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My wedding was both the best and worst day of my life. Here's what I learned.

10 days before my wedding, my brother lost his fight with pediatric bone cancer.

My wedding was both the best and worst day of my life. Here's what I learned.

It was my wedding day.

I stood outside the doors to the chapel. My heart was racing, and I felt my eyes fill up with tears.

I can’t do this.


Before I could turn and run, the doors flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to look at me. I scanned the crowd. I saw my family and friends. I saw my dad and stepfather waiting in front of the altar to give me away. But I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone, and that was not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. I felt like I couldn’t move.

Then my eyes found my future husband, Joe. And right next to him, I saw a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and decided that if I could make it down the aisle to him, I’d be OK.

I felt as if my knees might buckle, but somehow I began walking. It was surreal. I felt as if I were floating, but I eventually made it down the aisle.

Me and my husband-to-be on my wedding day. All photos from the author and used with permission.

18 months earlier, my 16-year-old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

The diagnosis was grim. The prognosis was not good. He was quick to rally. He was going to be fine. He was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

10 days before my wedding, he lost his fight.

Now, I look back and I don’t know how my family and I made it through both a funeral and a wedding in such a short span of time, but we did. There would be no postponing of the wedding as I’d suggested. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he "didn’t have time for cancer." He didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do, and he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, even though we were still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding, including the single candle that stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. We read a beautiful poem in his memory during the ceremony. We played his favorite song at the reception. And we danced. And we drank. And, inexplicably, we had fun.

15 years have passed since that day.

15 years and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him. 15 years and I’m still learning about how this "after part" works.


A school picture of my brother.

I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back, but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work. So usually, I choose to appreciate the lessons I’ve learned instead.

1. I’ve learned to cut people some extra slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through. You don’t know what they have endured. You don’t know what battles they may be fighting.

There were the times during my brother’s illness when I would find myself driving 15 mph in the left lane. I’d be lost somewhere between grief and exhaustion, and I would arrive home with no idea how I got there. There were times when I’d look up distractedly at the grocery store, only to realize that I’d been standing in the middle of the aisle, lost in thought, for 10 minutes.

I used to be the person who honked impatiently and threw dirty looks as I zoomed past a slow driver, but not anymore.

Now I know what it's like to really have a bad day, to be so lost in a world turned on its head that you’re completely unaware of your surroundings. I learned that we all have bad days. Some of us have really bad days. Most of us are just trying to make it to tomorrow.

2. I’ve learned that true compassion and grace are about suspending judgment.

Over and over, I saw that real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt: granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, being patient and kind even when you don’t know what they're actually going through.

If you have to know the behind the scenes? If you have to know their story in order to be kind? If your kindness is based on an assessment of their pain and if it is conditional? Then it’s not truly kindness; it’s just judgment.

I didn’t get this before. I wasn’t cruel, and I wasn’t mean-spirited, but I was impatient and I was easily irritated. That was before I realized the depths in which people can be trapped while still looking completely normal to the rest of the world.

3. I’ve learned that comfort sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are people who had a huge impact on me, who helped me through difficult times, and they probably don’t even know the significance of their actions.

Sometimes, for me, it was the soft-spoken coworker who offered me a hug as I was leaving to meet my family at the hospital. He was shy and reserved, but he wrapped me in a big bear hug when I was overcome with emotion. I knew this small gesture was not easy for him to give, but his effort to offered me solace.

In another moment, that solace came from my brash, loud, jokester boss who let me take off as much time as I needed to be with my brother at the hospital. Another time, it was my friend from work who calmly assured me that I would feel joy again after I tearfully confided my fear and pain to her. And often, solace came from my husband’s brother and my sister-in-law, who drove 12 hours to attend my brother’s memorial service.

I learned that an act of kindness, no matter how small, is never wrong. Sometimes it’s the thing that can help someone put one foot in front of the other.

