On the Eve of my 30th Birthday / A Thank You to Jules

For those of you who know me, you probably know that writing is not my favorite thing to do. For some, it’s therapeutic; for me, it mostly produces a feeling of dread. But as my 30th birthday approaches, I know there’s something that I need to write:

My thank you note to Julia.

If this was a made-for-TV movie, Julia would have pre-ordered my 30th birthday present (Julia was very good about remembering birthdays and never missed the opportunity to remind me how much she loved me on my special day). It would arrive the morning of my birthday, and I would have a big What-Turning-30's-All-About epiphany just moments before guests arrived for my party, as people turning 30 tend to do in made-for-TV movies. The reality is a little less dramatic, but no less worthy of being celebrated: Julia did leave me a gift.

Prior to her death, I thought turning 30 would be something I'd dread and wouldn't want to celebrate. I imagined I’d look in the mirror, find a tiny line and convince myself that I’m SOOO OLD and haven’t done enough. Instead, I’ve learned over the past year and a half of celebrating Julia and her life that, for me, it isn’t about having it all together or the things I have yet to accomplish. It’s about appreciating the moments we have, saying yes to things that scare us and truly loving — and always celebrating — the wonderful people around us. Each day, each week, and each year is a gift. 30 is not something I want to run away from. It’s something I want to celebrate.

When I first moved back from New York, Julia and I met up for happy hour for the first of what would become our weekly “play dates." As we sat on the patio enjoying our drinks, we talked about Julia’s next steps in her college career, and what our mutual friends in high school were up to. This evolved into a discussion on time passing, and where we thought we would be at that point in our lives versus where we actually were. Julia bravely shared that she had been struggling with feeling like everyone had it "together" from a much earlier age than she had. She then shared her antidote to this:

She would no longer compare herself to others, or impose expectations on herself of where she "should" be.

This conversation continued to echo in my head after Julia’s accident. She didn’t get to finish college, start the career she dreamed of or get married. But none of that means that she didn't live a rich, full and accomplished life. Julia said yes to trying new things, and in doing so changed the course of my life (and the lives of so many others). She didn’t live by a certain checklist, or try to have it all figured out (I truly think that most people don’t feel like they have it figured out either). Instead, she made a conscious effort to silence that negative voice in her head and replace it with "yes." It was infectious -- my yes voice now sounds remarkably like Julia’s.

So on the eve of my birthday, I want to toast to Julia. 

Thank you for still pushing me to embrace life and to keep dancing. It is better than any other birthday gift I could have asked for.

With love,
Katie

How to Write a Condolence Note

Sarah, Molly, Katie and I agree a lot, as you’ll see. But just as we know that our loss isn’t unique, and that so many others suffer through profound grief too, we know that our experience isn’t the be-all and end-all way to grieve either. What’s comforting to us might not be comforting to all. We do think, though, that there’s a universality to, what Molly calls, the language of loss. And in that universality, we’ve found some common themes: it’s scary to talk about loss, it’s challenging to sit with loss and loss sucks.

We’ve unwoven these threads to try and come up with some ideas about how to tackle writing a condolence note, and included what we’ve found most comforting, plus some pitfalls to try and avoid when reaching out. You’ll find very quickly, though, that condolence notes don’t need to be as terrifying as they might seem. The bottom line is that you have everything inside of you already to write one: You have a heart, and you care. That’s why you’re here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 2:30 PM


Molly:   Condolence notes!
 

Stephie:   HERE WE GO!
 

Katie:   Let's do this!
 

Sarah:   #1, they are hard to write.
 

Katie:   I think in the spirit of honesty, YES! And they don't get that much easier because you care about the person. On top of that, each loss is unique. But there are definitely things you learn that can make you feel a little less lost.
 

Stephie:   Right. And they don't even get easier once you've been through loss yourself; they're just universally/for-all-time hard.
 

Molly:   Yes, it's STILL hard to write one even being on the other end of loss.
 

Sarah:   I think the important thing to remember is that there really isn't a wrong thing to say. The worst thing would be to not say anything.
 

Katie:   Yes, agreed. Although, maybe there is one thing, that’s not so much wrong as not the best option: “on the bright side.”
 

Molly:   Totally. Trying to undermine the loss and put a nice positive twist to it just doesn’t work.
 

Sarah:   Yeah, because this isn't a time to look for a silver lining.
 

Stephie:    "At least" never made anyone feel better.
 

Katie:   You can’t fix someone’s grief.
 

Molly:   I think we as humans are so uncomfortable just sitting in the sadness, especially when we are trying to comfort others, but that is sometimes the best way to go about writing a condolence note.
 

Sarah:   Yes, sitting in the sadness is awkward, but it shows empathy.
 

Stephie:   Absolutely, and avoiding the impulse to try and make the person feel better by being positive, at least in that initial contact — when you’re in the thick of grief, thinking positive isn’t really an accessible option.
 

Katie:    The card is about letting them know you are there for them. And you may feel uncomfortable sharing memories of the loved one, and afraid it will make them feel more sad, but most likely all they are doing is thinking about their loved one already. And hearing how their loved one touched you can be a huge comfort.
 

Sarah:   Yes, we want to hear those memories.
 

Molly:   Yes, agreed to that! The more memories the better! We get to know our loved ones even more after they are gone through the stories of their friends.
 

Stephie:   YES. And I like what you said, Sarah, about the worst thing is not saying anything at all; I think that sort of takes the pressure off, just knowing that nothing anyone can say is the absolute most perfect thing to say, and being perfect doesn't even matter in this scenario.
 

Sarah:    Exactly. You are never going to make someone more sad, and you should never feel that it "isn't your place" to say something. Even if you didn’t know the person who died.
 

Katie:   Agreed.
 

Molly:   But honestly, even if it DOES make the person more sad, that is not a bad feeling anymore. We welcome sadness.
 

