Full text of stand-up comedian Kelley Lynn’s talk: When Someone You Love Dies, There Is No Such Thing as Moving On at TEDxAdelphiUniversity conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Kelley Lynn – Stand-up comedian
Best-selling author and widower C. S. Lewis said in the opening line of his brilliant book ‘A Grief Observed,’: “Nobody ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”
It’s a powerful statement: fear. But fear of what? The fear of losing yourself. The fear of growing old alone. The fear that this intense pain will never stop. The fear of forgetting the sound of his voice or his laugh or that others will forget him, that his life won’t have mattered.
Grief makes you feel isolated, alone, terrified, and damaged, and scared of absolutely everything.
On October 27th, 2006, at the age of 35, I married my very best friend, Don Shepherd. Four years and nine months later, my healthy, active, beautiful husband left for work one morning and never came home. They found him collapsed on the floor – a massive heart attack. No symptoms, no warnings, no goodbyes – just here one minute and then, boom, gone.
In the past five years or so since my husband’s death, I’ve become friends with and met a lot of other widowed people. A few months ago, a dear widower friend of mine gave me a challenge. He said, “Kelly, I want you to change the world.”
“Is that all?” I said to him.
“I will get on that right after my morning cup of coffee.”
But when I stopped to think about that concept, a favorite phrase of mine came to mind: “Change your mind, and change the world.” In other words, the way that people see or perceive an idea has to change in order for everything surrounding that idea to also change.
So I’m going to speak the truth today about grief and then wait for that truth to then become contagious. Any widowed person or any person who has lost someone they love to death will tell you about the well-intentioned but sometimes insensitive comments coming from those on the outside.
“It was God’s plan.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
There are many more, but these are some of the “greatest hits.”
Now, the justification for these comments is always the same: They don’t know what to say. I feel like it’s time we change the conversation from “They don’t know what to say” to “Well, then let’s teach them.” Like the great Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”
So let’s focus on the most insensitive comment of all time and the one that I feel is the most harmful: “You need to move on. Get over it! Get on with your life.”
Let me say this as simply as I can: When it comes to the death of someone that you love, there is no such thing as moving on. It’s a lie. It’s a made-up concept created by people who are too uncomfortable with death and sadness and grief.
But here’s the thing: It’s not their fault. They are only repeating what has become familiar to them throughout the years, what’s been taught to them by society over and over again. “You need to move on” is a phrase born out of centuries of ignorance and fear because grief feels a hell of a lot like fear.
Now, the “move on” mentality starts very early, it’s constant, and it doesn’t really ever end. Within minutes of my husband’s sudden death, I was attacked with questions: “Will you be donating his organs today?” “Would you like cremation or casket with that?” You know, “When can somebody come by your apartment and pick up some of his items?”
Now, at the time, I was told by people that these decisions were for my benefit, that it would help me to let go, to put all this behind me.
At my husband’s funeral, a total stranger came up to me, stood right by his casket, and said to me, “Today, you grieve. Tomorrow, you get out there and find a new man!”
Really, tomorrow? That seems a little soon!
A widower friend of mine was offered this proposition from a relative of his: “For every picture you take down of you and your wife from your bedstand, I’ll give you 50 bucks.”
A widow goes to the cemetery all the time to visit her husband, and she keeps the lawn chair in the back of her car so she can sit with him at his graveside.
One day, she goes out to her car and notices her chair is gone. Her friends, thinking that they are helping, said, “We took your chair. We don’t think you should go there anymore. It’s not healthy.”
Another friend was told by her priest after her brother died in a skiing accident, “Stop talking about him; you need to let him rest in peace.”
Another friend: father – two sons. When he filled out a school field trip form as such, he was told by the school principal, “Your other child has died, so you only have one son now.”
These heart-wrenching stories are real people, and this is the kind of treatment that they face every single day.
Taking away someone’s connection to someone they love who has died: What purpose does that serve? What kind of message are we sending? That the people we love are replaceable? That the love you have for your daughter, your mother, your brother, your best friend has an expiration date? That their life didn’t really matter?
When someone you love dies and you are told over and over again to “move on,” something inside of you breaks. And when that happens, you don’t really feel much like living anymore. You figure, “Hey, why should I stick around when I’m not allowed to continue to love my person that I miss?”
So you start isolating; you keep to yourself. Your world becomes smaller and smaller. You disappear.
My friend who was offered money to get rid of pictures of him and his wife? He no longer talks about his wife anymore with anyone. He says it’s just not worth it and he’s tired of being silenced.
The widow who had her lawn chair taken away? She still goes to the cemetery. But now she does it in secret. She tells nobody because she’s tired of being judged for loving her husband who died.
The woman who was told by her priest to stop talking about her brother? She did. She also stopped going to church, and her faith has suffered greatly because of it.
The father that was told, “You only have one son now,” was recently asked by his six-year-old boy, “Daddy, if I die like my brother did, does that mean I’m not your son anymore?”
This is not the way to honor love, to honor those that we love who have died. You can’t move on from love – love is the only thing that never dies.
So if there’s no such thing as moving on, then what is it that I’m proposing? What is the message that we need to make contagious in the hearts and minds of people, the message that will change people’s minds and in turn change the world?
Well, here’s the truth: Love grows more love. All good things are born out of love.
So what if instead of saying to someone, “Hey, stop talking about your brother,” we said, “Tell me more about your brother who died”?
What if instead of trying to fix people, we sat with them inside of their pain, and we let them tell us what comes next? What if we got rid of the phrase “move on” and instead began to move with and move through our losses?
