Modern Lovers, we have a little extra love for you this week: an episode of another WBUR podcast, Endless Thread. Every episode features something extraordinary found on Reddit — from the surprising, to the mysterious, to the utterly human.
This episode tells a story about processing grief, and where we turn when the people closest to us don't seem to know what to do or say to help us move forward.
If you like this episode, subscribe to Endless Thread wherever you listen. The show just released a trailer for its forthcoming 5-part series, "Madness: The Secret Mission for Mind Control and the People Who Paid the Price."
T.J.’s long-time partner died suddenly. As she rebuilt her life, she found healing in the r/Widowers community on Reddit. And when a post about her late partner went viral, that community was there for support.
-T.J.'s viral post on r/TwoXChromosomes (since deleted): "I am proud of me"
-u/GSnow's now famous passage about grief: "Shipwrecks"
-The r/Widowers community: "A place for anyone who has lost a companion to share and heal."
(Lightly edited for clarity)
Redditor: I guess it's the idea of going through a dark tunnel. And you can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel but you don't know where the tunnel ends. And so you just keep going through the tunnel until you get to the other side and you don't really know when that will be. But you just have to keep going, otherwise you're stuck in the middle of the tunnel.
Ben Brock Johnson: This is T.J. She’s a redditor.
T.J.: And I'm a journalist. I'm 31 and I live in Brooklyn. I follow a ton of different subreddits from food to memes to RuPaul’s Drag Race. And I am a part of a couple different feminism communities. I have a feminism tattoo on my middle finger; it's the Venus symbol and I use that to flip off the patriarchy whenever I can.
Ben: I know T.J. because we both used to work for the same radio station in New York. And when I ran into her about a year ago she told me a story that practically knocked me over — about something that happened a few years back that has changed her life completely, and how that change has played out on Reddit.
Amory Sivertson: Can you take us back to late 2016? What did your life look like then?
T.J.: Yeah, late 2016 I was living with my partner. We had been together at that point just a little over six years.
Amory: T.J. doesn't want to use her partner's actual name. We talked about giving him a pseudonym, but considering the circumstances of all this...that felt pretty weird too. So we're just going to call him her partner.
T.J.: I had relocated to upstate New York with my partner. He had gotten a job and I had the ability to work from home and I kind of felt like, hey, I've never really lived outside of New York City or in the immediate surrounding area so I said, “Okay, let's do it, let's move upstate.” So we'd been living up there for about a year and a half. We had a really cute two bedroom house with a literal white picket fence, a backyard. And our border collie Smokey. We had gotten him shortly after we relocated there.
T.J.: Yeah, he's the best.
Ben: T.J. describes her partner as being part of a big family from upstate New York. He grew up in pretty humble circumstances. He was one of the only members of his immediate family who left and went to college. She says he got out and made something of himself. He was ambitious.
T.J.: My partner, he worked as a golf course superintendent. And it's funny because he hated golf; he hated it very much. He was like, I'm here to talk about the flowers.
Ben: So he was like The Lorax but for flowers?
T.J.: Yeah. yeah, exactly.
Ben: When he and T.J. met near New York City, they really hit it off.
T.J.: We had met when I was 22. We were both 22. And actually this whole story has to do with technology, because the way that my partner and I met — we met on Match.com, back when there was no app for it or anything.
Ben: OG Match.com.
T.J.: Yeah we met, and we went on one date, and then we never were apart again.
Amory: In all the photos we’ve seen of him, T.J.’s partner has a kind of boyish grin stretching from ear to ear. T.J. says she liked his dry, slightly dark sense of humor. He was tall, blond hair, blue eyes. Their relationship was great. But about six and a half years after it started, in January of 2017, something happened. T.J.’s partner went away with some friends for the weekend, and when he came home, he told her…
T.J.: “Oh, I have this really bad headache.” And I was like, “Oh, that really sucks. Maybe you didn't sleep enough this weekend.” And, you know, I had made us dinner. We were watching Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is a show that we liked, and hanging out with the dog on the couch. And around nine o'clock he was like, “You know, my head is killing me, I’m gonna go to bed early.” And I was like, “OK, that's fine, sounds good.” I gave him some ibuprofen and he went up to sleep and the dog followed up with him.
Ben: The next morning, her partner’s alarm went off half an hour before hers, like it always did. T.J. was still half asleep.
