Month: November 2015

Thanks+grieving

Nicole Hastings

“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

As we embark on the holiday season with Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, we are expected to and expect others to participate in and feel words like “joy,” “cheer,” “peace” and, “giving thanks.” When I was younger, I couldn’t wait for this season to start so I could experience and immerse myself in all the words I mentioned above. There was something magical and heart-changing about the lights, decorations, and the spirit of giving. Now, after experiencing the deep-cutting and profound loss of my husband, I have tip-toed up to the holiday season holding my breath. For a griever, the holidays can be a ticking-time bomb of memories and triggers. For me, it marks a chain of events that makes it hard for me to catch my breath all winter long: the end of October is my daughter’s birthday, mid-November is my husband’s death-date, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day (the day he and I met,) the end of February is our wedding anniversary, and then the beginning of March is our twin boys’ birthday. Winter for me is an emotional “kaboom” so this year I’ve been bracing myself, being incredibly intentional with extra self-care and thinking ahead how I will mourn on these days while also living life as it goes on and creating new memories with my little ones. With that said, I’m focusing this post on the concept of “giving thanks” from a griever’s standpoint.

If your loss is fresh and new, you may feel like you want to disassociate from any of the Holiday Spirit words splashed all about the country. You may feel like you just want to skip the holidays that focus so heavily on family and being together. You may feel guilty for wanting to skip the holidays or others may be making you (intentionally or unintentionally) feel guilty about wanting to bypass the holidays. Whether your loss is new or a while ago, there may be a lot of “shoulds” going around your head, or being suggested from well-meaning family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even strangers. “You should be thankful you still have a job, so many family and friends to support you, your kids, your house, your health, that you don’t live in a third-world country, that you have food in the fridge etc.… (fill in the blank)” Or if you’re a person of faith, well-meaning individuals may want to comfort you with, “Well, be thankful he/she’s in Heaven.” “Be thankful you’ll see him/her again.” “Be thankful he/she’s in a better place.” Therein lies the paradox of being a griever—being surrounded by so many things you’re thankful for. And you are. You are thankful for all those things, but you are also missing someone and it’s OK in the midst of all the thankfulness to say, “I’m hurting, this sucks, I’m lonely, and it’s not fair…I know I will see them again, but for now, right now in this moment, I want them to be here with me. I don’t want them to be gone.”

As a caretaker of a grieving person (that means anyone who is in the room with a person who has experienced loss: family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor) please throw the “shoulds” out the window. If someone around you is depressed or a Holiday party “downer” and in angst because their loss is bubbling up with this holiday season, don’t try to give them a pep talk of “Well at least you…” phrases. Believe me, they are painfully aware of all they have to be thankful for. They are painfully aware not to take things for granted, that time is short, and the things and people in their lives are not going to last forever—they are thankful for the presence of each of those things. Even more so, with all the other things that we grievers are so grateful for, we are grateful that we can grieve our loved one at all; meaning that if we never had the privilege to know them, we’d never have the privilege to miss them.

But for a moment, even in the midst of the cheer and laughter and joy, if you are the caretaker of a grieving person, grant the griever permission to feel the pain, the sadness and the terrible ache of missing their loved one. Also know that there’s no forcing gratitude, humility, joy and peace on someone else; those are deeply personal things someone who’s going through the deep, dark valley will have to come to while on their own pursuit of and grappling with God.

So this holiday season, if you know someone who may be grieving (whether they verbalize it or not), put all the “chin-up” cheerleading phrases on hold, and don’t be scared to give the griever permission to feel his/her emotions by acknowledging the griever’s bittersweet holiday experience. Some might say, “Well I’m not good with sad things or people who cry.” Well, I say to you in the most gentle way possible, “Get over yourself, it’s not about you.” And it’s not. When comforting a grieving person, giving them the gift of permission and a safe place to miss and feel the loss, is a priceless gift that will aid in his/her healing. It will be something the griever will be thankful for; they may never say it, but you can be assured they feel it.

