Tag: mourning

On National Widow’s Day I’m his widow, but I’m not a widow

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Apparently, it’s National Widow’s Day. May 3. There’s a day for everything now, to sandwich widows between National Eat a Doughnut Day and Dress Your Dog up as a Cartoon Character Day (that has to be a day somewhere, right?) makes it rather trite, don’t you think? Who even knows it’s National Widow’s Day unless a meme told you anyway—unless you’re a widow (or widower, is there a widower day too or is it all lumped into one day I wonder?), and any widow knows she doesn’t need a day to remember she’s a widow. She remembers every. Single. Day.  I don’t need one day for anyone else to remember I’m a widow too, I’d actually like to be remembered, rather, as more than just a widow.

It’s been three years since I was dragged into this widow-gig and it’s a title I never wanted, but a one I’ll never forget, because I’ll always be his widow, but my sole identity can’t be, and shouldn’t, be a widow.

Right after my husband passed, I would look in the mirror and think, “Is this my life? I’m a 28-year-old widow.” And then the next year it would be the same, but I was a 29-year-old widow. And the next I was a 30-year-old widow. But this year I’m a 31-year-old who also happens to be a widow. I don’t want to wear “widow” on my nametag as if it’s my only story. I don’t want it to deter you when it comes up at a party—and it always­ does no matter how hard I try to avoid the subject. I don’t want your pity. I don’t want to be the sad story you tell your friends after we meet. I get it. I’ve been avoided by friends who park 10 spaces away from me when we both pull into the Starbucks parking lot at the same time coincidentally just so she doesn’t have to talk to me. I’ve spent many weekends alone because friends said I “just seemed too depressed” to be asked to go out with them and so I’d just see everyone’s photos of fun barbecues, camping trips and girls’ nights on Facebook the next day because no one wanted to be around the sad widowed girl. I get it. I really, really do, because on those nights, I didn’t want to be around that sad widowed girl either, but I was stuck with her. I really get that when people meet a young widow, it’s shocking, but it’s also a painful reminder that really sad things happen. That young people die and their young spouses are left with the pieces—and oftentimes very young children. It’s not the topic you want to talk about at your coffee date with the girls. It’s not the topic you want to discuss while swinging our little ones on the swings at a playdate. It’s just not the reminder you want when you just got engaged, or the amazing news of your pregnancy. Quite frankly, most times, we don’t want to be reminded that death is even an option. I get it. And so, we just get our own one day to remember all of that (or any of the loss days-parent, sibling, child, etc.), honestly, we don’t need a day to remember to be friends to those who are hurting. But that’s not the point of all this…well it is, but not the only point.

My point is that I don’t want friends just on National Widow’s Day because they remember, “Oh I know a widow!” I want to be remembered as just me: a friend, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a creative.  I want to talk about more than just widowhood. I want to help you through your troubles. I want to laugh with you when you share something funny that happened in your life. I want our kids to play together not because you feel sorry for me or them, but because you just want to be around us. I want you to see that I can tell jokes and laugh—I’m a real sarcastic smart ass believe it or not—and I can dance, if someone would ask me to. Ask my kids about the funny voices I can do, or the fact that I make the best scrambled eggs (according to them), but for some reason I always burn the toast. I found out I love to garden and I don’t mind if dirt gets under my fingernails as long as the smell of the earth lingers just a little longer. I want you to know, you can say his name and I will smile and talk about him all day if you let me.

I am his widow, but I am more than that. When you think of me or any of your other widowed friends, please don’t think of death. Please think of life. Think of hope. Think of saying all the things to whomever you need to say them to, now, not tomorrow. Think of walking out your front door and taking a deep breath of fresh air just because you can! Think of changing what you can change, and what you can’t change, well, you can always look at it differently.

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Re-purposing Condolence cards

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*may or may not contain affiliate links

I recently finished The Minimalists’ 30-day challenge to get rid of things every day for 30 days. Since the passing of my late husband, I’ve been slowly doing this already, ( READ on my other site: His Stuff. My Treasure.) but there was a lot I just sort of shoved into a corner hoping maybe it’d just fade away…but we all know that’s not the way it works. There were things I wanted to keep, but really didn’t want to just keep in a box to collect dust and I’m not thrilled with the idea of an alter or shrine that displays all of my husband’s things, that’s when I got the idea to start incorporating memories of my former life into my daily life in the form of art; in other words, re-purposing my grief. Making the memories beautiful and functional at the same time. So when I was going through things to get rid of for the challenge, I knew I just had to do something with the huge, 6-inch thick stack of condolence cards I received (warning: So sorry the resolution is terrible, but it’s good enough for you to get the gist of what’s going on. I know, I know I need a better camera for blog photos…I’ll get there…eventually, and I’ll re-take these. Sorry to your eyes! I’m a writer not a photographer, eek).

