Love. The greatest commandment. A simple yet complex emotion that fills our heart and breaks it at the same time. This is my journey through love and t-shirts...
Can you define love? It's a genuine question I want you to think about. Defining words helps us use them better when we communicate, and sharing your definition helps others understand what you mean instead of making their own assumptions. Love is a tricky word to define!
I can feel it when I think about my parents, my husband, my daughter, my friends… but it's hard to put words to. Good ole' Merriam-Webster defines love as "a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties. It also defines love as an attraction based on sexual desire, and as an affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests." It can be an object of attachment (baseball was his first love), or a warm attachment itself (love of the sea). But when I think about love, I'm not completely satisfied by that definition. There's something missing.
One of my favorite lines in a movie comes from Dan In Real Life where Steve Carell plays a windowed father with three girls - one of which claims is in love with her teenage boyfriend she just got caught making out with. When the dad confronts the boyfriend and declares he can't possibly be in love, the boyfriend replies, "Love isn't a feeling… it's an ability."
What Merriam-Webster seems to miss is that love goes beyond boundaries, it's relational; we can choose to love and we can get better at loving.
When I became a mom, I didn't know you could love something or someone so much, and in such a different way than any love I had experienced before. Giving birth was one of the weirdest and most gratifying experiences of my life. I couldn't believe the amount of love I could have for someone I barely even knew. When Skylar was born, it was like my heart multiplied in size and I suddenly had the capacity to love more fully than I could've ever imagined.
What I didn't realize was that the amount of love you can feel for someone is directly related to the amount of pain you can feel. When my daughter was diagnosed with a terminal diagnosis at just two months old, my heart shattered into a million pieces. I sat in disbelief for over a week, barely eating and beyond sick. Then I made a commitment to give her the fullest life for as long as we had with her and loved her the best I could. But it wasn't until she passed away at 21 months old that I fully realized the pain. It hurt so badly I could barely breathe. It was then that I realized the pain associated with grief is just love in another form.
After she was gone, it was a battle to get out of bed. It was hard for me to function, let alone love; my heart was broken. And so began my journey of learning to love again.
It started small. Picking up piece by piece of my heart as I tried to love others. I even bought a t-shirt that said "You Are So Worth Loving" because I wanted to let others know that I believed that. But the pieces would always fall at some point, usually closest to home when I would struggle to love my husband. And one day I felt a gentle voice inside of me say, "How can you possibly love others when you don't feel like your own self is worth loving?" Silence y'all. That one question sucker punched me to my core. Somewhere along the way, I believed the lies. I started believing all the voices in my head that told me I was an idiot, that I was a miserable person because I could never be on time or get out of bed in the morning, that I wasn't attractive anymore, that I didn't have anything worthy to give back to the world… The list, sadly, goes on and on. And for the first time in years, I started to stand up to the lies that had become truth in my head.
I bought another t-shirt that said "So Worth Loving" that was my reminder to myself. I started to pay attention to the negative self talk in my head and told those voices they were wrong and pushed them out whenever they would show up. I started to treat myself and talk to myself the way I would talk to my close friends. If a friend was upset with themselves for something they did wrong, I would tell them, "That sucks, but it's going to be okay… be kind to yourself, and just do better next time." Why wouldn't I tell my own self that? I would never tell my friend, "You're an idiot, everyone is going to think you're a miserable excuse of a person because of that!"
As I started changing my negative self talk, I started noticing it more in others. I would hear people say, "Gosh, I'm such a lazy bum!" or "Please don't hate me, I'm a terrible person." Instead of separating out the bad things we have done from our character as a person, we've made our mistakes become who we are. I started to see how loving myself better gave me the ability to love others better… I could hear the lies that other people were believing and start to speak truth into them. I could say, "You're not a lazy bum, you just had a lazy afternoon. You're a hard worker!" (which was the truth - they were not a lazy person). The more I stood up to the lies, the more I found my confidence that had been lost over the years. I started to value myself again and could see that value in others.
The whole time this was happening, I had been offering my photography services to anyone facing a terminal diagnosis because I knew how much the photos we had of our family helped me through the grief. They gave me a space to fully be present with my emotions and created a tangible way to connect with my daughter who is no longer here. With every session I donated, I realized more and more that something greater was taking shape and that every living person deserves the opportunity to be remembered by their loved ones. Based on my journey of finding love again, I created the non-profit, Love Not Lost, with the driving question of, "how can we love people better?"
I thought I had learned to love myself well and was excited to start loving others better through Love Not Lost. But in my head, "loving others" meant loving our applicants and the people facing a terminal diagnosis, the photographers who would volunteer with us, my board members, and our donors. As I was planning so many great ways that our organization could love people better, I felt that gentle voice again and it said, "Stop for a minute." And I was like, "Wait what?! Can't you see all these great ways we are going to love the mess out of people?! This is so great, why would I stop?" and the voice came back, "You need to start at home first. How can you love your husband better?" My stomach sank, and then I felt an anger boil up inside. I was angry because I knew that voice was right, but loving my husband better was hard! I wanted to love other people outside of my home instead - that was far easier than loving my husband better… I know my husband's mess. I know the things that drive me crazy about him (not in a good way). I love him, but I knew I would have to learn to love my husband better before I could actually love others better.
I looked at the ways I could love him better and started taking those steps. Picking up clothes, trying to tidy up my piles of paper, putting things back where I got them from - you know, all the stuff you were supposed to learn as a kid but somehow I managed to miss, haha. Seriously though, I knew that stuff drove him crazy and I had gotten lazy in caring about it. Loving him better meant more sacrifice. It meant more effort. And I did it - sometimes reluctantly in the beginning, but I did it. I genuinely wanted to love him better, and you know what? He noticed. And he started loving me better back without having to say a word. We eventually talked about it and committed to continually working to love each other better. We've fought hard against being among the 90% of marriages that end in divorce after losing a child, and we're making it.
I bought another t-shirt. This time it was a Persimmons Prints t-shirt that said "love well" in a beautiful script. It was a reminder to love myself, love my husband, and love the people around me well. As I've been able to love Kyle better and see the ways I can serve him better, I've been able to see more clearly in other people's lives the areas of need where I can step in and love. I still have a ways to go, but it's been an amazing journey so far. It will look different for everybody, but I hope we can all become people who love ourselves, speak truth, and boldly love others well.
How can you love people better?
ASHLEY JONES is the founder and executive director of Love Not Lost, a non-profit photographing people facing a terminal diagnosis and supporting people in grief. After graduating from Clemson University with a BS in graphic communications, Ashley worked as a graphic designer for a few years before starting her own photography company, Shutter Sweet Photography. Her love of photography and her passion to serve others led her to create Love Not Lost after losing her daughter to a terminal diagnosis. She's still happily married and enjoys spending time outside with her husband of 9.5 years exploring mountains, sitting by streams, and taking care of their garden.