On this two year anniversary of Jamie’s death, we have each written a piece, discussing what we have learned in these two years and how we have processed living without him. Here are our pieces:
By Morgan Werner
Unfortunately, what I have learned doesn’t tie up neatly in a bow.
I’ve learned that the stigma of addiction is embedded deeply within our culture. It lives in me and it lives in you. Almost every day I make the choice whether to share Jamie’s story with the people around me – every time someone asks me how many siblings I have.
More often than not, when I’m not surrounded by an army of people I know and love, I take the easy road out.
“Just a younger brother.”
And my own answer leaves me angry and shivering, nauseous and depressed. I think about it for hours.
And yet it’s still the easy way out.
Because when most people who I don’t know very well hear that my brother died from a Fentanyl overdose, they change the subject. They widen their eyes and sigh deeply and maybe mutter that they’re sorry.
It feels like I have ripped the skin off of my face and laid it on the ground for all to stare at. And they change the subject.
I have learned that addiction isn’t as worthy as cancer. Cancer gets hugs and flowers and questions and pats on the back and compassion. Shared experiences. Love.
But addiction? Please.
On Christmas eve, less than two months before Jamie died, I was furious with him. Our family was going out for our traditional sushi feast at a restaurant in Virginia, and Jamie refused to come. I can remember the way his face looked, eyes blank, lips flat. His expression didn’t budge. He sat on the edge of his bed, shaking his head slightly. No matter how much I yelled, he wasn’t coming. When I kicked in his closet door until it lay crumpled in a pile of wood on the floor, he still wasn’t coming.
It is in reflection of moments like these that I realize what we were lacking. I didn’t have the training or the compassion to understand what he was going through, what he needed. All I had was my anger and confusion. He didn’t fit into the box that I wanted him to fit into, and I was irate.
Because of mental health disorders and his substance abuse disorder, he didn’t fit into society’s box. I can only imagine that he was angry and confused and scared. But mostly ashamed.
My brother had bipolar disorder and at its worst, he heard three voices. One of them, he described to me, was demonic. It only said hurtful things to him. It called him a piece of shit, a loser.
I’m convinced now that that demonic voice was his own shame. If it’s hard for me to tell the world that my brother died from his addiction; imagine how hard it must have been for him to admit that he was an addict.
I’ve learned that telling our story requires bravery. Change requires bravery.
Thankfully, I have two tough parents, a courageous little brother, and a big brother watching over me in spirit who’ve helped me get there.
Because world: I have two brothers. One very much alive, and one very much dead. Feel free to ask me about either.
By Stephen Werner
What have I learned since losing my brother? I have learned quite a bit, but most of it is very difficult to explain. The effect of losing Jamie is not easy to quantify, but I can say that it has and will continue to change the course of my life dramatically. I can also say that losing him has had a huge effect on the way that I think and operate. Jamie, as a person, has a substantial influence on the way that I navigate life and taught me a lot of very valuable lessons.
Taking care of Jamie’s dog, Jak, has taught me a lot about the importance of loving unconditionally. Jak is about 11 and a half years old now, and I’ve felt so lucky to have him with me on this Earth. Every day with him is invaluable, so it is important to cherish the time we have left with him. Being Jak’s caretaker has taught me about the importance of seizing the day and making the most of opportunities. I used to think of everything as granted, yet every little thing was a big deal. Now I think of everyday as an opportunity. Everyday is a chance to get better at something and try something new. What’s the worst thing that could happen? The worst thing that could have happened already happened, so we can only go up from here.
I would say that the best lesson that Jamie ever taught me was about the effort that you put into something. He was always coaching me, whether that be before or after he was my high school football coach. He taught me that putting in just a little bit of extra effort into just about anything will always serve you well. I think of it as “Going the extra foot.” In essence, you don’t need to go to extraordinary lengths to make something spectacular. The moment that you surpass what is considered to be average, everything else is perceived as a bonus. And that could be either your personal average or a population average.
When I was training in the offseason, Jamie encouraged me to push myself in the weight room and on the field. He would say that the only reps that counted were the ones after you felt like you couldn’t go any longer. What you can accomplish before you feel fatigued should just be a baseline for your performance. When you surpass the baseline that you’ve set, that is when you will begin to see growth and then reap the benefits. Jamie was adamant that this could be applied to anything that you do in life. Another activity in which he preached this same mindset was actually when we were cooking. He believed that being creative and throwing in an additional spice or ingredient could make a meal far more enjoyable. Spending a little more time planning the meal, preparing the ingredients beyond expectations, and getting more people involved were just a few of the things that he did when putting a meal together. On some occasions, he would have about 10 people involved in one production, and he would make it look fun and easy. He was great at making you feel like part of a team, and always so encouraging. One of his favorite sayings was, “You’re doing a great job.” He would sometimes tell people this when they weren’t actually doing a great job. But the positive feedback gave them the confidence they needed to get things done. I try to do this on a regular basis when I notice that someone needs a little boost. And I’ll tell you what, it works.
