In the wake of his death, I find it both comforting and intimidating to read and hear his words. Through his podcast, Jeff accompanies me on walking commutes to work, though usually only at the end of the day for fear I may be rendered useless. I see a dozen or so drafts in his queue, each started at different stages of his health journey, but I cannot yet bring myself to touch them.

With a brain and heart muddled in grief, I don’t have a clear idea how this blog will evolve. Perhaps it will be a place to process his life and our loss, or expand as a resource for the state of care for this and other diseases. Regardless, I do know that I want it to continue.

For four years, Jeff wrote about what he knew, what he learned, and most poignantly what he was experiencing. I do not have lung cancer. What I am experiencing now is loss and the challenge of regaining forward momentum in a world without Jeff. For a little while at least, that’s what this blog may focus on. We’ll draw from the strength he showed, even when not physically at his best, and the time he made to love the world.

I do not expect to be alone in this. Others who knew him or were impacted by his story may contribute as well, by sharing memories of Jeff that continue to resonate in his absence or by making meaning from the struggles they endure. For the moment, this space is for us.

Caring for Jeff’s community, however, requires starting with something. Right now, this is where I am and what I can do. Tomorrow, I will know I have already begun.


Beyond the Shame of Change, Adversity, and Grief

Nothing is forever, as the saying goes. And it seems true in terms of human experience. Change is inevitable. You can’t please all the people all the time. Time will tell. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But, of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover because the grass is always greener on the other side. Also, that thing about picking your friend’s nose.

I am clearly not above the occasional inspirational bracelet.

Just not that one about everything happening for a reason. I’ll concede that there are certainly arguments for cause and effect — in fact, very much so, which is essential understanding when it comes to actually dealing with the issues that are thrust upon us in spite of our best efforts and desires. To suggest that everything happens for a reason is immensely wrongheaded and, even with the best of intentions, is ultimately unhelpful.

This does raise the issue — when suffering or change of any sort occurs — of how one is to cope if there is no purpose behind the suffering or change. Continue reading Beyond the Shame of Change, Adversity, and Grief