But what to do with all these? I honestly didn’t really need to keep them, but they reminded me of so much goodness and kindness I just couldn’t part with them. Then I thought of an art project I could make out of them and here’s what I came up with and step-by-step instructions for how to turn your memorable cards into art you can enjoy (I plan on doing this with my wedding cards, but this can work with really anything from baby showers, to birthday, to graduation cards, etc.)

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What you will need:

  • assorted greeting cards
  • blank mat board, with the opening to fit a standard greeting card size (you could go bigger or smaller though, I’ll add to this post how to do a bigger mat when I finish the wedding cards one. If your mat is smaller, just follow the steps and cut the card strips down a little, pretty self-explanatory)
  • hot-glue gun and glue sticks
  • personal paper-trimmer with ruler

 


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STEP 1:

Cut your greeting cards into strips. Since I had quite a few I needed, I cut them into about 1/2 inch strips, but depending on how many you want to use you could go bigger, I just wouldn’t go smaller than 1/4 inch or they’ll be too flimsy to weave.

*Tip #1: If you want to keep the messages in the cards before you cut them up you can save the part of the card with the messages, or take a photo or scan them to keep on file. I personally didn’t feel the need to keep the messages, as the final product is enough of a reminder for me.

*Tip #2: I color coordinated the greeting cards so there would be some unity in the final product. Warm colors, cool colors, and dark colors etc.

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STEP 2:

Take your hot glue gun and glue each strip to the back of the mat. The colored side you want showing face-down as you will be weaving through the back of the mat. Glue all the strips down on the top leaving the bottom of the strip free. Glue all the way across the mat until it’s covered. The closer together you glue the strips, the tighter the weaving will be, the further a part the more space you will see in between if you like that look, do it! See photo for a better explanation:

Back of the Mat

Back of the Mat

 

Front of the mat

Front of the mat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It should look like this from the front when you’re done with this step.

 

STEP 3:

Take your other strips and start weaving front to back through the glued strips on the mat. See photo for better explanation:

What the weaving will look like from the back

What the weaving will look like from the back

What the weaving will look like from the front

What the weaving will look like from the front

Keep weaving until you’ve reached the bottom of the mat. The end gets a little tricky, but be patient and it’ll work out. *Tip: push up the previous strips you’ve already weaved to make a tighter weaved look and to make more room for your awaiting strips.

When you’re finished, take your hot glue and glue all the remaining strips down on the sides and on the bottom of the mat.

This is what it should look like after gluing all the free strips down. (From the front. It's OK if the back is messy with glue, no one will see that.

This is what it should look like after gluing all the free strips down. (From the front. It’s OK if the back is messy with glue, no one will see that.

 

STEP 4:

Add your own touches to the piece. Head to your local craft store and get creative. Find a decal that represents something you’d like to memorialize about your loved one (if they are condolence cards) or to tribute the occasion you got the cards. Since my handwriting is absolutely atrocious, I got some stamps with sayings I thought I might want to use and also went to the paper aisle to get somethings that might look nice. See photo versions for a better explanation:

IDEA #1

IDEA #1

I found these date tags super cheap in the paper aisle/scrapbook aisle at Hobby Lobby. My husband died in November, so I thought I might want this as a decal. I decided against it eventually because I didn’t want to remember that date–BUT you might, or you can use the date of a special occasion like a birth or wedding or graduation.

IDEA #2

IDEA #2

Not too sure about this overexposure, but you get the gist (I warned you I’m not a photographer!). Going with the date theme, I used the months that my family received these cards. The months that were the hardest and we needed the most support and encouragement. It’s nice to remember the love we received even though remembering those months is really really hard. Again, I eventually decided against this, but just as an option to give you ideas.

IDEA #3

IDEA #3

This is what I settled on. I chose a stamp with a Bible verse already on it and a blank gift tag in the paper aisle of Hobby Lobby. If you are good with fonts and lettering, go for it! I just used my glue gun and glued it down once I decided on it.

FINAL STEP: Choose a pretty frame and display it!