Imagine what could happen. Take a look. This is Ethan. At his 20-week ultrasound, he was diagnosed with developing CHD, or congenital heart disease. He wasn’t supposed to make it to birth. Instead, Ethan lived seven short years of life, and in that time, he went under some of the most innovative cardiac surgeries known to date.
When Ethan died, his parents, Jessica and Eric, took their forever love for him and with it created hope: The Ethan M. Lindberg Foundation offers grants, housing, support, and even music therapy to families living with CHD.
Because they did not “move on” or “get over” their son, his life is now a legacy, and countless of families and people are affected by his life going forward, forever.
This is Philip Hernandez. Philip was a wonderful husband, father, and a great man. His life ended instantly when he was hit by a car while out cycling.
That’s Michele, Phil’s wife. She had no plans on becoming a widow at the age of 35. After Phil’s sudden death, Michele didn’t know what to do, and she couldn’t find the support in the community that she so desperately needed. So she built it.
Michele created Soaring Spirits International, a nonprofit that connects widowed people worldwide. Their most popular program, Camp Widow, is a three-day event offering workshops, presentations, and social gatherings for widowed men and women of all ages.
If Michele had listened to the countless people who told her to “let go” of her love for Phil and to “get over it,” her life would have continued down the road of isolation and loneliness.
Instead, her foundation has served over 3 million widowed people worldwide and counting, all because she made the choice to live and share Phil’s life forward.
On the right there, that’s Michael. Michael is Michele’s husband today. He knows that just because Michele found love with him does not mean that she is over loving Phil, nor does it mean that the pain of losing Phil has magically disappeared. He knows that the heart expands and that Michele’s love for Phil is part of what makes her the great woman that he loves today.
Not only does Michael support this, he’s a part of it: Michael is the Camp Widow photographer.
Meet Shelby. Shelby was only seven years old when her mom, Megan, died from cystic fibrosis. Shelby’s dad, Mike, met Sarah at Camp Widow in Tampa, Florida. Sarah was there because her fiancé, Drew, died in a helicopter crash.
Drew’s parents have made the choice to continue to love Sarah as an extension of their love for their son. Megan’s parents have chosen to do the same by continuing to love Mike and Shelby.
Now, Shelby knows that Sarah is not her mother, but she is a mother figure, and the two have formed a really special bond. You see, Sarah was just about Shelby’s age when she lost her own mother. So every time the two are around each other, their hearts heal just a little bit more.
Back to this picture on the left: under the Christmas tree. It’s about two weeks before Christmas. There’s a knock at the door. This giant box arrives. Inside it, present after present after present from Drew’s entire family – his grandparents, his parents, his aunts and uncles – all of them for Shelby, for Mike, and for Sarah.
This nine-year-old little girl who had not enough time on this earth with her own mother, now giddy with joy as she opens multiple gifts from Drew’s family, a man she has never even met but whose life and death is now exploding into an avalanche of love right on her living room floor.
If even one person in this scenario made a different choice, this beautiful picture would not exist, and all of these people would be living much smaller lives. Instead, all of their lives grew bigger and wider. More love.
The love that Mike and Sarah have for each other does not diminish or delete the love that Sarah will always have for Drew and that Mike will always have for Megan. In fact, it multiplies it, it honors it.
Love grows love.
And what about me? What have I done with the forever love that I’ll always have for my husband, Don?
Well, I’m happy to tell you I am a speaker at Camp Widow, where I’ve been giving my comedic presentation about life and loss, since 2013. I started a campaign called “Pay It Forward For Don Shepherd Day,” where I ask people anywhere and everywhere to do acts of kindness in his honor, and then they get published in my blog.
Now, over the years, hundreds and hundreds of people have taken part in these acts of kindness, and many of them don’t even know me, nor do they know my husband.
I’m writing a book about our forever-love story and about my story after. And I’m standing here with all of you today, giving this very personal and important message into the universe.
My husband’s heart may have stopped beating on July 13th, 2011, but he lives on every single day because it’s my mission to make damn sure of it.
Great things can happen when we continue to tell the stories of those we have lost, who have died. And it doesn’t have to be on this grand of a scale. Each of us can be the person that changes the message for someone else about grief, love, and loss. That is how change happens: one person, one mind at a time.
Every single one of us in this room and everyone watching this online and me – guess what? We’re all going to die. Not right now, so don’t panic; hopefully, it’s not right now.
But we are – we’re all going to die at some point. We have no choice about that. We have no choice about that. But guess what? We do have a choice about how we talk about those who have died, the language we use.
So let me ask you this: When you die, do you want to be forgotten? Do you want people to tell your loved ones, “Hey, get over it. Get over her; get over him. Move on; stop talking about that.”
Or do you want the people who love you to use that love to create a life for themselves filled with joy and purpose and meaning? Isn’t that what you deserve? Isn’t that what we all deserve?
The question that is asked in the closing song of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway, brilliant musical “Hamilton” is this: “When my time is up, have I done enough? Will they tell my story? Will they tell your story? Who tells your story?”
My wish for everyone here today, for each one of us, is that when our time is up, the people who love us never move on; the people who love us, they tell our story.
Because here’s the truth: If we move on and let go of and get rid of the people that we love who have died – if we do that, then guess what? They really are gone. They’re gone; they’re just gone forever.
But if we tell each other’s stories, and if we use that love to create more love and to multiply each other’s worlds – if we can do that, then nobody ever really dies. Not truly.
Thank you so much.