It is crazy to think that James has been gone for two years. But given the amount of influence that he has had on me, I would say that I still feel him here with us.
By Debbie Werner
As Jamie‘s two-year death date approaches all I can think of is Jamie and his amazing and difficult life. Amazing in that he lived every day of his life to its fullest; difficult because he must’ve struggled with a sadness that he could only fill with opioids. And to think that he went through that all alone is devastating to me.
So what has changed and what have we learned in two years? As the Dixie Chicks sing, “they say time heals everything, but I’m still waiting.” The pain has changed. The pain does not bring me to my knees every day. Yes I have my bad days and I spend hours looking at pictures of Jamie thinking about the happy times we had. But at other times it is a softer pain. Paula Stevens, author of “From Grief to Growth,” who lost a child, says that the pain doesn’t go away but the sharpness dulls and softens overtime, much like a piece of sea glass. Another way I look at it is that the pain in my heart is still there but most days it is sitting on my shoulder where I know Jamie is too.
I have learned there is no timeline for grief; the more grief one feels the more one loved that individual. I have learned to appreciate the precious things in life and forget the other shit. I have grown to appreciate family and the friends that have really stuck by me. I also have learned that I can give myself permission to feel happiness again because I can hold both happiness and grief in the same space without feelings of guilt (Although I am still working on that).
The change that I have noticed is that our family dynamics are different. We have had to learn to be together without Jamie‘s highs and lows. Often he was our focus as a family and though in some ways he still is, there has been, without a doubt, a role reorganization. Our family is working on how to function as a unit of four not five! According to Therese Rando, Ph.D. when an individual is lost to a family the family has to learn to function without that individual and it can take time and work for that family to function in a productive way. The family must learn to compensate for the devastating loss.
Here is a poem that calms me when times feel particularly hard and I am missing Jamie with all my heart.
I Heard Your Voice In The Wind Today – Author Unknown
I heard your voice in the wind today
and I turned to see your face;
The warmth of the wind caressed me
as I stood silently in place.
I felt your touch in the sun today
as its warmth filled the sky;
I closed my eyes for your embrace
and my spirit soared high.
I saw your eyes in the window pane
as I watched the falling rain;
It seemed as each raindrop fell
it quietly said your name.
I held you close in my heart today
it made me feel complete;
You may have died…but you are not gone
you will always be a part of me.
As long as the sun shines…
the wind blows…
the rain falls…
You will live on inside of me forever
for that is all my heart knows.
By Rick Werner
Jamie is still very much with me, every day. I feel his presence and his influence on many things, from the trivial to the important. Let’s start with the trivial, although he wouldn’t agree with this characterization.
He LOVED shopping at Whole Foods- a kid in a candy store doesn’t quite cover it. He particularly loved the cheese selection, which often turned into his famous $80 Mac and Cheese. At the River Road store, he showed me how to grind my own peanut butter and told me how great the pizza made there was, and I completely agree. So, I am now the Whole Foods shopper in the family, and don’t really like going elsewhere. Thanks Jamie.
Continuing on the food theme, he tried to avoid processed food and would often talk to us about the hazards of eating processed food. That also led him to Whole Foods where he often spent more of his money than was probably wise. But, he taught us a lot about the importance of eating real food and avoiding chemicals and preservatives in food. Thanks Jamie.
Several years ago, he got contact lenses for distance issues. For my similar distance issues, I had glasses that I would wear only when I needed them, like driving and watching TV. So, a few years ago, he suggested that I get contacts too. But, with Jamie, it wasn’t just a simple suggestion. He kept coming back to it and was so adamant about it that I finally said I would, just to mollify him. Well, although I came close to failing completely in the beginning, I now wear contacts and am glad I do. Thanks Jamie.
There is one particular component of my workout routine that continues to feel Jamie’s influence. I always stretch at the end, and hold each stretch for 14 seconds. Jamie told me that he read that that was the perfect length of time to hold a stretch. Good enough for me. Thanks Jamie.
There are also times that I read something and immediately think that I will either forward the piece to him or that I need him to explain it to me. The latter case would likely be about sports, about some detail about the NBA or NFL that only he would understand. It could also be about cooking, of course. I miss you Jamie.
He was a big talker, as we have mentioned previously many times. He could be a great conversationalist, who knew a surprising amount about many things and could offer interesting insights in many areas. He had the ability to make you think and to examine your assumptions. We all miss this about him greatly. I’d like to think that he got a little of that from me; I know I certainly learned a lot from him. We all miss you Jamie. We will always love you.