Dear friends, family, and followers of Defending Your Life:
It is with mixed emotions that I tell you that I will no longer be contributing to Defending Your Life. For the last year or so, I have been managing two accounts. One focused specifically on joy and one focused specifically on grief.
But handling both separately is not authentic to my own truth. Every single day, I live a life of both joy and grief. And by managing both sites, it forces me to compartmentalize each of these emotions, which is difficult to do. So in an effort to be more authentic and frankly, to simplify my life, I will be merging Defending Your Life into the Forced Joy Project. On the new site, I will continue to write about my grief journey as well as my search for joy. It will be a single place to talk about the full range of emotions in the search for joy in the face of loss.
Defending Your Life, the website, will remain. The blog posts, the podcasts, and all the content is extremely meaningful to myself, to Jeremy, and most importantly, to Brad. But the reality is, ever since Brad died, I’ve struggled how to make it my own. And I finally realized, it was never supposed to be mine. It was ours. And that’s how it will remain.
I have some additional podcasts (several from before Brad’s diagnosis and several from after) that I will eventually be adding to the site and will let you know when those are up. But other than that, all new content and blog posts will be on the Forced Joy Project’s new site.
I hope you all hop on over and continue to follow and contribute to the Forced Joy Project. I have some pretty exciting ideas and plans for the future, including focusing on other people's Forced Joy! Your comments and support have been invaluable to me over the last year and a half and I look forward to continuing that dialogue.
With love and joy,
Next week is Brad’s birthday.
Like last year, our family will be spending the week together to honor and celebrate both Brad and his twin, Dave. For one beautiful chaotic week, we get to live in each other’s noise and space and emotions. For one week, we gather from all across the country and get to be in each other’s presence.
I love it.
And I hate it.
Because for one week, our family is together and during that one week, Brad’s absence is more noticeable than ever.
It feels like the ultimate injustice to gather with the rest of the Frost Pack - with his mom and his twin and his sister and his best friend and all his closest people - without Brad. His absence is glaring. The silence is deafening.
I hate to admit it, but somehow in my daily life I am learning how to survive in the silence of Brad’s absence. I don’t have another choice. But the silence of his absence among the noise of the family? I’m not sure I’ll ever fully adjust to that.
So I anticipate next week with both joy and sadness.
It’s a strange and conflicting emotion to simultaneously feel both eagerness and dread. To go into next week excited to celebrate with those I love. Full of gratitude about the relationships I have with Brad's people who very quickly became my people. Full of joy over the time we will get together - time that is far too limited. So full of love.
And I also go into next week with an extreme heaviness and heartache about making it to another milestone without Brad. Another year, full of changes that he didn't get to witness. Another week of memories he won’t be apart of and photographs he won’t be in. A week of watching our nieces and nephews explore together, seeing how much they’ve grown since last year. Welcoming two new little ones that Brad will never know. A week of watching sunsets on the beach without an arm around my waist and sitting by a fire without toes touching in the sand. A week of late night conversations and deep connections. A week of mischievous debauchery and endless stories, explosive laughter and lingering tears. A week of experiences that Brad won't be a part of.
We will be living it up in the present as we reflect on the past and Brad will be present only in those reflections.
And that breaks my heart.
So much of the week will bring me joy. And with that joy comes the sorrow of experiencing it alone, without Brad there to go through it with me.
I go into next week with so many emotions. Anticipation, excitement, expectations, heartbreak, loneliness.
I focus on the feelings of joy so I don’t have to focus on the feelings of pain. But I’ve been here enough times to know the pain can’t be ignored for long. I've been here enough times to know, the greater the joy, the greater the pain. And by now I know, it all demands to be felt.
So moving forward into next week, I am feeling it all. And I look forward to sitting in it - the joy and the pain and the laughter and the tears - together.
When Brad died, I had several people ask me (and many more ask around me) if I was going to stay in Detroit. At the time I was incredibly offended. How could they question my loyalty to Detroit? Did they not know that I had lived here, and built a life here with Brad, for over 10 years? Did they not know that both Brad and I were transplants and that Brad only lived here for a year before I joined him? Did they not know that down to my core, Detroit felt like home? That Detroit was my home?
