Tag: widows

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.

 

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

 

Re-purposing the brokenness

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I just got my phone evaluated by a “phone expert” the other day. It wasn’t working the way it used to and I didn’t understand why. It was the same phone I had gotten a year ago, so why wasn’t it functioning the same way it had before? This is my first experience with a smart phone, a world I’m totally ignorant to, so the poor phone guy had to keep explaining terms that were foreign to me. He said that I needed to upgrade my phone to a new one. But why? I just got used to the one I have—I don’t want a new one! I want it to work the way it did before. He explained if I wanted to experience what I had previously with this phone, I’d have to get a new one, because this one was outdated. Done. But I resisted. I don’t want a new phone. I just want to make this one better! In the phone world, I guess I can’t have that, but it does make a good metaphor for what I’ve been learning in other areas of my life.

I have been waiting for my inner wounded soul to “get better.” Waiting for the day the clouds would part and all of the sadness and loneliness and anger and despair would lift and I would just feel…better. I didn’t really know what “better” would look like, but I catch myself fantasizing sometimes about what it would resemble, not being able to put a finger on anything in particular or in great detail, but honestly, “better” looked like anything that was total opposite of how I’ve been feeling. Only now, something has been stirring inside me to abandon “better.” Truth is, I’ll never be what I once thought my ideal of “better” was, and I don’t really want to be “better.” God prodded me to seek a different meaning for my new…whatever you want to call it—life? Chapter? Season? And there’s no instant upgrade involved in God’s timing here on Earth most times. The only way to get there is to re-purpose the brokenness; not replace it.

Perfect, tangible, visible examples that come to mind as I’m trying to grasp what is happening in my own grief experience is best explained by a specific art form of re-purposing broken materials into something that the object wasn’t at first intended to be, but is worked with and formed into something completely different than before, transformed from the original pieces. Take mosaics for example, or the ancient Japanese art form, Kintsugi, of taking broken pottery and fusing the pieces together with gold or silver—the end result is far more valuable than its original form.

In our culture today re-purposing, or up-cycling has become somewhat of a cool, hip, artsy thing, but it’s nothing new. God’s been up-cycling from the beginning. Taking broken things and not necessarily upgrading the broken thing to a brand new thing, but taking the broken pieces and using them for a re-purpose, a more valuable purpose, a greater purpose.

So while I do have to give in and upgrade my phone in order to have it work the way I need it to (OK, I don’t HAVE to do that, but it might simplify tasks a little bit). I don’t have to sweep my brokenness under the rug or into a dustpan and throw it away, praying all the pieces will just go away. If that was the case, how many more pieces would be lost? Precious pieces that, though painful, are so beautiful, like the pieces of cherished memories; our first kiss, our wedding, dancing in the living room, holding our twin babies… the bittersweet pieces of my husband holding our daughter for the first time as he struggled to breathe, or my taking his hand when there wasn’t anything else I could do in the middle of the night, or watching a man so broken give all the broken pieces of his life to God and in turn, receive a peace that overcame him in his last breath…and all of the tiny, unbearable shatters of my former life through this grief journey. All those pieces are painful–crushing at times–but I can’t throw them away and I don’t want to upgrade to a life where those pieces don’t exist. All I know is that while I can’t see it completely right now, the pieces that are being put back together now will resemble nothing of my former life, but will still contain all of it. There is beauty in my brokenness and one day I’ll see the final result, but until then through painstaking patience, I’ll keep giving each piece, no matter how deep it cuts, to my God.

I’m not a dad

Copyright: Annette Shaff

I have heard a lot from single moms and dads, widowed or otherwise, that now they “have to be the mom AND the dad.” While practically I totally get that, I find I can’t burden myself further with that thought; feeling like I need to be the dad for my children, now that theirs is dead. It’s too exhausting to try to put pressure on myself to do the impossible because I will never, ever be able to take the place of their dad or take the place of a father figure that may be there in the future. Ever.

The kids and I went out to lunch with my children’s godfather a while back and the kids weren’t used to going out, as I know all too well, going into a restaurant with three children under five is exhausting and not enjoyable at all, so they were testing the boundaries along the way. Needless to say, I was already frazzled at the ‘kids being kids’ behavior at the table—nothing too crazy, just a little loud for my nerves, but it was what the waitress said that derailed me. She told the kids to “ask your mom and dad if you can have….(insert whatever it was they requested, I can’t remember, a soda? A pony?)” It was a logical assumption on her part since I was there with a male, but nevertheless it threw me into a pretty dark place and the only thing I was able to see was the absence of the man who was supposed to be there to help me during the crazy restaurant times, and the endless waking at night, the tantrums, the amazing milestones, the how-to-throw-a-ball moments. Even more glaring was the obvious fact that after spending just a few hours with their godfather, I could see their mannerisms change, how desperately they need a man to help them in this crazy journey of life and, no matter how much I try, I can never ever be that for them. So I stopped putting that unrealistic expectation on myself.

Sure, I can, and do, lots of “dad” things with my boys. I know how to change a tire and check my oil. I am not into sports (their dad really wasn’t a diehard fan either), but one thing he always looked forward to was playing catch with his boys, one of the first things he showed me when we started dating (he was a sentimentalist) from his childhood box was a glove and ball he saved for “his kids one day,” he said I can play catch with them; I can throw a baseball and catch one too, I can even throw a football in a way that it spins…a spiral? Shows how much I know… I can go to Home Depot and take a class and figure out how to use an electric drill or build a birdhouse, the pictures would hang crooked and the birdhouse may lean, but I could do it! I can figure out how to grill a steak. We wrestle and play pillow fights all the time, I give them piggy back rides and teach them right from wrong, I take them on hikes and dig for worms—but I do all of this as their mom. Doing all those things with a man, that ideal situation boys have to learn the ropes of manhood, will remain untouched by me, no matter how good I am at all the above.

What I can do, though, is teach my children how a woman should treat herself and, in turn, be treated. I have been implementing one-on-one date nights with my boys so we can talk and have fun and they can see Mommy not-so-stressed. I can implement door-holding and pulling out chair rules, but I hope that one day they will see these date nights as something more; that Mommy is out with them, taking the time to spend time with them, investing in them and their importance and responsibility to one day grow up not only chivalrous, but strong, grace-filled leaders. When my daughter is a little bit older, I will do the same with her. While their dad may not be here physically, his finest attributes shine brightly in his boys. I see his heart when they constantly praise and compliment their little sister telling her how cute and beautiful she is. I see it in the quiet times we sit together and they look at me and hug me tightly and whisper to me, “You know what, mom, you’re beautiful.” In my ugliest moments (inside and out), their dad never failed to remind me that I was beautiful to him and now my children who have seen all my weaknesses and ugly moments can see that beauty too and all is right in the world when, for a moment, I feel their daddy shining through in those small, but powerful moments.

The last time we got dressed up for a date, my son tugged on my shirt and motioned for me to bend down to eye level. He swept my hair gently and whispered into my ear: “When I grow up, I’m going to be Daddy and marry you.” While my heart melted, I know in the future this will change, but how do I want my children to remember how I handled this situation that’s been handed to us? With dignity and grace, and fierce perseverance. How do I want them to remember me? As their mother. Nothing more and nothing less.

A father to the fatherless, and a judge (defender) of the widows, is God in his holy habitation. God setteth the solitary (lonely) in families…

-Psalm 68:5-6 (KJV)

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.