Because Her Grace Was Abounding

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but Emily and I signed up for Disciple Bible study back in the fall. I remember that first week, as we debated between going to Disciple class or another option, Emily looked at me and said, “I’ve heard that Disciple classes are pretty intense… Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I nodded, and in we went with no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic church, I’ve always considered myself to be fairly well versed in scripture. After all, the Lectionary is set up so that you read the entire Bible every three years (assuming you go to Mass every Sunday). I’ll be honest, though, this class has really made me look at everything in a very different way. And, in many ways, it’s made me question a lot of the beliefs I’ve held onto about Christianity and, even more so, myself.

This week, we discussed the Epistle to the Romans. Although I definitely had many thoughts and questions about the book as a whole, I really went down a rabbit hole in my mind when someone in class brought up the topic of grace. It’s a subject that, honestly, I’ve always struggled with, largely because much of modern Christian teachings specifically condemn multiple aspects of my identity as undeserving of God’s grace. And yet, as I drove home tonight and fought back tears, I could hear Emily’s voice clear as day, telling me to stop being so mean to myself… just like she did nearly every single day from 2018 to 2022.

She Showed Me Grace

Emily was one of the most kindhearted, giving people I’ve ever met. In fact, I often think of her when people ask for a definition or example of terms like abounding grace or altruism. She shared her gifts, her presence, and her love with others without hesitation and, oftentimes, without any consideration as to how it might affect her.

It always surprised me when I’d do something that I considered inconsiderate or harsh, and she’d still be there, ready to forgive me and accept me still. And, as I often told her, I didn’t understand how she did it because I felt so undeserving.

The Puppy Debate

There was that ridiculous puppy, Nova, that she fostered for a few days then decided to adopt. She was not only living in an apartment that didn’t allow pets, but she was working two jobs and enrolled in grad school. I watched this puppy for her a couple times, and I spent several nights talking to her on the phone or texting her as she struggled to deal with the dog because it was so young, untrained, and quite the handful.

Finally, I told her, “Emily, just take the damn dog back to the humane society and tell them that you just don’t have the time or space to deal with a puppy right now. It’s not that big of a deal.” She asked if I’d take the dog back for her, and I said, “No. I’ll drive you there, I’ll stand by you the whole time, but I will not do it for you. You are the one who adopted the dog, so you need to be the one to take it back. You’re an adult, and sometimes that means you have to do hard things.”

I know I was harsh. I know I made her cry. And, honestly, I spent the entire rest of that day feeling guilty about it and worrying if she was going to stop being my friend because of it. But, the next day, she reached out and thanked me for what I said and told me she didn’t think any less of me because of it. She never once yelled at me, told me I was a bad friend, or treated my any differently after that. (Oh, and she did take the dog back, too.)

Jealousy Over The Ex

Emily and I started dating about two weeks after she broke up with her ex. We didn’t plan it, and I definitely didn’t see it coming, but I definitely found myself floating on air that entire first week after that night at Hooters.

Then, on Friday night, she started texting me. She’d agreed to hang out with her ex and some mutual connections that evening. However, when she went to pick him up (he doesn’t drive), he had an entire suitcase with him because he decided they needed a “romantic weekend together.” And, because Emily hates confrontation even more than I do (and that’s saying something), she didn’t say no.

She was texting me to try to figure out what to do, but my emotions were all over the place. I stopped replying to her texts because I knew I was going to say something I’d regret, but then she started blowing up my phone because she interpreted my sudden silence as anger. I tried my best to explain to her that I was feeling jealous, hurt, and confused, but I wasn’t doing it well.

At one point, I told her I felt stupid for thinking that she’d actually be into me, and I’d rather her be honest than pretend to be into me. Of course, she responded by telling me that she definitely wanted to date me, but she was afraid of confrontation (which I already knew) and she didn’t want to hurt Julian’s feelings or give him a reason to lash out at her.

The entire time, she kept telling me that my feelings about the situation were valid and the last thing she wanted to do was hurt me. Looking back, I definitely didn’t handle the situation in a mature way, but she was still willing to love me anyway. And, ultimately, she did start setting some harsher boundaries with the ex — it just took a lot of time and effort.

Her Grace Knew No Limits

Obviously, those are very specific examples of me and Emily. However, I watched her show grace to countless other people, too.

She had this friend that, honestly, said some really harsh things to Emily at times. I remember multiple conversations with Emily crying over the things this friend had said about how Emily was “getting fat” and how she “wasn’t a good friend” because she was trying to get the friend to make recovery oriented decisions. And yet, it didn’t matter what Emily had going on in her life, anytime that friend needed help, Emily would drop everything and go. We once even had to turn our date night into sharing a fast food burger and fries outside the emergency room because the friend called her when she was on her way to meet me and needed medical attention.

The same ex I mentioned before? We once picked him up at 11:00pm and took him to the ER as well because his blood sugar was all sorts of out of whack and he called Emily because he didn’t have anyone else. After everything he had done to her (I’m eventually going to talk more about that), she looked at me that night and said, “I know he is a huge jerk, but he needs help and we can help him. Doesn’t everyone deserve that?”

Trying to Find My Emily-Like Grace

As I told people in my Disciple class tonight, I really feel like my job at this point is continuing Emily’s legacy. She never said that, but I feel like she made the world a better place, and I still want that for everyone.

But, like I said tonight: How do you show others grace when you yourself don’t feel deserving? And, even more so, are we supposed to offer abounding grace if we’re truly leaning into our call to be Christ-like?

I am going to talk to Emily about these things this weekend. And, even if I don’t get an answer, I know she’ll at least be willing to listen because she’s always been willing to do anything for me.


Because She Ran on Coffee

My sleep has significantly improved over the past few weeks. However, I still experience mornings that are harder than others. Last Thursday was such a day, and boy was it a doozy. But I had a busy day ahead, so I pulled into the Starbucks drive thru after I took the kids to school.

