5 lessons I learned after 5 friends under 30 died in 5 years.

A good chunk of my mid-20s revolved around funerals.

That's not how I usually like to start conversations, but it's the reality I live with. In under five years, I lost five friends around my own age to suicide, cancer, diabetes, heart failure, and addiction.

It was rough. It was always unexpected (except for the cancer). It reached a point where my boss at the time accused me of using the "funeral excuse" as a lie for skipping work, which was really not a fun conversation to have.


But after suffering through so much grief in quick succession, I learned a thing or two (or five) that might come in handy if this happens to you.

1. Death never ends.

Maybe it's because I was going through a breakup around the same time that Mike lost his life to suicide, but I was definitely expecting there to be some kind of "getting over it" moment — like when someone breaks your heart and you're consumed by that sadness and your friend who's been through a serious breakup pulls you aside and says: "Hey man, you'll get over it. Maybe not today, but someday. You'll be OK."

Except ... that doesn't happen. When people die, they're gone for good. And that's really hard to fully grasp until you're there yourself. There is hope, of course. You learn to live with whatever scars are left behind. But you never quite "get over it," and that's OK.

Me and Mike in... 1998?

2. Every death is the same.

My favorite funeral memory — because yes, it reached a point where I could have a "favorite" — was at my friend Layne's wake. In the far corner of the parlor, there was a video tribute playing on the wall, crossfading through images of her life. Every three photos, there was a brief palate-cleansing interlude of stock footage of a babbling brook — with the watermark still imposed on the video — and the whole thing was set to a terrible plunking MIDI version of "My Heart Will Go On."

To be clear: It was awful. But also oddly fitting.

Me, Layne, and our roommate Paul at our college apartment in 2006.

One by one, my friends and I made our way to the corner to watch this video, standing in stunned silence as the painfully corny montage flashed by. And then, as if on cue, all six of us erupted into laughter. Her father yelled from near the casket: "You guys watching that stupid video? She'd $%in' hate it. It's great." He wiped the tears from his eyes and laughed along with us.

I don't know. Maybe you had to be there.

The point is there are a lot of cliche aspects to the mourning process. Lots of repeated lines like "s/he would have liked this," accompanied by synth-string covers of sentimental pop songs and collectible trading cards adorned with Bible verses and airbrushed photos of the recently deceased. Sometimes these platitudes sound hollow and generic — which, maybe they are. But they also offer comfort. And in the moment, that's what you really need, corny or not.

3. Every death is different.

This is why the mourning rituals above can get so frustrating. Everyone is unique, and we all want to mark the passing of our loved ones in a way that resonates with whatever made them special. But even when you think you know what's coming — when you've memorized that funeral script and finally begin to understand your own bereavement — death will still surprise you.

My wife and I included our departed friends at our wedding. Photo by Bethany and Dan, used with permission.

By the time my wife's best friend, Crystal, died in 2012, I had been through the grieving process so many times that I almost felt like an experienced veteran, specially equipped to help her through her sorrow. But my wife and I have polar opposite ways of dealing with things. I would try to cheer her up in my way, and she would tell me that I didn't understand — which made me even more upset because at that point, I had already lost Mike, and Matt, and Layne.

But I hadn't lost Crystal before. And her death was different because every death is different. And so is everyone's own way of mourning.

4. It doesn't get easier. But it does change.

If mourning never really ends, and if every death is unique, then it stands to reason that every awful experience will be different. Maybe over time you'll learn to deal with it differently — but even when you think you know what to expect, tragedy always finds new ways to surprise you.

For example, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" is kind of a trigger song for me. I used to just think it was a terrible song, but it was also Layne's favorite song — and the first thing I heard after I got the call about her death. For a while, the sound of those opening piano chords would immediately reduce me to a sobbing lump of flesh on the floor. Eventually, I learned to contain myself long enough to slip out of the room for the duration of the song.

But after my friend Scotty passed away, a group of us shared all the mixtapes he'd made us over the years. I listen to those things constantly because they're really good. Though they remind me of Scotty, the music never makes me sad.

Scotty, grinning on the left.

Even after you've reached the point where you're not actively aware of the glaring lack of that person in your life, you'll probably find that their absence still lingers in unexpected ways. You'll also probably react to their absences in many weird, unexpected ways — and that's OK, too.

5. We need to talk about it.

I struggled a lot while processing all of these emotions when they were still fresh because I didn't know how to talk about them. I couldn't go on a date and say: "Oh yeah, my friend just died. Let me tell you about it." I definitely tried to bring up that hilariously awful tribute video one time at a party, and I got lots of weird, pitying looks and awkward pats on the shoulder.

I wasn't looking for pity, though. I just didn't want to feel alone. And that's why I'm talking about it with you right now.

I keep collectible cards from each of their funerals above my music workstation.

Naturally, I hope you don't have to deal with any horrible losses in your life. But if it happens, know that you should never feel alone.

Death is a part of all of our lives. It sucks, it's terrible, it's awful, and I hate it, but it's true. We can't stop it, we can't cure it, we can't utterly abolish it. All we can do is talk about it.

