The Anatomy of My Grief

That grief that stays with you like sad marrow in your bones— that is different — when the grief is still very real, but it’s lying dormant like a constant heavy burden, sometimes heavier than others, not the active grief, clenching down like a lion’s jaw on your jugular. This is the anatomy of the latter.

I feel grief in my stomach first. It’s that literal gut-wrenching feeling. As if someone is holding my insides and wringing them like a wash cloth they’re trying to wring dry.  I always want to vomit, feel like I need to vomit, but it never comes to fruition.  It’s as if my body knows that there is not such an easy way to release and rid itself of this pain.

I feel it in my brow, as my face contorts involuntarily into the ugly face of sorrow.

At the same time I feel it in my throat. My throat hurts, tightens, and I forget to breathe.

I feel grief in my lips. I purse them to keep the sounds of pain from escaping. I feel it in the tired corners of my mouth, and in my cheeks, as I push those muscles to capacity, clenching with the ferocity of my sadness.  At some point, after too much time of my throat and lips having been sealed like a tomb, my lungs start to burn, and I remember — oh yes, breath, I need that. Maybe I have an anaphylactic allergy to grief.

I feel it in my chest. It is cliche to say — but my heart hurts. If it’s not my physical heart, then it’s something else in that space right beneath my sternum. But that place, Oh! how it burns, aches, distracts.  I often find my hand unconsciously drawn to press against that spot, as if to press a button to turn off the sharp pain.

Eventually I notice a tingling in my noise — like the pricking sensation that comes with an extremity as it comes awake again after having fallen asleep.

Lastly, usually after some time, as the rest of the grief symptoms fade, my head pounds — I feel a throbbing in my brain. A hangover of grief. And the rest of my body just feels weary.

I don’t know how grief does this to me. To anyone.  How is it that emotion, circumstance, something purely intangible has such a tangible effect on every vital part of my physical being?

I saw an un-attributed quote on Pinterest this year that said, “How can such pain exist without physical harm?”

I’ve asked that question a lot. I’ve started to pay attention to the anatomy of my grief, mapping it out as it rides its painful path through my physicality. But when it’s over, I am left unharmed.

It’s as if grief is a virus that fills me, attacks me, and my body feels it. But unbeknownst to me, it fights back, my spirit fights with it, and the virus retreats when it has run its course. And I’m left with more grief antibodies — a greater capacity to handle grief, to feel it, and to move on with it and from it — which will sustain me the next time.

Which gives me hope. Because if my body can endure that, time and time again, then there is still light. There is still life.  My throat eventually unclenches. My lungs fill easily with air. My head stops pounding. I don’t even notice my heart when it’s not hurting. My face relaxes, my smile comes naturally again, and my appetite returns.

And if my body is resilient, how much more so is my spirit?

I get the opportunity to laugh a lot and cry a lot in life with my close friends these days. Which is a testament to this. The grief that causes my uncontrollable frowns does not destroy my ability to uncontrollably smile. Like a virus, it must run its course.

Photos taken in the same sitting. Both of these are candid, though taken in a studio.

In the end, I remember Henri Nouwen’s words: “We have to choose joy. And we have to keep choosing it.”
We have to keep choosing it. We can only heal what we let ourselves feel. So let grief run through your veins, let it run its course. It’s part of the process.


For any who are in grief, new or old, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry for your pain. You are not alone. 

The Trauma Closet – thoughts on storing & processing trauma

Let’s talk about trauma.

The first death I remember experiencing and truly grieving was the death of our kitten, Curious, who was run over by a car when I was young. The day that it happened, I punched the trunk of our crepe myrtle tree in the front yard until my knuckles on both hands were bloody. I guess I was trying to make something physical hurt as much as I hurt emotionally. No one had taught me that. I’d never seen someone punch an inanimate object out of anger or grief or pain. I just did it. And it didn’t make my insides feel any better, but it still helped, somehow, probably just from the physical exertion and the distraction of the physical pain that came.

I didn’t remember or think about something until recently, though — that I watched it happen, watched my little kitten get hit and die. I didn’t realize that with the grief, there was an element of trauma in my response. I was a happy go lucky kid. Nothing phased me. I passed through hard things in life fairly easily, resiliently. But that one stuck with me for a while.

I remember talking about it several times, for weeks afterward, with my best friend, Corinn. I daily went out to the spot that we buried Curious, and felt like I should feel sad, but instead I felt scarred. Without closure. Different from the one pet death I’d experienced years before, and different than the pet deaths I experienced later in life. Something felt wrong inside. I never realized that I was storing trauma.

Years later, in summer of 2020 when the whole world was in chaos and I was braced for what I thought was anything that might come my way, my neighbor hung himself and I had to call 911 and at the dispatch’s relentlessly insistent instruction, I cut him down. Trauma.

I kept saying it felt like my brain was broken. Short circuiting. It took several days to even get to a place where I felt like I could manage my thoughts or emotions in any way. I still haven’t gotten to the point of not thinking about it, of not getting PTSD blips of visuals and memories that like to jump up and casually assault me without warning.

It was a much heavier dose, but it was the same internal flood of neurons and emotional reaction that I felt after Curious died. It looks similar to grief, but feels very different.