Stephie:   Oh yes. Sarah/Molly, you both got letters from people you hadn't heard from in awhile or didn't know very well before, right?
 

Sarah:   Yes, and in many ways those are some of the letters that I was the most touched by. Because I know how awkward that must have been to send — it meant so much.
 

Katie:    I think along those lines: Even just letters that said, “I'm sorry for your loss” mean something. It doesn't have to be long.
 

Stephie:    YES. I think a lot of times, folks put added pressure on themselves to send a handwritten note, or to go out and buy a card — but really, an email is great. A text is great. A Facebook message is great. Each conveys the same level of care.
 

Molly:    Yes! They are honestly like little pricks of joy.
 

Sarah:    Yes, anything! Just something that says, “Hey this sucks” is enough.
 

Molly:    Ya, and it makes you think, “Wow, how many other people were affected by this that I don't even know about?”
 

Sarah:    Exactly.
 

Katie:    A letter, even with those few words, makes you feel less alone. And like Molly said, others are feeling the pain and sorrow of that loss, too.
 

Molly:     Also receiving those letters from essentially strangers has made me want to reach out to others as well — I am so grateful for their courage.
 

Sarah:    Yes, it helps to spread the love and pay it forward.
 

Molly:    Every time you receive anything from anyone about your loved one — it temporarily gives you such deep joy and connectedness.
 

Katie:    And there's no time limit on when you send these. If you didn't have courage when you first heard, you're not too late.
        

Sarah:    Oh yeah, it’s never too late! Sometimes it takes awhile for people to process what happened, and that’s totally okay. It could be six months, a year later, whenever.
 

Stephie:    YES. It's not like sending a wedding gift within a year or something — your friend is sitting with that grief day in / day out, and hearing acknowledgement from someone that says, "Yes, I know you're still in pain" can be very validating.
 

Molly:    Also important to note: If you don't ever get a response back, it’s mostly because there were too many people to respond to, and it gets overwhelming. Nothing ever goes unnoticed or unappreciated. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, but I have learned to let it go. People are genuinely sending love because they care, and not because they’re expecting a response back.
 

Sarah:    I know, I have guilt about that, too. But, everything I received was so appreciated and cherished.
 

Molly:    Speaking of sending cards throughout the months that follow, my friend Joanie sent me a few cards just to say “hey” and random memories that related to Julia, but honestly some that didn’t. She just sent them because she wanted me to know she was thinking of me and loves me. I think that is so important, and again helps people not feel so alone in their grief — especially as the adrenaline wears off and real life sets in. It reminds you that people haven't forgotten either. I still get texts and emails, and it is so life-giving. It also kind of blows my mind a bit.
 

Sarah:    Oh yes, it's always nice to hear someone is thinking of you! Because grief isn't something that gets better necessarily. It's always with you, and ebbs and flows in waves.
 

Katie:    Yes, and you've shared some of these cards from Joanie with us, Molly, and we were able to remember Jules through them. So that one card, really brought joy to not just you but to all of us.
 

Molly:    They have ripple effects!
 

Katie:    Yes! Also because of these cards, I’ve been more conscious about checking in with people I loved, realizing how much those little reminders that we're not alone can make a difference.
 

Stephie:    Definitely. It's a really profoundly human thing to feel that connection, and then pass on that connection.
 

Katie:     I think along those lines, these letters also really taught us about courage, and just putting yourself out there. We’ve since made ourselves vulnerable, sharing our experience with grief, and we hope it may help, but it's always scary that it could be taken the wrong way.
 

Molly:    Yes totally — it is scary! But it means the world. Don't we all want to make people feel a little better about life? This is a very tangible way to do that.
 

Katie:    100%. And I think we can all say with certainty that we didn't take a single card the wrong way.  It's just that little, negative voice in your head that makes you question yourself, and you have to ignore it.
 

Sarah:    Yeah, I have that voice even now! I have it when I’m trying to comfort someone else. But I have to ignore it, and allow myself to feel the sadness, and to convey that.
 

Stephie:     Oh yes, I still feel like an amateur! I wrote an email to my friend's little sister after her friend passed away a couple weeks ago, and I stared at a blank email on my computer for probably thirty minutes before I could figure out what to say. It doesn't get easier. (Which is sort of the unexpectedly good news. I think I'd be terrified if I thought sending condolences did get easier.)
 

Molly:     I love what you said about staring at a blank page, Stephie, even now — knowing that helps someone else who is also on the other side of grief not feel like they always have to have the words to say just because they’ve been through loss! I think in those moments you are staring at a blank screen is a true act of empathy.
 

Stephie:    Absolutely. I keep coming back to what you said earlier, Molls, about sitting in the sadness. Grief is so inherently lonely, and just having someone “sit” (figuratively) in the muck with you, and try their best to feel what you're feeling, makes you feel that much less isolated and alone.
 

Katie:    And a letter/text/email can really capture that when you can't physically be with the person.
 

Molly:    It honestly does. I think some people question why they are so sad even if they didn't know the person that died at all or very well — at least I have, and I feel embarrassed by it, like I don't deserve to be this sad. But I think there it's because we are tapping into the universal language of loss. We are sad for our friends who have to go through this shi*, we are sad for their families, we are sad for the person that died who's life is cut short — whether they were 29 or 94. It’s okay to feel any way that you feel and to communicate it, to get very personal with it, and to not stifle your grief. You have every right to be sad. P.S. Emily McDowell has incredibly poignant and honest empathy cards.

Katie:    Yes! Empathy!
 

Stephie:    EMPATHY. When we know someone going through loss, we often feel so utterly helpless. I think some of the most common things we've all heard are, "I wish there was something I could do," and "I know there's nothing really I can do" — which all goes back to the bottom line of, just giving voice to that care (via letter, etc.) is a huge comfort. And it's natural to feel so helpless because there's no easy fix (which goes back to that real common impulse to go positive or go home).
 