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Now this sits on a book shelf in my living room and whenever I see it I’m reminded of all the generous souls who lifted up my family during such a tragic time. And the cards aren’t just sitting in a box collecting somewhere. This is what I call “re-purposing grief.” Sure the memories will always be painful, but the point of it is to take items and memories and make them functional and incorporated into your life now to not remember the pain but the love. And love ALWAYS wins!

 

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When our feet hit the ground

Courtesy of Adam Houseman Photography

They say that you can’t help falling in love with someone, like we really don’t have a choice, which may be true. But the real love story happens after the falling, when our feet hit the ground and we are presented with the choice to stay or run after realizing the love story contains our messes, our brokenness, our faults and mistakes, our desires and passions, our pain and deepest regrets, our darkest secrets and greatest triumphs. If you asked me if I would change my choice after hitting the ground with my husband Phil, I would always tell you, “No.” I would always choose to stay. Always. This is our love story:

The diner smelled of bacon and coffee and stale cigarette smoke still clinging to the walls from former days. Phil and I were directed to a booth by the hostess. Phil sat across from me. We ordered coffees. I was nervous and was folding and refolding the paper napkin. It was hard to look at him, so I just focused on the napkin-folding. He told me what I already knew he was there to say.

We had been dating for a little over nine months. I had badgered him for months to get a follow-up check-up after his surgery—the removal of one of his lungs which was riddled with cancerous tumors a year or so prior to our meeting each other. That day, the diner day, he finally went for a check-up.

“The cancer came back…” he said. His face showed no emotion, but his voice was heavy with disappointment and apprehension. He told me later he wasn’t so nervous about the cancer part, but that maybe I’d leave him like the other women he’d dated in the past. Although I already knew it from the way he sounded on the phone as he asked me to meet him at the diner, but finally hearing it from him, my heart sunk deep into my chest. My heart broke, experiencing the first of many fractures and breaks to follow. I was ill-prepared for this information and tears welled in my eyes and poured down my cheeks.

“There’s nothing the doctors recommend,” he explained methodically, as if he had rehearsed it on the way to the diner. “But the growths (he refused to ever use the word ‘tumors’) are so small and slow growing, it’s good. It’s OK. I’ll probably just have it the rest of my life, it’ll probably just be there. I don’t have any symptoms at all, so I don’t want to do chemo again. I can’t go through that again…”

He didn’t have to say it for us both to know that with only one lung, this disease was Stage IV. I was quiet, afraid to look at him, because if I did I was scared I’d plunge into a weeping puddle. But I gathered my thoughts and I looked straight into his eyes and said, “Well then, I guess we better get married.” Honestly I didn’t even think about what I was saying. I was half joking, trying to keep spirits light. It just came out. It wasn’t really in my plans, to get married so quickly, after all I was graduating college in a month and I had just started a job as a reporter at a newspaper—my dream job. It wasn’t in the plan to get married…to a man with cancer at that. It wasn’t my plan, it wasn’t Phil’s plan, but it was God’s.

Phil took me to Glenwood Springs a day after Christmas and proposed. When we got back from that weekend away, I immediately started planning an outdoor, August wedding. I really surprised Phil when I switched to bride-mode, talking about colors, flowers, and bookings (believe me, that’s unusual for my personality!) From the beginning of our relationship, there was always some kind of an unspoken urgency, and so when he asked me to meet him at the mall a couple weeks later, he proposed again. “I really, really want to marry you…but sooner than August. I can’t wait that long.” So, my mom and I planned a beautiful wedding in five weeks. We were married February 28, 2009. He died November 20, 2013.

My choosing to marry Phil was recently questioned in a conversation. The question went a little something like this: “You chose to marry someone, knowing he had a terminal illness, and not only that, but took a risk in having children, not one ­but three with him, now, I’m not sure if they were accidents or not… You have to take responsibility for some of the struggles you are now facing. You took on that risk…”At the time I was asked, I was caught off guard and didn’t really say anything. I have actually heard so many strange and oftentimes insensitive things over these past two years, nothing really shocks me anymore. I used to hold onto the hurtful things people have said to me, but now I’m glad they are said because they force me to search for my own truth in the error of their comments and questions. This is the truth that I have settled on, when two people hit the ground after falling in love…