At first, it was all ordinary. I ordered my “usuals.” Then, the woman said, “And what else?” A normal question. But just hearing that made me think back to all the times I had stopped and ordered coffee for the both of us.

My voice cracked as I said, “No, that’s all.” I felt the tears begin as the woman handed me my iced chai. And by the time I pulled out of the parking lot, I was full-blown sobbing. It may have been a bit dramatic, but I couldn’t help it because coffee always makes me think of Emily.

She Always Had Coffee

When Emily and I were in DBT group together, I quickly noticed a pattern with how she’d enter the building each week — always a coffee in hand. Sometimes it was in a travel mug from home, sometimes it was from Dunkin’ or Starbucks, and sometimes it was from a gas station. But, no matter where it came from, it was always coffee.

As Emily and I became friends, I learned that coffee was literally Emily’s fuel. It didn’t matter if it was 8:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the afternoon. She’d have a coffee in her hand or gladly accept one if it was offered.

However, her fatal flaw was not that she drank a bunch of coffee, but rather how long it took her to drink it. I would sometimes see her nurse the same cup of coffee for four or more hours. My favorite moments were the ones where she’d end up with two coffees for this reason.

Coffee Mug Mornings

I remember the first time Emily spent the night. I remember it because the next morning, we sat at the table, sipping coffee and smiling. I kept looking at her and grinning from ear to ear because I still couldn’t believe she was actually interested in me. Yet, there she was, smiling right back at me.

Throughout our relationship, we spent many mornings drinking coffee together. Sometimes, like on the Saturday mornings the kids were at their dad’s, we’d sit on the couch in our pajamas (which meant Emily was usually just in one of my t-shirts) and sip coffee while we watched a television show or just talked. There were other days when we’d grab coffee together through a drive thru or I’d make her coffee to go as she headed out the door for work.

On Sundays, Emily would never finish her coffee before it was time to leave for church. So she’d take her coffee mug into my car and continue drinking it while I drove. Of course, this meant that the coffee mugs would pile up in the floorboard until I took them inside, but it made me laugh nonetheless.

Even when we traveled, we made time for coffee. I remember when we went to Chicago, we grabbed coffee the first morning we were there and sat to drink it as we looked out at Lake Michigan. When we went to Melbourne, Florida, we grabbed coffee from a local place and sipped it as we walked along the beach and sat to watch the waves roll in and out.

Every moment seemed so simple, yet so perfect all at once. And they all involved coffee.

I Think of Her When I Drink Coffee

I know that it’s probably just the fact that her death is so fresh, but I am continuously shocked by all the seemingly minor things that make me think of Emily. It’s probably ridiculous that I can’t drink or even smell coffee without thinking of her, but that’s where I’m at. It’s just one of many things I strongly associate with her and probably always will.

I don’t go through coffee nearly as quickly now, because Emily isn’t here drinking it. But I’d give anything to sit and drink coffee with her again. Here’s to hoping there’s coffee in Heaven? I’d love to sit and watch the sun rise with a cup of coffee in one hand while my other hand holds on to Emily.

Because We Wanted To Help People

Earlier this week, I looked over a friend’s graduate school application essays and provided some edit suggestions. Honestly, I loved reading the essays because it gave me such a clear perspective on why they’re applying to grad school and what they hope to accomplish with their MSW. It’s just inspiring to hear the why behind people’s dreams.

Of course, reading the essays also made me think about Emily for multiple reasons. First and foremost, this friend was actually one of Emily’s closest friends and someone Emily really admired. They worked together for a while, and they bonded over life experience and their shared desire to make the world a better place.

However, it wasn’t just that shared connection that made me think of Emily — it was the content of the essays themselves. Just as this other person has a whole vision of what they’d like to do once they obtain their master’s degree, Emily had a vision of what she wanted to do as well. And, honestly, it was a vision Emily and I shared.

It Started With DBT

I know I’ve already rambled on about how Emily and I met. However, I always find it funny when I think back to our time in group therapy together because so many things came out of that single shared experience. Obviously, our relationship was my favorite outcome from those hours we spent together, learning about wise mind. But, I think the inspiration we both took from it is a close second.

Before our paths crossed, Emily and I both had a desire to help people. And, despite all of the shortcomings of the therapist herself, we both grew a lot from our exposure to dialectical behavior therapy. Because of that, we both walked away from our time in DBT group with a dream to utilize the modality in some shape or form in our futures.

Of course, no single form of therapy is one-size-fits-all. Usually, most modalities are designed as a response to something specific the therapist who developed it was trying to address. In Marsha Linehan’s case, she wanted to help highly sensitive individuals who experienced chronic suicidal ideation (meaning lots of people with borderline personality disorder and similar conditions). As it became more mainstream, clinicians discovered that DBT is also beneficial for clients with disordered eating habits, those who deal with substance misuse, and many other populations.

In other words, it can help the exact populations of people Emily and I have always wanted to work with.

Even after we moved on from our DBT group as patients, Emily and I frequently talked about the modality. We discussed its benefits, its shortcomings, and our personal frustrations. We also discussed adaptations a clinician could possibly make to fit specific types of clients (like those with a trauma history).

Correcting What Went Wrong

I think one of the reasons mental health professionals with lived experience do their jobs so well is because they’ve seen what doesn’t work. That’s definitely the case for Emily and I both, and it was definitely one of the biggest motivators in our quest to help others.

I remember the first time Emily and I talked about our “dream treatment center” together. We were on our way to Knoxville, so we had several hours of time together in the car. We were talking about another one of Emily’s friends who has really struggled to find a treatment approach that works for her because of the combination of ED and trauma.

