A few years ago, my father was transitioning to rehab after an infection led to a foot amputation. My sister came home to see him and brought a friend with her. He brought his guitar and asked her for a song dad would be able to recognize upon hearing it. She chose an Allison Krauss song. He threw his acoustic over his shoulder, began to play, and walked slowly, confidently, down the halls of the facility to dad’s room. The instrument was understated and scared by cigarette butts of past owners, but in his hands it sang. The melody reverberated through the rooms and made many heads turn. That is how our family met Joseph Tallent, my sister’s second husband.
They had a whirlwind courtship. Within months of meeting online, they were getting married. I was skeptical. My sister’s school girl giggles when they were together confirmed how taken she was with him, but he was stoic. Joey barely spoke. He was reserved with his smiles and laughter. Still he exuded peace and confidence with his silence.
Joey was a petite man with wild Elvis hair and a voice that squeaked into high registers, but there was nothing small or quiet about his personality. I was soon to learn that.
I went on a trip to see my sister and her two girls from a previous marriage. We took the girls and Joey and went to St. Augustine, Florida. I stood back and watched how he interacted with my nieces and sister. He was protective: he walked beside the girls with his head on swivel for traffic. He was curious: he explored the buildings with us and suggested places to go. He was daring: he threatened to walk the riverfront in his boxers just to show me he didn’t care what people thought of him.
In the car later, my sister was upset about something that he knew about. The whole ride home, he held her hand and fed her spirit with a playlist of songs. I watched her weep and fall into peace with the melodies. Joey had become a steward of my sister’s heart. Like a gardener protects, tends, and waters his garden, Joey protected my sister and her girls, tended to her needs for organization and cleanliness in her home, and watered her heart with their shared love language of music. Seeing the depth of his intentionality and care is what made me love Joey too.
Lately I have been reading Jackie Kendall’s A Man Worth Waiting For. It is a study of the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz that examines the qualities of a godly man and how to recognize him. Being a steward of the heart of the woman he loves was one of the characteristics. Joey was exhibiting the heart of a man worth waiting for (MWWF) long before I learned what that meant.
Joey was not a perfect man by any stretch of the circumstances, but even his imperfections made him perfect for our family. My neices loved and trusted him. My sister rested her heart with him. Later, his son blossomed with him. He was the Winnie-the-Pooh to my sister’s red balloon.
They had a lot of plans to travel the country together. Joey wanted to introduce his son to the Yankees, but he never made it to his first game. After a non-Covid related respiratory incident, Joey passed away suddenly this summer at the age of 34.
There’s not enough white space to show the gap he left in our hearts. Joey was the kind of man who was kind to everyone but close to few, and those few were people he invested in intentionally. I was one of the few, but I didn’t realize it till he was gone.
What I do know is that he changed me. Joey made me laugh at life again, and he challenged me to take myself more seriously. He encouraged my dreams, but he wasn’t afraid to speak the hard truth when I needed it. That honesty saved me from years of further heartache in relationships with men not right for me.
Joey was more than a brother-in-law to me; he was my friend. I could be myself with him and know I was always welcome, safe, and loved. Even when my sister and I fought and he had every reason to side with her and hate me, Joey was kind to me. Joey was family by marriage, but he felt more like the blood brother I always wished I had.
In the moments following his death, I found myself wondering what my last words were to him. Did I tell him I loved him? Did he know that either way? We didn’t talk often, nor did we see each other much. My sister and her family lived several states away. Was that last moment a hurried goodbye as they left my house or a hug in his living room with the baby in his arms? I don’t know.
It’s hard to know how to deal with the death of a young person. Joey had a lot of life ahead of him and a son not yet two years old to raise. How were we to move on and show his son what an amazing father he had? How could we possibly teach him all his dad would have taught him? Thank God his mother is alive and can be the voice of this knowledge to her grandson.
It’s normal to feel angry when you lose a loved one. All your emotions become raw hamburger in the wake of such a loss. Part of you wants to draw the curtains and hide inside the shell of your life and cry. But the business of death won’t let you have that freedom.
The business of death is the part no one talks about and fewer still prepare for. It’s all the decisions about funeral services, your final resting place, the bills from your life that must be settled, the lack of income your family has to adjust to, your possessions they have to store or disperse, and the memories you left them with. Joey had no idea he was going to die the way he did, but he lived with an eternal mindset knowing his days on Earth were always numbered. He proved this to me in his death by the fact that he prepaid as many of the bills as possible, and he structured the finances of his household to be dependent on my sister’s income alone.
My sister was used to trusting Joey with the finances, but she had to navigate through these muddy waters while also melting into tears whenever she looked at what Joey left behind. We developed a GoFundMe to help her through unplanned expenses, and several caring friends contributed. Nevertheless, she still had to find a way to handle life alone and without the income to do all the extras she could afford with Joey. In a moment, the red balloon of my free-spirited sister was grounded and all the joy was sucked out of her.
Everyone says that grief gets easier with time, but the truth is that it is different for everyone. One person loves intensely, grieves intensely, and moves on. Another holds on to memories and slowly opens the onion layers of their pain over time. Many more find their way through pain in a variation of something between both extremes.
When you are hurting and trying to find your new normal after loss, find someone who knows you and what you truly value and share your thoughts with them. You will need the accountability in the months and years ahead because your emotions will play tricks on you. One more thing: think twice before you throw your family under the bus in your anger. It is easy to lash out at the people closest to you and even feel justified doing it, but those words are hard to hear and even harder to step back. Even if you feel like you are the only person qualified to speak about loss and pain, you don’t have the right to silence another person’s pain.
I was never as close to Joey as my sister and her kids were, but I still grieved him more than I expected too. I still struggled for months to put my pain into words. At the time of writing this, it has been four months since Joey stepped out of this world and into the next. He is gone but still ever present with us through the smile of his son and a thousand other things he left behind.
If you have gone through the loss of a loved one or a young person, I share this very personal story to hopefully help you avoid making some of the common mistakes that have been made in times of grief and heightened emotions.
- Let your pain draw you closer not push you away from your loved ones.
- Learn to practice patience and transparency with people you can trust who were in your life long before the tragedy happened.
- Be cautious about making big sweeping changes to your life. Even when you are happy, you are still in a stressed-out-emotional-survival-mode-crisis stage of life. Expect decisions right now to be based on emotions more than sound judgment.
- Guard your tongue; think twice before you unleash all your hurt on those around you lest you scorch the earth you stand on too and end up causing yourself more trouble.
- Let the grief have time to settle before you move on to someone new. It’s not fair for either of you to walk with the ghost of a past love standing between you.