These Roads Just End: One Writer’s Battle With Grief

The following post is not about growing up in the music industry, but rather growing up in general. James Shotwell, editor of the Haulix blog, shares his recent battle with grief and discussed the various ways he feels that avoiding the truth of a situation has stunted his personal and professional development over the last year. We’re sharing it here because we feel it’s important for young professionals to understand how handling their personal affairs directly relates to their ability to do their job as professionals, and we hope it makes a difference.

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For the past year I feel as if I have been traveling through the same small town again and again hoping to find a new street to stroll. That town’s name is grief, and it wasn’t until about 48 weeks into what I imagine will be at least a 52 week sentence that I realized this was so.

My best friend died. I’ve said and written this sentence more times than I can count over the past year, and in the process I’ve told myself it was true a little more with each use. I knew a part of me knew it was true from the moment my phone rang as I was just being seated for a film screening for a 2014 title whose name I’ve long forgotten. I remember collapsing in the hallway of the same movie theater I still frequent 2-3 times any given week, weeping, feeling as if my spirit had momentarily been sucked from my very being. I have glimpses of calling my mother and my fiancé, Lisa, telling them each the truth while gasping through sobs and wiping snot on a bench outside a screening for Gone Girl that was seeing a heavy amount of foot traffic. I couldn’t tell you how I got outside, but logic says I walked, and then my fiancé arrived to take me home. My best friend wasn’t dead just yet, but he was dying, and he would be gone before I could arrive no matter the means I took. I would have given everything in my bank account to pay for a flight, and I know my family would have chipped in if they thought it could help. We couldn’t make it. All we could do was wait, several hours, until confirmation finally came.

You might not believe this, but I actually found out about Justin’s death from Facebook. I was visiting his page while saying prayers to God, George Carlin, and every fallen family member I thought might be able to help when I saw someone post a comment reading “RIP” on his page. I knew things were far too dire for this to be a sick prank, and moments later my phone rang. It was Justin’s sister, and she didn’t really say anything at all. I think I asked if something had happened, and all I heard in response was a mumble buried in an urgent fight against oncoming tears. I apologized, as we all do in moments of loss, and after a few shared tears we hung up the phone. Lisa was coming up the hall from the kitchen as I hung up, and I jumped to greet her, sharing the news while collapsing in her arms. She had grown extremely close to Justin over the years as well, but in that moment she knew she had to be the strong one for both of us. I don’t know that I have ever thanked her for that.

The last time I saw Justin was in Cleveland over the summer. He had just crossed the three month mark on his latest hospital stay and I made good on a longstanding promise to come visit him. Having a job that allows me to work from home has its perks, and in this case I was able to travel during the week and put in hours while Justin underwent daily dialysis (often followed by naps, which allotted for even more work time). He never wanted to talk about his illness, and he would do his best to silence any doctors or nurses who tried to speak too directly about any specific treatments. Though he was sick for several years he always made it a point to keep details about his sickness at arm’s length from myself and our closest friends. It was his way of protecting us, but as you can imagine it never sat well with anyone.

During our time together on this trip we laughed over memories from our time in college, before Justing was sick. We talked about the girls we met and the adventures we shared. The time we got our car stuck in the woods on Justin’s 21st birthday and he missed the opportunity to have a proper night of drinking, and the time we drove to Ann Arbor for what turned out to be a sold out concert and drove three hours straight back to campus. We also played a lot of X-Box, which was the number one distraction Justin had from his immediate surroundings. He kicked my ass. It was a lot like being back in the dorm, but this time one of us was very, very ill.

At night, Justin and I would head to the rooftop of the Hospital and look at the city of Cleveland. Justin hated the view, and having seen a fair share of cities myself I wasn’t fond of it either, but it was what we had and we passed time poking fun at the city’s excitement over the return of Lebron James. We were even joined by a friend, Jacob, and together we sang Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” while the Tigers lit off Fireworks. Writing it now makes everything seem kind of like a schmaltzy climax to a John Greene novel, I know, but we wouldn’t realize the importance of those moments until many months later.

The only time we spoke about Justin’s sickness was when he made a simple request, and that was that I contact all our friends if he lost his battle. And trust me, it was a battle.

So after I collapsed into Lisa’s arms in that hallway, and after we eventually made it to our bed for several minutes of sobs, I remembered the request of my best friend. I started with our closest friends, and every single one was its own Earth-shattering moment. It was something I will never forget, and it’s something that I don’t that I will really discuss outside of this post. The calls with our closest friends were somehow the easiest, as the anticipation for Justin’s passing had already made its way through our immediate circle. Justin and I also shared friends whom he spoke to far more frequently than myself that he also requested I call at the same time, and those were the hardest moments of all. Speaking to people I hadn’t had a deep conversation with in months, if not over year, to say our mutual friend had just died was an impossible task that felt increasingly difficult with each number I dialed. It was necessary though, and I know Justin asked me to do that because he knew it would force me to deal with the reality of his passing far quicker than I was likely to on my own. He was always looking out for me like that, but as you might guess from the beginning of this story I somehow found a way to avoid truly facing those facts until the last few weeks.