As Emily mentioned at that time, many residential facilities focus on weight restoration and meal compliance, but they don’t always spend as much time breaking down the function of ED. Also, as I saw during my time working in addiction treatment, not a lot of time is spent in small group or individual settings to really let people process underlying issues. And, unfortunately, that’s a huge part of the issue because substance use and disordered eating are almost always behaviors that stem from something much larger.

So, we talked about how our hypothetical treatment center would correct what went wrong in other places. We wanted to provide trauma-informed care, ensure that everyone felt safe, and make sure we didn’t care for one specific type (or stereotype) of client. And, we wanted to make sure that marginalized groups didn’t get lost in the shuffle, meaning we wanted to offer care for those in larger bodies, those in ethnic groups that may have a harder time accessing care (or finding places who were accepting of their upbringing), and those within the LGBTQ+ community.

Oh, and then there’s the other part about eating disorder treatment that makes it inaccessible for so many: the cost. So, Emily wanted to offer scholarships and look for grants or other funding sources so we could dedicate at least a few spots in our facility for those who were uninsured or underinsured. We also wanted to find ways to subsidize care for those whose insurance tried to boot them out before they were truly ready to go it alone.

Treating The Whole Person

Of course, healing isn’t just about learning how to eat carbs or sitting in a chair while a therapist asks you about your childhood trauma. People are complex beings, and we need a variety of things to feel fulfilled.

Emily and I wanted to find ways to work various arts into our treatment approach. We both agreed that music, visual art, and dance can be incredibly powerful forms of expression, and we wanted to explore what those components would look like in the context of treating people who live with ED. Of course, it would have required additional training and education, but we were more than willing to do that because we knew it would benefit the people we served.

We also wanted to find a balance in how much we focused on eating disorder recovery and how much we focused on other aspects of mental health treatment. We thought some specific small groups based on other conditions or needs would be helpful, since each person has unique needs. Some may need things like grief recovery, while others may need something specific for OCD.

In other words, we’d individualize treatment to the best of our abilities.

A Distant Dream or No Longer A Possibility?

Before Emily died, we knew our hypothetical treatment center was a solid decade down the line. Our plan was to get her established with her LMSW so she could start working towards her LCSW, go through the IVF process to have our child together, and then I’d look into going back to school. Once Emily had her LCSW and I had whatever degree I decided was best for our goals, we’d look into the next steps.

But now, she’s gone, and I’m a little torn on how to proceed.

Part of me wants to find a way to open this dream treatment center regardless, and name it after Emily. It would be the ultimate way to honor her, and I’d find ways to give as much credit back to her as I could.

But then, part of me feels like it’s an impossible task. I don’t have any formal training in anything related to therapy or social work. I know almost nothing about running a business, let alone one in a healthcare environment. And, although my finances are on the up trend, I’m still recovering from a rather rough final few months of 2022.

And, of course, the whole idea came about because of her… And I’m not sure how I’d ever live out her dreams without her by my side. But, then again, it’s because I love her and I loved her passion for helping others that I even wanted to do this to begin with…

What’s a grieving woman to do?

Because I Bought Her Flowers

I had a hard day yesterday. The sad part is, the day itself was great. Yet, everywhere I turned, there were memories of Emily. Everything made me think of her, from 2:00 in the morning until I finally fell asleep watching television around 10:00pm. Although I definitely don’t want to forget her, sometimes it just overwhelms the day when everything causes my heart to break again.

When I woke up this morning, I told myself I would leave yesterday behind and focus on the day ahead. I have plenty of work to do, which should distract me most of the day. But, as I’m starting to learn, the universe has a twisted sense of humor… and so I quickly found my inbox filled with emails from florists, reminding me that Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching.

Thanks, everyone, I didn’t need that reminder.

Flowers Just Because

One of the many things about Emily I loved was the fact that she was very much a stereotypical girl. She loved wearing dresses and cute shoes. And, of course, she owned entirely too much makeup and loved any excuse she could find to justify spending an hour putting on a full face of it. We were very much opposites in this way, but I just found her girly ways so adorable and would often watch her in awe as she applied eye shadow or tried on dresses.

Anyway, because she was such a “girl,” she also loved receiving flowers. And, because I’m one of those hopeless romantic types who love sweeping my person off their feet, buying her flowers made me happy, too.

There were many occasions when I came home with flowers or sent flowers to her at work “just because.” Sometimes, like on our one-year anniversary, I had a justified reason to. Other times, like the Wednesday I sent them to her because she was having a bad day, I just decided to send them for no reason other than to make her smile. And that they did. Every single time.

Her coworkers never really seemed to understand the notion of sending flowers to someone because you love them. Whenever I’d send them to Emily, her coworkers would ask what I’d done wrong or what I was trying to butter her up for. And every time, she’d look at them and say, “Dude, some people just love each other and send each other flowers. She knows they make me happy.” Then she’d text me about it, and we’d laugh or make jokes about why heterosexual relationships suck.

Flowers on Valentine’s Day

I wasn’t the only one in the relationship to buy flowers. I just did it more frequently than Emily. However, she would occasionally buy them for me too, and it always made me smile.

My favorite flower story, however, is from Valentine’s Day weekend last year. Emily’s Mondays were always busy, and we didn’t have the kids the weekend before Valentine’s, so I planned a romantic date night for Saturday night. However, I kicked it off by getting Emily a dozen red roses (I know, so cliche) on Friday.

Little did I know Emily also got me a dozen roses, only she went with rainbow colored because, you know, we’re gay like that.

I’d never been in a relationship before where both people were so invested in making the other one happy. In fact, I think Emily did more in 18 months than other people did in a decade. And, it was very obvious that weekend, as we sat at the dinner table with two dozen roses in the middle, that we not only loved each other, but small gestures mattered to us both.

I Still Buy Her Flowers

Every time I’m in Knoxville, I make a point of taking flowers to Emily’s grave. Usually, it’s just a dozen roses in whatever color I can find at the Kroger I drive by on the way to the cemetery. However, I make a point to tell her about them and tell her that I love her when I place them next to the headstone.

