Love is a weird and magical thing. What attracts one person to another is unique and often inexplicable. Trying to describe what love is, is almost like describing what color looks like. We each see it in our own way, and no two relationships are alike.
And the ways people meet and fall in love is just as diverse and interesting as love itself.
Photographer Anjali Pinto first “met” her husband, Jacob Johnson, on Instagram, in a somewhat unconventional way. She told The Lily that the two had no mutual friends, but Johnson began commenting on her posts. “I could see from his images that he was special, and I wanted to know him,” she said.
By commenting on each other’s posts, a friendship developed and that friendship grew into a romance and then…love. The couple eventually married in 2015. Then on December 31, 2016, Jacob suddenly died of an aortic dissection, an unknown defect in his artery wall, at the age of 30.
Around the anniversary of Jacob’s death, I stopped fantasizing about him coming back. I stopped imagining him reentering our apartment, pulling the car around with the groceries, or waiting for me at a table with his big smile when he’d beat me to dinner after work. . I admit that writing and memorializing him every day of 2017 kept me close and in tune with my pain. The pain is what was left in his absence, and I was afraid of the empty space. I held on to his memory tightly, because I was scared I might forget or worse – that people would stop talking about him altogether, and we collectively would forget. . In loosening my grip on the past, I’ve learned that his legacy is living, morphing and growing through my memories. I will never forget, no matter how far away the last day with him was from today. In what I chose to share, the stories that I tell, the person that I am – he is a part of it all.
Pinto told The Lily that she documented their close bond through photographs, and they often took photos of each other while on photo shoots. So while she mourned his death, she continued to document their relationship through photos on Instagram and her grief is laid bare in the same unconventional way that their relationship started.
“I wanted to talk about him, to hold tightly to the good memories we made, and to invite our friends and family to feel comfortable in grieving openly too,” she told The Lily.
Because I am an optimistic person, my advice to other widows has always been – just be patient, someone special will come along. You have so much to offer, and the successful relationship you lost is a foundation for whomever is lucky enough to be with you in the future. . Sound advice, but it is bleak out here. Optimism doesn’t change the reality that I have been alone for a year am going to be alone for awhile longer. I think about how I met Jacob less than a year after his breakup with an ex, and my hesitation- are you really ready? He assured me, I am yours. What does time really mean in relation to a need and willingness to love? . My desire for him, sitting across from me and sharing his breakfast, never changed. I have had to adjust my life to never having that need met. Giving up on my desire for his physical person feels insurmountable. So now I tow the line – open to love and hopeful, but repelled by the idea of someone spending long hours in my company at our apartment. It’s not him, it will never be him.
Pinto, who has over 51,000 followers, posts photos every day, paying tribute to the husband, their love, and the magic of love in general. She said she hopes that documenting her grief and love for Jacob after his death will help her heal, while also paying tribute to her love for him while he was alive.
Tonight, I’ll join a panel of talented Chicago photographers for @4x5_stories – an event that brings together artists to discuss the stories behind their images. . Photographs have been the most important tool in my healing process. Both in revisiting pictures of him and in creating work to express my grief – images have said what my words can not. They have acted as symbols for the vastness of my love for him – with all of its varying color, composition and texture. They have transported me back to places I would have otherwise forgotten. I look forward to sharing of my process and history with you tonight. . 6 – 8:30 at The Allis at Soho House, 3/19. Join us if you can – it’s free and open to the public.❤️
“When Jacob died, I felt that our love story and his untimely death was worth sharing with the world,” Pinto says. “I felt empowered by telling our history and my circumstance as a surviving spouse.”
It was so easy to anticipate triggers and cause for sadness through out the first year – the first everything without him. And now, sadness feels like a storm, descending suddenly and just as ferociously as those first months alone in our apartment. . I am okay with being sad, I can’t fix it. I can’t change it, because it’s not wrong or shameful. I can cope with sadness being my companion on lazy Saturday mornings, because sometimes the trigger for my sadness is joy. In feeling a real, new human connection. In having the knot worked out of my neck and relief soaring through my veins. . I have hope that with patience, happiness will give rise to more sustainable happiness. But I am thankful to be living, to be feeling, and to be aware of it all. Denying my feelings would drown me.