I always have Mike, Matt, Crystal, Layne, and Scotty in my thoughts, even if it's not a fully conscious action every day. Their memories are a bittersweet inspiration for me to go above and beyond in everything I do. They're no longer around to leave their own marks on the world, so I take it upon myself to make that impact for them — which is sometimes just as simple as singing a little louder whenever and wherever I can.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves
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It can be expensive to have a pet. It's possible to spend between $250 to $700 a year on food for a dog and around $120-$500 on food for a cat. But of course, most of us don't think twice about the expense: having a pet is worth it because of the company animals provide.

But for some, this expense is hard to keep up, no matter how much you adore your fur baby. And that's why Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves decided to help.

Kenneth had seen a man scraping together change in a store to buy pet food, so he offered to buy the man some extra pet food. Still, later that night he couldn't stop thinking about the experience — he worried the man wasn't just struggling to pay for pet food, but food for himself, too.

So he went home and told his wife — and immediately, they both knew they needed to do something. So, in December 2020, they converted a farm stand into a take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can Pet Food pantry.

"A lot of people would have watched that man count out change to buy pet food. Some may have helped him out like my husband did," Jill says. "A few may have thought about it afterward. But, only someone like Kenny would turn that experience into what we have today."

"If it weren't for his generous spirit and his penchant for a plan, the pantry would never have been born," she adds.

A man with sunglasses hands a box of cat food to a woman smiling Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves

At first, the couple started the pet food pantry with a couple hundred dollars of pet food they bought themselves. And to make sure people knew about the pantry, they set up a Facebook page for the pantry, then went to other Facebook groups, such as a "Buy Nothing group," and shared what they were doing.

"When we started, we weren't even sure people would use us," Jill says. "At best, we were hoping to be able to provide enough to help people get through the holidays."

But, thanks to their page and word of mouth, news spread about what they were doing, and the donations of more pet food started flooding in, too. Before long, they were coming home to stacks of food — and within a couple of months, the pantry was full.

Yellow post-it note with handwritten note that reads: "Hi, I read your story on Facebook. Here is a small donation to help. I have a 3-year-old yellow lab who I adore. I hope this helps someone in need. Merry Christmas. Meredith" Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves

"The pounds of food we have gone through is well, well, well into the thousands," Jill says. "The orders from our Amazon Wish List alone include several hundred pounds of dry food, a couple of hundred cases of canned food, and thousands of treats and toys. But, that does not even take into account the hundreds of drop-offs, online orders, and monetary donations we have received."

They also got many 'Thank you notes' from the people they helped.

"I would like to thank you for helping us feed our fur babies," one note read. "My husband and I recently lost our jobs, and my husband [will] hopefully [find] a new one. We are just waiting for a call."

Another read: "I just need to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I haven't worked in over a month with a two-year-old at home. Dad brings in about $300/week. From the pandemic to Christmas, it has been tough. But with the help of beautiful people like you, my fur baby can now eat a little bit longer, and my heart is happy."

Jill says that she thinks the fact that the pet pantry is a farm stand helps people feel better.

A woman holding a small black dog and looking at the camera is greeted by Jill Gonsalves Photo courtesy of Kenneth and Jill Gonsalves

"When we first started this, someone who visited us mentioned how it made them feel good to be able to browse without feeling like they were being watched," she says. "So, it's been important to us to maintain that integrity."

Jill and Kenneth aren't sure how many people they've helped so far, but they know that their pet food pantry is doing what they hoped it would. "The pet owners who visit us, much like donations, come in ebbs and flows," Jill says. "We have some regulars who have been with us since the beginning. We also have some people that come a few times, and we never see again."

"Our hope is that they used us while they were in a tough spot, but they don't need us anymore. In a funny way, the greatest thing would be if no one needed us anymore."


Today, the Acushnet Pet Pantry is still going strong, but its stock is running low. If you want to help out, visit their Facebook page for updates and to find ways to donate.
Photo courtesy of Macy's
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Did you know that girls who are encouraged to discover and develop their strengths tend to be more likely to achieve their goals? It's true. The question, however, is how to encourage girls to develop self-confidence and grow up healthy, educated, and independent.

The answer lies in Girls Inc., a national nonprofit serving girls ages 5-18 in more than 350 cities across North America. Since first forming in 1864 to serve girls and young women who were experiencing upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil War, they've been on a mission to inspire girls to kick butt and step into leadership roles — today and in the future.

This is why Macy's has committed to partnering with Girls Inc. and making it easy to support their mission. In a national campaign running throughout September 2021, customers can round up their in-store purchases to the nearest dollar or donate online to support Girls Inc. and empower girls throughout the country.


Kaylin St. Victor, a senior at Brentwood High School in New York, is one of those girls. She became involved in the Long Island affiliate of Girls Inc. when she was in 9th grade, quickly becoming a role model for her peers.

Photo courtesy of Macy's

Within her first year in the organization, she bravely took on speaking opportunities and participated in several summer programs focused on advocacy, leadership, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). "The women that I met each have a story that inspires me to become a better person than I was yesterday," said St. Victor. She credits her time at Girls Inc. with making her stronger and more comfortable in her own skin — confidence that directly translates to high achievement in education and the workforce.

In 2020, Macy's helped raise $1.3 million in support of their STEM and college and career readiness programming for more than 26,000 girls. In fact, according to a recent study, Girls Inc. girls are significantly more likely than their peers to enjoy math and science, to be interested in STEM careers, and to perform better on standardized math tests.

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