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A Year of Grieving Publicly

After Anjali Pinto’s husband died suddenly at age 30, the photographer didn’t turn inward. She turned to Instagram.

Photo of Pinto holding Jacob's hand in the hospital, from Instagram

JANUARY 1

anjalipinto Jacob is no longer with me, with all of us who love and admire him. The shock, pain and grief are immeasurable, but thank you to all who have reached out. We will be having a gathering tomorrow at The Ivy Room, 3pm-6pm and his funeral will be Saturday in Onawa, Iowa where he was raised.

(204 comments)

jayzombie I’m at a loss for words. I’m sorry from a far away acquaintance isn’t even enough to make up for the pain and emptiness you must be experiencing. Hoping you are able to find strength while navigating such a devastating loss […]

On New Year’s Eve 2016, Anjali Pinto and her husband, Jacob Johnson, a furniture maker who’d grown up in Iowa and met Pinto in 2012, spent a quiet day in their Andersonville apartment. They wanted some time together before she flew to New York with her sister for a short getaway and he drove to Michigan to see a concert with friends. Around dusk, after waking from a nap, Pinto found her husband on the bathroom floor, his eyes closed, like he’d fainted. He looked peaceful, but he wasn’t breathing. Then came the call to 911, the EMTs, the hospital. It was Johnson’s heart. His aorta had ruptured, the result of a previously undetected flaw in the artery wall. Athletic, strong, and seemingly healthy, he died three weeks before his 31st birthday. He and Pinto had been married for 16 months.

How do you make sense of something that makes no sense? Pinto, a 28-year-old professional photographer, attempted to do so in the way that felt most natural to her: through images. At the hospital, before her husband was taken away, she held his hand one last time and, instinctively, took a picture of that. “It’s kind of like the camera acts as a shield—I can’t process this right now, but I need to come back to it,” she says of her decision to take that photo. “And if I don’t shoot it, I might not remember it.” On New Year’s Day, she posted that shot on Instagram to let people know about a memorial that was being planned. Sympathy and condolences streamed in, but she didn’t want pity, she says. She wanted “to remember how amazing he was.”

FEBRUARY 12

anjalipinto Some of the best photographs I made of Jacob hid the difficulty. Our personal project #summer portraitseries pushed us to take pictures when we were tired or out of creativity. We got frustrated with one another if the picture wasn’t coming out the way we envisioned. On this night, we started after sunset and I wanted to teach Jacob something about off-camera flash. He photographed me, naked in the bathtub, and I felt so vulnerable and self conscious. […]

FEBRUARY 25

anjalipinto A routine physical, a wellness check. First I explain to the nurse practitioner what’s happened. Then a medical student. Then the doctor. Each looks at me with a different type of sympathy and disbelief. […]

MARCH 16

anjalipinto Grief is very much a taboo in our culture. As much as we want to help people that are hurting, we are never taught what to say or do to help. We avoid the conversation all together, or talk about something that makes us more comfortable. People have said to me, meaning to be supportive, remarks that are so upsetting it’s mind boggling. […]

MARCH 30

anjalipinto Many of our friends have told me that his being gone doesn’t feel real, that it is abstract and hard to grasp. For me, it’s permanence and reality is inescapable. […]

In the weeks that followed, she began posting pictures of her husband and their life together—including ones that Johnson, an avid photographer himself, had taken of her—as well as new self-portraits of her in grief. There were so many pictures to go through from the four and a half years they’d spent with each other, a photographic record of being young and in love, of working and making art, of seeing friends and family, of biking around the city and traveling the world. Pinto included with those photos of her recent past unvarnished descriptions of how she was feeling in the immediate present. “I had so much to say and so much pouring out of me,” she recalls.

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Over the course of the past year, those Instagram posts—one a day, every day—have become a kind of documentary project: a tribute to Johnson and an unfolding of Pinto’s grief. Far from scrubbed clean, her Instagram feed is all the more moving for how human it is, for its intimate detail, for its willingness to acknowledge conflicted, nuanced emotions. “It’s been important to me to try to paint a picture of the real person that he was. Like, he had a stupid temper, we fought a lot about stupid shit.” Similarly, she doesn’t put an uplifting gloss on her own moods; despite striving to stay optimistic, she can just as easily “wake up with a dull ache,” as she wrote on August 14. “It doesn’t feel inspiring or revelatory, it just feels like nothing is enough.” Taken together, the posts accumulate a resonance, revealing the ways that sadness, hurt, and anger are inextricably bound up with gratitude, humor, pleasure, and joy.

Pinto is sensitive to the fact that she’s not the only one who lost Johnson. “The pain of his family is equally intense, and I want to respect the way that they grieve, which is not publicly,” she says. “I don’t ever want them to feel like I’m exploiting the situation or not honoring him in some way.”