Not a month after my neighbor’s death, I walked up to a patio of a bar one night where a young man had just shot himself in the head. It had happened immediately before I arrived, it seemed. I was witnessing everyone’s reactions as they happened — shock, not knowing what to do or what happened, some calling 911, people just then realizing who had gotten hurt.

I similarly was trying to figure it out, scanning the area right in front of me until I saw him, slumped in his chair, blood on his face and neck. I felt hot bile and panic simultaneously rise in my throat as I felt myself starting to shut down, felt my consciousness starting to get drowned out by that freshly familiar feeling: Trauma, again.

I realized in an instant that I had to get out of there. I used all of my strength to walk briskly back around the corner to my car and leave. The police started to arrive right as I was pulling out, and one officer stopped me. I explained that I’d just arrived as it happened, and had recently dealt with a suicide and was having a panic attack and needed to leave. He let me.

I told some close people about it in this way: “I want to tell you about a thing that happened, but I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to tell you that it happened.”

I have never been someone to not want to or be willing to talk about hard things that happen, as I know that in sharing them, it feels less daunting, less alone, less heavy. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the capacity and in that fleeting instant, standing feet away from another dead man, I’d known that I didn’t.

I’d felt myself fading, drowning almost, and knew I just didn’t have it in me to weather another traumatic instance so soon. So I did what my family refers to as putting it in a box and putting it up on the shelf for another time.

I’d love it if I could just leave it on that shelf forever. But now that I’m far enough away from my neighbor’s death and some other hard things that were happening then, and have dealt with some of that trauma, I feel that box shaking on the shelf, asking to be taken down and looked at, held, and dealt with.

I have seen posts about him on social medias — some immediately following his death that night, and some that have lingered, being posted weeks and months after, as his friends and family still remember and miss and grieve him. Each one calls me closer toward the box, reminding me that its there, still unopened.

It feels like when you’ve had a broken bone, and you ignore it, and let it “heal” but it heals improperly, and then when you’re finally ready to deal with it, you have to re-break it to be able to set it and let it heal the right way.  I feel like I’m finally ready to have it healed the right way, even though I know it means I have to break the wound open again first to do so.

What’s amazing is that our minds have the capacity to do what I did. To accept that we can’t handle this right now, and to box it up and shelve it for another time when we are ready and have the capacity to deal with it.

I’m starting to realize, though, that my mind-shelves have gotten fuller than I ever meant for them to, fuller than I even realized. That I have been feeling “healed” but frustrated with how handicapped my ‘healed’ self feels in many ways. That I am not able to lead as full a life as I desire because of things I’m triggered by, because the things that try to knock the boxes off my shelves are sometimes unavoidable, and now they’re on the floor and I’m tripping over them in ways that makes me less than my real self. Less alive than I want to be. And I’m starting to realize that some of these metaphoric broken bones that I’ve let time heal, haven’t actually been set and healed the right way.

I’m starting to understand that my insatiable desire for change and fun and excitement is rooted partially in my craving to keep my mind and body occupied with anything but what’s inside those boxes (or what will knock them off the shelves).

But I’m also reminding myself to have grace for myself as I start to unbox some of these traumas. To not be hateful toward myself for taking so long, because I know in truth that for some of these, I have not been ready until now. That’s how they got on the shelves to begin with. And others have just been there so long that I didn’t ever think about that maybe they didn’t have to be anymore.

I feel weak and insecure and —though I would never think this of anyone else who had endured things that were traumatic for them— I feel a bit pathetic to even acknowledge that I’ve had trauma at all. I know people who have endured so much more, so much worse, that I somehow believe I shouldn’t have been “traumatized” by some of the things that I’ve stored in those boxes. But, it doesn’t matter if I ‘should have been traumatized’ by something, it just matters that I was, and that I boxed up the trauma and have kept it, sometimes for decades.

I’ve heard people say things like “wow, that must have been pretty traumatic,” in response when I’ve shared about different pieces of my story. But somehow I’ve never until about 2 months ago realized and accepted that I have some trauma in my past. I am a person with trauma.

I hate admitting that even to myself because it makes me sound like a victim, a weak person who life just “happens to,” and I never want to be that.  I see myself a strong and big and able to handle anything, able to roll with the punches, able to adjust, pivot, and keep going at all costs.

It feels counterintuitive to want to unbox pain and feel it again. But I’m realizing that I’d rather do it now, and heal the right way, than to just “keep going” living as a storage unit for pain that hinders my life.

So I’m starting that. You may read some of my processing along the way, as I write to process a lot of times. But I imagine there will be mostly things you will not read. Things that don’t need to be shared to be healed. Things that have been stored when they should have been set on the curb after their brief life. There are some things that simply were never meant to be kept, no matter how neatly boxed up they’ve been in storage.

I don’t have a bow to tie around this as this isn’t an ending, but a beginning. I guess I just am trying to trust the process, and I know that the process that has always been beneficial for me is to write some and share some. So, here we go.

It’s time to Mari Condo this trauma closet in my mind. I’m sure, like in life, it is a process that will be ongoing. But I’m hopeful that in the process, I will learn habits and mindsets that will help me avoid hoarding hurt as I continue through life.