Sarah:    Agreed!! You all are typing exactly what I'm thinking haha
 

Stephie:    It's like we finish each other's… Sandwiches.
 

Katie:    Haha
 

Sarah:    Same brain :)
 

Katie:    Being sad and sharing in the sorrow is beautiful and healing.
 

Stephie:    Are there any letters y'all have received that come to mind? Molls, I know those Joanie letters were huge.
 

Katie:    I hadn't even started my new job when Julia passed away, and my new co-worker wrote me an email that said, “I know you don't know me well yet, but if you need anything at all, please don't hesitate to reach out." It was so simple but sincere, and brave.
 

Sarah:    That is so brave.
 

Molly:    Wow, that was really thoughtful!
 

Sarah:    And sweet.
 

Katie:    All those things. And since then I've had other people in work situations go through a loss. Before I wouldn't have said anything, but now I always remember that note. That was my first time learning that there's no rules around grief and loss. It's beyond social norms. Even if you don't have a close relationship, reach out. Acknowledging a loss is never the wrong thing to do.
 

Molly:    Ya, it makes work more of a supportive place! You aren't just robots with no families… And you spend so much time with those people, it’s nice to bring that empathy into the workplace.
 

Stephie:    Yes yes yes, I love that.
 

Sarah:    Very true, always acknowledge if you can. The letter I received from [my husband] Ben's friend was really helpful. He sent it about a month after she died saying he had never met Julia, but since we are so shaped by our families he sees Julia's kindness through me. That was very touching.
 

Stephie:    Ah! I love that so much. I'm thinking of two letters. One was a card that came in the mail from a college friend who I've only seen a couple times since she moved out of state. And in it she said, "I know we're not as closely in touch as we used to be, but I want you to know how much I care about you." And some other really touching stuff that made me cry (good cry, always good cry). She had met Jules only once, but shared her memory of meeting Jules, and how much she liked her and could understand why she was my best friend.
 

The other was an email I got the day after Julia died from my buddy who’s basically my brother, Chris Littler, probably right after [my husband] Chris told him what had happened. And it just said the f-word a bunch of times. Plus some other stuff, but mostly the f-word. And I just remember thinking, “Thank God for you, Littler. You are verbatim saying what I am thinking.”
 

Sarah:    Hahaha oh yes the f-word sometimes is all there is to say!
 

Katie:    Yes. SUCK and it's rhyming friend F...
 

Stephie:    Hahahaha


Molly:    Hahahaha agreed.


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Holiday Gift Guide for Someone Who is Grieving

It can be difficult to know how to comfort someone who is grieving, especially during the holidays. As we discussed in this post, what was once the happiest time of the year becomes a source of pain and longing for the past. Gift giving can seem meaningless when the one thing you want is not possible.

I thought it would be helpful to share some of the gifts that my family and I were so fortunate to receive after we lost Julia. Nothing can take away the pain, but gifts that acknowledge the loss are especially meaningful. If you are struggling with how to comfort a grieving person during this season, this gift guide might give you some ideas.

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I Keep Dancing: A Year in Review

We hope everyone is enjoying what this incredible holiday season has to offer: celebration, joy and love. We hold onto those three words even more tightly now as 2016 comes to a close — especially celebration!

We officially launched I Keep Dancing in December of 2015. We want to take a moment to reflect back on this year and celebrate this huge milestone.

Photo: Ian Schneider

But before we list some of the highlights of this past year, we want to extend a giant THANK YOU for joining us on this journey. For those of you who have donated to the scholarship, shared our blog posts, prayed with us, cried with us, texted us when you were reminded of Jules throughout this past year,  we cannot even begin to acknowledge our depth of gratitude for each of you. Without our community of friends and family who love Jules and love us, we wouldn’t be dancing.

We have been intentionally quiet these past few months while working on the details of the scholarship, curating more blog content and taking time to reevaluate our organization and what we need to focus on going forward. As we look ahead to 2017, we are very excited about what is in store, but also want to take this opportunity to remember all the ways God has provided for this organization and our family so far.

DECEMBER 2015: THE LAUNCH OF OUR website and blog!

Sweatshirt design: Joanie Cusack

Sweatshirt design: Joanie Cusack

When we launched the blog for IKD, our main goal was to create an encouraging resource for anyone going through the loss of a loved one, a place to process grief. We were able to gather not just our own thoughts, but share others’ unique perspectives about loss as well. It is encouraging to see the "I Keep Dancing" message shine through a variety of stories! Below are some of our favorite blog posts:

Julia’s Legacy and Lessons on Grief 
Empathy vs. Sympathy
New Traditions
A Year of Firsts: Relearning How to Have a Happy Birthday
A Merry and Mighty Christmas
Sweet 16 Part 1
Sweet 16 Part 2
I Keep Galentines-ing
The Importance of Party hats
Brave Tuesday Story: My Struggle with Infertility
Brave Tuesday Story: Facing Grief
Brave Tuesday Story: The Contagious Power of Doing Good
Oh Death Where is your Sting? 


JANUARY: I KEEP DANCING IN THE NEWS

We had the opportunity to be on our local evening news, ABC7, in LA and Orange County! They were able to film two people getting “I Keep Dancing” tattoos and interview our lovely tattoo artist, Christina, who so joyfully tattooed over 23 people with the incredible hand written artwork by Laura Hooper Calligraphy. We had many people contact us afterwards wanting more information and encouraging us to keep going with our message. It was all very inspiring and surreal!


MARCH: OUR first Fundraiser IN NYC

Screen-Shot-2016-12-12-at-10.20.52-AM.jpg

This was magic. So many people to thank for how this all turned out.  A HUGE thank you to the Alpha Phi Zeta Sorority at NYU for putting this whole night together. You can read more about this night in this post. The fundraiser (online and live) helped us reach our first goal of $25,000!! Most importantly, we were able to witness how this message of hope and joy in the midst of tragedy has touched so many people within just the first few months of I Keep Dancing.