JUNE 23

anjalipinto It’s been 174 days without him. I stopped wearing my wedding and engagement bands because when the sunlight caught them, I felt I was pretending. After a few drinks, I’d move the rings to my other hand as I looked around the room for anyone worth admiring. As much as I wish I were still married, those rings were a saddening reminder of a broken future. They were a symbol of my solitude instead of our marriage. […]

JULY 3

anjalipinto I am simultaneously in awe of my own power and fearful of my vulnerability. I had never been an anxious person, but I live now with the threat of tragic endings, horrible outcomes and worst case scenarios. I can handle these challenges, I will survive. I know that I can carry a lot of weight, physically and mentally, and still function day-to-day. My empathy has never been deeper, my understanding of what life is has never been more complete. […]

JULY 11

anjalipinto We bickered, nagged and irritated each other as much as most other people who spend every day together—it was always with respect. But real fights, with tears and a pounding heart, were few and far between. […]

JULY 13

anjalipinto Allowing myself to be open to any sort of future with another person is in essence vulnerability. Whether it’s a date, sex or an ongoing flirtation. Who will see me, who will judge? Who will assume that they know what I’m feeling or what my intentions are? […]

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She also recognizes the risks that go along with public self-presentation, the devolution of a flesh-and-blood person into a persona or, worse, a brand. “I am afraid of becoming an archetype,” she posted on September 27. “To some I am the Heal Through Your Art Widow, the Dance ’Til You Feel Better Widow, the So Sad and Vulnerable Right Now Widow, or the Desperate to Love Widow. I don’t want to be a widow with a capital W. I don’t want to be a widow at all.”

Pinto now has more than 50,000 followers, up from 8,000 or so when she started. She hears from strangers offering support, sharing their own experiences, letting her know how her story has helped them. “People have been wonderful,” she says. “I cry at my computer all the time.” She’s received hurtful comments, too, from people wanting to shame her for such things as posting photos of herself crying or for talking openly about dating after Johnson’s death. But, she says, they’re pushed aside in her mind by messages like one she received in September: “Please know that we’ll never get tired of hearing about Jacob.”

AUGUST 11

anjalipinto I often google ‘how many days since 12/31/16’. I never like the answer. Today is 223 days since we were together. The number means nothing, really, but it seems like a way to measure the amount of surviving I’ve done. […]

SEPTEMBER 7

anjalipinto In the last eight months, I have met one widower, four widows and one woman who lost her boyfriend, all under 35. I met them in an act of self-preservation. We shared stories of the day our partner died, the last memory we made together, the ugly truths about questions from police and gutting news from doctors. I am not the only one, I am not alone. I know that these people don’t have to conjure up empathy for what I’ve experienced. […]

OCTOBER 2

anjalipinto Sometimes the plot of my dreams about Jacob are impossible to follow. They can just feel like rewound memories played back at random. Disorienting flashbacks, both familiar and new. […]

OCTOBER 11

anjalipinto Even in being as transparent as I can, I am not able to share the depth of the pain I experience. My new normal is carrying around his absence, our lost future, and the weight of being left behind. […]

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Though Pinto doesn’t put much stock in the well-worn adage that the first year of grieving is the hardest, she does see a day approaching when she’ll stop feeling compelled to post so frequently about her husband. It won’t be an ending so much as a culmination, which she’s planning to mark with a show of Johnson’s photographs and the creation of three artist grants in his honor that focus on documentary photography.

Pinto continues to live in the apartment she and Johnson shared, the home where he planted the clematis that came back again this year, where he put up the shelves she doesn’t want to take down.

“Loss is not felt in the absence of love,” writes poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander in her memoir of losing her husband, The Light of the World, a book that Pinto turned to in her grief. What Pinto has been doing on Instagram makes you feel both.

OCTOBER 25

anjalipinto The radiators kicked on yesterday, the mark of when he would start dreaming out loud about moving. Let’s move somewhere warm, somewhere far away, to a place without radiator water dripping from cracks in the ceiling. Let’s start fresh, let’s escape winter. All we really need is each other, babe. Let’s find home again somewhere else. […]

OCTOBER 26

anjalipinto Falling in love with Jacob made me confront my perception of myself. Who did he see, who did he love? Who could I be? What was I capable of? What did I offer, what did I want? The first year was full of minor negotiations. Pouring it all out for examination. […]

NOVEMBER 3

anjalipinto There was a lot of blood surrounding the heart, the coroner reported. I have to trust them because what I saw from the outside was a beautiful, healthy body. I had nightmarish thoughts it was a spell, that someone pricked his heart with a pin. Was the aortic dissection the size of a paper cut, a bullet hole, a fist through drywall? How did he feel, what did he know? I want to believe he didn’t have time to make sense of it. […]

NOVEMBER 13

anjalipinto Familiar sensations wait in the back of my mind, patient to be called on and projected when needed. I can feel him like it was moments ago, not months. Not almost a year. […]

An exhibition of photographs by Jacob Johnson and Anjali Pinto runs January 20 to 22 at Low Res in Hubbard Street Lofts.

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