4. I’ve learned that I can still, even 15 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

Sometimes I’ll be sitting at my kid’s swim practice when a memory knocks the wind out of me. The next thing I know, I’m wiping away tears and hoping no one notices.

Sometimes I’ll be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter might look just like my brother. I’ll feel the loss and pain take over and overwhelm me. And in these moments, I’m always surprised at the cruel force of grief’s ability to blindside me.

Sometimes I'll see him when my kids do something especially mischievous, and my thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of my brother, to memories of the antics of a little boy long ago.

Me and my brother as young children.

Then, I start imagining what could have been: him egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behavior. And I can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture me as an adult like he did as a little kid.

You can bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but let me tell you: It’s not going away, so you might as well let it happen. You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but I’ve learned that you’ll also be OK. You will be OK.

5. I’ve learned that I’ll probably feel my brother’s presence forever.

I'll still see him in each of my children, in their personalities, in their senses of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I'll still feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time. I often feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel a warmth come over me, a warmth hard to describe because it’s unlike any sensation I’ve felt before.

And I hope I'll still feel him, forever, kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me. I can almost hear what he would say to me in those situations: Don’t give up. You’re better than that.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me. They are bittersweet. They are welcome. And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

6. What I’ve realized most of all, after all of these years, is that there didn’t need to be a replacement for my brother.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to walk me down the aisle, I contemplated other options. But in the end, I decided there was no understudy, and there would be no last minute stand-in. I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

And as always, even though my brother wasn't physically there, he showed up. He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared. He reminded me that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

Me and my husband walking down the aisle after our marriage ceremony.

In the end, my brother was still there with me on one of the best days of my life because he always has been.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love 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!

Cipolla's graph with the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself and causes to others.

Have you ever known someone who was educated, well-spoken and curious, but had a real knack for making terrible decisions and bringing others down with them? These people are perplexing because we're trained to see them as intelligent, but their lives are a total mess.

On the other hand, have you ever met someone who may not have a formal education or be the best with words, but they live wisely and their actions uplift themselves and others?

In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" that provides a great framework for judging someone's real intelligence. Now, the term "stupid" isn't the most artful way of describing someone who lives unwisely, but in his essay Cipolla uses it in a lighthearted way.

Cipolla explains his theory of intelligence through five basic laws and a matrix that he believes applies to everyone.

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Images courtesy of Mark Storhaug & Kaiya Bates

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The experiences we have at school tend to stay with us throughout our lives. It's an impactful time where small acts of kindness, encouragement, and inspiration go a long way.

Schools, classrooms, and teachers that are welcoming and inclusive support students' development and help set them up for a positive and engaging path in life.

Here are three of our favorite everyday actions that are spreading kindness on campus in a big way:

Image courtesy of Mark Storhaug

1. Pickleball to Get Fifth Graders Moving

Mark Storhaug is a 5th grade teacher at Kingsley Elementary in Los Angeles, who wants to use pickleball to get his students "moving on the playground again after 15 months of being Zombies learning at home."

Pickleball is a paddle ball sport that mixes elements of badminton, table tennis, and tennis, where two or four players use solid paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball over a net. It's as simple as that.

Kingsley Elementary is in a low-income neighborhood where outdoor spaces where kids can move around are minimal. Mark's goal is to get two or three pickleball courts set up in the schoolyard and have kids join in on what's quickly becoming a national craze. Mark hopes that pickleball will promote movement and teamwork for all his students. He aims to take advantage of the 20-minute physical education time allotted each day to introduce the game to his students.

Help Mark get his students outside, exercising, learning to cooperate, and having fun by donating to his GoFundMe.

Image courtesy of Kaiya Bates

2. Staying C.A.L.M: Regulation Kits for Kids

According to the WHO around 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In the US, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 1 in 20 experience severe mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Kaiya Bates, who was recently crowned Miss Tri-Cities Outstanding Teen for 2022, is one of those people, and has endured severe anxiety, depression, and selective mutism for most of her life.

