Tag: widowers

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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I’m moving forward, but I’m not going fishing: On death of a spouse, moving forward, dating and the awkwardness of it all

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Literally a week or so after my husband’s death, I heard (on more than one occasion): “Oh you’re young, you’ll find another dad for your kids” and “You just need to go have a one-night stand.” I was a 28-year-old widow and new mom, and I most certainly was not in the right frame of mind to even respond to comments like that then, but I’ve had almost three years to ponder it and this is what I’ve come to:

Death of a spouse, especially a young spouse, does not warrant the encouraging, “Hey, chin up kid, there’s more fish in the sea” pep-talk as if I had just broken up with a high school sweetheart. When I broke up with my high school sweetheart, I was absolutely crushed, yes, but there were more fish in the sea. Fish after fish I caught and threw back (or vice versa) until I waded up calmly to the one who’d eventually be my husband. There was no finding and searching and catching and games, he was just there waiting to be taken. And there we were, swimming together upstream. Then he died. Now, almost three years later, I’ve found myself ready to swim upstream…alone, and I’ve come to the conclusion that “moving on” doesn’t always have to equate to “starting to date.” I’ve come to my own truth, for me, that before even thinking about “dating” (what is that, even?! Agh, haven’t done that since 22!) I must move forward by myself while pursuing my God and discovering the transformed woman I’ve become because of my husband’s death. Not because I asked for it, but because I was forced to adapt. I was suddenly thrown into to discover the new role I would have as a mother to two-year-old twins and a newborn on my own while clomping through the mud of complicated grief, PTSD and adrenal fatigue. In no way was I, over the past two years, in mental shape to even consider taking on anyone else while I was still grappling and hanging on to all that had happened to me in a very short amount of time. It wouldn’t be fair to all those new “fish”…and it wouldn’t be fair to me. Believe me, going to bed alone in my high school bedroom in my parent’s house by myself every night is beyond lonely, but I don’t want to fill that space just to fill a space. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting high and mighty and signing up for a convent, and I’m certainly not judging others’ choices to date or not date, I’m really not, but, for me, being alone with God and God alone right now is more comfortable to me than any man’s arms; I’ve concluded it has to be that way before I can consider inviting someone into my life. Really, anyone who may come along must be willing to move forward along with me in the high, sometimes turbulent waves I find myself in every day. I am not waiting in the shallow end for someone to come along and help me move; to rescue me.  Through moments of intense loneliness and eagerness to get out of my situation as fast as I could, I tried making online profiles, I tried coming up with something to say on the “About me” page…there always ended up being too much to say, too much I didn’t want to say, and too much I was just too tired to say. Well, I ended up deleting said profile…four times. My not being ready was an understatement. I was so far from ready to start even considering dating, I was still re-living my husband’s death and every event and heartbreak every single day. From the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, I couldn’t break the cycle. Not until recently, when I had come to terms with the fact that I was struggling with PTSD and complicated grief, did I realize I couldn’t move forward while reliving a past I couldn’t change.  Asking someone to enter into that cycle of mine, would quickly turn into a downward spiral, I’m sure of it.

This summer has been a summer of successful and hard work processing the traumatic events that surrounded my husband’s death (see “The Final Goodbye”), and I’m finally getting relief from the burden I’ve been carrying for far too long, but there’s still more work and healing that needs to happen before I can “spread my wings and fly.” Does living at my parent’s home with my three children under six make me feel like a successful adult? Not exactly, but is it what I need right now to get the rest, contemplation and processing I need? Absolutely. And there’s no rushing a process, especially if it’s God’s. And it’s always God’s process. I often picture, how would it look if I invited someone into this process?

“Oh, hi, you want to go on a date? Let me schedule you for some time next month between naptime and laundry.”

“Oh, hi, you want to take me to a movie? Hang on, let me ask my mom and dad…”

“Oh hi, thank you for your interest. I will always be in love with a 34-year-old man who was my husband, if that’s OK with you…”

I kid, I kid…but not really. Coming to terms with being comfortable in your own skin while healing so many wounds that will always leave a scar behind is tough, exhausting work and I’m ok with working on my own. Until I become comfortable with taking the life preserver off and stop treading water, there is no energy for fishing in these waters. And besides, I’m such a hopeless romantic I envision I’ll be back-stroking my way through life with my three little minnows and the serendipitous meeting would go like this…

I’m at a park and he’s walking his dog. Our eyes meet. I pet his dog and he asks, “Oh are you a mom? I love kids! I especially love preschoolers!”