But even as I stubbornly defended my decision to stay, as more time passed, I started to recognize the tiny tension in my gut and the tiny voice in my head whispering, “but you might not stay.”
I didn’t want to hear that voice.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to continue building my life and my relationships in the city I loved. I wanted to honor both Brad and my home.
Everyday I convinced myself I was making the right choice. And everyday I heard a little voice ask, “but what if you leave?”
Acknowledging a desire to leave felt like acknowledging defeat. It felt like giving up on a city that became my home. A city I loved even though not everyone could understand that love. A city that supported me through my best and worst moments.
More importantly, acknowledging a desire to leave felt like giving up on the home that Brad and I spent twelve years building together. It felt like, not just giving up on my commitment to the city, but somehow giving up on my commitment to Brad.
Making a conscious decision to change the course of the life we planned together to go off alone into the unknown is impossibly hard.
Over the years, Brad and I talked a lot about leaving Detroit. It’s tough living in a place you constantly have to defend, despite its very real issues. Tough to live in a place where basic services like street lights and education for kids are lacking. Tough to live in a place that is so racially divided, you regularly feel like the foe, in spite of the time and work you put in to be a friend.
But Detroit remained home for us - in a lot of ways - because of these complexities. Our life here was built around a community of tough people who could handle the tough conversations. Despite being outsiders, I think we felt connected to a city that wasn’t afraid of its struggles. A city that could get knocked down repeatedly and always manage to get back up again.
Looking back, I think people questioned my decision to remain in Detroit because they couldn’t understand how I could possibly stay. How do you stay in the home and the city where you lost the love of your life? How do you get through the day when every single thing reminds you of what you had? Of what you no longer have?
Those reminders have been both a blessing and a curse. Some days, I smile seeing a tiny token of my life with Brad. Other days, it puts me in a puddle on the floor for hours. Many days it’s both.
At first, I thought I just had to get over my grieving. A certain amount of time had to pass and then it would all be easier. Life would start to go back to some semblance of normalcy and I would figure it all out.
But you don’t get over the grief. Time doesn’t heal. And normal - whatever that used to be - no longer exists.
After getting through the one year mark of Brad’s death, and realizing my life wasn’t going to automatically start improving (and also realizing the following several months would prove to be harder than I ever thought possible), I knew something had to change.
I’ve been stuck in the life that we planned. Going through the motions of a life that no longer exists. Sleeping in our bed. Cooking In our kitchen. Visiting our bars. Hanging with our people. None of it felt right anymore. In the beginning, I forced myself to show up and go through the motions, with a smile plastered to my face. When that became too exhausting, I just stopped showing up.
Brad may be dead, but it was me who felt like a ghost, quietly wandering though this foreign life.
I wanted to feel alive again.
So I started to quietly acknowledge that little voice telling me I didn’t have to stay - in this city or in this current life of mine. I would daydream about living on a farm or up in the mountains or on a quiet little lake somewhere. I thought about starting over in a place so unfamiliar I had no choice but to make it my own.
But that’s all it was - a daydream. A fantasy. Distractions to temporarily remove myself from this current life I was unhappy in.
It wasn’t real.
And then tragedy happened. Again and again and again. Over the course of a couple weeks, death and sickness and cancer all reemerged in my life.
And in the obvious and cliche way that tragedy seems to stems change, I was done. Done being a ghost in my own life.
The tiny little voice in my head was no longer a tiny little voice. It was my heart and my mind and my gut roaring all at once. The daydream didn’t have to be a dream. I had a choice. Be miserable or change.
Life is too fucking short. It’s too. fucking. short.
Be miserable or change.
So with my life crumbling down around me, I made a choice. I chose potential future happiness over unfulfilled familiarity. I chose the unknown over the stagnant. I chose joy over misery.
I chose possibility.
I chose the daydream.
I don’t know where this new life will lead me. And honestly, I am scared shitless. But the rash and irrational decision of waking up on a Monday to quit my job and rent a house on the lake in the Leelanau Peninsula, felt more right than any other active decision I’ve made in a long time.