I know that flowers die quickly, especially when you toss them on a grave. But, for me, it’s not the longevity or beauty that matters — it’s the sentiment behind why I bring them to her.

Because I love Emily, I buy her flowers. I know she loves and appreciates them because, well, she’s a girly girl. And, even though she’s not physically here to see or enjoy them the way she used to, I will still continue to buy them for her. I will never stop loving Emily, which means I will never stop buying her flowers. Because, in my mind, those flowers are one of the ways I showed her my love.

Because She Was Always Cold

Some friends invited the kids and I over for dinner last night. After we ate, all four of the kids (my two + their two) ran upstairs to play. As my friends and I sat in their living room and chatted, one asked the other, “Will you sit on my feet? They’re cold.”

I immediately started laughing, which left my friends wondering what was so funny. I then explained that Emily would often say and do similar things because, no matter what the weather was or what she was wearing, Emily was cold most of the time.

She Owned Dozens of Cardigans

It didn’t matter if it was July or December. If Emily was indoors, she was probably cold. Because of this, she owned over a dozen cardigans in various colors and thicknesses. She usually kept at least one at work, at least one in her car, and the rest lived in various places.

Although she had so many, it never seemed to be enough. She’d frequently “forget” where she put them (they were usually just buried under the other junk in her car), and I’d go online and order her more. I often laughed at how many cardigans she had, but she’d just rebuttal with a statement about them being part of her “future therapist uniform” and move on.

Needless to say, I found at least a few of these cardigans in her car when I cleaned it out after her death.

Cuddles for Warmth

As most people know, I live in a larger body. While this sometimes frustrates me, Emily had dozens of reasons why she loved it. Among those reasons, one was the warmth I provided.

In the evenings, Emily would frequently cuddle up on the couch with a blanket, then proceed to either stick her cold feet somewhere on my body or scooch her entire self as close to me as possible. She’d always say, “You’re so warm!” and I’d laugh.

I remember at least a few occasions in the fall and winter when we’d be walking somewhere in Nashville at night and, of course, she’d be cold. I’d usually cuddle up close to her to either shield her from the wind or wrap her up in whatever jacket I was wearing and try my best to keep her nice and toasty. It may sound silly, but it actually made me happy that I could provide comfort and warmth for her in those moments.

Sometimes as we nestled into bed for the night, Emily would scoot close to me. Again, she’d say the same, “Oh, babe, you’re so warm!” and smile. The only time I hated this was when she’d stick her hands inside my shirt because they were so cold!

Emily The Clothing Thief

Obviously, there was a significant size difference between Emily and I. She wore clothes so small that she could share items with my oldest child, while I have to shop in the plus size section. Although this didn’t work to my advantage, it most certainly worked in Emily’s favor because she could simply steal my clothes if she wanted something baggy and warm.

She’d frequently use my t-shirts as night gowns in the warmer months. In the winter, she’d immediately snatch up a sweatshirt when I took it off to put on pajamas, and she’d often sleep in them at night. The few times I pointed out that I’d worn said sweatshirt the entire day, she’d say, “It’s soft and warm and smells like you — I love it!”

Again, probably sounds silly, but seeing her in my clothes always made me smile. Yes, they looked huge and silly on her, but I knew that it made her happy and it made my heart happy to see her so comfortable and content.

More Things About Her That I Miss

It’s funny, I don’t think I really thought much of all these silly little things as they happened. But now? These simple stories mean the world to me. They were things that you see play out in silly romantic comedies or comic strips about the realities of marriage. So, when you put that spin on it, I think they mean so much to me because it’s just more undeniable proof that our relationship was exactly what I’d always dreamed of finding.

Because Emily was always cold, I have many happy, hilarious memories of keeping her warm that put a smile on my face more times than I can count. But now that she’s gone, I miss these simple moments more than anything.

Because We Loved ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

I can recall many things about my relationship with Emily, but there are some details that seem like a blur. For example, I know that one of the first things Emily and I bonded over was our love of Grey’s Anatomy… but I can’t remember the exact conversation that helped us discover our mutual love for the show.

I’m sure it either came up in DBT group or during one of our parking lot conversations back in the day, and I guess it doesn’t really matter when and where it happened. The point is, we both loved Grey’s, and it became a cornerstone in our relationship.

Grey’s Anatomy And Us

Throughout our friendship, Emily and I talked about Grey’s Anatomy a lot. At first, we texted each other after we watched each episode, and sometimes we’d even text during them if we both happened to catch it live. We’d complain about the stupid things characters like Owen Hunt would do, gush over the sexy doctors we liked, and make predictions about what was going to happen next. It was incredible.

As we moved into 2020, there were lots of weeks where Emily would come over for dinner and we’d watch Grey’s once I got the kids to bed. Sometimes this got us into trouble because Meredith would stomp out of her bedroom and tell us we needed to watch TV more quietly, and sometimes it just turned into us turning episodes into drinking games. But it was always fun.

When Emily ended up in the hospital for a few days in the fall of 2020, I brought my laptop and we watched old episodes of Grey’s to pass the time. We used Siri to pick a random number to determine the season, then another random number to determine the episode. Then we’d try to see who could recall what was going on before we watched it, which often resulted in us both remembering a few plot points and completely forgetting others.

As I have mentioned in a few other posts, we made a Grey’s reference the first time we kissed. We also joked about being a mix of some of our favorite Grey’s ships, primarily Calzona (which didn’t end well) and MerDer (which is low-key accurate since Emily died in the hospital and probably did need a head CT towards the end). Emily even once bought me a pair of scrubs so we could do a Grey’s roleplay, although we never really got around to it.

We often talked in “Grey’s code,” which meant we used a lot of references in our conversations. We’d shout about not being able to find our other shoe, we’d ask to be sedated, or we’d explain how we were mentally by saying, “I’m (insert character) when (insert plot).” I loved it, because she was one of the few people I knew who loved that show as much as me.

A Grey’s Style Ending

The week after Emily died, I made the comment to someone that I felt like Shonda Rhimes came and wrote the plot for my love story with Emily. It was almost too good to be true… And then she died, just like many of the Grey’s Anatomy characters we loved.

And really, those last few hours played out like a scene from Grey’s. She crashed out of nowhere. The doctors were stumped and running all kinds of tests. I refused to leave her side even though I was completely terrified. Then someone had to escort me out as they took extreme measures to save her life and I completely fell apart. It’s almost too much like the drama of the show to be real life… And yet it is.

What’s funny is she always joked that she’d die like Denny and someone would have to cut her LVAD wires. But instead, she just crashed like half the patients do during surgery at Grey-Sloan, and we still don’t know what happened.

A Grey’s Moment for My Trip

I’m writing this from a bed and breakfast in western Illinois as I’m on this sort of impromptu, mostly fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants road trip in the Midwest.

I planned to hit Iowa and Wisconsin this week, but with no specifics in mind. However, as I looked up route options with Google Maps, I realized something: I’m going to be less than 3 hours from Rochester, MN, which is where Mayo Clinic is based.

As soon as I discovered that, I instantly thought about the season of Grey’s where Christina Yang goes to Mayo Clinic. I thought about Emily and how much she loved anything medical related. And I thought about the fact that Minnesota is yet another state I need to check off.

As you have probably guessed, I’m changing my route a bit so I can hit Rochester and at least drive by Mayo. It might sound crazy to everyone, but I just can’t help but feel like I made the connection because she wanted me to. And if you know me even a little bit, then you know how hard I tried to make Emily feel loved and do anything she asked.

Emily and I bonded because of Grey’s Anatomy. So, it only seems fitting that I work in a Grey’s related stop into this trip.

Because of a Second-Hand Heart

A few weeks ago, I made a video on TikTok about the story of how Emily and I went from being friends to getting engaged and then included a final bit about our last day together. I saw other people making similar “friends to more than friends” videos, and I just really wanted to make one of my own. I didn’t expect anyone to watch it, yet the post ended up getting millions of views.

A lot of people commented that they were sorry for my loss and how unfair it was that I didn’t get more time with her. However, several people made comments about the irony of our love story playing out after her heart transplant. Some people even went so far as to say that it almost seemed like God’s plan all along was to give her that extra time so she could experience love from me.

Although I definitely agree that divine intervention was at play in our entire relationship, I think Emily’s transplant gave her the opportunity to do many things. She got a second chance at life, and boy, she lived it to the fullest. It only seems fitting that today, a day that would have been her five-year heartiversary (yes, I’m going to keep using that word), we talk about all the things Emily did with those final years of her life.

Emily Hardin, MSW

Emily had dreams of helping others, and she planned to do that by becoming a social worker. Her plan was very detailed: she was going to obtain her bachelor’s degree, enroll in graduate school, earn her MSW, then set out to help the world. She was determined, and nothing was going to get in her way. She had just two semesters left when her heart made life extra complicated.

When Emily went into heart failure, she continued her studies. People would visit the hospital and find her writing papers, studying, or taking exams. She finished that fall semester even though she was incredibly sick. It was quite an accomplishment.

After the transplant, she had to take a semester off, but she went back to school full force that summer and worked hard to wrap up her degree. And, in December 2018, Emily walked across the stage and earned her bachelor’s degree.

It took time to take the GRE and apply for grad school. However, she didn’t let setbacks or challenges stop her. Eventually, she got into the MSW program at the University of Kentucky and started the program in the fall of 2020.

I had a front row seat the entire time she was in grad school. I watched her work so hard on every assignment while also working full-time (and at some points holding down two jobs). There were nights where she had to stay up until nearly midnight to collaborate with classmates on video assignments. There were nights where we sat on the couch and I edited one of her papers while she typed up another. And, there were times where she worked on assignments from her phone because she still wanted us to be able to go out.

However, I think the culminating moment of her entire time in grad school was when she hosted a workshop on how to help people who live with eating disorders. She spent weeks preparing — she wanted everything to be perfect. When the day finally came for her to host the workshop, I sat in one room to attend the workshop while she set up in another. I loved seeing her talk about one of her passions, and she provided amazing information. She did an incredible job, and I was so proud of her.

Finally, graduation day came in May. We made our way to Lexington, and she walked across the stage. Finally, one of her dreams came true — she was Emily Hardin, MSW.

One Inch At A Time

As I’ve mentioned in other posts and in some of the TikTok videos I’ve made since her death, Emily also loved dance. She loved it so much, in fact, that she decided to minor in dance while at MTSU earning her bachelor’s degree.

Although studying an art like dance while also earning a degree in social work is an accomplishment within itself, I still find it mind-blowing that Emily was able to completely choreograph and perform a solo dance less than a year after her transplant. The dance, which she titled “One Inch At A Time,” was all about eating disorder recovery (are you seeing how passionate she was about this topic?).

I wrote about the dance in a post about her love of dance, but this dance was such a huge part of her story after the transplant that I needed to mention it again.

Recovery and Growth

I know the transplant was a very emotional experience for Emily. When we first met the fall after, she was still working through a lot of it. Her relationship with her body was already complicated before the transplant, and for a while after, her eating disorder became quite loud. She also dealt with anxiety, depression, and very unmanaged OCD. Yet, there she was, in the same group therapy as me, trying to do the work.

From 2018 to 2022, I not only watched Emily make strides in her eating disorder recovery but actually learn to tune Karen (her eating disorder) out completely. It took several rounds at Renfrew and lots of hard work, but she did it. By the summer of 2022, she was down to just seeing her dietician once a month (and was actually discussing discharging completely at the end of the year), and she had moved into doing some pretty serious body image work with her outpatient therapist. I know she still experienced “bad body image days,” but she was very open about it with me, and she was always willing to challenge those thoughts — which was something she had previously struggled to do.

I loved seeing this version of Emily. We could go out to dinner without fear stopping her. She let go of her “sick clothes” and bought clothes that made her feel good. She confidently wore lingerie. Her eating disorder no longer controlled her life. She seemed genuinely happy.

However, she hadn’t just made strides in her eating disorder recovery — she’d also done tons of work related to her OCD as well. None of this hard work would have been possible without the transplant, and I know Emily was thankful that she could use her second chance at life to make it into the life she wanted, a life filled with joy.

My Favorite Love Story

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing any of this if Emily hadn’t received the transplant because, without that, Emily and I would have never met.

Obviously, Emily and I hit it off right away when we met in 2018. It took time for us to move from friendship into more than friends, but as soon as we did, things progressed quickly. I think part of that was because we already felt so comfortable with each other, but I think the other part of it can’t really be explained with words.

I know we all see those fairytale romance stories play out in movies and television shows or read about them in books. But really, the relationship Emily and I shared was its own version of that. It’s something that completely transcends everyday life and can’t be easily described. Yet, it’s my favorite love story because it’s everything I ever wanted and more.

Emily and I saw each other in a way very few people do. We accepted each other completely. We loved each other, flaws and all. We cheered each other on, we picked each other up, and we never left the other person’s side, no matter how dark and twisty life got. I’ve already talked a lot about our relationship, and I will continue to do so. But for today, I am just so thankful that our love story got to play out. I guess it was meant to be.

It Was All Thanks To Victor

Emily did so much in the almost five years she lived after the transplant. While all of that was 100% Emily, none of it would have been possible without another person’s selfless gift. Emily was able to earn a master’s degree, kick her eating disorder in the butt, and build an incredible life all because of a man named Victor and his family.

It’s funny, because from what we’ve learned about Victor, there are many parallels between him and Emily. I think that makes sense though, because you have to be a pretty incredible person if you’re willing to donate your organs and tissue to other people. It’s an act of courage. It requires you to look beyond yourself and say, “I want to help a total stranger if I can.” That’s not something everyone is willing to do, especially in our modern world.

I know that Emily remained thankful for Victor every single day of her life from December 23, 2017 until her final breath in the early hours of October 19, 2022. She looked for ways to thank Victor and honor him in everything she did. She cherished a scrapbook about him that his mother made. She carried him with her on both of her graduation caps. She maintained contact with his mom. She wanted to make sure we found a symbolic way to include Victor in our wedding and other major life events.

Because of Victor, Emily got to live out many of her dreams. And because of Victor, I had the honor of meeting Emily and building a beautiful life with her.

I will be thinking a lot about Emily today. But, I will also be thinking about Victor, because without that “second-hand heart” (Emily’s words, not mine), none of this would be possible.

Because I Loved Her Hugs

Last night I had an incredibly vivid dream. It started out like many of my dreams have since October 19: I need Emily, but I can’t find her. In last night’s variation, I was in some sort of garden or greenhouse (there were plants everywhere), and I had something I needed to show her. I kept calling her name as I weaved in and out of plants and grasses.

Every other time I’ve had a variation of this dream, I never find her. But, last night, I did. As I called her name for what felt like the millionth time, I saw her at the opposite end of a row. We ran towards each other, and I scooped her up into my arms.

As we hugged, I could feel her arms around me. I pulled her in as close as I could, as if we had been separated for months instead of what was likely minutes in the dream. I kissed the top of her head. I could smell her hair. It was one of the most incredible hugs I’d ever shared with her… and then it was gone. I woke up.

Of course, that dream has been on my mind the entire morning, because I can’t help but miss her hugs.

The First Real Hug

Emily’s love language was definitely not physical touch. During the first year and a half of our friendship, I think we exchanged a few awkward side hugs and high fives, but that was it. I just assumed she had reservations about hugs because of her past, and I didn’t mind.

But one day, something changed.

I can still remember the first time Emily gave me a “real” hug. I literally remember every detail, from where we were to how it made me feel. Part of that could be because it seemed so out of character for her and caught me off guard, but the other part of it was definitely because I knew how I felt about her at that point despite not having said it out loud to anyone.

Emily was in the process of moving into a new apartment in Antioch. She’d moved out of an apartment in Smyrna a few weeks prior, and I’d helped her move things out and stored several things in my garage. Moving day had finally come, and she spent the day moving all the large items in with her parents. So that evening, I loaded everything up into my minivan and made my way to her new apartment.

When I arrived, the four of us (me, Emily, and her parents) unloaded the minivan and hauled the remaining items up to her third floor unit. Once we were done, we stood in the parking lot and talked for a few minutes. Then, as we said goodbye, Emily wrapped her arms around me and gave me this incredible, albeit brief, hug.

It was one of those moments where the world stood still. My brain was perplexed, yet my heart was beating so fast that I could barely breathe. I smiled the entire drive back to Murfreesboro.

Hugs for Hard Days

After that first “real” hug, embraces did become a more regular part of our relationship. They still weren’t an everyday type thing, but I didn’t expect them to be. However, there was one time hugs were always offered and accepted — when one of us had a hard day.

We both dealt with our fair share of hardships in 2020. For the first half of the year, I was the one who often needed hugs as I dealt with loneliness when my kids spent time with their dad. In the second half of the year, Emily was the one dealing with hard times as she started grad school and went back into eating disorder treatment. But, anytime one of us needed a hug, the other one was there to offer it.

As we entered 2021 and our friendship evolved into a romantic relationship, hugs became far more frequent. Yet, the offer always stood for those special embraces on the hard days.

When Emily had her end-of-semester meltdown, I held her. When I hit a particularly rough couple of weeks during trauma processing with my therapist, Emily wrapped her arms around me and helped me ground myself. No matter what happened, hugs were always there.

All Hugs Are Good Hugs

Of course, not all of the hugs Emily and I shared were tied to hard moments. In fact, many of them were quite the opposite.

I have many pictures of hugs where I’d stand behind Emily and wrap my arms around her. We did this on the beach, we did it as we watched karaoke performances at Lipstick Lounge, and we did it as we stood in line at places like the grocery store.

There were also times when we’d hug after being separated for several hours. Nearly every time Emily returned home from work, we hugged and kissed. When Emily left to take her friend to inpatient treatment in Denver, we shared a long embrace (both times). Even when Emily would leave the house to run an errand, I’d sneak a quick hug and tell her how much I loved her. Every reason was a good enough reason to hug her.

Will We Hug Again?

When I woke up from that incredible dream last night, the first question that popped into my head was: Will I ever get to hug Emily again?

I’m sure many of you think that question sounds silly, given my beliefs. In fact, many Christians would say, “If you believe in Heaven, then, of course, you’ll get to hug her again!” But to me, the answer to that question isn’t so simple.

I’ve done a lot of reading and research, and I’ve learned that there aren’t any scripture passages that outline what Heaven is like. There aren’t any mentions that I’ve found of being reunited with loved ones or living out a life anything like what we do here on Earth. There are no promises as to what’s on the other side, and that’s a hard pill to swallow… At least for me.

But, even if we are reunited with our loved ones, the other burning question has plagued me for over two decades: Am I worthy of Heaven at all?

Again, some would say that the fact that I believe in God is enough to save me. But, I grew up Catholic, so it’s not that simple. There are also a lot of aspects of my past and present life that make me question my worth every single day and make me feel more like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter or Angel from Redeeming Love. I see myself as a sinner, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be pure and good enough for eternal life.

And yes, I know that Emily would be arguing with all of these things I’m saying about myself right now. I know it because we had nearly this same conversation just a few months ago when I had a meltdown in the middle of a sermon about Hell at her home church in Knoxville.

For now, though, I do know that my hope for a future where I get to hug Emily again is a major motivator for me. And, because of that, I’m trying to live the best possible life and do what I can to become a better person. I just hope that, someday, it’s good enough for God and good enough for Emily.

Because She Had A Bucket List

About a month into our relationship, Emily and I decided to take a mental health day and check out Soundwaves, the water park at the Opryland Hotel. I have so many memories of that day. In fact, I could probably write an entire post just about that. However, I’ve been thinking about one specific moment from that day for several weeks now.

The water park has two lazy rivers: one with intertubes and one without. When we got to the lazy river with them, we opted for a 2-person tube and sat in it so we were facing towards each other.

As we floated around, Emily asked me, “So, what’s on your bucket list?” I don’t fully remember what I said, but I’m sure I mentioned traveling to Ireland and writing a book. I’m fairly certain I also made a joke about kissing a beautiful woman being on the list, but it was now checked off.

Eventually, I turned the question right back around to her. Unlike me, Emily had this highly detailed list of things she wanted to do. When I responded with, “Wow, you’ve really thought about this,” she said, “Yeah, when you almost die because your heart shits itself, you think about these kinds of things.”

That day, I made a promise to her: I told her I’d make sure we checked something off of her bucket list every year for the rest of our lives.

Emily’s Travel Dreams

One of the main items on Emily’s bucket list was traveling to all 50 states. She kept a running list of the states in the back of her planner, and each year she’d transfer the list over. Anytime we talked about vacation or travel plans, she eagerly tried to find a way to work a new state in, and I loved it.

Obviously, she had checked several states off during her childhood. But I really wanted to make sure she got to all of them as an adult. Besides the fact that I also love to travel, I knew she had started collecting bumper stickers from each state she visited as an adult, and I wanted to make sure she got all 50.

We had this ongoing trend that started with our St. Louis trip in September 2021. We left the state every month. We went to Missouri, Illinois, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, and then repeated a lot of those. She also went to Colorado by herself (she took a friend to an inpatient eating disorder facility). I was trying to squeeze in a trip to North Carolina for the fall, but obviously we didn’t get to it.

Other Bucket List Items

Although her desire to see all 50 states seems like a big enough bucket list item as it is, Emily actually had another entire page of bucket list items.

Looking at the list, I am happy about some of the items I know I was there for her to check off. For example, she wanted to go to St. Louis, see a capybara, ride Wild Eagle at Dollywood, and see Opryland… We did all of these things at some point between 2020 and 2022. Of course, she also wants to see Demi Lovato in concert and see Lizzo in concert again, and we were supposed to do both of those things just days after she died.

However, some of my favorite things on her bucket list include:

  • Watch a surgery
  • See the Northern Lights
  • Be a foster parent
  • Stay in a yurt or treehouse
  • Go to Pride
  • Ride horses again
  • Learn ASL

I can’t do some of the things she had listed (like dance en pointe), but there are many that I can do for her. And, really, I want to.

I Just Wanted Her To Get To Check It All Off

When I cleaned out Emily’s car a few weeks after her death, I found her planner. I opened it up and looked at everything she’d written in it, and I began violently sobbing when I got to her bucket list. There are so many things on that list that she never got to check off, and seeing them written out in her handwriting just broke my heart all over again.

I promised her we’d check those items off, and we did start to. And yet, I feel like I didn’t do enough to help her accomplish more of them. I was too concerned about things that really didn’t matter, like making sure our home was clean or that we weren’t overspending. I just really wish I’d been a little more carefree so she could have seen more of the world and done more incredible things with what little time she had left.

But, I can’t go back in time, nor can I bring Emily back from the dead. Instead, all I can do is lean into the promises I made to Emily before she passed and during my speech at her funeral. In other words, I can finish her bucket list on her behalf.

According to my therapist, these promises and desires to finish what Emily started are the very protective factors I need right now because they’re what’s keeping me alive. They’re my motivation to keep going.

So, I plan to start on the bucket list in the week between Christmas and New Years. Assuming the weather doesn’t make it dangerous to do so, I’m going to take a road trip that will check three more states off Emily’s list. I’m going to drive through Illinois to hit Iowa and Wisconsin, then take a way home that lets me go through part of Indiana.

And, if the Midwest gets the blizzard some meteorologists are predicting, then I’ll find some other states to drive to instead. There are plenty of states left to hit, and I have plenty of podcast episodes and camping gear to go wherever I need to.

I don’t know why she died, nor do I know why I’m still here. But because I love Emily, I fully intend to keep the promises I made to her, including the ones related to her bucket list.

Because Moms Are Always Right

The kids and I had an amazing day with Emily’s mom on Sunday. We attended church, grabbed brunch, then enjoyed a matinee performance of The Nutcracker by the Nashville Ballet. Minus a couple moments of tears, it was one of the first days since Emily died where my grief felt manageable. I was able to set aside my heartache and just exist.

As I drove Emily’s mom back to her car, I told her how glad I was that she could spend the day with me and the kids. As we talked, she said, “I know it’s exactly what Emily would have wanted.” I just nodded, because I knew she was right.

Now that I’m sitting in the quiet and reflecting on yesterday, I can’t help but laugh at that thought because, if you were to ask Emily, she’d tell you her mom is always right.

“I’ll Ask My Mom”

I knew well before Emily and started dating that she was fairly close to her parents. I knew she talked to them both fairly often, and she went home to Knoxville anytime she had a few days off from work or school. The more time I spent with Emily, though, the more I got to see the specifics of her relationship with each of her parents.

Here’s what I learned: If Emily was even mildly uncertain about anything in her life, she would talk to her mom.

Over the years I watched Emily text her mom about everything from a random rash on her arm to which Enneagram type a person would be, and random things related to nearly any topic imaginable. Although I sometimes laughed at her for it, I did find it adorable that she had that type of relationship with her mom.

Once we started dating, I learned that if I asked Emily a question, chances were she’d text her mom about it if she didn’t know the answer. I also learned that, no matter how certain I sounded when I answered a question Emily asked me, she was probably going to text her mom as well, just to be sure I was correct.

The Elephant In The Room

As you might imagine based on the previous several paragraphs, Emily would often say, “My mom knows everything.” Yet, for whatever reason, Emily avoided telling either of her parents about our relationship for months. At first, she said, “I just really want to tell them in person.” That held from April until July, when we went to Knoxville for July 4th weekend, when she insisted she’d tell them. (Spoiler Alert: She didn’t tell them, even though her brother told her that he knew we weren’t just friends.)

Then it became, “I need to make sure they won’t disown me.” And that held for several more months. Eventually, it got to a point where everyone knew, but no one was willing to be the one to address the elephant in the room.

I wasn’t present for the coffee conversation that finally occurred at some point during the fall, but I do remember Emily texting me to say, “Mom already knew,” and I just laughed. Again, Mom knows everything — not sure why she thought this situation was going to be any different.

But, I guess in Emily’s mind it wasn’t that part of the variable that made her hesitate, but rather the unknown reaction. (Another Spoiler Alert: Emily really got worked up over nothing, but that was typical Emily.)

I Wasn’t Mom

When it came time for Emily’s transplant annuals this past December, I wasn’t at all surprised when Emily said, “I love you, and I want you to come… but I also want my mom there.” Of course, I told Emily that I would go along with whatever made her feel the most comfortable and safe.

And so, her mom and I both spent the day at Vanderbilt with her. Since they only allowed one person to be in the room with her at a time, her mom went with her before the cath and stayed to talk to the doctors after. Then I got to sit with her while she waited the set amount of time until she was allowed to go home. In other words, her mom handled all the stuff where medical knowledge was helpful, and I got to hold up her cup when she needed a drink and otherwise mostly just listened to her say random things and doze off.

Thanks to that previous experience, I wasn’t at all shocked when Emily started running everything by her mom when the abdominal pain started. Honestly, I was glad she had someone to run things by, especially since my medical knowledge is fairly limited.

During those last couple of weeks, I don’t think any of us anticipated what was to come. It seemed like her primary care doctor was slowly getting to an answer, and until the night we did go to the ER, nothing seemed like it was dire enough for critical care. And even then, it all seemed like it was under control… until it wasn’t.

After that first episode Emily had during the night, I was holding a puke bin for her. She looked at me and said, “Babe, I want my mommy…” and my heart shattered. Not because I felt like she didn’t want me, but because I knew that she was scared to the point that she desperately needed the one person who knows everything by her side.

And even though it was the middle of the night and she was three hours away, I contacted her mom as soon as they stabilized her after the second episode.

As the doctors huddled outside the door, Emily asked what I was doing on my phone. I told her I called her mom and her parents were on the way. She looked at me and only said, “Thank you,” but her eyes told me exactly how much she appreciated it.

Moms Just Know

I know that I’m incredibly lucky in many ways. And because of Emily, I’ve got this incredible family of people loving and supporting me through what has honestly been the most painful and difficult two months of my life (which is saying a lot if you know about the rest of my past). And, honestly, I’m so incredibly grateful for her mom.

As Emily said, her mom knows everything. She knows what my favorite Keurig pods are, and she knows how hard these past two months have been for me.

I hope that, on the other side of all of this, I’ll build a similar relationship with my own daughters as the one Emily had with her mom. And I won’t even be annoyed if they send me ridiculous TikTok videos at the most random times.