I will celebrate holding your hand

By Nicole Hastings

“I never knew holding someone’s hand could feel so inviting, so familiar and so new at the same time. Holding your hand, I celebrate it, I mark it on calendars.”

-Anita Krizzan

Almost six years ago, I made a vow to hold my husband, Phil’s, hand through the brightest days and the darkest.

Two years ago today, November 20, 2013, I held his hand as he took his last breath. His hands were still warm, and strangely familiar from all the Palmolive dish soap he’d use as a professional window-washer was still comforting to me. Even though everything had changed in that one second when he left the world, for just a little longer, I could still hold his hand.

One year ago today, the day Phil died, crept up on me even though throughout the whole first year I fantasized that “after the first year, everything will calm down and I’ll be ‘better’.” I spent the day sitting on a rock next to a rushing river. My toes were cold and my hands were huddled in my coat to try to keep warm, but my cheeks stung bitterly as each new tear intensified the cold. Surrounded by mud, rocks and the dormancy of the encroaching winter, I sat on that rock for a long time staring at the pile of river rocks where I had released some of Phil’s ashes. There was no warmth or comfort and I realized, sitting on that rock alone, that I would never be ‘better.’ Entering year two was like when the anesthesia wears off and no pain medication in the world could numb the gaping wound that Phil’s absence left in my life and our children’s lives. The tender gift of shock and adrenaline had long worn off and I had to face the pain head on. I sunk into a deep depression because I fought the pain, I tried anything to keep me from remembering all the hurt and trauma, trying to cover it up with bandages of busyness too scared about what I would find if I took the bandage off. Only recently have I forced myself to start “rehabilitative therapy,” re-learning how to live without a part of me, without the security of that warm handhold.

Today marks two years of surviving without Phil. I will wake to the sunshine and I’ll lay in my bed with the conflicting “get up!” and “just five more minutes!” I’ll drag myself out of bed, I’ll make myself coffee and get the kids their cheerios as they watch morning cartoons. I’ll sip my coffee trying to shake the drowsiness of another dreamless sleep. The pain of missing Phil and the last time I held his hand will still be there, deep inside the barrel of my chest, and I’ll say ‘Hello’ to it and refill my kids’ orange juice. I’ll clean up after breakfast, try to fold some laundry, and play trains and Legos with the kids for a while. We’ll get ready for school and walk over to attend the little Harvest Party at my boys’ preschool. I’ll make crafts with them, fending off the achy feeling that always bites at me when I see my kids doing things that mark their growing up and how I wish their dad could see too. I know he’d stand back with me and watch them string pasta noodles and goof off with their friends, he’d put an arm around me and give my shoulder a squeeze and then reach down to hold my hand. But he won’t do that, he’s not here, and I’ll be watching on my own thinking to myself, “See, see our beautiful children.” My daughter will reach up and take my hand, motioning to the swing set. I’ll push her on the swing and she’ll laugh and smile with her whole body, just like her daddy used to do. Then we’ll all walk home together, holding hands. And on a day that I wish was just another day of laundry and Legos, it’s a day I will always remember as the day Phil left us. Now I know I don’t really want to be “better” if better meant that I didn’t feel all I feel, if “better” meant I had to stop talking about and stop remembering Phil and all that encompassed our brief, yet impactful encounter with love, marriage, parenting together and dying together; holding hands through it all.

So today, I don’t want to be better, I don’t want a “new normal”—what’s normal anyway? I want to live with all the life I have to live, loving fully and all that love brings; joy, elation, security, pain, sadness and disappointment. And even through the depressing days, the angry days, the sad days, I want to always remember and honor being able to hold Phil’s hand, but  also look forward to tomorrow and maybe, one day, be there to hold someone else’s hand, no matter how long or brief. There are a thousand words in holding someone’s hand, do it often and remember it always.