I don’t know if I will come back to my home here in Detroit. I don’t even know what home feels like anymore. But I do know that the only way to figure out what home is - my home, not our home - is to leave.
I love this city and the life I built here. I will miss so much of that past life. But that is a life that is no longer available to me.
It’s time to explore something new.
It’s not you, Detroit, it’s me.
About a month ago, my world collided. It suddenly became filled with hospital visits and cancer scares and death. In addition to the previous 15 months spent in a heavy cloud of grief, I finally reached my limit. I was done.
I needed a change.
In the course of about 24 hours and with no real plan and not much thought, I completely flipped my already lopsided world upside down. I didn't overthink it. I didn't discuss it with everyone I know. I just felt my heart and followed my gut and did it.
On the day I made the decision to change it all, I promised my friend Suneil he could announce it to the world. So without further ado, please proceed HERE to read all about what's next for me.
1. The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.
2. Strength in the face of pain or grief.
I’ve spent the last year and a half openly talking about and writing about courage - courage in the face of illness, courage in the face of death, and courage in the face of life after loss.
But the reality is, I’ve spent the last year and a half utterly terrified.
Living in total fear.
Fear of change. Fear of being stuck. Fear of dying. Fear of living. Fear of it all.
I have been swallowed up by fear.
Even so, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of pushing through those fears to live a life of courage, in spite of the constant state of panic I internally experience. I’ve taken risks, I’ve spoken my truth, I’ve shown up and connected with loved ones. I’ve tested my strength in ways I never thought possible.
But all of those came with a deep layer of terror. Followed by the inevitable layer of guilt for not feeling as courageous as others maybe perceived me to be.
Inside, I felt like a scared little girl, all alone in an overwhelming new world.
And I wish I could say that acknowledging this truth will somehow make it easier to let go of the fear. But that would be a lie. I am still afraid. Doing it alone, without a partner - without the love and support I’d grown accustomed to - fills me with constant doubt and uncertainty.
Change is hard. Walking into the unknown feels like a barren landscape of terror.
But I've come to realize that if I’m going to continue to evolve and change, that I have to keep walking through it. I've also come to realize that if I want to continue living a life of courage, I will never be able to fully let go of the fear. Instead I need to learn to embrace the fear, finally coming to terms that you can’t have courage without fear.
Courage isn’t letting go of the fear. Courage is moving forward - one tiny, authentic step at a time - in spite of the fear. Courage is following your heart even when you heart has been shattered to pieces. Courage isn't having all the answers. It's living in the questions.
So instead of letting go of the fear, I’m moving forward with those fears. To me, that's what living courageously is all about.
With courage and fear, I'm preparing myself for some big changes. Stay tuned.
Welcome to your daily edition of "Dana is fucked, yet again" or as my good friend Suneil likes to call it, "the indignities of being a widow."
Yesterday I was informed by my accountant that I have to pay taxes on Brad's forgiven student loans in the wee tiny amount of, wait for it, TWENTY TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS.
How is that even possible?
I'll tell you how. Because my name wasn't on the mortgage so my home - the home Brad and I lived in for 6 years - became an estate asset when Brad died. Because of this, the estate has more assets than debts (even though outside of real estate, the estate is worth ZERO dollars).
Because 6 years ago, we decided to put the mortgage in Brad's name only (I was finishing up my own cancer treatment and my 700 credit score wasn't as good as his 800+ credit score - big mistake in hindsight), so our home became estate property. And because of that, I have to pay $22,000.
Does the government actually expect me to sell my home to pay taxes on a loan that wasn't even mine and that was forgiven because my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer???
Yes. The answer is yes.
I’m part of a Facebook group called Hot Young Widows Club. You don’t have to be hot or young or even a woman to be part of the group. The only requirement is that your partner is dead. But the name sets the tone for the type of group: it’s full of attitude and sass and zero fucks. It’s the most supportive grief group I’ve found.
