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?

(Christmas) Tree Of Memories

IMG_0591We set up our Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving this year. That may not sound like a feat, but it was. This tree was the first tree in the next chapter of my life – another “second first”.

The girls and I spent our Thanksgiving in the Quad Cities so they could spend time with their new friend, Alexa, and visit their new home and school. Jon and I had decided ahead of time that we were going to get a Christmas tree with the girls and take the time to make some memories around this Christmas tradition.

Christmas Past

We didn’t have a tree last year. It was one of those things that I just couldn’t get myself to do, despite the guilt that my daughters wouldn’t have a tree at home. We always spend Christmas in Minnesota, and it just seemed like too much work as I was barely making it through the day.

Fast forward one year, and my goal was to have a tree. I wouldn’t let my daughters miss this tradition for the second year in a row.

The first step was finding some ornaments to bring to Iowa. This meant opening a box of memories. We didn’t have plain, matching ornaments. We had ornaments that told the stories of our life.

I gingerly picked up the “Our 1st Christmas” ornament, the “Baby’s 1st Christmas” ornaments and my heart broke. I continued through the box and found some of the ornaments I made as a child, and I remember putting them up on many Christmas trees throughout the years. I remembered the innocence of those ornaments. I remembered the joy of decorating the tree.

Then came the ornaments from all of our little moments – a cruise, a trip to NY, the ornaments from our first Christmas when we were dating…and I cried. These ornaments were precious memories, time capsules of the little moments that will forever live on in my mind.

They are the symbols of new memories that will never be made, the lost parent, and the innocence I once had about life. But in those ornaments was life. They told the story of love, laughter, adventure, and friendship.

I selected a few ornaments from my treasures, wrapped them carefully in bubble wrap, and secured them in my backpack for the flight.

Christmas Present

The day came to set up the tree. First, we took the girls to a local nursery where they saw Santa, created a wreath together, and picked out what they considered to be the “perfect” tree – and it was perfect.

We got it all set up, and hauled up some decorations from the basement. We had a fire going and Christmas music playing – we were excited to watch the girls decorate.

Then came the memories and the stories of all the Christmas items. The questions came about the ornaments from innocent children excited to find pictures of happy couples that no longer exist in this world. The adults seemed to take turns needing a few moments to take in the sadness separately, and return to the joy that is children at Christmas.

It seems every item at Christmas has a story. If we are lucky, there are love and memories that live on as well. I proudly hung my Dallas Cowboys ornament for Steve on the tree, and a NY Giants ornament was promptly hung right next to it. I guess this may be a new Christmas tradition!

I think back to those that I deeply miss at Christmas and I think of the little things we do to remember. For my Grandma, it is remembering her smile at a huge plate of seafood and a glass of hot sex (don’t ask – it’s chocolate liquor!). We play Quelf to remember our last Christmas with her that put her under the table (no alcohol involved!). We still hang Eldor’s stocking every Christmas and Santa still brings a bottle of E&J Brandy along with a Hershey’s King Size chocolate bar. Last year, to remember Steve, we all did a round of Crown Royal shots – his drink of choice the night he stayed up drinking with my dad to ask for my hand in marriage – on December 23rd. I realize we may sound like alcoholics – I assure you, we are not!

Christmas Future

The point is to remember. Remember in the way that makes sense to you. There will be grief and sadness – but there will also be moments of joy and new memories to treasure. So, hang up the ornaments, put out the stockings, make a nice meal, and do whatever else makes you appreciate the time you have with your loved ones. We can’t change the past, or predict the future, but today is the real present – enjoy the gift of life this Christmas.

What are some of the ways you remember your loved ones?

The Scariest Step Forward

We are moving. To Iowa.Fly

This is a huge decision for me and the girls – and one of the scariest decisions of my life. There is a chance I could fail and that scares me beyond belief. The journey so far has been full of tears, soul searching, anxiety, pain, guilt, but also excitement and a renewed confidence in myself.

I spent months thinking about what I would do if the opportunity to move presented itself. I had one opportunity for a position in Moline about eight months ago, and I sought people’s opinions about it because I wasn’t sure of myself. That was a mistake, but also an opportunity to grow. The opinions (that yes, I asked for) hurt. That hurt stayed with me for a long time.

I was used to making decisions as part of a couple – Steve and I were a team. In the past, I knew that I couldn’t go wrong, because I had Steve to back me up. When we made a decision, it was our decision, and there was no doubt in my mind that between us we would figure it out. Making such a big decision on my own paralyzed me.

There was a lot of soul-searching and many tears over the past few months – without them, I wouldn’t have established the confidence I needed to put my name in for a position that required relocation.

Here are seven learnings I had as I stepped out of my comfort zone and started to make that scary step forward.

1. Define Your Boundaries

There was a woman at work in a leadership position that shared her experience in setting boundaries with me. She gave me the book Lean In to read. Most importantly, she forced me to tell her what my boundaries were when Steve died.

Telling her what I needed from my job to be able to balance work and life was uncomfortable and scary. I always believed that you accepted a job knowing the commitment that came with it and if it didn’t align with your personal life then you looked for a different job.

Saying what I needed from my position was harder than it should have been. However, it became easier when I realized that by defining my boundaries others could understand what I needed in order to be successful in my work. Defining my boundaries enabled me to be successful!

Here is a list of some of my boundaries when I considered a new position:

  • I was willing to accept a position in North Dakota or the Quad Cities (no other Deere location).
  • The position had to have enough flexibility to allow me to work remotely (this removed me from a lot of jobs that aligned with my current career path).
  • Travel requirements needed to be low.
  • The position needed to fill a gap in my list of career experiences.

Needless to say, my boundaries eliminated a lot of potential jobs for me. If it wasn’t right, I wasn’t interested. The why behind each requirement was important to my overall happiness. I have a network of friends in North Dakota and the Quad Cities as well as a level of comfort in both of those locations. Working remotely enables me to be home with a sick kid, see them at sporting events and enables me to work while visiting family (preserving vacation) in the summer. Low travel requirements enable me to be at home with the girls most nights. I do enjoy travelling, so some travel is a bonus.

Knowing my boundaries helped me focus on my needs and the needs of my family first, which enables work-life balance second. Boundaries aren’t just for work – I have them in many areas of my life. Understanding your boundaries makes it easier to say yes or no to opportunities in your life.

2. Identify a Goal (Even if It Changes)

You need to have a goal, in order to have some sort of focus and motivation. I kept getting asked what I wanted to do at John Deere. My response was that I was willing to try almost anything because I love to learn (which is true).

I got called out on that statement recently. Another woman leader said to me, “I never want to hear you say that again. You need to know what you want or you will never get there.”

In that moment I voiced what I had been afraid to say – I wanted to be a factory manager. Why was I afraid to say that? Honestly, I don’t know if I am good enough to get there. I don’t know what it takes to get there – or, if what it takes conflicts with my boundaries. If that’s the case though, then I’ll just set a new goal!

I rarely voice my dreams, because I don’t want anyone else to know that I failed if I don’t get there. That is the voice of the old me – the one that tried to be perfect. I’ve changed, I’m a real person with successes and failures and I need to be vulnerable in order to truly live.

In that moment I realized that if I didn’t voice what I wanted, then I also wouldn’t have any help getting there. In my new world, you need all the help you can get! This career goal gives me direction. What I discover along the way may lead me to a different destination, but the journey is the best part!

3. Timing Isn’t Always Everything

There is never a perfect time for change. Never. My girls are young, the Welken family is here. They kids can’t fly alone, and they cannot drive. I appreciate the help I receive from my mother-in-law, Deloris,. They love being spoiled by their grandma.

Fast forward 5 or 10 years – they will have friends, a larger social life and likely be engaged in numerous activities. So, which time is better? It’s a toss up, but from talking to numerous people that have moved their children, it seems that the younger they are, the easier they adjust.

Finding the perfect time will paralyze you. If you are considering a big life change, understand that no time will ever be perfect. There is risk in every decision. Sometimes, you have to go with your heart.

4. You’re Not Trapped

Understand your options, because you do have options! I realized a few things in my journey:

  • It’s not hard to find work in North Dakota.
  • I could work in Fargo, and move there if being in my house was too difficult.
  • I could stay in my current position for a long time, in my current house.
  • I could move closer to my parents.
  • I could do anything I put my mind to!

I could Bottom line – there are options. There are times that people will make you feel trapped – saying things like, “Jane Doe did this and she regretted it forever.” or “Joan Doe kept her place and raised her kids. She didn’t need to move.”

There are a million ways to make people feel trapped, and most are not intentional. Realize that there is no one like you. We each have our own story – and yours is different than everyone else’s. You need to make the decisions on how the next chapter will read.

Change is hard and scary, but you always have options. Sometimes options can make you feel selfish, scared or even humble. Sometimes you question your sanity. If this happens to then you are normal!

5. Weigh the Pros and Cons – Then Toss Your List!

I weighed the pros and cons of this decision so many times, that it isn’t funny. I was able to come up with a tie almost every time.

The benefit of the pros/cons is that you understand what you want, what is important, and what options you have. This is a great exercise, but just because you have eight pros and 10 cons does not mean you are considering a bad decision. If the pros make you feel like you are truly living life, and the cons can be worked through, then GO FOR IT!

6. The Most Powerful Question

What’s the worst that could happen?

This question was the game changer for me when I was considering a move. The worst that could happen to me (with this move specifically), is that I hated my life in Iowa and the girls didn’t adapt to their new home.

Is this likely? No. However, I love many things about Valley City, things that I cannot take with me to Iowa. One of those is the people here who loved Steve – who care enough to share their stories and support me when they can.

You cannot recreate that sense of belonging, support or the stories anywhere else. I’m also very sentimental – and I love my house here. I love my space – space that Steve created for us.

Moving to an area without family is a huge risk and it may be a mistake. What options did I have if the worst happened and we weren’t happy in Iowa? Could I come back to Valley City? Yes! Would coming back here make me feel like I failed? Absolutely not! If I come back, I will come back with the knowledge that this is where I belong.

How powerful is that? Could I imagine living here and not living surrounded by the home Steve made for me and our girls? No. I could not come home and live anywhere else!

So, what were my options? I realized that I could start saving, so I could afford to keep my house for a period of time. I didn’t have to sell anything. I could take baby steps. And that is exactly what I am doing. I can afford to keep my house in ND for a period of time and the level of comfort that gives me is amazing.

Taking a step forward may lead you to a new sense of knowledge about yourself and what you want out of life. I’m looking forward to the journey – with my security blanket firmly in place.

7. Be Prepared to Ride the Roller Coaster

This journey has brought excitement, fear, sadness, happiness, guilt and everything in between. I had never made a decision this big alone in my life. This decision impacted more than just me – it impacted my girls and our families.

I felt selfish. I felt torn. I also felt like I needed to do this for my soul. This move isn’t about a job, it’s about finding the new me. It is about finding my rhythm as a solo mom. It’s about living.

I wondered if I could even handle living on my own, without the crutch of family close by. I questioned my sanity, because I realized that I am happy in Valley City. I’m happy with my job. I love the people. There is nothing wrong here. All of that doesn’t mean I won’t be happy somewhere else though. I realized that I would always wonder, what if?

I needed to take a chance and bet on me. I knew I would regret not taking this step – not believing in myself enough to think that I could do this and thrive. I firmly believe that I can be happy anywhere in this world as long as my girls are happy. Happiness is a choice we make every single day.

Do I think Iowa is where I belong long-term? No! I have no clue where I belong at this point in my life. I envy those that do. What I do know is that Valley City will always hold a very special place in my heart. Valley City will always be home – home is a place of love, and there is no doubt that I have that here.

If you have made a similar life change, please add some advice in the comments for me and anyone else faced with change!

Photo source: Pinterest

From Ashes to Diamonds

Where would you want to be buried?

This simple yet important question led to one of the most important discussions in my life. Steve and I would use time travelling in the car to talk about anything that was on our mind – I’m so glad this conversation happened.

There was a reason I asked the question – I had no idea what I wanted! Anytime I didn’t know the answer to a question, I’d talk ask Steve. There isn’t a perfect way to navigate this conversation, but here are the things we talked about that day.

1. Location

Steve wanted to be buried in Valley City. This made perfect sense, because he lived his whole life in that community. For me, the answer wasn’t so simple. If I died the next day, did I really want to be buried in Valley City?

The answer for me was no. I wanted to be buried by Steve, but I also wanted to be where my friends and family were. As the world becomes more global and families more mobile, the question of location becomes harder and harder to answer.

2. Cremation or Burial

The discussion of location led me to believe that cremation may be the answer for us. Steve wasn’t a fan of this originally, but once we talked through it we came to realize that this would be the best option for us and you’ll understand why in the next sections.

Steve’s only request with the cremation was that he have a headstone. He wanted a place that people could go to remember and he wanted a final resting place.

3. From Ashes to Diamonds

A few weeks prior to this discussion I had read an article about LifeGem, a company that developed technology that would take the person’s ashes and compress the carbon in the ashes into a diamond. In my heart this is what I wanted. I knew that life was never guaranteed and I knew I wanted to be close to my loved ones.

If I was made into a diamond, then Steve could mount that into something that he could take with him everywhere. A part of me would always be with him. As life would have it, I’m the one with the diamond. When Steve and I got home from our trip we looked up the article together and decided that this was what we both wanted for the other person. We had a plan.

4. Creating a Family Heirloom

Technology had changed and the company that creates the diamonds from ashes could now make diamonds from hair as well. I immediately knew that I wanted a family stone.

I asked the funeral director to cut a lock of Steve’s hair and I cut a lock of hair from me, Reanna and Kaelyn. We added the hair to Steve’s ashes and that made my diamond.

The stone didn’t require all of Steve’s ashes. His mom asked if she could have a stone along with one for his sister and brother. I wanted one for Reanna and Kaelyn too. Steve’s ashes made six diamonds in all and I still had enough to bury half of what was left in his final resting place and keep the other half with me.

5. A Gift from Dad

The girls are too young to understand or appreciate the diamonds that were made with their Dad’s ashes. I decided to place their stones in our safety deposit box to give to them as a graduation gift from their Dad.

My portion of the gift will be the setting of their choice. Their dad will always watch over them and they will have a piece of their Dad to take with them as they go off into the world. I think he would have approved.

The conversations around death and planning made my decisions after Steve died much easier. I know I couldn’t have chosen cremation had I not discussed this with him. I felt some measure of peace with my decisions as I knew I was fulfilling my end of the wishes and expectations we had of each other. Every time I look at my family stone, I know that I fulfilled his wishes. He is with me no matter where I go in this world.

Having conversations about death and what you want for yourself and your significant other can seem scary and overwhelming. I’m so glad that we took the time to have these conversations before it was too late. If you haven’t had a conversation like this with your significant other or close family, I urge you to take some time to do so this holiday season. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

Would you choose burial or cremation? Why?

Photo Credit: Giovanni ‘jjjohn’ Orlando via Compfight cc

Death With Dignity – One Widow’s Perspective

Erin's Phone Dump 10142013 803This post is going to be different than some of my other posts. There will not be a list of tips, no brand new ideas, but maybe there will be something for you to ponder.

This past week a young woman named Brittany Maynard received a lot of attention for ending her own life. You can read her story here. To sum it up for you, she decided to move with her family to Oregon so she could be prescribed medication to end her own life. She had terminal cancer and died at age 29.

This past week also marked the passing of someone a little closer to me – Steve’s uncle Denny. Denny passed away at his home at age 67 after a life of many medical ups and downs.

There is a reason I write about these two individuals. I couldn’t help but read all of the judgments and comments placed on Brittany’s decision by the world. Some agreed, some disagreed. Some became extremely agitated and bothered by a person that they have never, and will never, meet. Some of the people commenting have never lost anyone close to them, and others were fellow widows. What disturbed me the most was the polarizing effect of this entire conversation around death. As a society we have become so selfish as to think that our personal moral compasses are always “right” which automatically means that there are other people that are “wrong”.

I’ve been faced with death a few times in my life. The three that stand out the most are three people that meant the world to me. Three people that helped shape who I am. Three people that I have loved and lost – Eldor, my Grandma Maxine, and Steve. I’ll take the heartache of losing them for the simple fact that the joy they brought to my life was worth the sorrow. I feel like I have some qualifications to speak on death because it has been a significant portion in my life.

Death Is Personal

The only person that can decide how they would like to die is the person dying. If you are one of the people in the room when that decision is made, don’t speak up. Don’t try to convince the person that your idea is better. Only that person at that time can determine how, when, and where they would like to go. I would venture to guess they have spent hours, days, weeks, or months pondering their decision. Support them with your entire heart. For Brittany, it was prescribed drugs. For Denny, it was a chance to see home one more time. Don’t take away the person’s right to make their own decisions if God has given them the opportunity to do so.

Death with Dignity Doesn’t Exist

People have seemed to get hung up on these words that reflect the Oregon law that allows prescription death. They take offense to Brittany’s “Death with Dignity” campaign, even going as far as to challenge her for being weak when their loved one “fought to the very end…through pain…etc”. Death is death. How you choose to spend your last days is your choice.

However, there is life with dignity. Did you live life trying to make the world a better place for others? When people spoke to you, were they uplifted or brought down? Were you thankful for the little things in life today? Death is death…it is hard and can be quick or very slow. LIving is where we can leave a legacy. Everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives.

You’re Never Prepared for Loss

You can never prepare for the pain and emptiness you will feel when someone you love dies. Steve was gone instantly and there is nothing that prepares a person for that. In the case of Denny, my Grandma, and in some ways even Eldor there was a chance to say goodbye. I had the chance to let them know they were loved. I was able to tell my grandma how much she meant to me in a private conversation and I was at peace knowing I didn’t leave anything left unsaid. However, when that moment came and she took her last breath, the loss was huge. It is final. When I received the call that Denny had passed all I could think about was his wife, Paula. I know she had her time to prepare, but I also know that there is no way to prepare for a life without the person you planned on spending your entire life with. There is no way to reduce the pain of the finality of that loss.

We Don’t Need More Widows

Denny’s wife Paula is now a widow. There is no escaping the fact that she has to walk into an empty house that will likely never feel like home again. I get it. Brittany also left behind a widow. He gets the opportunity to carry on her dying wish to be happy, have a family, and continuing to push for the right to end your own life with prescription drugs. He had his time to make her last year one full of memories that he will cherish, but those memories don’t make the bed less empty. The memories don’t give you the person you laugh with, cry, and just love as part of yourself. No matter how the loss came about, no matter what choices were or were not made, those left behind have lost someone that cannot be replaced. That loss is universal.

Judgments Aren’t Neccessary Either

Going back to the start of this post, I have to wonder why people in this world feel the need to take time out of their day to judge a 29 year old with terminal cancer for her decision on how she would like to die. She made it a point of conversation so other people could have the same opportunity that she had. She never stated that everyone should follow in her footsteps. She never stated that this was the best decision for everyone. She said it was the choice she made for herself. Would I make the same choice? I don’t know – I have never been faced with her circumstances.

Think of all the time that was lost in this debate/argument/criticizing/defending campaign. What could we as a society have done with the millions of minutes spent focused on a single topic?

We could have donated our time to make our communities a better place to live. We could have wrote a thank you card to a friend we haven’t spoken to in awhile. We could have spent time playing with our children. As one person we may not have spent more than 5 minutes reading or thinking about the topic of the right to die in the way you choose, but think about all your neighbors who also took that time…how can we live life better in that amount of time? How can we make a difference and truly Live With Dignity instead of focusing on Death with Dignity?

What is one thing you will commit to do this week to truly live your life in a way that reflects how you want to be remembered?

6 Tips for Talking to Your Children about Death

Erin's Phone Dump 10142013 956How do you being to tell your children that their father has died?

The loss of a loved one is extremely difficult. Having to talk about death with the children left behind tears what is left of a shattered heart even further apart. I knew I couldn’t back away from these conversations – I didn’t want my children to fill in the gaps with their imagination. I also wanted to make sure they could trust me to tell them the truth. It needed to come from me and I wanted to be the source of their truth about what happened. It’s my job to define death and afterlife for our family.

Telling my mother and father-in-law that Steve had died was the worst thing that has ever come out of my mouth. Telling my children that their daddy was now an angel was the most heartbreaking thing I have ever had to say.

I was lucky that my girls had some prior knowledge of death. We had lost a dog a couple months prior to Steve’s accident. Steve was heartbroken and he took a lot of time explaining death and heaven to the girls. Even through tears he made it seem like a great place. There is no doubt that the foundation he laid made my conversations a little easier. Here are six tips for talking to your children about death.

1. Don’t Shy Away from Talking about Death

Death is part of the cycle of life. In our society, it is something that we typically shy away from talking about regularly. I don’t know if it’s because we feel ill prepared, or unqualified or if it’s because we fear that it may make people uncomfortable.

It’s important to figure out your stance and take the opportunity to talk to your children about death. If you are a Christian, talk about God and heaven. A death of a pet is a great first opportunity to start the conversation. Don’t wait until you lose someone important to introduce the concept of death!

2. Choose Your Words Wisely

If you say the person “went away” kids take that literally. They will wonder why they were left – or when they will be coming back. As hard as it was, I explained to the girls that the Jeep rolled over and daddy got hurt. He had to go to heaven to get better.

There were reasons for my honesty. They needed to know they weren’t going to see the Jeep or daddy again and they needed to know why. They especially needed to know that their daddy didn’t leave us. In fact, I reiterated hundreds of times how much their daddy loved us and how he would never choose to leave us.

The one thing that was really hard to explain was when I said that I knew their dad was near us. I said he was talking to my heart. Reanna got really sad because she couldn’t hear her daddy talking to her and she wondered why her daddy couldn’t talk to her. Remember that kids think very literally or in black/while, so be prepared to explain whatever you say in a way they can understand.

3. Help Them Remember

There were times I could hardly speak a word and Reanna would ask about her dad. She wanted to hear stories. She wanted to know if I remembered certain events. There are no words to describe the pain involved with these conversations and the amount of tears that were shed. However, it is important to keep him alive.

She was grieving in her own way and she needed to remember. She needed to be listened to. Most of all, she needed me to put my desire to curl up in a ball of tears aside and just be there as her support. She needed to know that she could count on me to be her confidant.

Here we are one year later and we still love to tell stories. I praise her for pictures that include her dad. In all of her school work we list her “angel daddy” on forms about family. The girls love to hear about their Dad. I still struggle getting through stories without tears, but the tears are worth it. They deserve to know how great their father was!

4. Explain What to Expect at the Funeral

Remember I mentioned that children are literal thinkers, right? Imagine what it is like for them to see their daddy “sleeping.” I took the time to explain that they would be seeing their daddy’s body, but only his body was left on earth. I explained that he got a new body in heaven, one that was not broken.

This brought on questions for months about how daddy gets to heaven, what he looks like in heaven and all sorts of different things. I still do not know how to explain it all to them, but I am honest and tell them that I don’t have the answers.

I tried to keep the girls away from the coffin, but they did have their time to see him. I still remember Kaelyn saying, “Daddy, wake up!” Talk about a heartbreaking moment!

The girls had a nanny – Steph – and I asked her to play with the girls during the visitation. I wanted them to be there, but I wanted them to be able to be kids as well. They played outside in their dresses. Someone went and got them ice cream cones. They were content and taken care of – that meant the world to me. They came and went as they pleased, which allowed me to focus on trying to keep myself together.

I remember driving by the “bubble,” where Steve’s funeral was held and Reanna asking if we could stop and see her daddy in the box again. She said she just wanted to see him one more time. Don’t we all baby girl…

Above all, follow any leads your children give you. Reanna leaned over and asked me if she could say something on the microphone in the middle of the funeral. I asked if she was sure – she was. The song, I Miss My Friend was played – it was the same song we played at our wedding for three special loved ones missing on our special day. I placed a rose on his coffin during the song and walked Reanna up on the stage, much to the pastor’s surprise. I asked for the microphone and at the end of the song handed it to Reanna. I didn’t know what to expect, but she simply looked at a packed basketball gym and stated, “I love daddy” and handed the microphone back to me. Her strength at four years old amazed me!

5. Talk to Other’s Children about Their Loved One

First, it is absolutely okay to talk about any fun, uplifting stories involving the person that passed away. Be sure to ask ahead of time how the death was explained to the child if you do plan to talk about that person.

Children like to ask questions and your intent may not be to bring up the person’s death, but a child may ask anyway. Be prepared to answer. They need to know it isn’t a scary or a taboo subject.

Align what you say to what they have heard from others – even if you don’t agree. Children need a consistent message. My in-laws did a great job giving me a heads up about any questions the girls asked and how they answered the questions when I wasn’t there. This ensured that we never broke the children’s trust by giving them two different stories.

6. Seek Help

I’ll admit that I didn’t seek help for me or my children, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it. I asked for referrals from the state patrol and our family doctor. I only wanted to go somewhere that specialized in children’s grief. I wanted someone I could trust.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone that was a clear choice – even in Fargo, which is 60 miles away. So, I studied and read up on how children manage grief. One thing that I am good at is learning – this activity made me feel like I was doing something to help my children through this.

As you can imagine this was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I still consider myself lucky – lucky to have married such a wonderful partner in life that loved me and my girls with his whole heart. He will always be remembered as an amazing father and husband.

It’s so important to introduce your children to the concept of death early on – you never know when loss will happen. Consider the six tips above as you do and pass this message on. Death is hard – but you can make it easier by talking. Find the right words to say and start preparing your family today. Hopefully you’ll never experience a loss like mine, but the loss of a grandparent or another close relative or friend is hard and confusing too. Be prepared!

My children were young (four and two) when my husband died. Do you have experience with older children or teenagers? Anything you’d change or add to my list?

Married and Dating? It’s Not What You Think!

Married and Dating?Widowhood has a unique set of challenges in today’s society.

Being a widow means that your marriage ended without either of you making the choice to end it. To this day I cannot accept that I am single. I cannot utter the word for the simple fact that I am not single – I am married and will always be married.

I do not have an ex-husband, nor am I a single parent.  I’m a solo mom, with a partner in heaven. I am a widow.

That Awkward Moment

A few weeks ago I was out on a date with my significant other and another couple. At dinner I was talking about “my husband” and the lady across from me stopped me and said, “You mean your ex-husband? I said, “No, my husband.  I’m a widow. I don’t have an ex-husband.” Society assumes that people my age are divorced, not widowed. That’s both understandable and disheartening at the same time!

If you are on the other side of the conversation – NO WORRIES! I’m happy that I don’t have a flashing sign that tells you I am a widow. I (we) do not expect you to know our story. My Widowed Life post highlighted some ways to embrace the term widow and the new definition I have given that word.

Breaking the News to a New Date

When is a good time to break the news to a date that you are a widow? I’d say whenever you are comfortable! If the person on the other side of the table can’t accept or handle your journey, then they probably aren’t the right one to take on the path with you.

How much you share with that person will likely depend on how well you know them. If they were a friend before you started dating, they likely know your story. If you were set up by another friend, find out before your date what the other person knows about you.

Everyone has a journey in life. There are people you meet that make a big impact on who you are. For better or worse, your spouse (or ex-spouse if you are divorced) was one of them.

You Have a Date – Now What?

One thing I’ve learned was to temper just how much I talked about Steve. I started dating a person that had been my confidant as I was going through the pain of losing Steve. He had heard every story that came to my head, learned about my regrets and was there as I discovered the strength I needed to continue.

The first part of our friendship was all about me working through losing Steve – and on the flip side, him working through losing his wife through divorce. We were a mess alone, but together somehow we started to become whole.

We were able to lean on each other during the very difficult times and he was truly a lifeline to me. About six months after Steve died, we decided to give dating a try.

Shortly after that I realized that by talking about Steve in every conversation I wasn’t really living in the moment with Jon. I never plan to quit talking about Steve, but there has to be a balance.

This was not an easy transition for me and I still talk about Steve in most of our conversations. Talking about him keeps him alive for me. The difference today, is that my memories do not dominate the conversation. I can enjoy the present, look forward to my future and never forget the past.

Breaking the News to Others

You would think the hardest thing about being a widow dating would be the date. Wrong! The hardest part is dealing with the other people in your life that may not be ready for you to start living again.

One of my widowed friends said it best, “If you are divorced in society and start dating the next week everyone congratulates you. If you are a widow, you are expected to sit with your broken heart and grieve forever.”

Remember, this is your life and your journey. Everyone else is able to go back to “normal”, while you no longer have anything that resembles normal.  If you find someone that makes you happy, then by all means be with them.

People will judge you for dating too soon and eventually for not dating soon enough (or so I am told). I have fallen into the too soon category.  There doesn’t seem to be a just right category. Expect this. Do what is right for you.  If you find a person that interests you and helps you live the life you want to live, then go for it! There is no right time, just the right person.

Receiving negative or unsupportive feedback hurts! It cuts you to your core and when you are really in the infancy stage of rebuilding your life, it can be painful and very isolating. Know that you are not alone.

No matter where your loss stems from – death or divorce – dating is hard! It is awkward, you judge yourself and you wonder if you are really ready. If you are lucky enough to find a real connection, it can renew your spirit.

Starting a new relationship takes guts! If you are a friend or family member of someone that is grieving a loss, be supportive of their decisions. They have likely spent weeks or months trying to figure out what is right for them. As long as it doesn’t put them in danger, keep your opinions to yourself and just be happy to see them smile.

3 Simple Ways to Show Your Support

1. Ask About the New Person

Then follow that up by genuinely listening. Ask questions because you care to hear all about the other person, not because you are challenging their sanity. There is a noticable difference!

2. Meet the Individual

Hold any judgements for after you actually meet the new person. Then follow the advice above and listen to really learn about them. What do they enjoy doing? What do you have in common? Why do they think your friend/sister/brother/daughter is amazing?

3. Invite the Couple to Socialize

Invite your widowed (or divorced) friend/family member to events that you may be hosting. Giving the open invitation is much more inviting than having to ask if you can bring an extra person.

4 Tips for the Widow/Divorcee

1. Don’t Feel Shame About Your Relationship

People will judge you. Have confidence and remember, this is your life and your happiness.

Sometimes people judge you because they see strength, courage and your will to live your life after loss. Not all judgement is bad! Sometimes it just feels that way.

2. Consider Your Public Relationship

Consider how much air time you are both comfortable giving your relationship in the beginning stages, especially on social media. Jon and I have chosen to keep our relationship relatively private (although I include him in my public writings – thank goodness for his common name!).

You would have a hard time finding pictures online of the two of us – that is intentional for the time being. The reason? We wanted to avoid unnecessary drama. We have both met each other’s families and many close friends. We enjoy our time out and yet it keeps our relationship stress low to remain off the digital grid – for now!

3. Find a Word You Are Comfortable With

I still can’t bring myself to introduce Jon as my boyfriend and he has never called me his girlfriend. It just seems too weird to use those terms since we have both been married.

We laughed about these words a long time ago and yet, we still haven’t come up with a good introduction. For now it is “friend” which is not my favorite…hmm, I may need to revisit this one myself!

3. Surround Your Relationship With Support

I was ignorant and thought that because people loved me they would like to see me happy and would support me. I was wrong. My new relationship made them uncomfortable and they made me feel like I was doing something wrong.

When you are just getting on your feet, this is a horrible feeling. It took a lot of time for me to move past the hurt of that experience. Surround yourself with those that will build you and your new relationship up – people that give you strength and confidence in your ability to be the champion of your life.

My New Perspective

I realized just how much judgement I was passing on to others by going through this experience. Over the years I have heard people judge others for being happy – those that have been divorced (and heaven forbid want an actual wedding for marriage #2!), those that have children out of wedlock and even those that started dating too soon after becoming a widow/widower. I’m here to say NO MORE!

I was appalled at these thoughts when I realized they crossed my own mind at times. I felt sorrow for the times and the people I had judged, even if it was only in my head. That was a reflection of ME, not them or their choices.

Now I revel in other’s happiness. When people I know and love are happy, I am happy too. It’s as simple as that!

Fellow widows or divorcees, what advice would you add for those that are going to reenter the dating scene?