 

I’m a bad mom

copyright: Paisit Teeraphatsakool

…when I am tired, stressed and overwhelmed, and don’t give myself the time to acknowledge that I am tired, stressed and overwhelmed. In other words, when I “keep on truckin,’” I find myself crashing into the guardrail, and the “I’m not a good mom” guilt-rants begin to play in my head. Then I’m stressed and overwhelmed by all the other things to be stressed and overwhelmed about plus adding “I’m a bad mom” thoughts to the mix.

Now I have to confess, as a type-A overachiever, I’m also overly hard on myself. When I use the term “bad mom,” what I’m referring to is something completely different than that of a truly terrible parent. Some examples of the things rolling around in my head are:

  • I feel like a “bad mom” when the TV has been on educational children’s programming all day so I can clean the house and catch up on paying bills…
  • If I lay down at night and I realize my kids haven’t had any vegetables that day, “I’m a bad mom…”
  • If we haven’t left the house all week groceries to be delivered to my house, “what a terrible mom I am…“

The list could go on and on and on, beating myself up for the non-organic hotdogs I fed them to the fact my body just didn’t want to deal with nursing after my babies were 6 months and I had to give them formula (gasp!) Our culture’s assumed view on what motherhood should look like in the 21st century gives us moms a hell of a lot to feel bad about; we should be able do it all, be all for and give all to our children with a smile putting caring for ourselves on the back-burner. Before I jump on the carousel of guilt with all the reasons I’m failing my kids bobbing up and down in my head, I have to remind myself that there are kids out there who probably have never even seen a vegetable and don’t know where their next meal is coming from, kids who don’t have a safe place to sleep at night, are abandoned, abused, etc.…and saying “I’m a bad mom” is totally delusional when, in reality, there are some kids out there who truly do have terrible parents.

When I was in the early months of “grief + postpartum + sleep deprivation fog,” I don’t really even remember the details of many days—how I got my kids and I from point A to point B— but I was forced into allowing myself to be a “bad mom” because it was survival. We watched tons of TV, ordered out a lot, stayed in our pajamas some days, didn’t ever pick up toys or clean the toilet, and I put my boys in daycare because they got better attention there than at home. My then-idea of a “good mom” was shattered, along with any future I had hoped we would have as an intact family: that my kids would have a strong mom who could do it all, cook everything from scratch, home school them, bake my own bread AND have a garden… AND I would be a master at Pinterest crafts on the side… and they’d have a dad who wasn’t dead, but fully alive and playful teaching them all the things only dads can teach them. So you can imagine the head games that ensued as I was forced to be, and have, none of the above.

Adding to my stress, I had to face a reality that was hard to swallow during that time—not only had my children lost their dad, but, in a way, they lost their mom too—the ideal mom I wanted to be for them. They were stuck with a semi-crazy, sick, tired and overwhelmed mom who loved them fiercely. I fought minute-by-minute to be even a minimal mom for them: I could feed, clean and shelter them, and take every ounce of energy I had to squish playdough with them…but most of the time I truly just wanted to be the sit-in-the-shower-and-cry mom. I guess the biggest blessing in disguise in all of this is that my children were/are so young, too young to hold these things against me. My daughter was only months old, so if she had milk, a soft place to lay her head and plenty of holding and cuddle time, I was the best mom for her. My boys were two years old, so in their world, if they had cartoons all day and take-out and didn’t have to pick up toys, I was the best mom for them.

One terrible, awful day, after I had just moved into my parent’s home after realizing that this “bad mom” really needed help, a blow to my mommy ego crushed me even further. The boys were potty-training—sort of—and while they were playing, one of my sons yelled, “I have to pee now!” In a hurry to help him get to the potty, I was holding his hand and holding my baby girl in the crook of my arm. She began slipping down, and what seemed slow motion, she fell onto to the hardwood floor. She screamed—my heart dropped and I felt like I was going to throw up. I immediately scooped her up and I checked her head and eyes for all the signs I knew to check for—I learned all about that when, as a first- time mom, I rushed my son into the urgent care after he had fallen a foot off the couch onto a plush, squishy carpet—but this was a real concern and a real reason to panic. She screamed and screamed and then threw up and I put her, shaking, into the car seat and we rushed to the emergency room. I kept thinking over and over, “How could you let this happen? You’re so stupid…what a stupid mistake!” Adrenaline took over and I didn’t have time to cry. After CT scans revealed she had a skull fracture, an ambulance came to pick us up and we rode for an overnight at Children’s Hospital for observation. She proved to be a tough little baby, and neurologists told me the fracture would heal up fine, but advised to watch for signs of a concussion when we got home. I was so relieved she was OK, but I still felt like the worst mom in the world.

The next couple days I was careful with my baby girl, always checking on her at night, checking her pupils for any sign of change. One night she was sleeping unusually long in her swing and I went to check on her. Her eyes rolled back and she got really pale and she started to vomit profusely. I called 9-1-1 and I just held her, while she was limp in my arms, crying on the phone to the operator to send help quickly. Paramedics arrived within five or ten minutes and calmly took over.

Only a few months before, I was watching paramedics load my husband into an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher and oxygen after a severe breathing attack and was now watching them take my two-month old baby. I rode with her and stroked her hair, sobbing to the paramedic the whole way, “I’m such a bad mom, this is all my fault, I can’t believe it, I can’t have anything happen to her, this is all my fault, I’m such a bad mom…I hate myself, I can never forgive myself…” The paramedic gently took my hand and said something I’ll never forget, “You are a good mom because you are here. You are a good mom because you’re crying and concerned. You’re a good mom because you called 911 right away…I’ve seen bad moms and bad moms don’t call 9-1-1, bad moms don’t cry, and bad moms don’t blame themselves. You are NOT a bad mom…” He went on to tell me a similar situation that he, as a new dad, as a went through. He told me he was carrying his newborn son in the garage and dropped him on the concrete, and here he was, a paramedic having to airlift his newborn to the hospital because he dropped him. His story made me feel slightly better.

We ended up at a hospital that didn’t have an adequate pediatrics unit for overnight observation, so we had to wait for another ambulance ride to Children’s Hospital. I felt awful having to explain the situation over and over to doctors coming in and out from the emergency room. I felt judged by everyone, but more deeply felt the judgment I was placing on myself. When I was alone with her in the emergency room, with her there lying on the bed with oxygen, all I could do was hold her hand. I found myself sobbing alone in the room; catapulted to the many other times I held my husband’s hand, helplessly watching as he lay in bed, all I could do was hold his hand. The chaplain came in to keep me company while we waited for the ambulance. His calm demeanor was so comforting. He too, shared with me words that made me start to slowly recognize the difference between a “bad mom” and an exhausted, brokenhearted mom who was maxed out.

“The senses in our bodies work together, they rely on one another,” he said gently. “If vision is suddenly lost, then hearing works overtime to make up for the sensory loss of sight. Hearing works so hard to try to compensate for all that vision did, hearing is not used to doing all that, and it gets overwhelmed. You would expect sensory overload if one of the other senses go out—you are hearing, Nicole. You worked together with your husband, vision, and now he’s not here. You’re overloaded and you need permission to rest…”

Tears rolled down my face as I told him, “I don’t know how…” I’d been responsible and perpetually “on” for too long. Twin babies shortly after marrying, the unpredictability of my husband’s cancer looming over our entire marriage and then a third pregnancy during chemo and hospice. When the baby was born I was caring for my dying husband which meant keeping track of meds and nurse notes, checking oxygen levels, changing bedsheets, sweat-soaked clothes and sick pails, and trying to manage the terrible-twos stage times two, and care for a newborn and post-partum body. The ceiling of my little ideal world came crashing down on me. It ended, but only began, with the death of my husband. That was a lot to happen in four years. In my day-to-day survival, I didn’t see the need for rest, but seeing my baby in the hospital drove it home for me. Rest wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.

When we got to Children’s Hospital, I heard again and again from nurses and doctors: “Please don’t beat yourself up, we see these things every single day, babies being accidentally dropped. It was an accident…” But guilt is a hard thing to shake when you keep piling it upon yourself.

They did another CT scan on my daughter and let us stay overnight so she could be observed. I hail the nurses at the Children’s Hospital Colorado Emergency Department, as they recognized my need for rest even if I couldn’t verbalize it myself. How could I ask to sleep when my baby was hurt? I didn’t have to ask—they set up a private room for me and let me sleep all night with no interruptions, except once for me to nurse the baby. The nurses took care of the baby the entire night. They let me sleep most of the next day too.

Miraculously, her scans came back and the fracture was healing up wonderfully. There was no sign of concussion regardless of the symptoms the night before. She was having a great time playing with the nurses and she was such a joy—the nurses took turns holding her on their lunch breaks—but it was me who needed the TLC, and the nurses tapped into that. It was me who ended up needing the hospital stay more than my daughter, which seemed totally ironic since I had spent time in more hospitals than in my own bed at home the previous four months. I’d recoil at the thought of spending time in a hospital if I didn’t absolutely have to. Interestingly enough, I did a dictionary.com search and thesaurus.com search for the word “hospital,” which is synonymous with “hospice.” In the midst of medical definitions, I found words like “shelter” and “rest home.”’ The word “hospice” is not only defined as a medical ward for the terminally ill—it is also described as “a house of shelter or rest for pilgrims, strangers, etc., especially one kept by a religious order” (dictionary.com). And that’s what I was, a pilgrim from a terrible shipwreck, a stranger to myself…and I desperately needed rest.

After my daughter was cleared to come home, and I had more sleep in two days than I had in months. It was a small break in a terrible storm and I wish the circumstances were different in what allowed a break for me. I wish I could say that this was a turning point, that things got better, but it seems like the waves got stronger and more powerful and knocked me to my knees over and over in the months to come. All of these moments of pushing myself and forcing myself to “keep going, suck it up, just be strong” until I hit wall after wall led me  to finally surrender “trying to be strong.” Through new awareness and acknowledgement of my weakness I sought rest and shelter. It now brings me great comfort instead of guilt to know that through the act of seeking healthy, restoring rest for myself—even though it means a little more TV time for my kids or hiring the babysitter so I can take a nap or a walk or a long drive or sit in the shower and cry for this season— makes me a good mom, a strong mom, now and for the future.

 

“…Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while”

            -Mark 6:31

 

Those who have gone before

shutterstock_132834992

In the season of raising young children when we are reminded time and time again to cherish the season, to enjoy every moment, well-meaning unsolicited advice and self-inflicted guilt is overwhelming to me. As a widowed single parent, the glaring absence of my other half makes the stress and guilt unbearable at times.

My 4-year-old boys are very energetic, outgoing and exude confidence wherever they go. I consider this a beautiful part of their personality—particularly because I was an incredibly shy child. I probably missed out on trying a lot of new things, as my shyness would sometimes paralyze my personality. However, in public places, they take their energy and double it with their strange twin powers, and it can be like dynamite! We become very conspicuous, and their beautiful little spit-fire spirits can be an incredible source of stress and anxiety for me in these moments.

When I was a little more than seven months pregnant with my third child, my husband had just started palliative care and full-time oxygen support as a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient. We were a little overzealous one day, and tried to “grab a couple things” at Target. I quickly lost sight of my husband who had wandered off—he was getting more and more confused about simple things and it took a lot of concentration to maintain focus on the item he was looking for—and I also lost sight of my boys, who were two at the time. They had wandered off because, well, they were two-year-old twin boys and their mom was a tired, stressed, waddling pregnant woman. Twins-1, Mom-0. I finally located the boys and tried to corral them through the aisles while looking for my husband. My back was aching, the boys were out of control and there was always a slight anxiousness bubbling inside me for the entirety of the situation–cancer, babies, pregnancy–which at the time I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around. I was waddling down the aisles, the boys going every which way, huffing and puffing and feeling light-headed, when down the other side of the aisle comes a woman. She’s smiling as she walks past us and chuckles, “Oh my, you’ve got your hands full…enjoy this age,” and goes on her merry way, when inside me I’m screaming for help and no one could hear me.

So, next time you see a mom or dad in complete exasperation at their child, consider that it’s not because of their child at all; perhaps that one moment you see them, tired and overwhelmed, is because their divorce just got finalized, or they just received a grim diagnosis, or just went bankrupt. Maybe they really do enjoy their children, and what you see is them fighting to survive for the children they adore so much. The last thing tired, exasperated parents need is someone telling them how full their hands are. Believe me, they live it, day and night, the fullness overflowing around their ankles at times. Throughout my family’s crisis, I grew to resent these comments. Each remark felt like another hole torn in an already gaping wound of single parenting. And the reality, at that moment in the store with Phil’s absence (we did finally run into him obviously), was that even though he was still alive, cancer is a thief that slowly tears someone away from you; I realized I was already a single mom.

Since my husband’s death almost two years ago, there have been times at the grocery store I’ve had to leave a full cart to escort two pint-sized, egg carton vandals (now four years old and more rambunctious than ever) with baby in tow to the minivan. At these moments, I feel like dropping to my knees in the middle of the aisle to cry and throw my own temper tantrum, because there seems to be an underlying sense of judgement of one’s parenting when kids act up. And at these moments, it seems there is always a well-meaning person who comes up to me smiling and says, “They grow up so fast, enjoy them while you can.” Or, “Oh, boys will be boys.” Instead of feeling encouraged, I now feel a little bit worse, because while I do enjoy my kids, I’m not enjoying that particular moment! My inner “am-I-a-good-mommy?” meter is way off kilter!

These deep feelings are the feelings that don’t show when my blood pressure rises as my kids are acting up and I appear agitated with them. When one of my boys is biting off the ends of carrots in the grocery store and putting them back, or the other is playing hacky sack with eggs when I turn to wipe the baby’s face because somehow she ended up with a ketchup packet that she bit and got all over her face. My brain just wants to leave the store, but knows I can’t because we’re out of everything as I’ve avoided the store for so long. My soul is feeling crushed because no matter how much grace and love and second chances or following through with natural consequences or reading parenting book after parenting book, after all that I still feel like I’m failing as a parent—all alone.

Over time, the comments of, “Oh they’re just being kids,” or, “They grow up so fast, enjoy them,” don’t bowl me over as much as they used to. I now try to focus on a detail I was overlooking before: these veteran parents have made it to another season in parenting. They have been through the tantrums in the shopping aisles, the chaos at a restaurant, the drama of a knickknack breaking at a friend’s home — and what they remember through all of it is how precious the whole experience of parenting little ones was, not individual events. This tells me that the good moments add up to be far more memorable than the hair-pulling, vein-in-the-middle of the forehead-popping, exhausting moments. And now I choose to allow those comments to give me a little glimmer of hope when I’m holding a kicking and screaming boy with one arm and pushing a full grocery cart with a baby (well now she’s a toddler, but still feels like my baby!) in the other, making sure the other boy is following closely behind. I’ll think, “I’m doing this and I’m not doing it alone, there are thousands of others who’ve braved the parenting path and survived and thrived with wonderful things to say about the hardest job in the world.”

The truth is, we shouldn’t be expected to parent alone. Whether we’re single by choice or by circumstance (this applies to married parents as well), we’re not parenting alone. All of you veteran parents can offer something valuable to young parents like me: it’s encouragement.

And I’m sure, many years from now, I’ll be old and gray, meandering through a grocery aisle, longingly looking at a child making art from a box of Fruit Loops he poured in the middle of the floor. I’ll say to an exasperated mom or dad, “One day you’ll enjoy these moments, but for now, you’re not alone and parenting is so hard. Power through and hang on! You’ll see how beautiful these many messy moments end up being…By the way, can I buy your groceries for you?…or at the very least, a latte?”