If you have any resources you’ve found helpful in dealing with and processing trauma, I’d love for you to share.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope in my sharing that it helps someone else know they’re not the only one, that they’re not alone.

When Traditions Are Forced To Change | A Quarantine Easter

Easter in Quarantine Jo O'Hanlon blog writer Spring Hope

I don’t remember what we did for Easter the year my sister died.

To be honest, maybe we didn’t do much that Easter. I don’t know. It was a little over a month after she died, and I only know that much because I just googled “Easter 2004” to find out —  the memory is missing completely. My brother in law was temporarily living with us, and we’d had to “celebrate” his, my dad’s, and my brother’s birthday in that month in between, which we also didn’t really do.

Since moving out California (and out of the Church), most of my Easters of recent years have been spent unceremoniously at home, just another Sunday, with maybe a call to my family and opening the USPS flat rate shipping box they still send me with Easter basket goodies (which is very sweet and cute of them to still do).

Some of you might be at home today doing some of the things you normally do on Easter — dressing up, doing Easter baskets, “attending” church (online), making a special meal and sitting down together, taking a walk together, maybe having a picnic in a field of wildflowers and flying kites as my family and I used to do when we were growing up.

And some of you might not be doing any of the things as you normally would. Whatever you’re doing to cope and adjust with the differences demanded by this year is OK.

Adjusting is never easy when it comes to things we hold dear, or sacred, or given. In the various chapters of grief I’ve encountered in life, I’ve found that losing and/or having to adjust traditions specifically has been extremely hard.

Traditions are, in a way, something sacred, even religious in their own right. They are pillars that we can count on. Constants that, when the world changes, we feel robbed by the thought that these constants might not be able to be so constant after all.

I’ve spent several Christmases and Easters in the past years alone, or in “non-traditional” places, doing “non-traditional” things.

Sometimes I find comfort in practicing the traditions, even when the world seems wildly inconstant. And sometimes it’s just seemed fake and like a lot of effort, and it’s easier and more honest to just sit on the couch and take the day as a day of rest in the most sloth-like ways.

For me, I’m comfortable with the different nature of Easter this year because I’ve been here before — I’ve lived here on these holidays for a while now.

But I feel for a lot of you as this is new, and as you cope with Easter being one of those pillars that you’re either trying to hang on to as something that stays the “same,” or as a tradition that you’re releasing this year, and it feels weird, and sad, and irreverent in that way.

For me, traditions are immensely helpful and comforting and are something that brings me joy when they’re upheld year to year. But that’s only true for however long they work.

I don’t remember the Easter after Julie died, but I do remember Christmas that year. At Easter, I assume we either tried to do what we normally did and it felt fake, or we didn’t do much, again, I’m not sure.

But I know that at Christmas, our long-time family friends, the McCoy’s, invited us to come join them in their big family Christmas day celebration. The invitation held, between the lines, the invitation to make some new traditions, ones that worked for our now-changed and grieving family.

I have always remembered that invitation, and it has been a painful but healthy one to embrace in many points of change in my life. New traditions, ones that fit your current space and life status, are the ones that give opportunity to bring joy and comfort in new ways.

And, at the end of the day, in the historical sense of what this holiday represents, it is to be a day of new birth, new beginnings, moving forward from the past — which might have been good for then, but which now doesn’t fit anymore — and offering a new perspective, a new tradition, a new way of life.

I pray that you all find some joyful ways to create new traditions today.


I have found some that I have begun to practice in the past few years.

They’re different than what it used to look like, and that’s OK to grieve the change.

But they also fit better for where I am now, and that’s OK to celebrate.


In the Christian Church, we start the lenten season with the saying: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today is the culmination of that season — the day to give us hope that out of these ashes beauty will rise — from the dirt, new life will spring forth.


Happy Spring.

Happy Easter.

Comment & share as you desire. (Interaction and getting to dialogue are always valuable, but especially these days.)

If you’d like leave a tip for Jo for her writing:

Venmo: @Jo-OHanlon


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

instagram: @jrolicious

A Series of Unfortunate Events | (or, a year of grace)

new years reflections pilgrimage grief growth health

I started 2018 on too cold of a morning, as all Wichitans did.

It was so cold that my truck wouldn’t start.

My truck had started having issues on Christmas day. I’d since replaced the battery, flushed the oil, then changed the oil. It was working — ish.

Then came New Years Day, when it was 5 degrees, and my truck simply would not start.

Once I was told the cold was probably the cause, I tried all of the fixes I could think of — space heaters, blankets, and “E-Z Start” spray — but nothing would make it start. I gave up my hopes of a productive day off, and settled in to watch movies.

I was forced to slow down and wait.

It was the same story for the next two weeks. Some days my car would play the “putter putter maybe I’ll start after 10 more tries” game and actually would start. Some days it wouldn’t even mock me with a teasing effort.

Until one mid-January day, when I tried to start the truck, and it burst into flames. 

Between the moment I turned the ignition and heard the audible rush of a fire being birthed, and when the fire engines arrived, a small area of flame atop the engine had spread and engulfed the entire engine well, with flames reaching the tree limbs overhead. 

