What Grief Has Taught Me

Gary C. Harrell
6 min readDec 28, 2023
[The Annual Rockwell NYE Party, 31 December 2013, with John Rockwell (to my right) and our friends.]

Perhaps one of the most gratifying aspects of living in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, in the early Teens, was its easy walkability. One didn’t give a thought to biking over to the lovely, new Crescent Park along the Mississippi River, or strolling only a few blocks from your front door to any number of restaurants and bars. Back then, the Bywater, I always quipped, was the hippest neighborhood, in the coolest city, in the liveliest state, in the best country on the planet. And so it was that I made up some great traditions to make the most of my time living there.

One such tradition was the pub crawl that a friend and I did during football season, moving from one bar to the next between each quarter of a Sunday game, and finally ending up at his own bar, the Lost Love Lounge, which, yes, rests in the Marigny, just outside of the Bywater by a block or two. The crawl was always a fun way to meet my neighbors, while also enjoying Saints football over a few drinks at different venues. Though the pub crawl never really grew beyond my friend circle, it was something I routinely encouraged others to do. “Hey, we’re supporting small businesses in our community,” I once told neighbors from California. And I was eager to get my friends from Houma and other parts of town to participate, as well.

It was during one of those pub crawls that I met John Rockwell. The New Orleans Saints were playing the Chicago Bears, and much to the chagrin of most of the Bears fans in J&J’s Sports Lounge, the Saints were building a sizable lead early in the game. It seemed for a time, in fact, that only me and another fella to my right were the only people cheering for the home team. A girl sitting on a bar stool behind both of us asked if we were from Louisiana and if we, by chance, were friends. While I thought it was an odd question, I replied, “No, I don’t know him.” And he said, “I’m John, man!” And after shaking my hand, he added, “Well, congratulations, Gary! You just made a new friend!”

The irony of that introduction was really how much of an understatement it would become. John was not just a new friend; he quickly became one of my best and closest friends.

John Rockwell was a father, a son, a family member, a good friend, an extremely hard worker, and a lover of life. John was the guy who never met a stranger, and he could easily teach extroverts a thing or two about being an extrovert. He was always committed to spending quality time with his friends, even if that meant he had to ring your doorbell at 7A.M. and cajole you out of bed for breakfast. “Do you want breakfast — or breakfast?” John once asked someone in preparation for the amazement to come. Indeed, John was always up for creating new and memorable experiences. In fact, only a few years after meeting John at J&J’s, we found ourselves there, shooting pool on the night of my 40th birthday, and we amped the quiet crowd of patrons way up when we put on my favorite song by Swedish House Mafia.

Honestly, I am consistently impressed by how many of my friends can actually dance!

It was one year ago today when life changed, rather abruptly, for everyone that knew John Rockwell. For me, the news of his passing came in a frantic, almost inaudible phone call. After the call, I must have stood perfectly still for ten minutes or more, before realizing that I had not moved, and even then, I just took a seat on the arm of the couch near me. I started staring at the screen of my phone, waiting for someone to call with a redaction, or trying to think of who I could call, myself, to fix this. It was a major blow, following months of other tragedies in my circle.

I was pretty motionless for a number of days, actually. I spent a lot of time praying, and I reached out to and met with other friends, hoping to piece together a better understanding of the events that led to his death. I just kept wondering if there was anything I could have done to prevent it. We all did.

Author Heidi Priebe penned these words about grief:

As long as there is love, there will be grief, because grief is love’s natural continuation […] Grief is a giant neon sign, protruding through everything, pointing everywhere, broadcasting loudly, “Love was here.” In the finer print, quietly, “Love still is.”

This might be the most accurate explanation for why the loss of a loved one seems to bring us so much heartache. It is because grief serves as a manifestation of our love for the person no longer in our lives. And to that end, grief does not go away, because our love for that person does not go away. We simply come to understand the loss and its impact, while coping with that the way that loss makes us feel. Consequently, time does not heal our grief; time just makes grief palatable.

Over the year since John’s death, which, as I mentioned, followed (and preceded) several others in my circle, grief has brought me to four realizations that, while I already knew them to be true, matter more than ever.

(1) Our friendships matter. Our lives are enriched by the presence of good and authentic friends. These people feed into our lives, and their presence should lighten the burdens along our journey. They believe in us and support us. They also inspire, teach, and challenge us. In fact, these folks can change our innermost thoughts and effectively shape who we are.

(2) It is important to create good and lasting memories. After all, life is too short not to give your loved ones the thoughts they can cherish forever.

(3) Accept that there are events beyond our control. Period.

(4) Don’t get angry with God in times of inexplicable tragedy. In fact, while it might seem counterintuitive to do so, we have to trust Him even more.

As I reflect on John’s death, and as I write the preceding words, I am reminded of words from a prayer I wrote, on this day, last year:

Lord, I am a creature with only an extremely limited understanding of Your Will and the plans You have for us. I cannot begin to know why things happen as they do. And without much consideration, I guess I might not be wrong to be angry with You about these things, or I might be justified to resign in despair… But my faith tells me to respond differently. My faith tells me, no matter the tragedy, to look to You, to trust You even more, and to solicit Your Mercy.


You, Lord, are the consistent source of our resolve, the pillar of our confidence, and most importantly, the savior of our souls. For this, and for every blessing, we thank You and praise Your name. And for this reason, I come to You, once again, and I humbly seek the power of Your presence over circumstances we cannot control.

Thank You, Lord, for taking the time to hear my words. In the fourth chapter of Philippians, we are instructed to not be made anxious over anything, but to seek the peace of our hearts, as made so through prayer and supplication to You. And so, with these words, may You see fit to afford comfort and peace in the days, weeks, and months ahead of us.

The Lord certainly remained present, even though the sense of loss was tough to endure, at times.

Having a good friend, one with a good selfless heart and lots of positive energy, is a true blessing. We should always cherish those people. I know that it has been an honor to call that crazy dude from Chalmette one of my closest and dearest friends. It is my hope that I can be just as good of a friend to my other friends as he was to me.

You are still missed, Rockwell.

[Near John’s final resting place along Lake Catherine]