T.J.: But I remember the alarm going off and I said, “Baby don't you have to get up?” And he said, “Yeah I'm getting up in a minute.”
Ben: T.J. went back to sleep for a bit, then started her own usual routine.
T.J.: I heard the sink running in the bathroom like I did every morning and I knocked on the door and I said, you know, “Hey hun, can I just come in for a minute? I just want to brush my teeth.” And he didn't answer.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.
Ben: And you’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Today’s episode: Shipwrecked.
Ben: So T.J.’s partner is in the bathroom, the water is running. And T.J. needs to brush her teeth. She doesn’t really know yet that something is wrong. But her partner isn’t letting her in.
T.J.: And so then I just decided to open the door, and he was face down on the bathroom floor and his ankle was twisted. It looked like maybe it was broken. And at first, for a second I thought, “What are you doing asleep on the bathroom floor?” And then I walked over to him and that's when I noticed his foot, and I thought he tripped and blacked out or something. And I shook him and I said, “Wake up! What are you doing here?” And he didn't move. And then I looked closely at his face, and his face was blue. And that's when I knew — oh my God, something is wrong.
At first I still thought maybe he was asleep or something. So I turned out of the bathroom to start down the stairs to get a pot of water to throw on him because that's how you wake people up. But I stopped halfway down the stairs and I was like, he's blue, the water is not going to help. So I ran back upstairs and then I started to shake him pretty violently to try to wake him up. And that wasn't working, so I called 9-1-1 and I said, “My partner, he's blue, and I don't know what happened. Please send help.”
Ben: When she thinks back on it, T.J. recognizes that some of her choices in the moment might sound a little strange. Like, why would she run *downstairs* to get water to throw on her partner when he was in the bathroom to start with? But this is the chaos that ensues when something bad happens. A lot of it, in retrospect, doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Amory: T.J.’s pretty small. Five-foot-four. Her partner? Six-foot-one, over 200 pounds. She’s still talking to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, and at the same time, trying to do something. She finally gets him fully rolled over to start CPR.
T.J.: I knew the basics — clear the air passage — so I opened up his throat, and I heard him gurgle and I was like, "Oh my God, that's a good sign." And I started doing chest compressions as directed by the operator on the phone.
Ben: The police and EMTs show up quickly. They want to know if T.J.'s partner had been doing drugs. She’s like no, of course not — it’s Monday morning and he was headed for work. As the EMTs start to do their work, T.J. starts trying to call her partner’s mother. But she recently changed cell phones, so T.J. can’t get through.
T.J.: And the EMTs then wound up taking him out on a stretcher. And I had asked them, “What is his status?” And I remember this woman just looked at me and she's like, “We're just trying to do everything that we can.” And I knew at that point it was not a good sign. Like, that's not what you want to hear.
Ben: The ambulance heads to the hospital. T.J. is right behind it, thanks to a ride from one of her only friends in the area. The whole ride she is frantically trying to reach family members.
T.J.: I got to the hospital, and I walked in and I said his name and asked them where he is. I assumed that he must have been in surgery of some kind. And then they told me to sit down on a bench, and then a social worker came over and that's when I also knew that it was probably not going to be very good, what I was about to hear. And then they brought me into a small room, which I also knew that was really not a good place to be in. And they then told me they did everything they could but they could not revive him and that he had died. And I was alone.
It's reality shattering. It's like, what are you talking about? Not even 12 hours ago we were on the couch watching TV and I made chili for dinner and he was standing there talking to me. And now he's dead?
Amory: T.J. was in that room in the hospital by herself for about 40 minutes. She called a couple of close friends, her partner’s boss, and she was texting back and forth with her partner's family. They tried calling T.J., but she wouldn’t pick up. She knew she’d lose it. And once they finally got to the hospital, T.J. realized she couldn't face them, knowing what they were about to find out. They were taken to a private room next to T.J.’s.
T.J.: And then I heard his mother scream like I've never heard anyone scream. And that's when I was like, “Oh they know.” I went in and she had thrown up all over the floor. And they were just asking me what happened, and I didn't have any answer for them.
Ben: The hospital doctors didn’t have answers either. They suspected heart trouble. But, for reasons that T.J. still doesn’t fully understand, they didn’t come up with any even as the day dragged on. That turned into a week. Two weeks. More.