JULY 7: The First Year Anniversary Party and Fundraiser

We weren’t expecting the first anniversary of Julia’s death to be anything but sad, heartbreaking and painful. But because of all of you, we were able to both celebrate Julia’s life and raise funds for the I Keep Dancing scholarship. The incredibly generous restaurant, Ecco (Julia’s former employer), hosted the first anniversary get together, and donated all proceeds of the signature drink “The Moscow Jules” to I Keep Dancing. So many of you came out to show your support and donated to the scholarship. We raised over $2,000 that evening and that left us all in tears — the happy kind. You can check out some snapchats from the night in the video above!

Video music by Ryan Adams: "Dance all Night"


Reflection and Planning

As we were reflecting back on this year as an organization, we actually couldn’t believe it has only been a year. Like we mentioned above, since the fall, we’ve worked quietly behind the scenes, figuring out the details for the scholarship and planning content for the blog in 2017. We look forward to sharing more details with you regarding the scholarship and providing more resources for people going through grief and loss.


Grieving and Healing

We launched this organization just a few short months after Julia passed away. We were on fire and channeled all of our intense grief into writing for the blog and fundraising for the scholarship. All of that was so necessary for us in our own healing process, and united us in ways we couldn’t even imagine. As the year rolled on and the adrenaline wore off, we all went into a silent healing and grief period. We learned how to live ‘normal’ life again with this hole that would shrink at times, only to expand again on a ‘normal’ day driving to the grocery store and remembering that she’s still not here. This new phase of grief is like being alone in the woods: solemn, cold, sad and sometimes lonely. But it’s also peaceful, numbing, and marked by tints of joy. Sometimes we just can’t feel the pain. Other times it’s still all too much to bear. We look forward to continuing to share our journey towards healing with you all and adjusting to a second year without Julia.


Looking ahead

As we wrap up this year, we have a sustained dedication for this organization and community. We are looking forward to putting our plans into action and can’t wait to share with all of you what is next for I Keep Dancing. Stay tuned! We pray you and your family have a joyful, peaceful and celebratory Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year.

Photo: Shane Hauser

The Contagious Power of Doing Good

Each week's Brave Tuesday Story draws from a member of our community. Today we are honored to feature Sheila Sadeghi’s piece on the healing power of galvanizing behind a charitable goal.

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The other day a taxi driver told me, “You can’t know the meaning of life unless you have dealt with tragedy.” It may sound odd to get that deep into a conversation during my fifteen minute ride to LAX, but for me, it felt right. These days, I’d rather learn about people’s real lives and talk about real issues than just keep things light and on the surface.

 

I knew Julia since she was 6 years old because of my decades long friendship with her older sister, Sarah; but even for me, the impact of losing her so suddenly has proven far greater than I could have imagined, affecting how I live my daily life, how I behave at work, and how I view all of my relationships. I’ve always been mindful of our mortality, but somehow I was okay with letting my goals be achieved someday off in the future. As long as I had a plan to slowly work towards those goals, I felt content. Julia’s death has helped me take charge of my life, be more confident, and make things happen now rather than keep waiting for that someday.  

 

During the eight months since Julia’s passing, I’ve gone through a range of emotions. I’ve felt devastated and shaken to the core, but also more connected to others and inspired. Through the grief, friends and family have come together. We all want to do something to help and I’ve learned that helping can be contagious. I thought I could offer my help by making a donation to the I Keep Dancing scholarship fund. I didn’t expect a chain reaction to follow that would culminate in a large group donation. I’m still amazed by how it all transpired.

 

That chain reaction began on a rainy Tuesday in January over lunch with my friend and co-worker, Wiley. As we alternated between venting about work stress and scarfing our lunches, Wiley pointed out an obvious element of my personality: I’m competitive. If you know me, you know it’s true, and I won’t deny it. I laughed at him, and told him about my latest win in my NFL Pick ‘Em league with my girlfriends. I felt a little bad about winning the pool a second consecutive year. When I won last year, I was ecstatic. Winning then had earned me bragging rights, an extra $350, and a shield from future smack talk. But winning now made me feel like I was taking money from my friends, and discouraging them from participating again.

 

Then it dawned on me: why not donate my winnings? Sarah had recently launched I Keep Dancing, and the scholarship fund was a charity close to our hearts. I shot an email out to the girls in the league to let them know I’d be contributing my winnings to the charity. They loved the idea. Later that week, I had another epiphany.  My company has a gift-matching program for tax-exempt, public charities. Why not see if others wanted to join my donation? I emailed my closest friends and family and let them know that we had the chance to double our donations if they were interested in joining me.

 

The response was immediate and contagious: “Yes!” The more that people reply-all’d pledging their support, the more that others felt encouraged to reply-all, “I’m in, too!” This brought me so much happiness, and a real sense of accomplishment-in-progress. I started telling people at work how good it felt to be raising money for my friend’s charity, and that only led to more interest. I’d unknowingly started a club, and everyone wanted to join.

 

Meanwhile, our close friend Colby’s mom, Karen, was busy raising money as a birthday gift for Julia’s mom, Carol. Karen reached out to me, and we added what she’d raised to the group contribution I’d started. Before I knew it, we’d collected contributions from 30 people, creating a sizeable sum, and far surpassing my own vision of donating $350 from my football league.
 

The stories from donors who knew Julia are inspiring, and made me feel gratified to know that she touched so many lives. But what really amazed me was the volume of people donating who didn’t know Julia, Sarah, Carol, or anyone directly connected, aside from me. People like my co-worker, Jenny, whose 10-year-old son has already survived six open-heart surgeries. She heard me talking about I Keep Dancing at work one day, and asked me to send her the site. She went home that night, read the blog, watched the memorial video, and came to work the next day with an incredible contribution to our group donation.  