Our four year marriage was jammed pack with events of a lifetime, three babies in two years, trying to run a successful business and a terminal cancer diagnosis stalking us along the way. Our marriage was raw, fast-paced and painfully beautiful. Maybe our love story was never meant to be a fairy tale with a ‘Happily ever after.’ Maybe our love story resides in the truth that when you love someone so completely that it resonates with your entire identity, it’s sickening and excruciating to realize how much it would hurt if they were not in your life anymore and even if you had just a little time with them, it was better than no time at all. Maybe our love story resonates more with those of the star-crossed lovers in literature. ‘Star-crossed,’ an astronomical reference specifically in the works of William Shakespeare. The characters’ relationships are doomed from the start, because, in literature, their paths were predetermined by the stars. These lovers work throughout their whole relationship, to do everything in his or her power to control the outcome…to be together. In the end all those attempts to stay together fail because their paths have already been predetermined, already set. The star-crossed are those who fall quickly and powerfully in love, not knowing much about the other, but knowing that something bigger than themselves is in the works. Those who fight for one another despite all earthly odds stacked against them. And when things aren’t looking so good for them, they push further into one another until they collide in brokenness and chaos and heartbreak.

Maybe therein lies the romance—we, any one of us here on this earth, choose to love and unite with another human being who is as broken as we are. We choose to weave our lives together with one another, always knowing in the back of our minds that we can lose that person and the strings holding us together can be frayed and untied. That’s the love story. Choosing to stay regardless.

Contrary to Shakespeare’s lovers, Phil and I were not victims to a vengeful and merciless universe; there were no constellations of burning balls of fire out to get us simply out of an act of randomness and alignment. No, the battle wasn’t in the universe to keep Phil and me together, the battle lies in a broken, fallen world and ultimately, the war in his chest was a tiny cell, multiplying into a silent giant. Despite whatever giants were looming, Phil and I had something far greater than those star-crossed lovers, who only had each other; we had God. And so we lived our daily lives, our marriage together, choosing to lean into God rather than the power that cancer can have over one’s life.

So, was the choice to marry Phil terrifying at times? Hell yes. Our marriage was nowhere near perfect. We were newlyweds and new parents. We had tense times, we argued and disagreed, we hurt each other with words, we made choices that set us a part at times, but there’s one thing we didn’t do; we didn’t give up on each other, we stayed, we fought for each other against all odds. Choosing to stay regardless of the brokenness also created a million little reflections incredibly beautiful, peaceful, loving, passionate and profound moments that shine brighter than our darkest days. Has the choice to have children with him with a high chance he may not be in their lives (by the way, we were told that he wouldn’t be able to father children because of all the chemo he had been through, so by no means were our three children “accidents”), left me with the burden of guilt at times? Absolutely, but they are the most beautiful part of this story. Have I lectured myself through all the struggles have been through since he died, saying to myself, “Nicole, you chose this. You signed up for this…”? It is a script I am all too familiar with. But do I consider marrying Phil as a huge giant risk with too many red flags I shouldn’t have ignored, a risk that would far outweigh the benefits? Absolutely not. I’ll never consider my choice as a risk. I don’t consider my choice as some valiant act of bravery either, instead we were just two broken people who fell in love and lived a lifetime together, and even though it only consisted of four years, it was our one and only lifetime. This is my truth. This is my love story.

We keep this love in this photograph. We made these memories for ourselves. Where our eyes are never closing. Our hearts were never broken. Times forever frozen still…And if you hurt me. That’s OK, baby, only words bleed. Inside these pages you just hold me. And I won’t ever let you go…When I’m away. I will remember how you kissed me under the lamppost back on 6th street. Hearing you whisper through the phone, “Wait for me to come home..”

-Ed Sheeran, “Photograph”

Courtesy of AHP Photos

*Courtesy of Adam Houseman Photography

 

Impatient knitter

copyright: GraphVision  via Shutterstock

Anything involving sewing, knitting or crocheting is beyond me; I just don’t have the patience for it. In fact, I have always struggled with patience and wanting to see the final result quickly, rather than enjoying the time in between the raw material, or the process, and the finished product or result. Sometimes the time between start and finish can be boring, sometimes elating, and sometimes, it can even be painful and oftentimes, really hard, but a skilled seamstress pushes through and sees the value in the finished product is well worth the hours of work put into it.

I have been slowly going through my late husband’s things for the past two years since he’s been gone. I have avoided his clothing all together, until I saw another widowed friend who told me she had a company make a quilt out of her husband’s shirts. I have been carefully going through his things, putting a lot of thought into the things I want to keep; not just to stay in a box, but to re-purpose them in some way that would be useful, beautiful and meaningful for his three children. The quilt was my answer to what to do with some of his clothing.