T.J.: And we would call once a week asking. 'Cause again it's like, how does somebody that's seemingly healthy — he was 28 years old — literally drop dead one morning?
Amory: It took nine months for the autopsy report on T.J.’s partner to come back. He’d died of a brain aneurysm. But the aneurysm had apparently been caused by an undiagnosed heart condition. It slowly started to sink in that not only was her partner gone, but her future as she’d imagined it was also gone.
T.J.: We had looked at places where we wanted to get married. We had talked about who would be in our bridal party. We had picked out what we wanted our kids’ names to be, and when and how many we wanted to have. And so we weren't officially engaged, but that's why I say that he's my partner. Because that's what he was.
Ben: Right after her partner died, this person who she had spent years planning her life with, T.J. had a whole other set of decisions to make… alone, in a place that wasn’t even really her home yet.
T.J.: The first day after, I literally woke up screaming. I didn't have any community. I didn't have an office or a support system at all. And also, he died in our house. So I made a decision that I needed to move out of the house as soon as possible. So within 10 days of his death, I left our house.
Ben: It’s now been almost two and a half years since T.J. left the house. But she still thinks about her partner’s death every day.
T.J.: I mean, the whole thing didn't feel real and it still sometimes doesn't feel real. When I saw him on the floor he looked a little bit blue, but I mean it didn't...I've never seen a dead person before. And he was dead on the floor. And I've never seen that, and I didn't really understand what to make of it. Like, how do you wake up a person who will not wake up?
Amory: T.J. came to us, in part, because she just couldn’t tell her own story. It was going to be too much. But also, as sad of a story as this is, we are not telling T.J.’s story today only because her partner died. We’re telling it because of what happened after he died, on Reddit.
Ben: We’ll be back.
Ben: In the chaotic weeks following her partner’s death, T.J. moved around a lot. Money was tight. She was going from the benefits of a two-income household to navigating the world by herself.
T.J.: When he passed away, he didn't have life insurance. We barely had any savings. We didn't have anything, really. I mean he'd just actually gotten to the point where he'd paid off his student loans, which is so f**king sick really. That's one of the reasons why we had delayed getting married. I had to sell everything. I could just pack whatever I could fit in the back of a car, which were mainly just clothes and some keepsake stuff and the dog. And so a lot of that life that I had with him died when I left the house.
Ben: It was almost like in order to survive this awful thing, to keep her head above water, T.J. had to get free of the stuff from the life she and her partner had been building together. She had to stay afloat, but she didn’t know how.
Amory: Because T.J. was a redditor — and a really active redditor — it seemed natural to look there for answers.
T.J.: I had posted I think in r/GriefSupport just kind of saying, “I don't know what to do. I lost my partner and I don't know how to function.” And somebody said, “Oh, you can go to r/Widowers,” which has really been a saving grace for me in a lot of ways.
Amory: Despite the name, the r/Widowers community is not just for widowers. The community describes itself as “a place for anyone who has lost a companion to share and heal.” There are people who lost partners years ago, and there are people who lost partners hours ago.
Ben: And they share all kinds of updates and questions, with subject lines like, “We were supposed to be married tomorrow.” And, “When did you start eating properly again?”
Amory (to T.J.): You said the r/Widowers community has been kind of a saving grace for you?
T.J.: Yeah. In-person widows support groups, which I attended one of, they’re older people. And it's just a different dynamic of the kinds of grief. Whereas the r/Widowers community, it seems like most of the people in there are younger people. And then also, when people ask you the question of, “Oh, are you OK?,” they don't really care about the answer. They don’t want to hear that you are destroyed. And in r/Widowers you can say that, or you can say a lot of different things about the process of dealing with grief that you would never say to anyone else in your life. You know, “Oh my in-laws are being really shitty to me,” or, “Oh it's 2:00 in the morning and I can't sleep," or, “Oh my God, like how am I financially going to do this? I don't know how I'm going to make it through.” And people are not just being like, "Oh my God, don't worry, it's going to get better." People are just like, "Yeah that sucks. It's happening to me right now, too."
Ben: In real life, T.J. was facing some tough choices. It didn’t make sense for her to stay in upstate New York. So she eventually headed back to the city and settled into a tiny shoebox of a bedroom in an apartment back in Brooklyn, which is where she slowly started rebuilding her life...