There’s no part of grief that is untouched for Pinto. She lays it all out there, with poignant beauty. She writes about the debilitating sadness, the complicated emotions of moving on, and her evolving beliefs about an afterlife.
Jacob and I had discussed how flawed the idea of heaven and hell were, to us. Especially the judgement of people of different faiths being excluded from such a reward, it seemed too cruel an act for an all-loving god. . At first, I held firmly to my belief that there’s no living room in the clouds where all my loved ones on the other side are hanging together. It’s too hard to think of him being out there without me. It’s too unfair to imagine waiting until my death to be reunited. A better place? No, the best place was here with me. . I believe that we are given life, for reasons too magical to understand. I am in awe that we are living together on this beautiful moving globe, and can not fathom that our existence could be defined by any one story, faith or god. When I think about the universe and it’s vastness, electricity flows through me like pleasure. I marvel at how charmed I was to find him. . Losing him has loosened my grip on knowing anything for certain. It was easy to believe ‘we die, we no longer exist’ before I saw him dead. But I still feel him, hear him, see him in everything that is good. There are signs of his energy and his guidance just when I need them, too strange to deny. If I could explain it, I would, but I only know how to feel it.
“Because I am an optimistic person, my advice to other widows has always been — just be patient, someone special will come along,” she wrote in one post. “You have so much to offer, and the successful relationship you lost is a foundation for whomever is lucky enough to be with you in the future.”
But she admits that it isn’t always easy to follow that optimistic advice, writing later in that same post: “So now I tow the line — open to love and hopeful, but repelled by the idea of someone spending long hours in my company at our apartment. It’s not him, it will never be him.”
Jacob and I never discussed who we would sleep with if one of us died young. People casually mentioned “the best friend” as if another man close in his life would step in to fill his place. Well, that didn’t happen. I had to decide on my own where to meet my physical needs and sexual desires. Shortly after his death I started working on a plan – who, when, how, what – that took months to act on. I wanted anonymity, not familiarity. I needed to be touched. I knew there would be judgement, but “fuck them” has never been a more apt response. . I have enough for a novel on this subject. It doesn’t feel at home here in public, but I’m testing the waters. I have approached this unwanted period of single life with the determination and confidence that attracted Jacob to me, and though it sounds strange he would be so proud of the woman I’ve undressed.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t just artwork or a social media feed — it’s Pinto’s life. She is living the very real emotions of grief and loss and survival.
“The passing of time continues to be a disorienting part of my life,” she wrote in a recent post. “How much time I’ve survived. No amount of waiting will make things how they were in 2016.”
Two years ago, Jacob and I were in the midst of our longest trip abroad. For all the things we did and saw, my fondest memories are of how we cared for each other. . When we arrived at a campsite, Jacob would carefully put down a tarp, put up a tent, make both of our beds and hang a light from the ceiling to read by. Meanwhile, I’d be cooking on the little gas burner and opening a bottle of wine. In bag chairs, with our dinner in our lap, we’d discuss the day ahead. . One night, I pointed out what I thought was the Big Dipper in a sky full of stars. And Jacob was adamant that there are different constellations on the other hemisphere. I thought he might be right, but there was no internet so just decided to argue my case. The next day when we got service, he immediately pulled over and showed me that he was right. We laughed for a long time – how wild was it that we were so far away from home that even the stars are different! . The passing of time continues to be a disorienting part of my life. How much time I’ve survived. No amount of waiting will make things how they were in 2016. . North Island, New Zealand. February 2016.
Not only is Pinto’s vulnerable and real depiction of grief a breath of fresh air in today’s carefully-curated world, it is also a bold reminder to not take our beloveds for granted. I know that I’ll be a little less quick to get annoyed that my husband’s socks are on the floor after looking through Pinto’s photos and reading her powerful words.