Grief, Schools and Poverty – The Invisible Children

Have you ever lost someone close to you? Someone who was an integral part of your life, maybe a parent, grandparent, spouse or sibling?

How did that feel? How long did it take you to find a new “normal”? When did your concentration on your daily activities, such as work, return?

Every day I think about children who have lost a parent and wonder how they can possibly manage school. Recently, my daughters had a chance to attend Comfort Zone Camp which was an amazing opportunity for them to meet other kids like them. At the end of the weekend, we had the opportunity to hear from the social workers regarding the unique challenges students in each age group were facing. One key takeaway for me was the need to normalize loss within our school system. Our schools don’t know how to help grieving children. Many times the policies do not allow kids the time or space to grieve.

Death is a consequence of living, but that doesn’t mean it is easy for those left behind. Many students at the camp were struggling in school – either academically, behaviorally, or both. I cannot imagine being in their shoes. I know how hard it was for me to focus at work – for months – after Steve died. I didn’t have tests, I didn’t have other kids asking me questions or trying to be “normal” at the most awkward time in life. I wasn’t trying to make or keep friendships that can come and go so fast as personalities change. I wasn’t dealing with the overwhelming pressure of social media and the access to instantaneous information.

I have started talking more about grief and helping kids manage through grief while still achieving what they need to in school. Often, I am met with denial that a real problem exists or empathy but no understanding of why action is required. Why add grief to the mix when we already talk about poverty, race, and family structure?  Heck, even gender issues get more press than grief – and there are a lot more students struggling with grief than are struggling with gender identity.

Here is why it matters– and it should matter to every single community in the US. The loss of a parent means that these kids now fit the more common focus demographics of single parent households and poverty. Schools and communities focus on these two items when they talk about community support and improvement, but I have not heard one school talk about death as one of the key causes. The last census showed that 27% of widows ages 18-44 live in poverty – this is the prime age for widows to also have dependent children. That is almost double the rate of poverty in the county where I live – which is one of the higher counties in the nation. Widows were 65% more likely to live in poverty than their divorced peers. The problem goes beyond the notion of a single parent household.

I challenge everyone to think about poverty and single parent households, then add in the complete loss of security when a parent is no longer there, grief (remember the feelings you had from the opening questions?), and the loss of income which often results in the loss of the home – their safe place in a world full of change.  Can you imagine being the parent whose income is cut it half (or worse)?

Can you imagine being these children?

Poverty and single parent households are not hidden problems in the community. Compounding grief is that hidden x-factor that no one wants to talk about. Because it is hard. And we can’t fix it. But we can do things to help these kids. We can do things to help these parents in an extremely scary and uncertain part of their life.

What can we (every single one of us) do?

Last night at a community talk they highlighted “mobile vaccination units” to make sure kids are able to attend school on the first day because some parents are not capable of making the required appointments for their children. Many groups talk about the need to bring services to the people because they have no vehicle or transportation and that is a significant barrier to get basic life activities accomplished. These services are available to bridge the gap for kids that don’t have parents or caregivers that are responsible enough to complete required tasks for their children. That is a harsh statement, but true. I support these efforts because the kids cannot do it on their own and they deserve the opportunity to have an education. But, what about the kids and parents that have tried to do everything to the best of their ability and had tragedy impact their ability to be successful? What are we doing for them? In almost all cases, we as a society are doing nothing. Because we literally do not see or understand the problem. Or, they are lumped in with traditional single parent, poverty stereotypes with no understanding of the compounding loss that truly shapes their life.

What if we mobilized for children after loss? What if we meet them where they are? How much more could they learn with a focused tutor versus being thrust back in a classroom where everything is the same, yet nothing is the same for them? How do we give these kids the time and space they need throughout the day in school? I know there were times I needed to race to the bathroom or my car just to have a few moments to manage a breakdown – and I am an adult with years of experiencing managing my emotions. How do we allow the same space for kids? What “bereavement time” or bereavement options can we give to kids that have to meet requirements for state mandated days in school each year? What do kids at different age levels need so they still have the opportunity to still be successful after the loss of a parent or caregiver?

How can we support these kids in our communities? It is more than food and gift cards. It is time spent reading. Time spent helping with math. Time given to the remaining parent so they don’t have the stress of ensuring their kids don’t fall behind with their education when they can barely find the energy to take a shower. Time allowed for grief and the frustration that comes with it. There may be extra time needed on tests, and potentially a prioritization of work knowing that the focus just won’t be there to get everything done. I know I accomplished much less for months. I can only imagine the challenges these children feel as they try to keep up and even make up assignments and tests that were missed while they were out for a funeral.