Amory: ... A life that looked very different than the one she’d had. And although the circumstances couldn’t have been worse, she was moving forward. She was proud of herself. So she decided to share her progress in a post on Reddit.
T.J. (reading post): My fiance died four months ago this week. I found him. He had a heart attack due to an underlying but undiscovered heart condition. He was 28. In the last four months I have moved five times. I finally found a permanent home for my dog and I two weeks ago. I bought a car. Last week I successfully negotiated a large raise with my boss. After being with the same person for seven years I did something very scary and I went on a date this weekend. It went well. I am on my way to being independent again. I have a long way to go, but I am proud of me today.
Amory: Why did you make that post?
T.J.: Sometimes I just need to express this to other people but I don't like to do it in front of people I know and have them all worried.
Ben: It’s such a strange thing — one goes through a lot of their life with people not asking them directly and honestly enough how they're doing. And then something like this happens and it's like relentless.
T.J.: I also don't want to seem performative to other people about it, which I find to be very gross in a lot of ways. And that's why I like Reddit because I can be sort of anonymous. I'm just a user account.
Ben: On r/Widowers, anonymity is a gift. It’s permission to say how you really feel. To ask disturbing questions. This is somewhat unique — definitely in comparison to real life — but also on the internet, which, more and more, is all about people building identities online. But for T.J., it was the other way around. And the anonymity has been an essential part of a slow recovery.
Amory: T.J.’s honest “I am proud of me” post took off. It hit the front page of Reddit.
T.J.: I think at the height of the post it was like 20,000 upvotes and several hundred comments.
Amory: But soon, T.J. realized that internet honesty, even when you’re anonymous, can backfire.
T.J.: First, people started commenting and saying, “Oh, are you sure you want to be dating this soon?” I was talking to a therapist at the time and I remember crying and being like, “I don't know how I'm going to do it again.” And also, “I don't even know how!” And I remember feeling very hopeless at the time and my therapist had encouraged me to try online dating — not to meet someone, because I didn't want to meet anyone.
Ben: Many of us are guilty of this thing that T.J. was trying to avoid. Among people who knew what happened to her, what happened to her was the only topic they wanted to talk about. She wanted to move on.
T.J.: I just wanted to connect with someone that was going to treat me for two minutes like a normal person, like I didn’t just have this horrible thing happen to me. But I just had to prove to myself that I could do it because it meant that I would survive that, too. Because it didn't feel like I would.
Ben: Things got worse for T.J. when an anti-feminist subreddit shared her post. The people in that group wrote some pretty terrible things.
T.J.: Just really vicious and horrible things that I don't think anybody would ever actually say in person.
Ben (to T.J.): You ended up deleting the post, right?
T.J.: Yeah I did.
T.J.: I deleted the post because people started to click on my username and they saw that I had been sharing things in the r/Widowers community. And so they started following me in there and commenting things on my partners photos — I had posted pictures of us there — just saying really horrific and nasty things about him, and I just couldn't stand for that.
Amory: Even though going viral had made her miserable, T.J.’s involvement in the r/Widowers community had made her some friends. Someone started responding to the trolls — sticking up for T.J. This person, who had also lost someone, was fighting some battles for her when she almost couldn’t fight them herself.
Ben: And that’s important, because T.J. was fighting other battles in real life.
T.J.: For example, we’d opened a Verizon account together. And when he passed away, I owed Verizon over a thousand dollars between one back bill that we had to pay and then also his cell phone. My credit is in the toilet. I've been sued by debt collectors. I'm currently going through a lawsuit right now.
Ben: T.J. says you can look at her financial history and almost see the death of her partner. She used to pay more than she owed on her credit card bills. And then, in January of 2017, her payments start to be late, and then not be paid at all.
T.J.: One payment stops February, one payment stops March, one stops April. You can see like one by one, the payments stop at that exact time period.
Ben: It has been really hard. But for the last two and a half years, T.J. has been clawing her way onto solid ground. She changed jobs to get a better paycheck. She’s been working on her credit score. She’s now moved out of the shoebox room and into the bigger bedroom in her New York apartment. But it’s not like she’s trying to forget her partner. She just wants to do her best to be in control of how she remembers him.
Ben (to T.J.): You talked a little bit about how your life with your partner kind of died after he died.