One day I finally gathered the courage to cut up my husband’s shirts to prepare them to be sent off for the final product; three quilts for our three little ones. The first cut was the hardest, and then it was therapeutic, going through each article of clothing and remembering all the moments held in those clothes. I held his shirts to my face and breathed them in deeply, trying to retain his scent, even if for only a moment. I was on a roll when one of my four-year-old twins came bounding down the steps and he stumbled across my project.

“What are you doing?” he cried, and he crumbled at my side, sobbing, clamoring for all of his daddy’s shirts and hugging them tightly.

I tried to explain to him that I was making something special for him, his brother and sister to keep for the rest of their lives.

“But these are already special,” he sobbed. “Glue them back together, or Daddy will have nothing to wear when he comes back!”

My heart broke for my little boy, wrapping himself in his daddy’s clothes, and I realized that seeing the brokenness of something that was once whole, the shirts, brought him to the final realization that Daddy really wasn’t coming back. The floor was a mess with scraps and pieces of items that were so much a part of the one person who couldn’t be there to wipe our son’s tears away.

I tried to explain to him that Daddy didn’t need these clothes anymore and we could remember him by special blankets that would keep us warm. That answer didn’t appease him and he bawled. I tried to say that God would clothe Daddy with much better shirts and he would look so handsome, so he didn’t need these, and I offered a solution that he could keep some of his father’s pants in a box to keep, untouched, and his brother, who had quietly listened in on our conversation, piped up in his thoughtful and clever manner: “People don’t wear pants in heaven?”

This grief journey has been hard enough for me to comprehend, and at that moment, I realized how much harder it was for a 4-year-old child to see this mess and not being able to see the final product. How could I explain something to them that I didn’t fully understand myself? It was a mess, this whole thing, and it was heartbreaking to look at, but the only thing that keeps me going is that I know God is continuing to knit all these unidentifiable pieces together. One day, we’ll see the beautiful finished product, but for now, I have to trust the messy, painful, unclear pieces are, somehow, in some way, valuable in their own rite to this whole journey. I don’t like it one bit and not being able to explain something to my hurting child is unbearable, but I know I can’t explain God, but I can describe Him to my children the best I can through all the ways He’s showed up and held our family.

Reading my Bible the other day, I kept thinking about the Biblical references to knitting and weaving, the most recognizable one being Psalm 139:13-14. Why did God choose that metaphor for knitting or weaving us together in our mother’s wombs? It’s significant to me to remember that God didn’t just wave a magic wand and-Poof!- here we are. Instead, raw, organic materials were taken and put together to form something even more beautiful (Genesis 2:7-8). All of life is a process, a delicate and intentional process that takes great care to develop to successful accomplishment. While I don’t understand, and, to be honest, am quite uncomfortable at times with the process, it brings me comfort and hope to know that the final product of these bits and pieces of God’s process will be wrapped around my children and I, to bring us warmth and comfort and finally, maybe finally, clarity and peace. For now, patience in watching each strand be woven together with the next brings me a little closer to the hope I cannot see, but know is there.

Eagerly awaiting a New Year

Copyright: Min Chiu

It really bothers me when people complain about their age, like getting older is a sad thing, like the future is never going to hold what the days of their youth used to hold. Several months ago this year, I turned 30—I was eagerly awaiting 30 and not dreading it. I wince if I hear someone gripe about turning another year older as if age is this terrible thing we just have to “deal” with because I know there are people who would have given everything to celebrate another birthday, another year.

When my 34-year-old husband was dying of cancer, I remember being so bitter and angry when I’d see elderly couples holding hands or sitting across from each other at dinner or one pushing the other in a wheelchair as I pushed my husband in his wheelchair thinking, “That was supposed to be us “Someday,” not now.” The bitterness clung on when he died and it seemed like everyone around me got to celebrate another birthday, another new year, but my husband didn’t. The bittersweet reminder of the gift of age followed me into my grief journey into the many grief support groups I encountered where it always seemed like I was the youngest person, holding onto dear life to the four years I got with my husband, while others talked about the 50 years they got with their spouse. It didn’t seem fair, but now my heart celebrates that I even got those four years to begin with, just as my heart eagerly awaits each new year now, without him, not because I want to be without him, but because for some reason, I still have the privilege to get out of bed every day, the privilege to take another breath, the privilege to be walking on this earth. Aware of this privilege that I did nothing to earn, I do not mourn my three children’s birthdays in sadness for how quickly they grow, I do not mourn mine for how quickly I age because I was painfully allowed a glimpse into the gift of age and time.

