An Angel and an Elf

rocking horseThe holidays. The good. The bad. The downright ugly. The holidays have been tough these past few years. This year, maybe, just maybe I’m starting to come out of the fog.

The feeling of having a real home again definitely helps. Family visiting near the holidays resulted in the enjoyment of decorating our new space to welcome them. The ornaments went on the tree with less tears than years before.

I’ve been reading quite a few posts over the past few weeks from widows and widowers experiencing the numbness, dread, and sadness that I’ve felt the past few years. There have also been occasional notes about how to help someone’s friend or family member that recently went through the loss of a spouse.  Everyone is different, but I wanted to share my story with the hope that it may bring to some ideas to others.

My husband passed away when I was 29 with 2 and 4 year old daughters. That first Christmas was a blur – mainly because my eyes couldn’t quit crying. I couldn’t imagine going through the holidays without Steve, not sharing the joy of watching our daughters open gifts with him, or even not buying someone so special a gift at Christmas. Shopping was painful. When Steve was alive I struggled to find the “perfect” gift each year. When he died I saw so many things that would have been “perfect” that year, if only I had one more year.  I rarely made it out of store without tears flowing. There were tissues in every coat pocket and throughout my purse. Our Christmas tree that year was one of the table top fake trees that we set out at his headstone. I just couldn’t do Christmas without him.

If this is you this year, I’m sorry. The holidays can suck. They will never be the same and no amount of time will ever replace the person that you lost. This year will be my 5th Christmas without Steve – I’m not even sure how that is possible. The loss hasn’t lessened, but I have learned how to find more joy in the season than years before.

This story doesn’t end there. That same Christmas my sister asked if they could provide the Santa gifts for my daughters. I gratefully said yes – it was one less thing for me to think about. What they did for my daughters is something I will likely never be able to repay.  And honestly, it was the best Christmas gift I have ever gotten.

Steve loved to woodwork. He had made other children chairs and rocking horses for Christmas and was looking forward to making our daughters the same gifts.  He was just finishing up his shop so he could get it done. Little did I know that an elf would land in his shop and find the plans for the rocking horses just laying out on a bench.  Plans that I had never seen in all my trips out there. Fate? Maybe.

You see, this elf had a little nudge from an angel, my angel, and just knew he had to help make Steve’s dream a reality. This elf was my brother-in-law. He took the plans without my knowledge (I didn’t even know they existed in printed form) and crafted the most beautiful rocking horses for our girls. He wood burned an angel on one side of the saddle – the exact angel from a necklace Steve had given me. He also took samples of handwriting from Steve and combined it to wood burn the girls’ names on the horses in their Dad’s writing.

On Christmas morning the girls received a note from Santa explaining why they were given the horses.  The note stated that their Dad had asked Santa and his elves for help this Christmas.  He wanted to give the girls these horses, but couldn’t do it alone.  Santa and his elves delivered gifts that I will never forget.

If you are reading this post and know someone that needs some help – be Santa’s elf. You don’t have to handcraft something for it to be special. A small gift with a heartfelt note means so much – it means that person is not forgotten this holiday season.

Widowhood is hard, and during the holidays it seems to be even more difficult. Widows are at risk for being forgotten – after all, their spouse may have been the only person to do something special for them on the holiday. If there are children, a story of their angel parent or sharing something their mom/dad loved can mean a lot.

Pick up the phone. Send a note. Make a meal. It doesn’t matter how long it has been since you have connected or how many years it has been since death forever changed their world. They will never forget the fact that this year you remembered.

A Widow and a Half

Today I ran my second half marathon.  My first half marathon was more than two years ago.  This was my 14th run in 5 months and the first run longer than seven miles since my last half marathon.  Craziness.

What goes through a widow’s head while running 13.1 miles?  Do you really want to know??  It’s not that scary…I promise.  Maybe, just maybe there is something here for you too!

1. Nudge…and get nudged (or in my case, elbowed!)

Jon mentioned this half marathon on five separate occasions.  Each time I looked at him like he had 10 heads.  “A half??  Hello…you know how much I have been able to run recently!”  There was not a 10k option which would have been my go-to challenge in this situation.  On Monday I finally took a look at the run.  Then, thought I couldn’t do it because [insert 100 good reasons here].  Tuesday, I looked at it again and just decided to sign up.  That’s the crazy girl coming out.  I felt the challenge, and honestly, the nudge that I needed to do this for some reason.

The last (and only other time) I ran a half marathon I signed up the week before, and like today, with virtually no training.  My nudge for that one was reading about a man who had been training for the marathon with his wife when she was hit by a driver on one of their final training runs.  He was still going to run. I had no excuse. This woman I had never known had become my nudge. I showed up because I could, and for some reason I felt like I was supporting a fellow widower on his run.

Who have you nudged lately? Have you challenged another person to push their boundaries?

2. List the reasons why you can’t, then do it anyway.

I didn’t write my list this time, but I assure you there was a long one in my head. There were two reasons why I thought I could – one, I had done it before. Two, I know I am healthy enough to walk to the finish line if needed.  I’m one of the lucky ones in life – I don’t have a terminal disease and I’m not disabled. There are no barriers other than the belief in myself.

When I thought about all the reasons why I “should not”, there was this quiet little thought in the corner of my mind that said “I can”. I rarely hear that quiet voice, and yet, it seems to be the one that controls what I actually do – I just need to get to the “do” tipping point.

Once I get to the “do”, that voice that loves to make lists transitions to a list of what I need to do to be successful.  I’m always planning, and planning alternate options. Trust me, my mind is never quiet!  Now, my voice that was negative has turned to an asset – this is why I LOVE the “do”.

3. Set a Goal, then Set a BIGGER one.

This morning I checked all the things off my “do” list then tentatively walked to the start.  With each step I took my mind was virtually screaming “What are we doing?? This is crazy! OMG, this is happening!”

Then I saw the pacers.  “Oh, jeez…there they are. Do I join a group? What group?” I couldn’t remember what I ran last time, but I believe it was right around a 10:35 pace.

I saw the 2:20 group and did the math and figured this would be a stretch goal.  Then I saw the 2:10 group – those that run a 10 minute mile pace.  I’ve run one 10k at a [slightly] less than 10 minute mile pace – not my comfort zone.  BUT for some unknown reason, I kept taking baby steps toward that group.  Then the gun went off – the race was on. I was running with the 2:10 group…what??  I figured I could start there and hope to finish between them and the 2:30 group.  Best case, I could end up with the 2:20 group.

Fast forward to mile 2.  This is when things really got crazy. I saw the mile 2 sign and decided right then that I was not only going to finish with the 2:10 group, I was going to run past them in the last mile. What the…?? Where did this thought come from??  I have no idea, but in that moment I believed I could and I spent the rest of the race staring at their pace sign and seeing it as a big goal bullseye.

I started thinking about all the times I achieved more than I set out to do.  All those times I stretched myself – or others stretched me – and how much more I achieved when I believed in more than I ever thought possible.

When was the last time you set a goal that was so far out there you couldn’t possibly believe you would achieve it? One where you set your sights on the moon, but knew you’d be happy landing among the stars?

My take away from today – set a goal, then set a bigger one.

4. Hills and Butts

I’m not writing this to tell you life was perfect this morning. Some of the hills were killer. What do I do when I have to run hills?  I grab onto a fact – the fact that hills work your butt muscles – and who doesn’t love a nice butt?  That may be too much information, but for me, I have always loved having strong legs.  It may come from my days as a skier, who knows?

In any case, every time I internally groan about a hill my mind is conditioned to think about the benefits of hills – benefits you cannot get from running on flat ground.

Changing my mindset to find the positive in every challenge has helped me immensely in all areas of my life. As a widow, there were (and still are) times where it was hard to just breathe. Then I focus on being thankful that I can breathe, I’m here, and I can breathe, which means I still have time to make a difference in this world.

While I don’t love hills, I do love what they can do for my butt!

5. One foot, and then the other.

There were also times during this run that my mind said that “I couldn’t”. At 0.1 miles I got a side ache.  Really?  I wasn’t even out of the parking lot!  Then I remembered that I just needed to breathe correctly with my steps – and keep taking those steps.

At mile 5 my hip flexors tightened up and my knee started to hurt. I could have stopped to stretch, but I knew if I stopped I would struggle to start again – I’m just not that type of runner.  If I allow myself to give up even a little bit, then I would struggle not to give up more. So I kept going, one step at a time. My music cycled and I focused on the scenery and the beat and kept moving. It worked!

When you don’t know if you can – just keep moving. You will get where you are going faster and be glad you didn’t allow yourself to do less than you were capable of.

6. Be Your Own Biggest Fan.

If you’ve read other blog posts of mine you will know that Steve (my late husband) was my biggest fan. He saw and believed in me more than I ever believed in myself. These last 4 years I’ve had to carry that forward. I fail more than I succeed as a cheerleader, and yet, I still hear him cheering me on. I still see that smile.

Today, I realized that I was truly running for myself. I was the only one with a goal. No one was watching. I could quit and it would mean nothing – other than to me.

Today, I was my own cheerleader. I persevered. I believed. I set big goals. And I reminded myself constantly of what I had accomplished in the run while I was running it. Every hill I ran up I celebrated mentally. Every mile I finished with that 2:10 pace group I considered a win.

I also had this crazy thought at mile 8 – “there’s only 5 miles left!  I can run 5 miles.  I got this!” Never mind that I had already run 8 miles (for only the second time in my life). I was focused on the fact that I knew I could run 5 miles and I wasn’t going to let the past hold me back. When I was finished, I’d appreciate the the entire journey, but in that moment I was laser focused on the belief that I had been here before, and I could do it.

As a widow, there have been times when the “wins” were much smaller. Some days the celebration was the fact that I showered AND put on real clothes (not sweats). Or, I made it through work without crying. Or, I cooked dinner for my daughters. Its all about finding the win.

There are moments in every day for positive self talk. Have you been your biggest fan today?

7. Let the world motivate you

One of the reasons I decided to do this run was to see Winston Salem in a new way. We moved here a few months ago and I know there are so many things that I have not seen. There were beautiful buildings, families cheering each other on, and lets not even talk about running in 50 degree weather in December – pure heaven for someone from North Dakota/Minnesota.

I saw a man that was likely 60+ running in the top 20 of all runners. There was a few obese ladies that were on a journey to get healthy and they were running the half – so cool!  Then there was the person with cerebral palsy going through the course on a hand bike with a person who is obviously one of her biggest fans.

I thought about my friend Anna who loved the YMCA and had lost her very short battle with leukemia earlier this year. This was a YMCA fundraiser to end childhood obesity – maybe she was nudging me as well.

As I ran I was able to appreciate all the beauty that surrounded me in life. It gave me a chance to reflect on just how much good there is in the world if we just choose to look for it.

Life is not easy as a widow, but it wasn’t easy before widowhood either.  There are different challenges (hills) to climb, but those challenges can also be the driving force to do more in life.

This post isn’t written to say that everyone should run a half marathon – and I would certainly NOT recommend trying it without training appropriately.  I do hope this article is a little nudge for you to look at your life a little differently today. Find a challenge, find the beauty, nudge someone. You never know what you can do…until you do.

 

The Power of Your Story – Part 1

Ultimate MissionA few weeks ago I was asked to “tell my story” to a broad group of individuals at work. The objective was to share the power of storytelling. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to do some self-checking on the stories I tell myself to make sure I’m writing my book the way I want. The process and impact of storytelling (to yourself, not an audience) is life changing. It’s been awhile (too long!) since I really sat down to reflect. I realized that I need to make the time to do this AND I really need to share this process with those I care about.  I cannot wait to share it with you!

The first part of storytelling is to understand what story you want to tell. Our lives unfold through the stories we tell ourselves – consciously or unconsciously. These stories add context to the events in our lives. Stories turn events into positive or negative memories, successes or failures, or makes us the hero or the victim. Stories form our reality. Forgetting where we left our keys is an event – telling ourselves that we are stupid and forgetful because we lost our keys becomes the story we tell ourselves. Stories have power.

What story do you want to tell?

Your story is your story. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, or any other crazy comparison you are thinking of. Just like a great novel that we hate to finish, our stories need to be grounded. Stories need to have a purpose.

Step 1: Your Ultimate Mission

Mission:Possible. Yes, you. You are going to write your ultimate mission in life. Not sure where to start? I’ve found that just like every good story you need to start with the end in mind.  Here are a series of questions to get you started.

  1. Picture yourself being eulogized. What would you want to hear?
  2. What is the legacy you want to leave?
  3. Who or what matters most to you in life?
  4. How do you define success?

Step 2: Write It Out

There is power in writing, walking away, then coming back again. Writing your ultimate mission is not easy – and it is a big deal. I went through about 10 iterations before I was able to put together a personal mission statement that just felt right. And it shocked me. I don’t want to skew your work, so I’ll wait until part 2 or 3 to share my mission with you.

So, why do this work?

Your ultimate mission becomes your true North in life. I cannot tell you how many decisions I’ve made simply because the situation either aligned or did not align with my ultimate purpose. Knowing exactly what you want out of life helps liberate you from unnecessary distractions. Your ultimate mission creates boundaries. These boundaries can release you from guilt, focus your energies, and give you a sense of accomplishment in the ordinary.

Your ultimate mission forms the framework for the story of your life. We don’t always get to write the events that happen to us or the situations we are put in, but we always have a choice in how we respond.

The toughest decision I have ever made in my life is to keep living without Steve. I wanted nothing more than to just fall into a black hole or join him in heaven. I wanted to stay on my bedroom floor crying to the point that I couldn’t breathe – simply because the act of moving was overwhelming.

I had a choice – I stay stuck in grief and loss, or I could continue to write my story. Hearing Steve eulogized was the moment I knew I had to live. Steve fulfilled his ultimate mission in life – and I needed to fulfill mine.

I started journaling and I found that my writing would start with raw suffering, but end grounded in my mission. My mind was able to come full circle through a blank page and a pen.  My mission grounded me – even as every other piece of me was shattered. I’ll liken it to an eskimo – you are lost in a blinding blizzard and all you can see is the North star. You know that is the way home, but you are scared, cold, hungry, and have no idea how far it is. You aren’t sure you are going to make it. It’s hard to breathe and every breath shoots icicles into your lungs. Everything hurts or is numb. Your only goal is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and trust that you will get to your destination even though you can’t see anything around you. That North star will guide you – as long as you keep moving forward. Your ultimate mission is that North star in the toughest moments of your life.

Take a couple days and work on your mission – you will be amazed at what you find out about yourself. Try to write it with “empowering” words – something that truly motivates you. Keep it short – no more than 3 sentences. Can you do it?

Want to know more?

Check out the book The Power of Story by Jim Loehr. He has done a lot of work with a broad group of people – from athletes to CEOs and his message never wavers. You need an ultimate mission to succeed in life.

What is your ultimate mission? If you don’t want to share, can you guess what my mission might be?

The First of the Fours

Credit: Valene Valich

Credit: Valene Valich

Nine years ago (today) I married my best friend. It was the best day of my life.
Fast forward, and today marks my entry into the 4th year of events without Steve. Steve died the week before our 6th wedding anniversary.

Last week was the angel-versary of the day I lost Steve. It had been 3 years. It was hard. Certain days just do not get easier with time.

Flashbacks…nightmares…horrible memories. The gut-wrenching memories are paired with the memories of our last day together – and wow, was it ever a perfect last day. I went from an amazing high to the lowest low I’ve ever had.

Remembering the high points is both devastating and comforting at the same time. The flashbacks of finding Steve and the million minutes that passed after that make me sick, but they also give me courage. Once you lose your spouse you realize there is so little in this world that you cannot overcome – even when life is overwhelming. What used to be big challenges now appear as insignificant events. You come to appreciate just how important the “little” things are in life and how meaningless focusing on the negative parts of life truly is.

I usually try to leave anyone that reads my post with something that you can take away – something that may be actionable for you. The only insight I have to share with you today is how important it is to give your attention and focus to those that you love most in life. Unfortunately, life is short and your days are never guaranteed.

Today I have three simple requests:

  1. Go hug your loved ones and give them a few words of love and praise – watch how it brightens their day.
  2. Handwrite a heartfelt note and deliver it (mail works too).
  3. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while and give them your undivided attention.

Take note of the impact you can have on others through these simple actions. I’ve added a reminder to my calendar to write a handwritten note each Friday – the impact on me and those that have received my notes is indescribable.

I’m going to take this a step further and challenge you to do the three things listed above – today – then share your experiences with the rest of the Young Widow Living community through our Facebook page or in the comments below.

Happy September 1st – go out and share the love!

 

 

Widow + Divorcee = Love?

One awesome Facebook follower sent some questions about dating after being widowed. I couldn’t wait to answer!

Should she date? How can she really like someone new? He’s divorced, does that change anything? When is the right time to date?

My initial response – do what feels right! BUT…I’ve recently done a lot of reflection on this very convoluted topic. No, it isn’t as simple as my initial response.

Dating at any age is challenging – go no further than Facebook and your TV and you see all sorts of drama and self-help ideas.  Now, add the emotions of a widow or a divorcee into the mix and you have a melting pot of emotions.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from dating a divorcee for the past 2.5 years.

  1. Do what feels right! Ok, so this was back to my initial response, but seriously, if being with that person helps you smile after your loss, then do it.  You will encounter many people saying you are getting back into dating too fast, too slow, with the wrong person…all comments that are not needed and frankly, unwelcome.  YOU make your own choices.  If he/she doesn’t make you happy, then stop – simple.  You’ve been through worse than a break-up, you can handle this.
  1. So is there a “right time”? There is no magic formula and no magic answer to this question.  Do a self-check – where are you at with these questions?
    • Have you been able to get into a rhythm with your “new normal”? This doesn’t mean you are done grieving what was lost – this means feeling like you have at least a basic part of your life under control such as your finances.  Why would this be important? You want to get into a relationship because it is what you want not because you feel like you need something in your life.
    • How is your confidence? You don’t have to be confident in everything, but you need to have confidence about what you want and expect in a future relationship. Take the time to reflect on this so you don’t accept the first person that comes into your life (unless they are awesome!).
    • Are you strong enough to say “no”? Unfortunately there are bad people in the world that may try to take advantage of you. They may be nice, say all the right things, and then ask you for money (“It’s just a small loan, I’ll pay you back”).  Be wary – very wary of anyone that asks you to buy them anything or give them money.  You may feel like you are offering out of the goodness of your heart – don’t. The best manipulators are good, very good. Have boundaries in your head of what you are willing to do before you get into a relationship and stick to it!
  1. Getting serious – using the B and G words. Using the word “boyfriend” still feels ridiculous to me. I have a mental block. When my boyfriend and I decided to date exclusively (i.e. more than a strong friendship) we weren’t really ready – we knew this, accepted it, and decided to take it slow. We had feelings for each other – strong and real feelings – but we weren’t truly ready to use the language associated with dating.  I was introduced as a girlfriend for one of the first times just a couple of weeks ago.  I have to admit that it felt good (I was so over “friend”) even if it still seems weird.  Going from wife to girlfriend status was hard for me – it may be hard for you too.
  1. Getting serious – in public. Depending on where you live, going out in public with a new date may be awkward. Small towns are wonderful, but they are also cesspools when it comes to gossip. You may want to consider this as you decide how you want to date (not IF) – never let gossip keep you from being happy!
  1. Meeting the family. Yikes! In my situation both of our families were not ready to meet anyone “new”.  We introduced each other to our families before we ever even dated – probably a mistake in hindsight. We knew we liked being together. Talking gave us smiles that were missing from so much of our life. Being together meant a reminder that we could have fun with someone other than our missing spouse. We weren’t a third wheel together. Being together meant hope – even though we weren’t dating.  We knew this, but that doesn’t mean our family was ready.  I’d say test the waters first.  I had a lot of heartache over the reaction, and it hurt – even when I didn’t think I could hurt any more. Everything is good now – it just took some time!
  2. The in-laws. This could be a whole post in itself (and maybe will be someday). I have been blessed with amazing in-laws. They have supported me and my new relationship without wavering. If you have a good relationship with your in-laws I would be open with them about anyone you are seriously considering dating. The conversation is hard – but necessary. If they treat you with respect, then do the same to them and have the conversation. These conversations will help keep your relationship close.
  3. The Divorcee. There are “special” things that come when you decide to date a divorcee – just like there are “special” things that come with us as widows. The divorcee likely went through a lot of pain. They lost the person they thought they would spend their life with. Find out why the divorce happened and ask for honesty. Did they just grow apart? Was there infidelity? Did they do everything possible to take their vows seriously? The “whys” behind the divorce matter.What did the person learn from that experience? What would they do different? Where are they on their grief journey?

    You also need to be prepared to answer some of those same questions. Widows typically don’t have a marriage that was already headed for divorce (although some do), BUT almost all of us have some guilt about how we could have been better spouses. What did you learn? What do you want to do differently?

  4. The Divorcee, Part 2. Memories. Oh, the memories. As widows we are given a little more space to have memories. We can openly talk about how a certain song or place reminds us of our loved ones. We can share happy memories as we retrace steps we took with our spouse. We can and should do that. A divorcee also lost a relationship that was important to them and yet, they don’t have the same freedom to share their memories.  People look at them like they are crazy for remembering the good times.  It is much more awkward for them as society acts like divorcees just pick up and move on without a thought to what was – and that couldn’t be further from the truth (at least for those who truly committed with their vows).  This is a challenge. If you want to share your memories or what is on your mind as memories hit you, then encourage the person you are dating to do the same.  You both had good times and good memories with another person – be confident enough to recognize both of your pasts and encourage the conversation.  I’d rather hear the memory so we can move through it together – after all, you are there to support each other as you build a new life.
  5. New Love. Ok, so you decided this guy/gal is a keeper. Now what? This is a question I’ve been asking for the past 2.5 years! Seriously though, loving someone new is not easy! Falling in like then love – that is actually the easy part. Learning to love and be loved differently? Now that is hard.The “I like youa lot” phase: you do nice things for each other, send sweet texts, and try to spend as much time together as possible. This phase is awesome – enjoy it!

    The “Ok, so is there anything next?” phase: This one gets dicey. Based on your history the desired next steps may not be the same or come at the same time. I’ll honestly say that I misread this one in my relationship – I thought “we” were ready when in fact [honestly] neither of us were.

    With Steve, he knew exactly how he felt about me – fast – like within weeks of us starting to date. He knew he wanted to marry me and I never felt anything but that commitment from him. I’m a person that likes direction and goals, so understanding what you want and then going for it is my norm. I prefer forward progress toward something!

    I thought this whole process would be similar with anyone else (If I think you’re awesome and I believe I’m pretty awesome too…2+2=4, right?). However, just like the normal dating world, you may think one thing and the other person is not on the same path – maybe not even on the same map. This was the hardest part for me – I took this lack of any direction as a sort of rejection – I wasn’t good enough. In reality, that wasn’t the case, and that was never even implied. But, my mind got stuck there for a period of time – not fun. Back to point #2 and the confidence question – are you ready for something different?

    The growth phase. If you make it out of the “now what?” phase you will hit a place that is actually pretty awesome. It isn’t as spontaneous as the initial dating phase (bummer!) but that is because you have a rhythm.  You’ve figured out that you need to love your new person in a different way.  Read The 5 Love Languages if you have no clue what it means to love differently.  Better yet – both you and your partner read it and discuss what you need out of the relationship – then commit to doing it.  I’ve had to adapt to being loved differently, but also communicate what is important to me so he can adapt also.  He cannot love me the same way he loved his wife – we are different people with different needs. Flip it around and I’ve had to figure out how to love him differently too. Yes, we made it to that point and I’ll just say it is so much better than the “what’s next” phase.  Simply by committing to love each other differently we committed to something together.

    …Phase. My expertise ends at the growth phase.  TBD what happens next!

Whew!  That is quite the list.  To my Facebook friend that asked this question – thank you!  I love reflecting on my journey and appreciate the chance to do that on this topic.  I’d love to hear more questions!

For those that have already been on this journey, what else would you add?  What advice can you share with the widowed community?

 

The Dream Is Real.

My heart YWL_silhouetteis overflowing and it is coming out of my eyes.  At least that is what I think is happening to me as I write this.

The USPS delivered a letter which seems pretty simple but to me it means so much. The Young Widow Living Foundation is a thing. A real, tangible, thing. I’ve been dreaming about helping other widows through the darkness for over two years. Today, that dream is something real. The 501(c)3 approval came today and I am beyond excited.

What will this foundation do?

This foundation is intended to help widows stay out of poverty through education. This foundation is intended to make sure children who lost a parent don’t end up one of the statistics – statistics that say children from single parent households tend to score lower than their peers in school. This foundation is intended to bring families together for hands on activities such as STEM, character developing adventures, and the ability to connect with others going through the same challenges.

In short, the Young Widow Living Foundation is going to make a difference. Education can (and will) change the world – one person at a time.

The Back Story

Steve told me on many occasions that education was the only thing that would change the world. He had a passion for teaching, and honestly had a rare skill in doing so. He could teach you something without you realizing you were being taught. He was a tutor in college and later taught accounting and business courses when VCSU needed an extra professor. He did this at night – after his day job. These experiences ignited a passion for education and a drive to leave a legacy through helping others.

Starting the journey toward this goal included enrolling in an MBA program together. My goal was to advance my business knowledge. Steve wanted the degree so he would be eligible to be a professor. He died during the third quarter of our program. Steve was awarded his MBA posthumously. I earned mine a year and a half later. It was hard. It was even harder when I was grieving, raising two children, and trying to be successful in my job so I could provide for my little family.

When Steve died I knew almost immediately that I wanted to start a scholarship in his honor. Steve had been a member of the Valley City State University Foundation Board for many years. He was passionate about the school and scholarships. The Steve Welken Endowed Scholarship was announced at his prayer service and within the first 3 months we had raised over $10,000. Within 2 years we were over $30,000. This year will be our third year awarding scholarships in his name and it is an absolute honor to do so.

When I became a widow there was a lot of fear mixed in with grief. The fear revolved around raising my children alone and finances. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to provide enough for them. I worried about my ability to help them financially in college. Heck, I worried about the mortgage, taxes, and just about everything you can imagine. As a family our income was reduced over 50% in a day. To top it off, it seemed like all the articles about the deficits of children from one income families were coming out around the same time and it made me sick. We were now in that statistic – good or bad. I knew someday I wanted to come up with a way to help children that lost a parent through education. This dream blends Steve’s legacy of education with my experience as his widow.

The Young Widow Living Foundation is going to give hope to widows and widowers. We will build up the knowledge and capabilities of those left behind in honor of those that watch over us. .  

I hope you will consider joining this journey with me – either by helping connect new widows to the foundation or giving of your time, talent, and treasure.

There is so much more to come – stay tuned!

 

Life, Leadership, and Legacies

Life, leadership, and legacies – how have you changed the world?  Leadership Pic

Ten years ago was my first date with my husband Steve. It breaks my heart to hit another milestone without my best friend, the person that made my soul complete.

Steve consistently spent time trying to be the best possible person and leader in all areas of his life. I wanted to honor the years by highlighting ten ways Steve made a difference in my life and the lives of others through his leadership.

1. Know (and do) every job.

I met Steve on Saturday night and he informed me that he was going to help a crew in Gwinner, ND the next day. He was the CFO (chief financial officer) and he was going to help a crew pull wire. It was a Sunday and they were away from their family – he wanted to help get them home faster. Steve dug trenches, delivered supplies, ran pipe, and did inventories just to name a few. There wasn’t a job that Steve wouldn’t do.

2. How can I help you?

Our first “real” date occurred one week after we met. I was convinced that I did not want to be dating anyone and gave Steve a laundry list of reasons why he should not want to date me. His response? “How can I help you?”.  Within one week of this conversation he had put [significant] time into helping me. Fast forward two weeks he invested money in a lawyer to help with the rest.

Steve’s willingness to help others trumped everything else including time for himself and the money that he earned. He believed in saving and being conservative with money, but never at the expense of helping someone else. There are so many stories I could tell. Steve never made me feel alone with a problem. His response was always “how can I help you?” or “what can we do?”. He never asked me what I was going to do or implied that the problem was my own to solve. We won and lost as a team – from the very first date.

3. Success is measured by what you do with what you have

Steve believed in investing time, talent, and treasure into the things that mattered most to him. Steve bought things for friends just because he knew they needed it – like a dishwasher. He gave multiple 0% interest loans because he knew it could make a significant difference in the lives of others – and he was right. He taught me that being financially secure is important, but the impact you can give to others with the money you have is even more important. It can change lives. No matter what we had or didn’t have, Steve’s philosophy never wavered. He always did what he could to help others whether it was his time, his talent, or his treasure.

4. Being a team player is more important than winning

Softball was one of Steve’s passions in life. He loved to play. Even with this love of the game there were numerous times when I would go to watch him play and he would be sitting on the sidelines. When I asked him why, he would simply say that the other individuals would have been upset to sit on the sidelines even though Steve was often the better player.

Steve loved to play, but he loved to be part of the team more. He was most happy making other people happy even if that meant the team lost or less accolades for him. A leader like Steve gets as much satisfaction out of seeing others succeed as he would have felt achieving the end result himself.

5. Happiness sometimes means letting people go

Steve always wanted people around him happy, often at the sacrifice of his own happiness. He truly struggled when those he cared about were not happy. For example, one of his really good friends worked for him and struggled finding true happiness and satisfaction with the company. It ate at Steve – he felt like he was failing as a leader and as a fried. Steve tried everything he could think of to help this person be happy but you cannot make someone happy that doesn’t want to be happy. There was nothing left to do. His friend left the company and a few months later they were able to talk as friends again.

This was one of the most difficult things for me to watch Steve go through. In the end he was happy to see his friend find happiness and he was humble enough to look past all the pain this individual caused and re-kindle the friendship.

6. Education can change the world

Passion for education was something people recognized about Steve almost immediately. Steve truly believed that education could change the world. He put this belief into action by serving on the Valley City State University foundation board and the Century Club working tirelessly to raise scholarships for students and make the university a better place.

Before we met he taught accounting classes at VCSU when the needed a professor. He spent his evenings after work teaching and tutoring students. His career goals included retiring from his role as President/CEO and starting a second career as a professor teaching entrepreneurship, business ethics, and finance. We enrolled in MBA classes together so I could enhance my business knowledge and he could gain the degree required to teach consistently at the college level. I was excited to learn beside him.

Steve put his time, talent, and treasure into making this world a better place for the next generation. His legacy continues on through an endowed scholarship at VCSU – we are currently awarding four $500 scholarships each year!

7. Coaching: the most important job a leader has

Steve always felt a little awkward stating that he was the president of a company. In his heart he was the head coach. He believed his job as a leader was to develop a winning team and identify strong “skills” coaches to continuously bring the team to new levels of performance. Steve believed in the power of positive reinforcement and knew his team could overcome any challenges. He analyzed his competition, drew up accurate plays, and worked hard to engage everyone in the vision.

Steve enjoyed watching the team succeed together. He was a positive force that made you believe that you had all the capability in the world to succeed.

8. Seek the advice of others

Before I met Steve I believed that being “smart” meant being smart enough to solve problems on your own. What I observed with Steve was his consistency in seeking advice from those he respected and trusted. He utilized mentors, had a coach for a short period of time, and used trainers/facilitators to help him new strategies with his board.

Steve was my coach and mentor. We talked through our challenges from work most nights because we knew we could count on each other for support, advice, and feedback. We also loved to learn from one another and our conversations were fun and challenging. Steve was the smartest person I knew. He consistently made himself better by using his network, being humble enough to ask for advice, and smart enough to truly listen.

9. Lead with your mind…and your heart.

Servant leadership is about being a servant to those you lead and focusing on enriching the lives of others as you work together to achieve a common goal. Steve embodied this more than any other person I have met – and I’ve met some pretty great leaders. I don’t believe I am biased either – I’ve got two stories to share.

One of Steve’s employees was travelling almost an hour each direction to go to work. This person’s wife was pregnant and a job bid came open that was within 10 minutes of this individual’s home. It was a one person job and a location that wouldn’t make sense to bid in any other situation. However, Steve strongly believed in family and wanted his employee to be able to spend as much time with his new baby as possible. He bid the project, and intentionally bid it low to ensure he won. Steve was a leader that balanced profit with people.

My second example is from Steve’s wake. An individual approached me with tears in his eyes and said, “Steve saved my son’s life and made my family whole again.” Steve had hired this man’s son after he was released from prison with a felony on his record. This was not typical, but the family was local and Steve decided to give him a chance. Steve took it a step further and assigned this employee some jobs that would require travelling with Steve almost weekly for 2-4 hours in a truck. During these times Steve listened, coached, and helped this individual believe in himself again. When his Dad came up to me at the funeral he said that his son would have been back in jail if Steve hadn’t spent the time with him. Steve gave him more than a job, he gave him confidence to get his life together. Instead of being in jail his son was engaged to be married. That is the power of true servant leadership.

10. Priorities: Family, Friends, Community, Work

I once asked Steve how he wanted to be remembered and he said, “I want to be remembered as a good husband and father first, a good friend second, someone that contributed to the community third, and finally, someone that made a positive difference at work.” He was clear about the order, and lived a life that represented his priorities. There was never any doubt with Steve that family came first. He did more than his share of child care and was a very active parent. As a husband he was a great listener, believed in my dreams, and was totally committed to our family. Listening to people come up and talk about Steve during his prayer service and also the eulogies read by people during the funeral helped bring some closure to me. Steve was remembered exactly the way he had wanted – his priorities were more than just words. He left a legacy that will live on long after the day he died.

Steve was my mentor, my coach, and my best friend. I just happened to be lucky enough to be married to him.  This is a very short list of the things he taught me about life and I hope they can make a difference to you.

For those that knew Steve, what else would you add?