My close friend Ben came to visit in September, just before Justin’s birthday, and we both remarked on how hard it was to come to terms with the fact he had indeed passed. When he left, I was fine for a week or so, but I couldn’t shake the feeling something was gnawing at me from the inside. For days I felt like my heart was sitting uncomfortably in my chest, and I was checking my pulse regularly with the idea I was perhaps having a very small scale panic attack. I eventually broke down at 3AM one morning, again alerting Lisa, and I confessed to her the regrets I had been carrying since the moment I knew of Justin’s death. The conversations we shared that I didn’t know how to guide, or the things left unsaid. I confessed how facing the fact my best friend, who was younger than me by nearly two years, could die meant facing the fact I was going to die all over again absolutely freaks me out to no end. I think we all forget that essentially everyone fears death on some level, at least temporarily, and when we feel like we’re the only ones who understand the concept of no longer being among the living it gives us a sensation our grandparents might describe as ‘heebie jeebies.’ That has been true for everyone I’ve ever known, every writer I’ve ever admired, and arguably anyone intelligent enough to grasp basic concepts of existence.

Please understand. I poured all of this out at 3AM to a woman who, up until the point I shook her while fighting back a massive breakdown, was sound asleep following a long day trip from Boston to New Jersey and back again. This woman is a saint, and she deserves a puppy (too bad our apartment is too small for one).

Getting over the Anger stage of grief by diving face first into the Bargaining phase, I spent the following days looking for signs in anything and everything to let me know I wasn’t losing my mind. Justin was on my mind constantly, as were my own battles with mortality, and I was looking for any excuse to avoid the fact those thoughts weren’t going away. No matter how hard I tried however, I could not work. I could not create. My mind was stuck, and I proceeded to become even more lost in my own thoughts and sadness. I could recognize the pain in my chest, but I couldn’t accept it. To be honest, I still struggle to. I feel it though, and I know it’s there. I know my body is telling me to deal with the loss of Justin and move on with my life, and I am trying to listen.

Today I was speaking at a college in rural Pennsylvania, and when I finally finished for the day I took some time to drive around and unwind. I had read about how the town was once eyed by gas companies, who worked to establish 3 major hotels in the sleepy hillside town of under 10k only to later abandon their plans decades ahead of schedule. I had wondered if there were any other repercussions from the move, and I think I found my answer in the numerous unmarked dead end streets I encountered. These weren’t road in the middle of the town, obviously, but rather those left on the outskirts as if to point towards opportunities that were never developed. After three or four of these intersections I stopped and rolled down the windows to let the silence of the moment sweep over me. I don’t know if it was the Pennsylvania air or the fact I am mentally exhausted from a day filled with conversations, but in that moment I realized how much my past year resembled this tiny town. I had underdeveloped opportunities everywhere, dragging down myself and others, all because I had been running from the fact that my best friend died. The November day that brought the worst phone calls I have ever received is fast-approaching, and I didn’t even take time to consider that I hadn’t properly dealt with Justin’s death until somewhere around October 5 of this year.

The strange part is, having realized what it is that I’ve been struggling with for so long I’ve since begun to feel like I am growing in leaps and bounds. I feel as if I am seeing the world through fresh eyes, and I am beginning to notice other things about myself that I perhaps have been fighting as well. Thoughts about what I really want out of life, and what I plan to do to reach that point, if I am able to at all. I like to think of it as finally seeing the ‘big picture’ instead of being obsessed with the details, and I’ve gotta say that it seems quite beautiful. I wish Justin were here to see it, but I know I will carry a piece of him with me wherever I go. He’ll be the person I dedicate my first book to, and the first name on the acceptance speech I keep just in case I ever do something that allows me to make one of those corny speeches. I’ll toast his life with our friends, and we’ll share stories about him until our time comes.

At the end of his posthumous autobiography, George Carlin is discussing his plans for a Broadway play about his own life when he says that reunion is the one thing we all seek in our lives, and I realize every day how true that is. Reunion with the past and with those that have passed, to some degree, is something each of us seeks in our own way. Call it a religion, call it a belief, call it whatever you need to feel complete. There must be something to that. It’s rare that every being in a species longs for the same high concept thing, at least as far as we know, so it must all mean something. How can it not? If reunion is what we all seek there must be something to it, and I’m sure when we get there it will be great. The wait will be hell, but it will be worth it.


James Shotwell is the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. He is also a professional entertainment critic, covering both film and music, as well as the co-founder of Antique Records. Feel free to tell him you love or hate the article above by connecting with him on Twitter. Bonus points if you introduce yourself by sharing your favorite Simpsons character.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.