Through her GoFundMe, Kaiya aims to use her "knowledge to inspire and help others through their mental health journey and to spread positive and factual awareness."

She's put together regulation kits (that she's used herself) for teachers to use with students who are experiencing stress and anxiety. Each "CALM-ing" kit includes a two-minute timer, fidget toolboxes, storage crates, breathing spheres, art supplies and more.

Kaiya's GoFundMe goal is to send a kit to every teacher in every school in the Pasco School District in Washington where she lives.

To help Kaiya achieve her goal, visit Staying C.A.L.M: Regulation Kits for Kids.

Image courtesy of Julie Tarman

3. Library for a high school heritage Spanish class

Julie Tarman is a high school Spanish teacher in Sacramento, California, who hopes to raise enough money to create a Spanish language class library.

The school is in a low-income area, and although her students come from Spanish-speaking homes, they need help building their fluency, confidence, and vocabulary through reading Spanish language books that will actually interest them.

Julie believes that creating a library that affirms her students' cultural heritage will allow them to discover the joy of reading, learn new things about the world, and be supported in their academic futures.

To support Julie's GoFundMe, visit Library for a high school heritage Spanish class.

Do YOU have an idea for a fundraiser that could make a difference? Upworthy and GoFundMe are celebrating ideas that make the world a better, kinder place. Visit upworthy.com/kindness to join the largest collaboration for human kindness in history and start your own GoFundMe.

The Schmidt family's Halloween photoshoot has become an annual tradition.

Two of Patti Schmidt's three sons were already well into adulthood when her daughter Avery was born, and the third wasn't far behind them. Avery, now 5, has never had the pleasure of close-in-age sibling squabbles or gigglefests, since Larry, Patrick, and Gavin are 28, 26, and 22, respectively—but that doesn't mean they don't bond as a family.

According to People.com, Patti calls her sons home to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, every fall for a special Halloween photoshoot with Avery. And the results are nothing short of epic.

The Schmidt family started the tradition in 2017 with the boys dressing as the tinman, the scarecrow, and the cowardly lion from "The Wizard of Oz." Avery, just a toddler at the time, was dressed as Dorothy, complete with adorable little ruby slippers.

The following year, the boys were Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, and Avery was (of course) Princess Leia.

In 2019, they did a "Game of Thrones" theme. ("My husband and I were binge-watching (Game of Thrones), and I thought the boys as dragons would be so funny," Schmidt told TODAY.)

In 2020, they went as Princess Buttercup, Westley, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik from "The Princess Bride."

Patti shared a video montage of each year's costume shoot—with accompanying soundtracks—on Instagram and TikTok. Watch:

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Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Wil Wheaton speaking to an audience at 2019 Wondercon.

In an era of debates over cancel culture and increased accountability for people with horrendous views and behaviors, the question of art vs. artist is a tricky one. When you find out an actor whose work you enjoy is blatantly racist and anti-semitic in real life, does that realization ruin every movie they've been a part of? What about an author who has expressed harmful opinions about a marginalized group? What about a smart, witty comedian who turns out to be a serial sexual assaulter? Where do you draw the line between a creator and their creation?

As someone with his feet in both worlds, actor Wil Wheaton weighed in on that question and offered a refreshingly reasonable perspective.

A reader who goes by @avinlander asked Wheaton on Tumblr:

"Question: I have more of an opinion question for you. When fans of things hear about misconduct happening on sets/behind-the-scenes are they allowed to still enjoy the thing? Or should it be boycotted completely? Example: I've been a major fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was a teenager and it was currently airing. I really nerded out on it and when I lost my Dad at age 16 'The Body' episode had me in such cathartic tears. Now we know about Joss Whedon. I haven't rewatched a single episode since his behavior came to light. As a fan, do I respectfully have to just box that away? Is it disrespectful of the actors that went through it to knowingly keep watching?"

And Wheaton offered this response, which he shared on Facebook:

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