I stood across the street holding my laptop with my dogs at my side, watching as the truck sat in my driveway, 3 feet away from my house, roaring. 

I was waiting for an explosion, for the side of my house to be blown into, or caught aflame, and surrendered myself to the thought “I’m going to be carless and homeless.”

The fire department came right then, though, and they put the fire out. Nothing was burned except the truck.

I was thankful it wasn’t worse. But also traumatized by the lingering what-if, and still had to deal with now being carless. 


That’s how 2018 has gone.

In all honesty, I’d been thinking I needed a different car. I’d adopted my second dog, and my little bench seat truck didn’t fit everyone, plus it wasn’t a reliable car to take out of town. I’d started to have other issues with it. I’d even started to price out other vehicles, but I wasn’t sure what I could afford and I just hand’t pulled the trigger yet.

But I already knew I needed to be done with the truck. And then it burst into flames.

I knew I needed to become less autonomous, and a prowler started to stalk around my house and harass me, forcing me to rely on the help and communication of several friends.

I knew I needed to have hard conversations in several relationships, for many different reasons, and those all found their way into my year, some at my behest, and others out of the blue.

I knew I needed to find a way to make myself heard on the church situation from my past, and events all unfolded with put that into motion (in traumatic, surprising ways), and while it lingered and weighed me down like shackles in the sea through the year, I am now ending the year with closure that I have needed for far longer than 2018.

(There’s more. But you get it.)

It’s been a hard year. 

I’ve honestly struggled to not dwell too much on the seemingly relentless series of unexpected, unlikely, unfortunate events that came to me through 2018.

I’ve had some good, fun, deeply meaningful, incredible moments this year, too. But I’m not going to sugar coat it – it’s mostly been hard, heavy, depleting. Both of those have existed together, side by side, one after another this year.  Seeing the good moments for their goodness does not erase the arduousness of the rest. Nor visa versa.

And when I say hard, I don’t necessarily mean bad.

In many ways, this year has been about rolling with the punches, finding space in my heart to acknowledge the trauma of some of these events, while also finding the space to cultivate gratitude that those endings were good, and necessary, even if the catalysts seemed out of the blue.

It’s been a year of being forced to slow down, prune my life and my heart, and focus on doing some of the big, hard, necessary things that will hopefully have helped my growth patterns for the future.


The other side of the 2018 coin is grace: the lucky, being-spared-what-might-have-been, side. So many of the hard things that transpired could have been so much worse. So many of the amazing, joyous moments ought to have just been so-so. 

The list of grace (on both the good and hard events) goes on and on. And even more than the joyous moments of 2018, and more than the unfortunate events, it’s the grace that has kept me grounded. 

Because of grace, I don’t need to say ‘good riddance’ to 2018, or to hang it on the gallery wall of my heart. 

It’s been like a pilgrimage. With many hard hills to climb, some painful sores on my feet from walking so long, an ache in my back from the things I’ve carried, and some spectacular views and fellow travelers along the way.

But I’ve made it this far, and there were many things along the way that could have prevented that. 

Whether I like it or not, 2018 has changed me. And I will carry the changes with me into the next.

I don’t know if the pilgrimage is over. If the tiring work is complete in some areas. If the unlikely occurrences will happen less often. But I’m still here, still walking on the road. And for me, that counts for a lot.

Ashes to ashes. Everything else is grace. 

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious

Lighter, Sadder | Surviving Trauma & What Comes After

A month ago I shared a post on social media that read:

Some of you have asked how I am after this. About how I feel about how the meeting went. This is how I am. This is how I feel:


Lighter than I’ve been in since childhood.
Sadder than I expected I would need to be again.

The sadness is the type of sadness that comes at the end. The heavy, warm sadness of acceptance that covers your cold bones with a blanket of truth that you didn’t deserve this, that you weren’t meant to hold this. It is warm. It is surreal. It is anticlimactic. It is the end.

The fight is over. You don’t have to struggle anymore. It’s not that you’re giving up. It’s that there’s nothing left to fight with, to fight against.

* * * * *

It is the sadness of a captive released from the internment camp.

The freedom seems to demand rejoicing, but how can you jump for joy when you are carrying the heavy weight of the past years with you? When you have to swallow that you were never meant to be imprisoned. That you should not have had to endure the pain, the anguish.

That you survived is a consolation, but it doesn’t heal the wound, doesn’t erase the pain, doesn’t take back the years taken, the deeds done, or the memories burned into your being that you cannot shake.

It does not make up for the fact that this is not how it was supposed to be. This is not how it should be. But this is how it is. And at least you’re free now.

Did you know Holocaust survivors are more prone to commit suicide than other people, especially as they age (contrary to a now-disproved theory from the 1900s)? Some reports say about 24% of the survivors have committed/do commit suicide.

Almost a quarter of them. One quarter ‘survived’ but at some point just can’t go on.

That’s only 1% less than the rate of suicide while actually interned in the concentration camps. (People were committing suicide at a rate of 25,000 per 100,000 in the camps. That’s 25%. source )

Which tells me one thing: being set free doesn’t mean internal war automatically ends.
‘Survivor’ doesn’t mean the end to the struggle. Doesn’t mean the end to the pain, the heaviness, the darkness, and the cuts we have that may scab over a thousand times as they continually get picked off and bleed again until they finally heal and become scars.