T.J.: Mm hmm.
Ben: And I wondered if there was anything in your life now that is kind of a keepsake of that life that you had together?
T.J.: Yeah I have a painting, a fairly large painting of a Batman Abraham Lincoln.
Ben: Oh my God. That is amazing.
Amory: That is just not what I was expecting!
T.J.: I'll send you guys a photo of it. We had it on the mantle above our fireplace. And I have his student ID in my vanity. So I look at that every day because that's how he looked when we first met. So that reminds me of him. And I have Smokey. I mean, Smokey is my biggest keepsake.
Amory: Gradually, things are getting back to normal — or, as normal as they can get when really nothing in your life feels normal. Which is also something T.J.’s learned, partly from Reddit’s infinite compendium, which she’s still using all the time.
Ben (to T.J.): How do you feel about Reddit after this experience?
T.J.: I think this story shows that even though it was horrible being harassed, I don't think that I would have been able to function without the r/Widowers support community. I honestly believe that.
Ben: So T.J.’s still posting, along with all of the other anonymous users, her own thoughts and feelings, and sometimes, seemingly anonymous quotes and ideas.
T.J.: Hold on... there’s this passage that I found in the r/Widowers community that a lot of people still share there all the time as a way to welcome newcomers. But also, I have revisited it several times, and I think it summarizes perfectly what grief is and how to process it. I can read it for you.
Amory: Yeah, please.
T.J.: Hold on, let me see if I can find it. I've sent it to other people, too, when they've like lost people...OK, I found it. OK, so this is how it starts:
(T.J. reading post) All right. Here goes. I'm old. And so what that means is I've survived so far and a lot of people I've known and loved did not. I've lost friends, best friends, coworkers, acquaintances, grandparents, my mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. But here's my two cents — I wish you could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don't want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don't want it not to matter. I don't want it to become something that just passes. (man's voice reading same passage fades in) My scars are a testament to the love and the relationships that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life...(passage fades out)
Amory: This passage, shared over and over across Reddit, isn’t an anonymous quote just re-posted on the site. Turns out, it was actually written by another Redditor.
Another Redditor: Hello! My name on Reddit anyway is u/GSnow. Some people just call me G.
Ben: GSnow doesn’t want to identify himself beyond that. He says he doesn’t want to direct attention away from the people his words seem to help. But he did agree to talk to us about this piece of his writing that he’s famous for, even if a lot of people don’t actually realize he’s the one who wrote it.
Amory: GSnow’s a teacher, and one day he saw a post on Reddit from a user who said they were 17 and their best friend had just died.
GSnow: So I just kind of responded off the top of my heart. It took no more time to write it than whatever my typing skills were. I never really intended it to be for any other audience except for that 17-year-old. It was just me writing to him or her, I don’t know which.
Ben: That was 8 years ago. The passage has been floating around ever since. And it has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes GSnow will open up his computer and have 40 new messages about this stream of consciousness piece of writing. He says he responds to every single message.
Amory: We told GSnow about his impact on T.J., and how she and others in the r/Widowers community send it to people when they first join. It’s like a gift, albeit a gift to mark a sad occasion.
GSnow: And I have come to recognize that the biggest gifts are the ones to somebody else, but through you. And that, to me, has been kind of the redeeming element in dealing with grief. Somebody finds a way to take their grief and turn it into a gift to somebody else. I do believe that grief can’t be measured. Being defined? I think I would say it’s the pain felt when love gets yanked out from under us. And I don't mean love as an emotion. I mean love as a connecting force. And when that gets yanked away, grief is the echo of that.
Ben: Even with all of the thoughts he has on this topic, most of the time GSnow just responds privately to people who get in touch. He lets that one passage he wrote eight years ago do the talking for him.
GSnow and T.J. (reading same post at the same time): Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut or even gouged. And that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love and the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can't see.
As for grief, you'll find that it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's something physical. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 hundred feet tall and they crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find that the waves are still a hundred feet tall but they come further apart and when they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But, in between, you can breathe and you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song or a picture. A street intersection. The smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything. And the wave comes crashing. But in between the waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everyone, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart and you can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare International, you can see it coming for the most part and you prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of wreckage, but you'll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming. And somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come and you'll survive them, too. If you're lucky you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.