Jenny's email to Sheila about her son, Clark

Jenny's email to Sheila about her son, Clark

People like Dalin and Daniel, who met when I hired them into the same department, and married a year later. (I made a marriage!) Dalin and Daniel had been searching for a scholarship to donate to, as a way to give back, since most of their college education was paid for through scholarships. Julia’s fund was the perfect match for what they were looking for.
 

As I compiled donations, I felt awed by the meaning behind each donation, big and small. No matter the dollar amount attached, each contribution felt huge.
 


Within a week of fundraising, I discovered a good problem: how should I tell Julia’s family the exciting news?

 

I’ve always liked to think of myself as an honorary Gardner. I’ve known Sarah since third grade. We were in the same friend group straight through high school, but we became even closer in college. Sarah left California for NYU in August 2001, one month before 9/11. It was a terrifying time after the attacks, and Sarah told us that she felt far from home. She moved back and transferred to my school, USC, and pretty soon, we became roommates. We remained roommates for ten years, from a tiny studio apartment with murphy beds, to a one-bedroom apartment with matching comforters, to a six-bedroom mansion in Los Feliz on Lambeth Street along with four other girls. If she didn’t feel like a sister before, living with Sarah from age 18 to 28 really made her feel like family.

 

I was eager to tell Sarah about our donation, but I also knew how meaningful it would be to Carol and Vance, Sarah’s parents and the heart of the Gardner family.  I’d try to describe the moment Karen and “the moms” told Carol the news on her birthday, but the video captures it so well:

 

 

The following week, I set up a call with Sarah and Molly to tell them how much the charity they’d started had already spoken to so many people. The mission of this blog is to inspire hope and joy in the midst of adversity, and I felt compelled to show Sarah and Molly, along with Katie and Stephie, who started I Keep Dancing with them, how the movement they created has inspired us all to dig deep, and give. Sarah and Molly said they were blown away. “This is out of control!” is a direct quote.

 

I took a great deal of personal satisfaction out of coordinating our group’s efforts. While discussing how remarkable our donation turned out to be, Karen shared, “I truly think going outside and doing something to help somebody else makes you feel a sense of satisfaction, that the death of your loved one has some sort of purpose. It’s that feeling of having no ability to do anything that is so devastating.” This blog and charity has given us a way to do something through our grief. Helping has become a contagious phenomenon, and I’m both hopeful and joyful to think of what lies ahead. So Sarah, Molly, Katie, and Stephie: mission accomplished.

 

I wrote this post while in New York for I Keep Dancing’s first official fundraising event. The love and generosity we experienced there was simply heartwarming. During the trip, I visited the 9/11 Memorial. Being there reminded me how essential it is to rely on each other for the strength to move forward. It reminded me that a horrible tragedy from nearly fifteen years ago brought a best friend into my life. It reminded me that sweet time here is not endless.
 

SHEILA---girls-at-Plaza.jpg

 

The tragedies and struggles we face in life are not fair. Julia’s death is not fair. But how we band together to get through these devastating events can be beautiful. The I Keep Dancing community has created a forum to connect all of us who want to find a way to get through tough times together, and I am so grateful for that.

 

I’ll leave you with a message I found on a construction banner at the 9/11 memorial site:

 

Hello, tomorrow. We never forget what has gone before. Yet our eyes have always been on the possibilities ahead.

 

 

It’s hard to imagine a future without Julia’s infectious smile, laughter, and dance moves, but we can forever cherish our memories of her. Her spirit lives on, and the good to come from all of us inspired by her is limitless.

 

 

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I Keep Dancing welcomes your stories. Please contact us to learn more.

 

 

Our First Fundraiser!

First things first: we were BLOWN away by the amount of our support from our first fundraising effort. Thank you to each and every one of you for donating to the online raffle, donating to the scholarship directly on our website, and being there in person at our event. We are so humbled by all of the love, and we know that Julia is beaming with pride.


Because of your support we were able to raise a total of $6,613 with this first fundraiser! When combined with all of the generous donations that we’ve received directly to the site, we have surpassed our first fundraising goal of $25,000! This will allow us to start collecting applications for the I Keep Dancing scholarship (!), and we will be updating this site with more info about that soon. None of this would be possible without the support of this amazing community, and we’d like to send a big hug to each and every one of you:

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Last week we were so grateful to hold our first official I Keep Dancing fundraising event, graciously coordinated by Sarah’s NYU Sorority Alpha Pi Zeta, and held at SideBar in NYC. Sarah was initially going to be the only one able to attend in person, but — as with so many things this year — everything happened to align in the right way, and Katie, Molly, Stephie, Julia’s best friend Ed (The Raffle Rock Star!!), Sarah & Julia’s friend Sheila, and Julia’s mom Carol were all able to fly out for it!! 

Sarah with co-hosts, Tara, Jenny, and Madison

Sarah with co-hosts, Tara, Jenny, and Madison

The amazing Ed with Carol, Julia's mom

The amazing Ed with Carol, Julia's mom

The turnout was even greater than we expected, and we had such an incredibletime seeing old friends and meeting new ones. It made us excited to host more in-person events, so stay tuned!

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Drawing the raffle prizes!

Drawing the raffle prizes!

Lovely Raffle winner with her Aran Rose Designs tote!

Lovely Raffle winner with her Aran Rose Designs tote!

 

A HUGE thank you to our sponsors who donated such generous gifts!!
 

BCBG MAXAZRIA, Zeel, GlamSquad, Tart Collections, Dermesse Skin Care, Aran Rose Designs, John Russo, DSW, S.W Basics, Deb Oh and the Cavaliers, Chamber Band ,The Jacob Krueger Studio

 

And last but not least, we love you NEW YORK!!

Brave Tuesday Story: Facing Grief


Everyone grieves differently. The common denominator, though, is that we all must inevitably face our pain.