Every age is different. For elementary school kids it is likely help with reading, math, and possibly some fun STEM projects to help them learn. Middle school may be focused help with core subjects, likely STEM, and possibly writing or drawing as that can be an outlet for grief. Identifying solid friends as well as individuals that can be consistent support network also benefits these kids. High school students may need more time with trusted friends – time just to be themselves. Identifying those friends or peers that can understand what they are going through as well as being a positive role model is critical. These students also need help setting goals as many feel they don’t have the same opportunities they may have had before. A consistent mentor helping with career planning and support in meeting their educational requirements would increase their chances of success exponentially.

This is a post full of questions and only a few ideas for answers. It’s a complex and hidden problem that has no single solution. The first step is awareness…then comes action. I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you have lost a parent or a spouse and would like to share your experience I’d love to read what worked or didn’t work for you and your family.

Homecoming

SunsetWho says you can’t go home? I recently wrote about my decision to move from North Dakota to Iowa. Well, this past week was our first trip back “home” to North Dakota. I struggled. A lot. Even admitting that sucks, but my goal with this blog was to be transparent and help people understand that you are never alone in your journey – whatever your journey is.

I am a person that mentally prepares for challenges. I envision the situation, walk through how I expect it to go in my mind, and then generate an action plan based on that information. This technique has helped me excel in high pressure sports situations, handle tough situations at work, and it has helped me immensely on my grief journey. This technique typically allows me to work through my emotions alone, where I can let my guard down and just let the pain hit me. When people have commented on my “strength”, I feel like a fake because they don’t see all the private struggles and pain that it takes to get to what you see in public. As much as I try to prepare, there have been many situations that I just didn’t expect, situations that I didn’t plan for. In those moments there is no stopping the emotions that hit me. This week just seemed to be full of those moments.

My journey to North Dakota actually started from my parents’ house where we had stopped for the weekend. I wasn’t even 2 miles down the road before the tears started flowing. I was able to control my thoughts occasionally throughout the trip, but reality is that they tears flowed for most of the 5 hour journey. I can’t even tell you why or what I was thinking about specifically. Just when I thought I finally was done with the tears I started down the hill to the town of Valley City, and somehow my body found even more tears. I can’t drive anywhere in that town without thinking of Steve. This is both a comfort and a piercing pain for me, and has been since his death. I am so proud of everything he helped build, and I treasure our memories, but wow, it is hard. After dropping the girls off at their grandparents’ house I went back “home” for the night.

Going Home

Pulling in the driveway at my house was weird. I realized I couldn’t pull into my garage like I always did because the person that is renting my house had his vehicle in there. That difference immediately hit me as I had to decide where to park my vehicle in my own driveway. As I walked into the house for the first time the first thing I noticed was the change in decor. It was my house, but it was different.  There was a deer head on my wall. There were family pictures that weren’t mine placed around the house. It was more than I could comprehend as I was simply emotionally exhausted. I quickly walked to my room – my sanctuary – and was surrounded by a room that was exactly the way I left it. This was my home and yet, it was so empty. I did the only thing I could do – crawl into a cold, empty bed, and pray for sleep.

The next morning was Monday, and I was ecstatic to go back to the factory where I had spent the past 7 years. I couldn’t wait to see some of my favorite people. Putting on jeans and my work boots was a simple thing, but also a special treat after having to don a “corporate” wardrobe in my new home. My workday was great – probably the best Monday I have ever had. I joined the girls for pizza at their favorite pizza joint for supper along with my in-laws. It was fun to catch up and see all the kids play together again. Shortly after it was time for me to head back to my house, alone again. I made it home in time for the sunset, and wow, what a beautiful sunset it was.  I sat on the tailgate for a couple minutes to watch it, and honestly, to just breathe and enjoy the beauty of the land and the sky.

My Moments

The week spent back in Valley City was filled with a roller coaster of emotions. I truly enjoyed spending time with one of my best friends over margaritas. I spent a lot of time each night talking to my friend that is living at my house – having someone to talk to in the house felt good. I spent time in Steve’s shop – packing mainly. I couldn’t help but feel sad that he never got the chance to experience this dream he had, but I also felt a sense of accomplishment at having finished what he started. As I walked between the house and the barn I basked in the calm. The wind wasn’t blowing (a rare treat) and the stillness in the evenings just calmed my soul. I felt like I could breathe. I felt comfort from the familiar surroundings. I stood at the door in my kitchen in the mornings and looked out to see the sun start to rise. In these moments I could see the beauty in the world while looking out on dreams that were lost.