Earlier, a fellow hot, young widow posted about March being kidney cancer awareness month. I didn’t know this existed. Maybe I should have - because of my own diagnosis, I am aware that blood cancers have their own month and lymphoma has a special color cancer ribbon. It only makes sense that kidney cancer would get its own month and special color ribbon too (I looked it up - it’s orange). But I didn’t know. And because of that, my initial feeling was one of guilt. Am I a bad cancer widow for the total lack of awareness I have about kidney cancer awareness month? The disease that stole my love and my whole fucking future and I don’t know anything about it?
Should I be more aware?
But after the guilt subsided, anger set in. I may not be aware about kidney cancer awareness month, but I am certainly aware about kidney cancer. That I am fucking aware of.
I'm aware it’s a sneaky cancer that doesn’t let itself known until it’s too late. I'm aware that the “lucky” ones who discover it early, usually discover it on accident. I'm aware that for the rest of the people (the “unlucky” ones), it is so fucking aggressive and awful that right when you settle in to fight, the fight is over. I'm aware it has the ability to - in an instant - swoop in and steal the life of the person you love most in the world, taking your life along with it.
I'm aware that we were too busy fighting it to advocate for it. Too busy fighting for a future, any future, to worry about awareness and ribbons. And I'm aware that with late stage kidney cancer, chances are, it’s going to be a shorter fight than you want.
I am also aware that the people who are AWARE of cancer awareness month are the people still living. The fighters. The survivors.
But stage 4 kidney cancer doesn’t leave a lot of survivors. It leaves a lot of widows. That I am aware of too.
So what is the point of kidney cancer awareness month? What exactly are we trying to be aware of? What kidney cancer looks like? What it feels like? Usually nothing. It looks and feels like nothing. And it’s because of this lack of awareness in the body, that it is so often undetected until the cancer has metastasized and it’s too late.
I am aware.
How about what kidney cancer does? Should we be aware of that? Because I can tell you about that too.
I am aware that kidney cancer silently attacks your body. Every day, quietly wrecking havoc on your system. For years. So by the time you are aware, it’s too late. And then it quickly - so fucking quickly - destroys you. It will spread to all your organs. It will cause life threatening blood clots and strokes. It will eat away at your bones. It will take your energy. And your vision. And you ability to sleep. And your appetite. And your ability to move. And if you’ve made it this far, it will eventually fuck with your mind. And finally, when it’s taken everything else, it will take your heart and with it, your very last breath.
I am aware.
With stage 4 kidney cancer, I am aware there is no cure. No treatment that provides any real hope (although you’ll hear the story of the one guy who is 6 years in and doing well or the person who miraculously cured her stage 4 cancer and I am aware that you’ll grip and hold hope to these examples with every bone in your body). But in most cases it’s a fucked up disease that will drop a bomb on you and obliterate everything and everyone in its path.
I am aware.
That’s what kidney cancer fucking does. Thank you awareness month. I am perfectly aware.
And now that you’re also aware, now what?
Typically the purpose of cancer awareness month is to bring awareness to symptoms to look out for for early detection. For some cancers that’s a lump. For others it’s fevers and night sweats. These symptoms can be detected early and can often times be the difference in life and death. But what about late stage kidney cancer? What then? Be aware of the indiscernible, silent thing growing inside you? The mass that shows no symptoms and you will not physically feel until it’s metastasized and spread all over your body? Be aware of that?
There’s no early detection. There’s no early screening. Even the American Cancer Society says, “There are no recommended screening tests for kidney cancer in people who are not at increased risk. This is because no test has been shown to lower the overall risk of dying from kidney cancer.”
And because they can’t give you any concrete actions to make you aware, they recommend eating your fruits and veggies and getting sleep and working out and reducing stress and not smoking and all the other preventative shit we all know.
I am aware.
And it all feels like a bunch of bullshit.
Instead of a month of awareness, how about just be aware? Be aware of your life and live. Live so fucking hard. Chase passion and excitement and love and adventure. Be compassionate and kind. Take risks. Fail.
Live a life so full and so aware that when you are taking your final breaths, you aren’t thinking about all the things you should have done. Instead you are replaying all the moments you chose to fully live.
Live that life. Be aware of that.
Happy Kidney Cancer Awareness Month. I am aware.