Each week’s Brave Tuesday Story draws from a member of our community. Today we are thrilled to feature a beloved member of our immediate framily (<-- not a typo!): Ed Hernandez. We love Ed so much for so many reasons, not least of which: how happy he made Julia, and how loved she felt by him. Their decade-long best friendship rivaled the greatest partnerships throughout history. 


This week is the perfect week to share Ed’s poem, as he’s been instrumental and essential in coordinating the logistics for our online fundraiser and NYC event happening this Thursday! Of working on both the fundraiser and on this post, Ed put it best:


“This has renewed a passion in me that I'd lost after the accident. [...] As cliché as this may sound, I do not want Julia's death to be in vain, without respect or resolve. That same tender heart we know she had — I want the world to know it.”


I'm unfortunately super introspective when bad stuff happens— Or actually, more like reclusive, which is one reason this has taken so long. My natural inclination when I feel sadness, or anger, or emptiness, is to withdraw.


This was one of Julia's wonderful attributes: she'd force me to deal with things. She’d literally bang on my door without giving me a heads-up because she knew I'd avoid the phone, or she'd pick me up and drive me where I needed to go. When I was diagnosed with cancer, she was the one who took me to my doctor’s appointments.  


Staying positive while sitting in a cold waiting room, alone, surrounded by sickness can feel impossible, to say the least. But with Jules by my side, the severity of my situation felt less, well, severe. Her energy calmed me. She kept my pre-appointment jitters at bay. She made me laugh. She stuck by me. It takes a brave person to really be there, on each drive and in every waiting room, and to not only acknowledge the harsh reality, but to also look beyond today’s dreary outlook to tomorrow’s possibilities. I could sense that many people in my life were too scared to ask me about my condition. But Julia remained unafraid to talk to me openly about my treatment, and about the next steps. And that made me feel less like a patient, and more like myself.

 

Julia and I met in August 2006, when I started working at the Beachcomber Cafe. I was shy and nervous, but she was easy to talk to, and made me feel welcome there. Drinks after work soon turned into long lunches on our days off, LOTS of sleepovers, and family functions. She quickly became my closest confidant. We talked freely, deeply and honestly about our personal struggles. Nothing was taboo. She never judged me. She cared — and that care, and devotion, is rare.

 

One of my biggest regrets is not dropping everything and coming to the Gardners’ home the morning we got the news. I was worried that I’d be fired, but, in retrospect, that was totally stupid logic. I also think I was in some form of shock. I didn't — or couldn't — wrap my head around the fact of what had happened, and I instead chose to ignore it. I don't know. I guess I'm not good at dealing with horrible news. (But really, who is?)

 

All of these thoughts are scattered in different parts of my journal. I’m thinking of calling everything I’ve learned since the accident, “The Jules Rules. For example, when confronted by something terrible, DO NOT run away from it. Because when it catches up to you — and it will — the pain will hit you like a battle axe. That pain is unavoidable, but it’s also an intrinsic part of the healing process. We can’t heal from a deep wound, unless we acknowledge that a wound exists.  

 

DO surround yourself with loved ones and grieve together. Laugh together, too. That option seems so much more therapeutic than the alternative. We should seek community, not solitude.  This kind of loss is a first for me, and it's deep. I've had relatives pass away, but nothing like this. This was sudden. Losing Jules not only hit close to home; it bore a hole through my heart.

 

I felt angry. I went through a period of, "I wish it had been me, it should've been me."  My logic was, "I had cancer, I'm sick, I'm a shitty person, please take me instead.” But that's also stupid.

 

This leads to another rule: DO NOT be angry or beat yourself up.  The anger consumed me, which in turn made me run even further away. Julia was, and always will be, my best friend. But now that she’s no longer here with me on earth, I need to be my own best friend. I need to be kind and gentle with myself, the way I know she would be with me.

 

DO look at the bigger picture.  God's plan is already written: it's in the stars. I realized in all of this pain that I must retain faith in His plan. And it's okay to get mad at the Lord; He can take it.  DO, however, get your head out of your own rear, though, because living with anger feels awful. And it's infectious, so instead, DO mirror the image of the person you lost. In my case, that’s Jules, and I vow to mirror her every way I can, everyday: to get happy, to laugh, to dance and to love.

Ed with Julia's sisters and new "framily", showing off their tats

Ed with Julia's sisters and new "framily", showing off their tats

 

And the start of all of that, lies in this poem:

 

It's taken a long time to get my thoughts down,
But I'm finally getting there albeit with a frown.
When it comes to Jules, there's lots to say,
She brightened our lives all day, everyday.

 

I was fortunate enough to call her a best friend,
I thought we would take this journey together until the end.
When we met at the Comber it was love at first sight,
I was like a stray dog she rescued from the night.

 

She loved me, stood by me and made me feel great,
I knew meeting Julia was destiny, it was fate.
We stumbled together, took care of one another,
She listened, genuinely cared and her love was like no other.

 

I'll never forget that dreadful morning when I woke,
There's been an accident I heard, this wasn't a joke.
The news was confirmed when I spoke to Carol,
Her voice was full of agony and the undeniable peril.

 

Of the fact that our lives would never be the same,
I should've dropped everything to see her but I was lame.
I chose to ignore the awful truth,
And worked the rest of my week pretending to be aloof.

 

It finally caught up though, the reality, my friend had passed,
I never cried so hard, the emotions had amassed.
I was angry, I was sad, I wanted it to be me,
Please take me instead Lord, and let her be free.

 

Why now, she's so young and she found her way home,
She was free from the bondage in her mind and was coming into her own.
That's not how it works though, I know that it's His choice,
But can I please have a final something, maybe hear her voice?

 

Her laughter, her verbiage, it's all very unique,
Just thinking about the whole thing makes my stomach weak.
My mom says that God takes the good ones home with Him,
He needs their pure hearts, their devotion and wisdom.