And I’ll smirk and shyly push my hair that has remained un-showered for two days behind my ears and shuffle my feet with my old, holey sneakers and yoga pants and point to my three children: one boy peeing on a tree, the other picking up goose poop and hurling it across the playground and then my sweet daughter picking a lollipop up off the ground and sticking it in her mouth—dirt, ants and all.

And he’ll fall in love with all four of us and we’ll live happily ever after… (record screech) (Enter reality)

Ok, for real, putting jokes and self-deprecation aside, I’m just moving forward my little family of four, not searching, not fishing, no net in hand. Not waiting for an eddy, not waiting for a shallow end, not waiting on the side of the riverbank to be rescued. Here we are, me and my little minnows and we “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” All I’m aiming at is to float peacefully as we’re carried by the current of life, as opposed to violently thrashing and swimming for my survival. Moving forward for me, means moving toward God. That’s all I want, to learn to be carried by waters so much bigger and awesome than this world can offer. There’s no saying what will come along, but whatever it is, it will accept us for all that we are—dirty lollipops and tree-peeing included.

I don’t want to have fun with my kids

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It was the end of Spring Break week, my twin preschoolers and two-year-old was home with me all week and everyone had been under the weather so I had cabin fever. That Friday we were all on the mend and I was bound and determined to go do something “fun” with the kids. I chose the Museum of Natural History because we had free passes.

With three little kids, it takes about two hours to get ready to go anywhere, so I needed to keep giving myself a pep-talk throughout the process—“Come on, Nicole, you can do it. You HAVE to go do something fun because that’s what Spring Break is supposed to be—FUN!” Farther into the getting ready process, the pep talks slowly started to sound more like me trying to convince myself this would be FUN. Lunches and snacks packed—check. Extra pull-ups and extra changes of clothes—check. Everyone pick a toy to bring for the long ride—after running around, a few tears and a minor crisis—check. Everyone in the car buckled up—check. I get into the van and then get right back out because I forgot to feed myself that morning so I needed to grab something, anything, to eat. Run back into the house, grab a banana and a handful of almonds. On the way back out to the car, I realized I forgot the free passes. Run back into the house to grab free passes. Lock the door and get in the van. Keys in the ignition—check. Off we went to have some FUN.

My kiddos aren’t the most tolerable when it comes to long distance transportation—for them fifteen minutes is long distance—so there’s always a little sense of urgency and panic driving an hour away because almost anything and everything could happen in that timeframe. Bathroom emergencies, squabbles, tears, and sickness…you’re always on the brink of being prepared for something to happen. Safe to say, we got to the museum parking lot in one piece, unscathed by any serious issues. With relief and pride I patted myself on the back for having made it and thought, “Hey that wasn’t so bad…” My heart sunk as I saw the parking lot, jam-packed with cars waiting in rows for a space to open up. We spent thirty minutes driving around and around until I victoriously found a spot. Phew. We made it. Kids out. Snack bags over the shoulder. Heavy two-year-old in one arm, the other is filled with coats for “just in case” weather that is always a possibility in Denver. My apparent need for fitness was blaring as I’m getting out of breath and breaking a minor sweat while I make my way up to the entrance with kids in tow. We did it! I glanced down to make sure the tickets were still in my purse and noticed something I hadn’t before—they had expired. Morale was low at this point, but not totally crashed, so onward into the entrance. Then I saw it. (If a defeated, frustrated, crying, yawning emoticon existed, insert it here.) The lines were wrapped around to form a maze of barriers. There were people everywhere and my pep talks were no more. Now my thoughts were only, “This is NOT fun…” But I was still determined to get through the lines and go through the museum, because my stubborn nature dared me to leave, and my conscience dared me to play with the idea that I am just not a fun mom. We stood in line for thirty-ish minutes because I kept having to leave the line to chase after the two-year-old. I was trying to keep up everyone’s spirits, but in my peripheral vision, I noticed how everyone else’s kids seemed to be angels standing in line, while mine were uncontainable monkeys swinging from one rope to the other in excitement. Then the “I have to go potty” plea rang in my ears. We left the line to head for the bathrooms. My twin boys don’t want to go into the “girly bathroom” anymore, so they insisted on going into the “Man one.” Needing to take my two-year-old daughter potty, not to mention myself, had to wait so I could make sure BOTH boys came out of the restroom. (My Mom-radar is on high-alert!) Men went in and men came out, but not my boys…I could hear them singing, and giggling and turning the hand-dryer on and off and on again. Every five seconds I’d crack the door open and request their presence; ultimately knowing I’d just have to wait. When we were finally reunited, the task of going into the women’s restroom had just begun. I ended up convincing them to go into the women’s restroom with me anyway because there was no way I was leaving two five-year-olds to wait outside (I’ve binge watched way too many drama/crime shows to make me paranoid enough to not do that!) We made our way into the women’s restroom, alas! There’s another line. We finally got through the business that needed to be done and headed back out to stand in line, because, dammit, we were going to have FUN!