Maybe we need to revise the title. Maybe we need to use the active tense like addicts in recovery do.

Maybe we are not survivors as much as we are ‘surviving.’  Maybe the work is always in process. Because I’ll speak for myself here, but I know for me, I’ll never be the same. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. That doesn’t have to be my whole identity. It doesn’t have to mean I don’t lead a full, beautiful, healthy life.

Survivor indicates that I did it. That it’s done. That I survived.

But just as one does not ‘survive’ grief — they grow through it, are changed by it, and they carry that change, and that loss with them — that’s how this feels.

Long after the nightmares have stopped, long after the therapy has ended, long after life has moved on and I have built a new, beautiful, healed existence, I imagine there will be times, even decades down the road, where something pricks my tear ducts and pinches the back of my throat as I once again grieve the remnant sadness that this has left in my hands.

On the other hand, though, the ‘survivor’ title indicates to me that the active fight is over.

I feel that. Finally. For the first time. I feel that in my bones. I can breathe. I can sit. I can be still, and I can actually hear the silence. I can rest my mind and my body.  And my God, how they need the rest.

For that, I celebrate. In that way, I am free. I don’t have to fight anymore. All that’s left is to kneel down in the sadness, and start to do the work that it requires to grieve those losses, and to grow from here.

It’s going to take my breath away to see the beauty that I’ll make out of these ashes.

I have to trust that process.

* * * * *

To everyone who reached out to me the day of my original post, your love and kindness overwhelmed me and carried me. Like, I sat in a bathroom stall in the Sacramento Airport for longer than I’d like to admit softly sobbing as I read your words. Your words, your support bolstered me, they helped wash away my fear, my feelings of weakness, and they gave me the strength to gather my breath, to put one foot in front of the other, and to go into that room knowing that I was not alone.

I have never, in my entire life, felt more supported. Really. There is this biblical saying — ‘since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’

You all reached out, and it gave me this vision of this great crowd of people, of you guys, who were with me in spirit. And it made a tremendous difference.
Thank you for reaching out. Thank you for your support. Thank you for carrying me through.

* * *

If you know other people who have endured trauma, other survivors, reach out. The rules-of-thumb are the same as when someone is in grief.

Send a card. Send a note. Send a gift. Invite them to hang out with you (invites for specific plans are best — ‘Want to come play games on Tuesday night? Say 7?’; ‘Want to see this movie at 8 tonight?’). See if they want to go on a walk. Give them a gift certificate for a massage or to have their house cleaned. Send them funny things. Leave a voicemail just saying you love them. Tell them about tv shows and podcasts and books you think they might like. And, if you’re in a position where you’re able and willing, offer to be a safe listening ear if/when should they want to talk about anything.

Healing is a journey, a process, and kindness and love are what make that process a little lighter along the way.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious

Two Things About Today: Mom & College Friends

Two Things:

One: Because Today is Mother’s Day

When I was young, my mom was in her forties. She was on the older end of moms in terms of my peers, and I liked to give her a hard time about it. One time when I was a kid, I was razzing her about being in her forties, and she said, “I don’t feel like I’m in my forties inside.” Which prompted me to ask one of the wisest questions I’ve ever asked: “How old is the you that you feel like?”

She didn’t hesitate: “27,” she said.

All the stories she’d ever told of her college life and young adult life were full of vitality and independence. The mom I knew was always strong, but the stories of her 27 self and younger were almost invincible. The mom I knew was sick, and had to go to the doctor’s and do treatments, and sleep a lot because she had Lyme Disease. She was a mom who sacrificed a career to stay home and raise us, and teach us (we were home schooled for elementary school). She was never a “house-wife.” But she made it clear that she took her “mom” title as a professional status. She didn’t take raising us or teaching us lightly.

But her stories of her younger years had always captured my attention.

One time we were walking through a park and smelled some marijuana smoke. “You smell that?” she asked me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s marijuana. That’s what weed smells like.”
“Oh. Weird. It kind of smells like skunks,” I said.
“Yeah, kind of,” she said.
“I like the smell of that better than cigarettes,” I said.
“Me too,” she said.

I was too young to know to ask how she knew that. But the reality was, I always took my mom’s word for stuff like that. Her childhood, her family, and her career before kids had created one badass woman who had full-heartedly and willingly resigned herself to stay-at-home mom hood, and later, less willingly, to illness.

But the stories she told of her college days, of her days as a probation officer or working in the juvenile hall — those were the stories that showed me the empowered woman she was. She may have to take naps several times a day, she may be on an IV, she may be the woman that cuddled with us on the couch as we read the Little House on the Prairie series, or the Narnia series aloud for the umpteenth time — but inside she was still the 27 year old who wasn’t afraid of delinquents, injustice, poverty, or oppression. Inside, she was independent, caring, free, and fearless.

At least, that’s how I saw it. That’s what I finally understood when she answered that question. That badass from the stories, and that mom standing in front of me — they were the same woman. Still. One just happened to wear horribly-styled “mom dresses” from Costco. (A sin which she has since remedied 100 times over, for the record.”It was the style then!” she still defends…)

Two: Because Today is the Anniversary of my College Graduation

When I was about to enter college, my mom told me, excitedly, that she was praying for whoever I would meet and become friends with. She was so excited for me to enter this new chapter, probably remembering her own seemingly wonderful college years.