 

So now as we celebrate Julia's legacy with all of our hearts,
It gets easier knowing we are not far apart.
And the family we've made with our sisters and brothers,
Will grow stronger with I Keep Dancing and we'll join to help others.

 

We'll always remember, be strong and live life to the fullest,
But Julia you're irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind, and the coolest.


I LOVE YOU, JULIA CAROLINE GARDNER.


I Keep Dancing welcomes your stories. Please contact us to learn more.

 

 

The Importance of Party Hats

Today we would like to wish a happy birthday to Julia's cousin — and our reigning queen of sparkles — Katie Q!

As Molly said in her last post, we all celebrated with Katie in San Antonio last weekend. Katie is full of love for others, and was such a source of joy for Julia. We wanted to make sure she felt completely celebrated on her birthday, since another year of being together is definitely something to celebrate! The weekend was full of laughter, hugs, dancing, and, of course, the #1 birthday accessory:

PARTY HATS!


Donning a party hat makes you feel like a kid again, back when your day of birth was something you looked forward to all year long. A time when half-birthdays and even quarter-birthdays were still celebrated!

After the age of 25 (when you can legally rent a car, the time often thought of as the “quarter-life crisis”) the birthday excitement starts to die down. It then becomes common to not want to make a big deal out of this day, especially if things in your life aren't going exactly the way you'd pictured they would be.

Well we say, F that! Why do 5 year olds get to have all of the fun? Birthdays are a celebration of orbiting around the sun another time — how can we not celebrate that?

If you need a little help getting in the birthday spirit, use our trick: party hats! Whether you celebrate with your family, friends, pets, strangers, or solo, you'll have instant birthday magic when you put one of these on.

When we celebrated Julia's 29th birthday last year, Katie brought party hats to the festivities. Before her birthday, Julia felt apprehensive about turning one year older, scary-close to  turning the-dreaded-30; but she put on her party hat, and looked at the day as positive. Turning 29 gave her a chance to celebrate the last year of her 20s!  That weekend ended up being full of joy and contains so many of my favorite Julia memories.  Even though I wasn't able to physically be with Julia on her 30th birthday this year, I am grateful for the party we had last year!

Our challenge to you is not to shy away from your birthday. Don't use it as an excuse to dread getting older and examine areas where you are lacking. Use it as excuse to wear a party hat, dance, and celebrate traveling around the sun. Because really, how cool is that??

 

Brave Tuesday Challenge: Be a Tourist in Your Own City

Over the weekend, I had some of my gals in town.

We frolicked all over San Antonio, and celebrated Katie’s birthday and Galentine’s Day in style — complete with party hats and fascinators, naturally.

It was a blast getting to show them what makes San Antonio unique. We started off the trip overlooking the skyline at Paramour,  ate great food from Supper, Feast, and Ocho, drank champagne and ate macarons at the Pearl Brewery, gawked at the beautifully designed brand new Hotel Emma, walked lazily up the river in our Valentine’s getups (what, that's not a thing?), danced at my favorite jazz club Bohannan's, and were MAJOR noobs at the Alamo.

The Pearl Brewery's, Southerleigh and Hotel Emma

The Pearl Brewery's, Southerleigh and Hotel Emma

Bakery Lorriane's famous macs

Bakery Lorriane's famous macs

Having them here encouraged me to look at my city through their eyes. It reminded me how lucky I am to live here, to keep dancing, and to keep experiencing new things — even in my everyday surroundings.

Southtown River Walk

Southtown River Walk

Margaritas at Ocho in Hotel Havana

Margaritas at Ocho in Hotel Havana

This week, our Brave Tuesday, is to be a tourist in your own city. This may not strike you as outwardly requiring bravery, but we think it does. We're daring you to see things with fresh eyes. To find the joy in life, the place you live,  even when you just want to stay inside. This doesn’t necessarily mean start a conga line in front of national monuments (although I HIGHLY recommend it). It could mean taking a bike ride through downtown, sitting outside in a park, eating at that famous BBQ restaurant you’ve been meaning to try, or having a picnic dinner at the beach – something small or big that helps you remember how important it is to always keep dancing. Everyday is a new opportunity to be brave. So go forth and tour your town!


A YEAR OF FIRSTS: Relearning How to Have a Happy Birthday

For 25 years, I celebrated every birthday with Julia. From age 3 to 28.

I would love to tell you about each of those birthdays. I sat down to chronicle them all here, but... 

I can't do it. 

Because when I start to list them all, the 6th birthday party where we both decided that we'd pretend to be the unicorns in Beauty in the Beast (NOTE: there are zero unicorns in Beauty in the Beast), the 9th birthday where she wore a Groucho Marx mask for most of the night, the 12th birthday at the beach in Coronado and the 21st birthday back at the beach in Coronado, or every thoughtful, uniquely-Julia and wow-she-gets-me gift she'd find months in advance (and that she'd text me about at random intervals beforehand, i.e.: "wait'll you see your birthday present this year," to which I'd text back, "Jewels. My birthday's in like 4 months," and she'd text back, "I know!!") — if I think about all that now, I lose it.  

I always loved my birthday, in huge part because I knew that if all else failed, I could count on Jewels to sing "Happy Birthday" to me over the phone, and then tell me not to pick up when she called back so she could leave the exact same rendition on my voicemail.


My 29th birthday rolled around almost a month to the day after we lost her.

 
I didn't want to celebrate this year. I had this great plan to sleep for awhile... And that was pretty much it. 

Before Molly (Julia's sister) and I flew back to Texas — after the darkest week of all our lives, home together in California — we made a plan for her to come visit me in Austin on August 7th: two days after my birthday, on the one month anniversary. I slogged through the workweek to get to that Friday, knowing that I would feel most at ease when I could stop pretending it was a "happy birthday," and could just be a blob on the sofa with Molls. 