Since our visit was no longer free, I had to swallow hard as I tallied up how much it was going to cost all four of us to get in. I couldn’t really afford to have all this fun we were about to have, but I reasoned that a) it would be cheaper to get a museum pass, and b) the membership line was way shorter, so we chose that line. As we stood in line, the kids got more anxious and excited, and I felt my blood pressure was rising. “Just get through the line, and it’ll all be OK.” Then one of my boys grabbed the other and head-butt him. With tears from one, laughter from the other, and my two-year-old squirming out of my arms to go explore, I had finally reached my breaking point. “Ok, that’s it—we’re leaving!” I stepped out of line and started for the exit with protests trailing behind me. The boys were crying the whole way back, but I just kept saying to them, “That wasn’t fun. We’ll try again…” (Thanks Love&Logic!) Truth was I felt like crying too. I felt like the biggest failure. Truth was that for so long “fun” wasn’t even on my radar—being the caregiver of my husband with terminal cancer, and twins and a newborn all at once—now the dust of grief finally began to settle, and I couldn’t do this one thing. Would I ever be able to have fun? Would I be the uptight, serious mom forever?

Everyone had quieted down on the return drive and we ended up stopping at the local mall with the free play place. I let the kids run around as we played tickle monster and hide-and-seek. We stopped for a small treat of M&M cookies and sat at the table trying to count how many birds got stuck in the mall , which would swoop around overhead once in a while.

That night as I was putting my boys to sleep, I apologized for the museum-thing not panning out and we talked about manners in public and maybe next time we could try again. I tucked one of my boys in and I told him, “I’m sorry we didn’t really have fun today,” and he replied, “I had a lot of fun!”

“Really?” I asked, surprised. “What part was fun to you?”

“My favorite part was doing the puzzle with you,” he said, drifting off to sleep. I was stumped. I didn’t remember doing a puzzle until he said something. Before all the chaos of getting ready and out the door, we sat on the floor in our jammies doing a puzzle together. It took 15 minutes to put together that puzzle and it took me all day in my mission to “have FUN” with my kids. He remembered the 15 quiet minutes we spent together. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to have the kind of “fun” with my kids that I pressure myself into—expensive outings, spending money I really don’t have to spend in the first place. The kind of “fun” that I fake smile the whole time because I’m so tired from making sure we’re all together and alive in busy public places. The kind of “fun” I force upon myself because I feel like I have to compensate for their dad not being here and they’re stuck with me—sometimes sad, sometimes irritable, sometimes too-serious mommy.

My son taught me something so profound about my kids and myself. The fun times remembered and cherished are the times spent just being together. Being in each other’s presence. It could be at a park, it could be putting away laundry while pretending socks are silly puppets; it could be holding hands walking to school. This realization took the pressure off me to stop attempting to do activities I just can’t do with my kids in this season—as a grieving, widowed mom, whose outings with my kids I have to do solo, not to mention they’re 5, 5 and 2…little kids come with so much grace and so little expectation. All they want is time with you, time together. All the other high blood pressure moments we parents put on ourselves are lost to them in grace.

One day museums will be fun. One day I will be able to take them to a movie theater with ease. One day we can take a road trip. One day we can go to Disney World and have some serious Fun. But not now. Not in this season. Now, I’m OK with puzzles in our jammies, digging worms in the backyard and spending a couple bucks to eat ice cream in the park, because those are the moment my kids cherish. That’s the kind of fun I’m after now, and I know my kids will show me I can be a fun mom.

 

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.

The presence of your gift

Copyright: ouh_desire

On an evening in December 2011 my husband, Phil, received a phone call. We had just nestled our twin babies into bed and cozied up on the couch for a movie. Since it was late in the evening and it was a number Phil didn’t recognize he let it go to voicemail. When he listened to the message he got up from the couch and went to the front window and looked out past the drapes into the night. Then he opened the front door and brought in a basket covered with a bright green blanket and set it at my feet. He let me listen to the message, “Look on your front step, Merry Christmas,” the mysterious voice said.