“You’ll make some of the friends that you’ll have forever,” she told me.

I’d grown up knowing one of her college roommates, and at least hearing about some of the others. I doubted that it would happen that way for me though, for some reason. Maybe because I had a few solid “life-long” friends from home already. I honestly thought I was set.

But she was right, as moms often are.
While the people who I thought would be forever friends has shifted a little over the years, it hasn’t actually shifted much. The difference has been additions, mostly. The most significant of which happened during my college years.

Of the life-long, day-to-day friends who have stayed in the circle since high school, a few remain. But while college held a lot of fun adventures with a lot of peripheral people, my solid circle of friends I rely on, look to, lean on, support, and stay up to date with has stayed pretty steady. My connections, and my friendships are the biggest gift that college gave me. My education was honestly a close second (because it was also really good).

But here I am, 6 years from the day I graduated college, and my long-time best friends and sisters were made or grew stronger either at my college, or during my college years.

And I’m so thankful to have had this beautiful, diverse, wonderful group that makes up “my people” for the better part of a decade (or in some cases longer).

My mom being excited for my college years was something that helped me embrace moving away from a home I loved so dearly to tread new paths, and to pave new bridges and connections.
So today I am thankful for an empowered, badass mother, and for the ways she empowered me to embrace life and friends along the way. She has left and continues to leave me a grand legacy to walk in.

Today, as I write this, I am 27 both outside (literal age), and inside (the age I feel). And I think I know what my mom meant all those years ago.

I am not a mother. I have no children to arise and call me. But…

I. Am. Blessed.

P.S. Sorry, mom, that I cussed. But you are badass, and there’s no substitute for that term or sentiment. I love you.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Jo’s 28 Before 28 Goal List

Life is still pretty crazy busy, so the blog is still on haitus. However, My birthday has come and gone again which means it’s time for a new goals list for the year.

I give you #Jos28before28:

1. Little Women
2. Something by Faulkner
3. Harry Potter 2
4.The girl’s guide to Hunting and Fishing
5. The Scarlett Letter
6. A nonfiction book

7. Inglorious Bastards
8. Band of Brothers
9. Phantom of the Opera

10. Get up at 6am every weekday for 2 weeks
11. Do a gratitude journal each week
12. Learn 3 songs on the guitar
13. Complete more Italian studies
14. Work out 4 days a week for a month straight (4 weeks)
15. Do 10 minutes of writing daily for 28 days
16. Write 28 letters
17. Cook 10 new recipes
18. Play a round of disc golf at par

19. Ride in a glider plane
20. Carve my name on a tree
21. Visit a trampoline park (facing a fear with this one)
22. Get a library card
23. Return to Rome
24. Try caviar
25. Create a time capsule
26. (Re-)learn how to play chess
27. Go to a day spa
28. Go camping with my dog

Blog Pause – Back Soon!

Due to a busy season of work and life and puppy dogs and flooding basements and all the things that real life brings, I’m putting the blog on hold for the time being. It might be a month. It might be for the whole summer. But, I will be back as soon as things settle down a little again, and I’ll pick up where I left off with this current roommate series. Thanks for your continued readership and your understanding. You all are wonderful.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

The Cutest Thing You Ever Did See | Roommate Series Episode 7 – Jenna

Roommate Series #7: Jenna Jan-May 2009  

Roommate award: Sweetest and Best Baker

Jenna and I in Luzern, Switzerland

Jenna and I in Luzern, Switzerland


The first thing I noticed was a jar of buttons sitting on the desk atop a doily.

I’d just arrived to my new school in Switzerland where I’d be studying abroad for the next year. I’d been traveling for 20 odd hours, and I’d finally arrived at the tiny school with four buildings total, one of which was my dorm (slash the church, slash the laundry room, slash the hang out area in the basement, slash the movie room…).

My RA on the hall greeted me first. She was a 29-year-old, commanding Albanian girl, who’s first words to me were these:

“Hi, Jo, is it? I’m you’re RA for the hall. My name is Cezi. It’s short for Cezarina,” and then with a devilish twinkle in her eye added powerfully, “That’s the female version of Caesar.”

She told me that the store was closed, as I’d arrived at night, and would be closed the next day too, since that was a Sunday, but that she and the other girls would share food with me until I could go grocery shopping on Monday.

And then she showed me down the short hall of 6 rooms to mine at the very end. I walked in and the first thing I noticed was the jar of buttons.

My new roommate was in there, with her mom, who’d come with her early so they could travel Europe for a couple of weeks before they’d come here.

Her name was Jenna, she said as she smiled sweetly and excitedly. She was nothing but warmth and welcome.

She was unpacking the last of her things from her two suitcases as I rolled my two suitcases into the room. That’s what I couldn’t get over. We had to pack the earthly possessions that we needed for the next half a year into only two suitcases, and she’d found room to bring a doily and a jar of buttons.

I thought she was so fake.