We went to dinner. It was great. Just being reunited with Molly made me feel a little like myself again. It started to feel like some version of happy wasn't totally impossible.

And then Molly said, "Hey, Sarah (Julia's other sister) wants to FaceTime." I was like, "Sure!" — figuring we'd FaceTime with her as soon as we got home. Instead, Molly held her iPhone at arm's length away from her face to get us both in the frame, in the middle of a pretty busy restaurant, by the way. I'm not going to lie: I felt a liiiittle self-conscious at first. Strangers were staring. But hey, how often do I get to see Sarah's face, right?

"I wish you were here," I told the tiny Sarah in the upper right hand of Molly's iPhone screen.
 
"Me too!" she said.

"Hey, what are you doing right now?" asked Molly. 

"Oh, you know," said Sarah. "Just hanging out... AT THE AUSTIN AIRPORT."

Then, THIS HAPPENED:

We picked Sarah up. We went to karaoke. We SANG, even though I do not sing in public, reason being, I'm tone deaf. (To be fair, Sarah and Molly did all the audible singing, while I danced in the background. To be fair about the "to be fair," #ikeepdancing, right? Right!) 

At some point, Sarah said we needed to stay out until 2am, and this made total sense to me. The karaoke bar closed at 2am! Of course we needed to stay out until 2am! We were in a spirit YES! and What Would Julia Do?? Julia would keep dancing until 2am. 

About a half hour after we got home, my dog started barking like crazy at the front door. I peeked out the window, and saw a cab parked in my driveway. 

"Why is there a cab in my driveway?" 

"Wow, that's so weird!" 

You may be saying to yourself that this is around the time you'd start to feel a little suspicious. But not me. I assumed that some drunk kid gave his cabdriver my address and I'd have to tell that drunk kid that he doesn't live in my house. (This has never happened before, but at 2:30am after a night of very spirited karaoke-ing, it felt like a highly probable scenario.)

I opened the door, and lo: THERE WAS KATIE Q (Julia's cousin), STANDING IN MY DOORWAY, WITH PINK PARTY HATS IN HER SUITCASE. 

Cue, all the happy crying hugs:

We went tubing. We ate tacos. We sang more karaoke. We danced. A lot. We danced so much that my dog kinda freaked out. (I don't think she'd ever seen four girls laugh and cry and dance so hard all at once.) 
It was on that visit that the vision for this website, and for the scholarship fund, began to crystallize in our minds. We set our sights on the big picture. We vowed to keep dancing.

And suddenly, the birthday I'd wanted to sleep through became the one I know I'll never forget.

Like Sarah described so perfectly in her post about Thanksgiving, it's all about making new traditions now. Reinventing how we mark yearly milestones doesn't mean replacing old memories, or trying not to think about them. It means celebrating anew, every time, and holding Julia close in our hearts while we're doing it. It means dancing the heck out of those days, because we can.

For me, the girls surprising me on my birthday marked a huge milestone in and of itself. They managed to make that day — the day that was always such a huge part of my lifelong friendship with Julia — feel new again. And that made me feel new again, too. 

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My birthday gift from the girls — THAT IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE RIGHT HERE!! ikeepdancing.com/shop

My birthday gift from the girls — THAT IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE RIGHT HERE!! ikeepdancing.com/shop

Karaoke-ing to "Dancing on My Own" — thanks for the anthem, Robyn!

Karaoke-ing to "Dancing on My Own" — thanks for the anthem, Robyn!

From the Left: Molly (Sister), Katie (Cousin), Sarah (Sister), Stephie (BFF), Pasta Bowl (pup)

From the Left: Molly (Sister), Katie (Cousin), Sarah (Sister), Stephie (BFF), Pasta Bowl (pup)

New Traditions

The holidays have always been a joyful time of year for my family, full of laughter, love, and LOTS of traditions. Just last year my parent's still  filmed all four kids walking down the stairs Christmas morning in our birth order (youngest to oldest). We always make Turkey shaped cookies for Thanksgiving, and we always read the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. 

When Julia died this summer everything changed. The holidays turned from something I would look forward to all year to the time that I was most dreading. It made me realize how painful of a time this must be for so many people. This time of year sheds a light on everything that is going well with your family and also everything that is going wrong. 

One thing that really helped was talking about this with a friend who had lost her brother a few years earlier. She said that it helped her family to create entirely new traditions instead of trying to recreate the old. It's devastating either way but with a new tradition there is less of a giant hole that you are trying to fill and more of a sense that you are moving on and celebrating the one you have lost. 

We are fortunate to have a large extended family who have been so incredibly helpful and supportive through all of this. They let us know that we could do anything we wanted for Thanksgiving. In the spirit of new traditions, here is what we decided to do: 

1) The night before Thanksgiving we had a gingerbread house making party with family and friends. 

2) On Thanksgiving day the cousins all cooked the meal for our parents. We all signed up for different dishes and showed up early in the day to cook together. We told our parents to just show up with alcohol and relax! This was a great bonding experience and allowed us to still have a traditional Thanksgiving but with a new twist. 

3) The day after Thanksgiving we went to the Malibu Cafe, a great spot in the Santa Monica mountains that none of us had ever been to before. Our cousins got t shirts made for everyone with our mantra "I Keep Dancing" and we all ate good food, played games, and remembered Julia together. After that we went bowling and even did some dancing! 

Overall there were still a lot of sad emotions throughout the course of the holiday. And I know Christmas will be just as hard. However creating new traditions helped us grab onto something new and offered hope that life does go on and we can keep dancing through the pain. It's helpful for me to think of life now as a set of new experiences rather than constantly lamenting about what I've lost. Julia is with us in all of these new traditions and I'd like to think that she is proud of how we are trying to embrace life instead of running away from it. Cheers to you Jules!! 

A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.  Ecclesiastes 3:4