We looked at the basket for a few minutes, letting the excitement of a random gift from a stranger sink in. What could it be? Inside was a plethora of toys for the boys, homemade Christmas crafts, goodies and a book titled Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright and a mason jar full of change and bills. My heart was full of amazement and gratitude and wonder; why us? Why did we receive this special gift?

I looked through the basket, reveling in the care that someone took to prepare it for my family and then I read the little book, Christmas Jars. Looking back on it, I can see how the timing of and receiving that book was quite prophetic as it narrates a story about a journalist (my former and brief profession) and a widow within its plot. It tells of a family that planned their Christmas around giving to others, saving spare change all year to fill it by Christmas and give it secretly to a stranger. We received such a jar and in turn started a jar of our own.

A few weeks prior to the mystery gift, on Thanksgiving night I rushed Phil to the emergency room because of a breathing attack; that night was the first real reminder that his cancer was still there, stalking us silently throughout our four-year marriage. He was diagnosed Stage IV and two months later we were married, but we lived like it wasn’t there, until it reared its ugly head that Thanksgiving. Before that, hardly anyone knew about his illness that we kept silent about being terminal—we wanted to live for the hope of healing, trying our best to not let diagnosis or prognosis steal our present—but it was scary, and would creep in at the most in opportune times, mainly when I’d watch him with the twins or sleeping beside him at night. I’d pray and wonder at the same time: How long do I really have with you? How long can we keep you?

Throughout the following two years mysterious gifts kept showing up at our door at random times or during the holidays and in turn, we would strive to do the same out of humility and gratitude. After Phil started chemotherapy the second trimester of my pregnancy with our third child and then a few months later started receiving home hospice care October 2013, the gifts intensified. There wasn’t a day that went by that there wasn’t food, clothing or financial gifts at our door. He couldn’t work and I couldn’t earn any income taking care of myself in my 9th month of pregnancy and twin two-year olds, and yet, we never went without anything. He and I would sit, amazed at the generosity of people—some we knew, most we didn’t, and it would still drive us to give, in some way, somehow because the giving was so overwhelming what else could we do but pay it forward? I know these provisions were the workings and signs of God’s presence in an impossible situation; generosity moving through people who would take time away from their own families to give to ours. Phil died a week before Thanksgiving that year and the outpouring of gifts and provisions continued into the Christmas season and months after.

I had managed to get a little tree that promptly turned brown as a few ornaments hung on it, that’s all I could manage, however people came in droves to bring wrapped gifts for my children and I. Come Christmas Eve I couldn’t see the floor of my living room there were so many gifts. That night, while my children all slept, I just sat there in awe at all the gifts.

I spent Christmas morning and day opening the presents with the kids, although I was heartbroken that no matter how many gifts we had to open there was one thing missing, each gift reminded me of the goodness in people and the life necessity that gives our lives meaning; receiving love and giving love, even if we did nothing to earn it.

Nothing can fix the terrible absence and loss someone feels when their loved one has died, it can’t be fixed with a freezer full of meals or an abundance of toys or money in the bank, but don’t let that stop you from giving to someone who is hurting because behind the incredibly helpful and practical gifts, is your presence and your time. Don’t assume it won’t help if you give to the homeless man on the corner; “What is $5 going to do in the long-term?” and don’t assume you should mind your own business when you see the lonely neighbor down the street, that taking the time to bake a few cookies won’t help them. Your gifts to the lost and lonely don’t fix their circumstance, but long after the money was spent, the food was eaten or the items are worn and tattered your gift still remains intact; the gift of your presence has the power to restore hope and faith in the goodness of people and the God behind it all. And when I feel incredibly lonely and the terrible, infectious lies start to pour in that I’m all alone and no one cares anymore, I go through the several dozen cards I received from all around the country, I look at the little mementos or books on my shelf, and I know that each of those things carry the presence of someone who cared behind it and most importantly carries the provisions and presence of my God.

Now, it’s Christmastime once more and there’s no gift I can give to my children that can replace the one thing they need the most; their daddy, but through my experience of being on the receiving end of so much giving and love, I can’t let material gifts distract me from the real gift I can give my children, my presence in their lives and in turn to teach them that what they choose to do with their presence in other’s lives is important and powerful.

“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

                                                -Luke 6:38

 

 

#thegiftofyourpresence

#ChristmasJarsbyJasonFWright

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.

 

Those who have gone before

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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?”

My primary occupation is: Just a Mom.

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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.