The hipster movement was just right on the brink of emerging, and there she was. Wearing a scarf. With buttons on her desk. And the next thing I knew, she was unpacking knitting needles and 2 aprons.

Nobody even uses aprons. Who is this girl kidding.” I judged her silently as I unpacked my clothes, my few books, and my couple of picture frames.

I was tired, cranky, hungry, jet-lagged, and pretty homesick and scared about being away from my hometown for an entire semester. I’d always been the girl that went home up to four times a semester. And this too-cute-to-be-true girl that was my new roommate was too much for my mind to take.

I tried to be polite, and just kept my judgey thoughts to myself: Yeah, this is a small school. Pretending to be cutesy isn’t going to last long. She’ll drop the act soon.

She and her mom continued to be nothing but sweet to me. We drank tea together in our room and talked about the west coast, as she was from Washington and I was from California.

Second day in Switzerland. On our walk to town.  L-R: Jenna, myself, Signe

Second day in Switzerland. On our walk to town.
L-R: Jenna, myself, Signe

The next day we all walked to the town (we lived in a small village a few kilometers from Schaffhausen) and went to the large fortress up on the hill. When we got back, she put on her apron and baked something for the dorm.

I rolled my eyes internally a little.

The first few days were fun and exciting, meeting everyone, going to the alps to go tobogganing. And Jenna was nothing but sweet and kind. I still didn’t let my walls down. I was waiting for her to break like an actor who slips out of character.

But then the first week of classes came. We had a prof that was particularly harsh, and we started to share our frustrations and our bewilderment about it. We started to run up against some cultural faux pas with the other students who were from a broad range of countries and cultures. We even started to rub up against differences between us and the few other students who were from other areas of the U.S. Our room became a safe haven to discuss, digest, debrief, vent, and sometimes cry with someone from our own culture.

But even when she was hurt or frustrated, she was always still kind in her words and her thoughts. She seemed to bleed honey.

Signe, myself, and Jenna on a walk the first day it snowed

Signe, myself, and Jenna on a walk the first day it snowed

One day someone needed a button, and Jenna took out her small sewing kit, got a button from her jar (which I think was mostly a sentimental token, like my picture frames), and sewed it on for them.

She baked most days out of the week. And she always wore an apron while doing so.

She showed me how to wear the big scarves that she had so many of, when I stopped being judgmental and admitted I liked how they looked.

My internal walls came down, and I embraced the fact that my first impression and first judgments were totally wrong. She wasn’t too cute to be true. She was super cute, and super sweet, and it wasn’t an act at all.

After our first set of finals (we had four sets of finals through the semester)

After our first set of finals (we had four sets of finals through the semester)

And she was my roommate.

I have never known someone like Jenna before or after her. She is the kind of person who, when she only has two suitcases to live out of for months, brings two aprons, and uses them daily. And I absolutely adore the sweet roommate I found waiting for me in a small dorm in Switzerland, with a jar of buttons sitting on her desk.



Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

How To Show You Care | Roommate Series #6 Kate

Roommate Series #6: Kate  1) unofficially Aug ’07-Dec ’08/ Officially Aug ’08 – Dec ’08 (1st semester Sophomore Year) 2) Fall ’09 – Switzerland 3) Aug ’14- May ’15 – Denver

Roommate Award: “Most down for adventure” and “Repeat Roomie” 


L-R: Kate, Me, Rose, Lauren, Jules. Freshman Hall

L-R: Kate, Me, Rose, Lauren, Jules. Freshman Hall

Kate made a strong first impression on purpose and on accident. She arrived later than everyone else because she’d been in a car accident on the way down to San Diego from her hometown in San Francisco. When she arrived, she was frazzled, intimidated, had cuts on her neck from the car crash, and she, like many of us, was still figuring out what her “style” would be.

She came across as brash, yet friendly. Striking, but eager. I don’t actually remember most of our interactions in the first couple weeks of college. She was a pre-nursing major (so, super heavy course load), and she didn’t have a cell phone or a computer, so she spent a lot of time away from the rest of us, having to do all of her homework in the computer lab. And without a cell phone, it was anyone’s guess when she’d be back, or if she’d be joining us for meals in the caf.

In that way, I think our friendship developed a little slower than it did with myself, Emily, and Jules at the end of the hall. But she was surely one of us. She was fun, and she made a priority to hang out with us a lot still, and still find time to be a diligent student.

I think the things that drew me to Kate were the ways she was so obviously trying to give off this hard, city-girl impression, and the fact that it was a thin veil for an uncertain, kind-hearted woman who really wanted to have fun and didn’t care about making a fool of herself.

Em, Kate and I with our first college christmas tree

Em, Kate and I with our first college christmas tree

We bonded over our similar childhoods of hand-me-downs and all things church. We bonded over our love of literature, and the fact that we had to be good students because we were both there on scholarships. We bonded over the real-life, dark, hard things that people we were close to were dealing with in our hometowns. It seemed like she was someone who could see the real world with me outside of the bubble of beautiful people and happy life that was our college campus. She seemed to know what I knew from the start — that “Loma Life” was not real, and it would not last.

Halloween Roomie Shenanigans

Halloween Roomie Shenanigans

I think it was those similarities that lender themselves to the foundation of what I knew even then would be a life-long friendship.