I challenge you for 2016 to eagerly await your birthday and to celebrate it. Be in awe of and learn from the seconds, hours, days, months and years you had before this very moment. Rather than mourn the years piling up on one another, celebrate the moments that lead to this new year as a precious gift; even the really bad, really messy years, even the years we made mistakes, the painful years, the years that are full of regrets. Regrets are only wasted if we don’t change.

Mom and Dad’s DIY therapy hack #1: Break some stuff-Part 1

Copyright: Candus Camera

 

“Wise anger is like the fire from the flint; there is a great ado to bring it out;

and when it does come, it is out again immediately.”~ Matthew Henry

The first year after the loss of my husband, I was constantly swimming with anger; anger towards cancer for stealing my husband and my children’s father, anger towards things that were said or done or weren’t said or weren’t done. I woke up with anger, I went through the day with anger and I went to bed with anger. If grief and healing were a moving machine, steeping in anger and bitterness wedges itself between the gears and stops the machine. Anger kept me at a standstill. It was a distraction from the deeper roots of my loss. Anger shut me off from myself, my family and my God, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. Yes, anger is very common in grief, it’s OK to feel it in your loss, but my anger was infecting every other part of my being on top of struggling to comprehend the trauma and tragedy I had just endured. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t do anything other than relive all the things I was angry about. I kept telling myself I was justified in my anger. So many things went wrong and if I let go of the anger, would that would mean I would be saying everything was “OK?” Logically the answer is ‘No,’ that’s not what it would mean, but anger has a funny way of distorting memories and making you cling to them for dear life. Holding onto anger catapulted me into the deep end of the pool, swimming in depression, bitterness, despair and negativity. I had to get it out some way, somehow, because I was drowning—so I chose anger as my life preserver.

I was seeing a counselor who was trying to help me process and work through my anger. One thing that helped me was EMDR, but that and the counseling cost money on top of the expense to find childcare for the therapy sessions made it difficult for me to attend consistently so my counselor suggested a cheaper therapy for me to try at home; breaking dishes.

So, one night when the kids were in bed, I went out into the garage and bagged up all my old dishes; dishes that reminded me of all the meals I had with my husband and all the conversation and memories those dishes held. Preparing meals on, washing and putting them away every day, over and over again was another staple to my making a home with him; cooking, eating, cleaning…the simple tasks that gave me a purpose, a reminder that we were a team, a family. So pulling out these dishes from packed boxes I found I was even angry at the dishes, how dare they remind me of what I had for a split second in my life, like a dangling carrot that was then ripped away. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t want to be left with dishes, I just wanted my husband back and I couldn’t, so I put all the dishes in a trash bag and then that trash bag in another trash bag and then in yet another; per the directions of my counselor. I placed the bag in the middle of the garage floor and I just stared at it for a long time, seeing if I could muster up tears or some other feeling, but nothing came. So I grabbed the sledgehammer in the corner of the garage and took a swing at the bag. It was a lame excuse for a swing, as nothing even broke and it was as if the bag was taunting me, “You can do better than that…” So I took another swing and heard a crash. Once the momentum began I swung at that bag over and over until the tears came and the anger bubbled to the surface. I don’t know how much time passed, but when I finally stopped, the once bulky bag lay tattered and flattened, all those dishes smashed to tiny pieces. I was exhausted, but felt a little bit lighter than before. There’s just something about actually seeing the result of my anger that helps to free it, seeing the pieces and the destruction rather than letting it all swirl around in my head and letting it destroy me. There’s something symbolic about being able to then pick up the pieces and toss them in the garbage. I wish I could say that one night of breaking dishes got rid of all the anger for me, but it was the first little crack in the giant dam I had built up inside me. Eventually that crack got bigger and bigger, allowing more and more emotions to flow and be felt much more easily.

 

Common sense tips for breaking stuff:

  • Do this in a place where you feel safe and your children are being taken care of by someone else (I didn’t want my children to walk in on me wielding a sledgehammer!)
  • Be intentional about it, and, I would suggest, be sober.
  • Wear eye protection if you don’t bag it up, although bagging it up means less stress (and shrapnel) about cleanup afterwards

 

*Disclosure: I am not a licensed therapist or counselor. I am merely sharing things that helped me and my family. Please refer to your or your child’s therapist to help identify grief patterns in his/her/your unique experience.

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

 

This little light of mine

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“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.