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After 17 years in prison, losing a loved one can make you feel unmoored.
Photo by Angel Luciano on Unsplash

When I walked out of the gate at San Quentin State Prison in California, I was not only free; I was ready to once again experience all of the joy and happiness in this world.

The isolation, the passage of time, the possibility of dying inside — these are constant tortures in prison. Freedom is the best feeling if you’ve lived through the horror of incarceration. 

Still, in spite of the brutal conditions, there is time for introspection and rehabilitation. Inside, I reflected on childhood trauma and healed. I considered my past and the murder that sent me to prison in the first place. I grew.

There is also time to process grief. My grandparents died while I was incarcerated, and I wasn’t able to hold their hands or say goodbye. I didn’t know if they left remembering me as a murderer. But I did have solitude and time to process my feelings. I cried without digital distractions. I couldn’t use drugs or alcohol to shield my sorrow. 

Programs in prison help you deal with your past and present. But there is nothing available to prepare you for future miseries.

Several self-help programs over 17 years of incarceration could not ready me for the death of my lover Erin Elizabeth Carroll. 

I fell in love with Erin on New Year’s Eve 2021. We met on a dating app, like so many people do now. We began texting back and forth — an instant connection. It was rare to be with someone who had never been involved in the criminal justice system but still understood my past. 

We quickly developed a relationship and spent our free time together. She had her quirks, or “habits,” as we all do. But when you love someone, you take them for who they are and not who you want them to be. I loved all of her imperfections. 

People who commit a murder sometimes don’t fully understand what it’s like to have a loved one taken away. Even with empathy and self-help groups, you can only imagine how much pain and suffering your actions caused. 

But death from natural causes seems like a different loss to me. 

Erin died unexpectedly from natural causes in June 2022. There was no one I could blame for her death, except maybe the universe or God, since they created her with Type 1 diabetes and epilepsy. She managed her health conditions deftly. She rowed crew every Saturday.

I’m still awaiting the official cause, but it appears she died from seizure or stroke. I do know she died working at her desk in her apartment with only her cat Orion nearby. It felt like a movie when I visited her apartment to check on her and was told by strangers at her building that she had died. 

Having a good memory is a blessing and a curse. I can still recall the time of day she died. I can still recall how I cried on the sidewalk, just outside the office. I can still recall how I called all the hospitals and drove to the police station, pleading to see her. I wanted to know, somehow, she was still alive.

It’s hard not to blame yourself when a loved one dies. 

“I should’ve been there.” 

“I should’ve been on top of all her (health) issues.” 

I have been reassured constantly that her death was out of my control, but this brings me no comfort. After she died, I cried over the weekend and then went back to work. 

Incarceration allows time and isolation, but in society you only get a brief time for bereavement. You still have responsibilities. Credit card companies don’t suspend your payments. Rent is still due. The world doesn’t stop because you need to process grief. 

I am reminded of her almost daily. I am triggered into breakdowns by random objects, scenery and smells. The shows we watched together. The music she played. Her Instagram, which I visit often; it keeps us connected. I fear that if I’m not reminded of her, she’ll be lost forever, not just in my mind, but also to the universe.

I am now a man who has taken a cherished person’s life and has lost my own cherished person. I doubt I’ll find a support group to heal both the harm I caused and the hurt I feel. 

The only things I can control now are the amount of alcohol I consume and how much crying I do. Rewatching the first 12 minutes of the Pixar movie “Up” always makes me cry. I am envious of the main characters, Carl and Ellie, because they lived their full lives together and, most of all, because Carl got to say goodbye to Ellie before she died. 

Tragic love songs hit me harder now after Erin’s death. Kyle Hume’s “If I Would Have Known” comes to mind.

He sings: 

If I would have known
That you wouldn’t be here anymore
I would have made the moments last a little longer
‘Cause now I’m alone
And you’re just a memory in my mind
I would have given anything to say goodbye

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jonathan Chiu is a writer who served as the layout editor and crossword designer for Wall City magazine and San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he was formerly incarcerated. His work has also been published in the Marshall Project.