A year ago today we were lying in bed together. I was curled up in the nook of his arm - the spot where I had spent thousands of hours over the course of our relationship. His one hand was gently resting on my thigh and the other was tucked safely inside my own, our fingers entwined. He was asleep and I was lying next to him, listening to the fierce rhythm of his heart.
It was the first morning I woke up and wanted it to be over - a thought that is hard to admit, but one that, unlike so many other thoughts over the last year, comes without guilt. After my own struggle with cancer, we had more conversations about life and death than your average young couple. We knew how we wanted to live - and equally as important - how we didn’t. I woke up, snuggled in the crook of his arm, and for the first time I knew: Brad wouldn’t want to live like this.
He hadn’t spoken in 24 hours and it had been days since he had been able to carry on any conversation beyond a few words. Brad was a man of many words. Words that gracefully poured out of him like poetry. Words of passion, about social justice and equality and Detroit and most of all, words about love.
Brad embodied love.
He was a lover of life, taking big risks with even bigger payoffs. He was an optimistic dreamer who had the unique ability to both have faith in his ideas and recognize their barriers. He was a spectacular listener, allowing conversations to linger in thought before offering feedback. He toed the line of comfort, loving the quiet space between awkwardness and self discovery. He was hilarious and quick witted, both in his self deprecation and his joke telling. He was a fierce and passionate leader, who knew the power of leading by example. He constantly wanted to know more, always encouraging to dig just a little bit deeper. He was thought provoking, challenging basic assumptions.
He was, oftentimes, way too serious, but he was silly too. He loved his family, especially his nieces and nephews, and regularly taught us all what it meant to show up. He was hard on himself, most notably in situations I found hysterical (he was never more angry than the time he flipped a burger so it landed perfectly - and got stuck - in the one inch space between the stove and the wall). He was intimidatingly brilliant, but never made you feel as if you were less than. He was unconditionally supportive of other’s dreams, quick to pull out the white board for a brainstorming session to make them a reality. He was fearless, never afraid to take the road less traveled. He was gentle and kind. He was a romantic, we all witnessed that. But not just in love, also in life.
He was authentic.
He was vulnerable.
He was courageous.
He was ineffable.
Brad was love.
And a year ago, I woke up and I knew. And I believe Brad knew. This was no longer the way in which he wanted to live. And shortly after that, with me curled up in his arms in the quiet of our home, his hand still grasping mine, he let go.
A piece of myself died with him that afternoon. A version of myself I will never get back. In its place, grief quickly settled in. There is not a single facet of my life that loss has not touched. From the obvious gaping hole in my heart down to the minuscule details of my daily life, like the chipped “Brad” mug that he used to drink his coffee out of. It's all a blaring and inescapable reminder of loss.
But there is also not a single facet of my life that love has not touched. Because Brad was love. And his impact so deep, it would be impossible not to carry that with me. Brad constantly reminded me what it felt like to be loved. To feel safe. To know trust.
Loss has followed me every day for the last year, but so has love. Because love - the kind of love we shared - is something that not even death can take away.
Thank you, Brad for showing me what love feels like and allowing me the greatest pleasure of being your forever. I will miss you always - and in all ways. I love you more than the sun and the moon.
It was two and a half months after Brad’s death. I was running away and was in Florida at the time. I stubbornly refused to celebrate, not wanting to acknowledge the day. Not wanting to acknowledge another minute had passed without Brad. And with the exception of a “non-celebratory” stop for tacos and tequila at the nearby hole-in-the-wall mexican joint, we didn’t. It was my 34th birthday and my first major milestone. And I was exhausted.
Grief is exhausting. All the time. Even the mundane, daily tasks require 100 times the normal effort, oftentimes requiring superhero strength just to get to the pile of laundry taking over a significant corner of my bedroom. Grief also has a way of taking previously joyful occasions - like holidays and anniversaries and other momentous celebrations - and turning them into gut wrenching sobfests.
And ‘tis the season for big milestone dates, coupled with the constant reminder of where I was this time a year ago (With Brad celebrating our anniversary in the Upper Peninsula. With Brad healthy and happy. With Brad sick. With Brad dying.)
I am constantly tallying an emotional checklist of all the major milestones I've already survived this season and the ones I have yet to get through. Each one preceded with copious amounts of dread and followed by an exhausting emotional crash.
Wedding Anniversary: Check!
My Own Cancerversary: Check!
One Year since Brad's Diagnosis: Check! (Barely.)
Annual Holiday Party: Check!
New Year's: ?
One Year Since Brad's Death: ??? (FUCK.)
Some of these moments are beautiful and joyous occasions. Others are harsh and traumatic reminders of what I've been through. Both can feel unbearable having to tackle alone. But I have no other option than to keep moving and get through them.
And that’s the thing. What used to feel like days I had to get to, now feel like days I have to get through.
And each milestone feels heavier than the last, breaking me down just a little bit more. Each one adds to the weight I have to carry with me. Each one, I silently carry alone. Until I can’t carry anymore. Until the weight of it all crushes me.
It feels like there is no escape. And in some ways there isn’t. Grief is my constant companion - it also just happens to be the loneliest company.
Getting through all the “firsts” this year has been a rollercoaster. It’s been lonely and empowering and joyful and painful. After January, I’ll be in my second year of milestones, which I hear for many, is worse than the first year. The first year is a blur of basic survival. The second year is when some of the grief filled haze lifts and reality really sets in. The unbelievable reality that this. is. my. life.
Every day I move forward - every milestone I get through - feels like a step further away from Brad. One day further from “the last time” with Brad. I’m constantly juggling the juxtaposition of wanting to move forward and find meaning and happiness and purpose in this new life, but still gripping so tightly to my past one. I hold hope for my future in one hand and grief for the loss of my past in the other. It is the confusing and uncomfortable dance of both pushing myself forward and digging my heels to stay back.
It is a delicate balancing act carrying both life and death, joy and sorrow.
Ultimately, it’s all a reminder of time. Time we had. Time we didn’t have. And mourning it all.
Next year I won’t be able to look back at the previous year’s milestones and think “this time last year” with Brad. Next year, I’ll be looking back on just myself.
And somehow, in spite of that heartbreaking thought, time - and me - will continue to move forward. One day at a time.
Guest Post: The Bradford Frost Memorial SIT Study Abroad Scholarship Fund - By Jake Byl and Jessica Santillo
There is something powerful about being in the right place, with the right people, at the right time: It changes you forever.
For us, a pivotal moment happened on a study abroad program in Durban, South Africa in 2004, when we met Brad.
The program was a field-based immersion program that, unlike many study abroad semesters, integrated students fully into local communities. That made for incredible growth, hilarious mishaps, deep friendships, and a rudimentary grasp of the Zulu language (such as “Yebo Gogo!” means “Yes Grandma!” and can be used when answering the phone).
Brad was such a profound part of that experience for us. He asked great questions. He really listened to answers. He made people laugh wherever we went. In many ways, Brad was the seasoned sage of the group because he had already done an SIT study abroad semester in Switzerland. But in other ways, Brad was like the curious child of the group who was willing to ask difficult questions or marvel over a new sight. With his mix of wisdom and curiosity, he helped turn what would have been just an interesting semester into a profound one that changed how we see the world and the people we share it with.
Like many of you, the SIT Study Abroad South Africa 2004 alumni have been struggling with how to deal with Brad’s untimely death. How to honor him, remember him, and continue the great work that he was doing. And at the same time, figure out ways to process our own emotions and connect with others who are doing the same thing. That is why, together with Brad’s friends and family, we have created The Bradford Frost Memorial SIT Study Abroad Scholarship Fund to honor Brad, and his lifelong commitment to connecting with people—whether in his Detroit neighborhood or on the other side of the world. Keeping with that tradition, this scholarship will offer promising students from public universities, community colleges, or HBCUs the chance to study abroad—students who are too often underrepresented in college study abroad programs. In fact, Brad was the only one of our cohort who came from a public university. There are no other Bradford Frosts out there, but we need more people like him.
We need to raise $5,000 by the end of this year in order for this scholarship to get started. Please consider a donation of any amount. It is a fitting activity for this time of year when we gather ourselves and look back at our year to count our blessings and mourn our losses.