But the day that I realized how special Kate came in the spring of our freshman year. It was Kate’s birthday, and all she wanted was a hermit crab (I have no idea why). We had planned to take her to Ocean Beach for the day to go around, look in the shops, get our feet in the ocean, eat ice cream from the best place ever, and finally get her a hermit crab. Once we’d gotten back, we had a few other presents for her. After I gave her my present, she got excited, and jumped to her feet.

“Ok! Can I give you your birthday present now??!” she asked bouncing with excitement.

I hesitated in an awkward moment, before finding words.

“Um, Kate. Do you know when my birthday is?”

This was in April, and my birthday is in August.

“Yes! It’s in August!” She said.

I stared, still confused.

“So, you know that this is your birthday, not mine, right?” I was a littler condescending, and a little concerned about a potential stroke.

“I know! But you love presents! So for my birthday I want to give you your birthday present!”

She ran and pulled a gift out from under her bed.

“Open it!” she said, beaming, so proud of herself.

I unwrapped a hammock that she, with her very limited funds, had purchased for me from one of our favorite shops in Ocean Beach. She knew I’d love it, and I did.

That’s when I knew I’d never met someone else like her.

She pays attention to the people in her life. She pays attention to whats important to them, to what they enjoy, and she makes a point to care for them in ways that really meet them where they are.

It is rare that I am truly blown away, and that day I was. Kate showed me what it looked like to really think about others more than herself. She still shows me that often. And it’s a lesson I hope to continue to learn and emulate for the rest of my life.

She is, to this day, the only person I’ve ever heard of giving someone else a present on her own birthday.

I still have that hammock. And I still have that friend. And neither of those are coincidences.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

Let’s Do It | Roommate Series #5 Emily

Roommate Series #5: Emily  | unofficially Aug ’07-Dec ’08/ Officially Aug ’08 – Dec ’08 (1st semester Sophomore Year)
Roommate Award: Most Spontaneous and Best Wardrobe 

Emily and I on a run to Ocean Beach

Emily and I on a run to Ocean Beach

Emily was a part of our little crew of four at the end of our freshman hall from the start. The whole first week we hung out when we weren’t in class. The whole hall did. We’d wander into each other’s rooms and talk about grand plans, and about where we were from, and what we liked to do.

Somewhere in the first few days someone started talking about getting piercings. I’d wanted the cartilage of my ear pierced for a long time, but had never been allowed to before. I’d wanted to since I’d turned 18 two weeks before, and was just looking for a time. Lots of the girls on the hall started to voice similar desires.

“Let’s go do it this next weekend then!” someone suggested. We all said that’d be great.

But when the weekend came, some people were busy, and others were not sure they wanted to anymore, and others were just not interested when it came down to it.

“Well, I still want to do it,” I said, semi-annoyed. “I’ll do it still,” Emily said.

“Really? Ok, let’s go to the mall.” I said.

So we went up the hill to wait for the freshman shuttle (cars were not allowed for freshman, so to get around San Diego we had to get a ride, or take the freshman shuttle that went to specific drop off points).

We went to one mall searching for a place to get our ears pierced, but after searching high and low there, there were no piercing options.

I called my brother and asked him to google if there were any at another mall nearby. He said there were, and he gave me directions over the phone to get there. The freshman shuttle didn’t go to that mall though, so we had to walk a few miles.

“That’s ok!” Em said. “I want to do this today.”

“Ok! It’s this way!”

So we continued our hunt. When we finally made it to that mall, we walked around the whole mall only to find that they also didn’t have a place to get our ears pierced. Defeated and tired, we started our trek back to the original mall a few miles away, and dejectedly took the shuttle back to campus.

“At least we tried,” we said to each other.

By the time we got back to campus, we’d been gone nearly the whole saturday on our unfulfilled quest.

We barely made it back in time for dinner at the caf, and when we got there we saw some of our hall mates. We told them our tale when they asked if we’d gotten our ears pierced.

“We think we just need to find a tattoo parlor and get it done there. I guess we’ll just have to get a ride a different day,” we said, accepting the day as still a success of effort at least.

One of them at the table was a sophomore with a car who’d been working that whole day and had just gotten off. “Do you still want to try to do it today? I could drive you.”

“Really?” we asked, semi-tired. “But do you know of a tattoo parlor that’s open that would do it?”

“Yeah, I think so! We could at least go and see,” she offered.

“OK,” Emily and I said, looking at each other, ready to try again.

We found ourselves at a tattoo parlor later that night, getting our ears pierced as we’d set out to nearly 12 hours before.

It was a long day of dead ends. And when we finally got it done, they pierced Emily’s ear far lower than she wanted. And they pierced my cartilage at a super awkward angle. But we were happy. We’d done what we wanted.

That’s what I learned with Emily — that some of the best friends to have are the ones who are willing to stop talking about doing things and just start doing them.

Through the three semesters that I lived near and with Emily, most of our adventures were birthed out of that same desire. She helped me develop my skill for jumping into action, for jumping into life. And sometimes when you do that you walk all day, and you hit dead ends, and you end up with piercings in places you weren’t intending to get them — But somehow, that’s all still better than just sitting at home and talking about doing things someday.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon