Tag: grief

I will celebrate holding your hand

“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

…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

 

This little light of mine

“I invite you to consider that to inhibit, delay, convert or avoid grief is to condemn yourself to a living death. Living fully requires that you feel fully. It means being completely one with what you are experiencing.”*

-Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.

 

Growing up, I remember Halloween as a marker of a joyful holiday season about to begin. Once the leaves started to turn, embarking upon Halloween was met with excitement (and candy) and was followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas (and more candy). It was innocent excitement of being someone else for a day, using imagination and thinking outside the norm. For a shy, awkward kid like me, dressing up and boldly asking neighbors for candy was liberating. Now, watching my children get excited about dressing up (which is actually a daily occurrence in my home) and candy and pumpkins, I’m brought back to my own childhood excitement…with a caveat. I’ve been a little unsettled about Halloween ever since my husband passed.

First, our daughter was born two days before Halloween, and with death and life so strong at my own doorstep, celebrating the holiday that year was out of the question both practically and emotionally. The first Halloween after Phil passed was a warm, autumn evening and the streets were filled with children and neighborly hospitality. Seeing my twin boys trick or treat for the first time was exciting and their laughter was contagious, but I my stomach turned a little when we passed houses with skeletons and tombstones in their front yards. I could handle the cute costumes, but I couldn’t, and can’t, get past the zombies, ghosts, skeletons and ghouls. Having been face to face with death and dying, I can’t understand why anyone would want to pretend to be dead, or the living dead for that matter. So, tiptoeing carefully up to this coming Halloween, I was hesitant if we should even celebrate. However, I came to my own conclusions recently and decided to follow far more closely the holiday celebrated on the next day, Dia de los Muertes. The Mexican holiday drives home the permission to honor and remember loved ones who have passed even years after the loss rather than focusing on the dark and sinister side of death and the supernatural that Halloween is rooted in.

I recently attended a workshop called “The Paradoxes of Mourning” taught by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has devoted more than 20 years to helping the bereaved and teaching caregivers for the bereaved. I learned many insights that I treasure and keep close to my heart, but the one truth I learned that lit something deep inside was Dr. Wolfelt’s ability to explain the difference between grief and mourning. Grief: our inward experience of loss. Mourning: the outward expression of loss, honoring both the person who has died, as well as honoring all of the wrapped up emotions, thoughts and memories we survivors are left with. This stuck with me so much and I realized a pinnacle reality in my own grief journey—I haven’t mourned at all. Believe me, I have been, and still am swimming in grief, being so alone and stuck inside the swirling waves of it that I was not really given permission, nor did I know how to give myself permission to mourn. To be honest, I really didn’t know the difference between grief and mourning until that workshop.

It’s coming up on two years since my husband’s death and the death of our future together, and I have just now begun to scratch the surface of mourning. So, my point about all the Halloween stuff is this: In order for me to walk out of the land of the living dead (which is how I’ve been living this past year and a half) and into the land of the living, it’s incredibly important for me to be intentional with my mourning, to schedule my mourning (another post explaining these concepts later) and to invite others into the process; you, the readers. Shutting down and living in the dark with my grief is a scary and dangerous place to be—I don’t want to live in the darkness of “Halloween” anymore. So this Halloween, I start with the mourning journey. I start with giving light and honor to the man I loved and lost. And as I walk the dark streets with ghouls, ghosts and the living dead rubbing shoulders with me on October 31, I remember that I can overcome the darkness, the terrifying shadows of unaddressed grief, trauma not dealt with, and the lurking ghoul that is cancer with light, and in turn, these apparitions have no place in that light.

This Halloween, while my kids are reveling in candy euphoria, I will quietly be honoring the life that brought me so many blessings, remembering the pain and sorrow the absence of that life that has brought, and the light that bridges the gap between the two.

 

Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.

-Psalm 119:105

 

*Wolfelt, Alan. Ph. D. Living in the shadow of the ghosts of grief: Step into the light. Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2007. Print.

 

 

My primary occupation is: Just a Mom.

If I could count the times I’ve heard (and said myself) the phrase, “Oh, I’m just a mom” after being asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” it would fill a number of pages. But we do that, right? Sell ourselves short on the hardest, most privileged “job” in the world by emphasizing that word ‘JUST.’ Well…

After four years of marriage—which included giving birth to, and raising twins and another baby within three years—I found myself a widowed mom at age 28. Hours after losing my 34-year-old husband to cancer, I cried out, “What am I supposed to do?” and someone said, “You just be a mom.” What a simple phrase to encompass the hardest job to do alone that carries such a heavy weight and responsibility. What a simple phrase in response to the question of figuring out how to merely survive the first months and years of single parenting inside the caverns of grief. But this phrase catapulted me into finding out, how do I be “just a mom??” How do I tackle this huge responsibility all on my own?

The darker, deeper and more narrow the lonely grief journey path has become, the more I realized the need for advocacy for widowed parents of young children. I experienced first-hand the incredible need a widowed parent has for someone to walk beside and encourage them through a unique situation that many young families shouldn’t, and don’t, expect to find themselves in until much later in life–but the unfortunate reality is, there are far more people who can relate to my situation than one would think. The loneliness of navigating grief and parenting harbors a great need for compassion, empathy, patience—someone who “gets it.” The complicated nature of grief coupled with raising  children (who are going through their own grieving process) single-handedly can be the loneliest place on earth. I pray my story—through brutal honesty and transparency—will provide a platform for others in similar situations to share, and to remind them and myself that we’re not alone.

Through talking to other single parents who have found themselves raising children alone, I know that no matter how the situation is played out, raising kids single-handedly is a huge challenge. As I was raised by a single mom myself, through divorce, I pray also, that my story can encourage you, single mom/dad through divorce, abandonment etc., to share your journey’s story, and to see what I’m seeing—glimmers that being “Just a mom (or dad)” is so much more empowering now, seeing it from God’s perspective. Together, we can be the overcomers of loneliness, despair and loss, and give ourselves permission to grieve, to hope, and to be.