My Message

I went to the accident site and cried in the ditch like I haven’t cried in a long time. I let myself go in a way that I can only do in private. After 20 minutes or so I could start to hear the coyotes howling and the realization of how cold I was set in. I decided to get back into my truck with the heat on, but had no plans to leave. When I turned my truck on, the gas light came on. I knew I had between 1/4 and 1/2 of a tank of fuel. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I thought maybe it was the angle of the truck, so I backed up onto the flat road. The light stayed on. It dawned on me that this may be Steve’s way of getting me to leave this location – a place where the depths of my grief were overwhelming me. I shut the truck off and restarted it – the gas light was still on. I slowly drove back to my house (I didn’t want to run out of gas!). The gas light stayed on. I parked in my driveway, not yet ready to go into the house. I still needed time to pull myself back together. The gas light stayed on. I shut the truck off and turned it back on again. The gas light stayed on. I decided it was a lost cause and figured I had better get myself together quickly before I froze and get into the house. I dried the tears, took a few deep breaths, and walked in the door. The next morning I started up my truck – and saw that I had between 1/4 and 1/2 tank – and I smiled. Steve hated to see me upset in any way. He would frantically try to fix whatever was bothering me. So, Steve, thanks for getting me out of that ditch. Thanks for getting me home safely, and thank you for not letting me linger in the worst part of my reality.

There are times when I need to remember that Steve is always with me. He sends me signs occasionally, and those signs give me comfort, strength, and guidance.

My Takeaways

1. “Home” is about the people more than it is a place. My house never felt like home after Steve died. Going “home” for the first time without Steve made me realize that the house is empty without the love that once existed.

2. You can go back to places that you love, but they will always change and never be what you remembered. Seeing my house after being away for 3 months made me realize how much I missed the memories. There are things I love about the house, but when I look out the windows, I see memories. That is what I really miss. I miss the memories – the moments of the past that will never happen again.

3. I will never have a “forever” home – and I am OK with that. Steve wanted a home for a lifetime and that is what we were hoping to make with some changes to our place. I wanted a home with him for a lifetime, although I was more willing to explore the world a little and come back to our home in Valley City. For Steve, Valley City was home. For me, Steve was home. Every person is different. We had figured out a plan that worked for us. Without Steve, my plan changed. I changed. I know Iowa will not be my forever home, and my version of making a “home” here isn’t about finding the “perfect” place. It is about making perfect memories with my children.

4. There is no amount of time that passes that will ever ease the pain completely. There will always be days that are harder than others. This trip completely exhausted me emotionally. Even when I returned to Iowa I just couldn’t really feel anything  and that is not healthy either. I have to learn how to manage future trips better emotionally.

5. All of this was worth it.

Valley City will always be a home to me. The girls and I took some time to visit the cemetery. Seeing my name on the headstone continues to ground me in the fact that my life really ended the day Steve died, and restarted when I chose to live. A part of me will come back to that place when my time on Earth is done – and that gives me peace as I continue to live the days that I have.

Going “home” was far from easy, but it was good.

(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?

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?

Weddings and Widows

A Wedding Without YouWeddings are a time of celebration, love, laughter and family. Attending a wedding as a widow also means a painful reminder of the love, hopes and dreams you had at your wedding.

I have been to three wedding since Steve passed away. Each wedding has been different – with different moments of struggle and different moments of beauty. When I reflect on these events, there are a few things that stand out to me from my new perspective as a widow.

Life Goes On

It is hard to attend weddings because they bring back so many memories of the hopes and dreams that made up my special day. However, that doesn’t make me any less happy for the couple that is now starting their journey of a lifetime.

Pray for the Happiness of Others

When I see a happy couple, I pray that they will experience the type of relationship that Steve and I had. I also pray that they have the opportunity to live out their dreams together – for much longer than I was able to live mine.

Vows Are More than Words

Each word in a wedding service holds so much more meaning now. The wedding I went to this weekend had a beautiful sermon and I can honestly say that every word was true. When you lose the person that you shared these vows, hopes and dreams with, the words seem to be deeper, more poignant.

‘Til Death Do Us Part Is Real

Many couples will never experience the unconditional love that it takes to live out the vows said on their wedding day. I can honestly say that when I got married, I knew I was getting married “forever”. It scared me.

I knew Steve and I would never give up on each other, because we were not only in love with each other, we were also best friends. What I was scared of was the struggles that I knew came with time. Marriage is not easy – we had both seen our parents struggle through different periods of time in our lives.

Marriage isn’t something you do half way, but you don’t have control over half of it – it takes two. I pictured us 50 years from our wedding day together side by side. I pictured us old. I never in my wildest imagination pictured that “’til death do us part” would become my reality. However, I am thankful to have had the kind of love that some only dream of. Steve kept his promise.

Your Heart Will Hurt

It may be a phrase, a song or just the atmosphere. Every event is different, but something will likely sneak up on you and catch you off guard. And some moments might shatter you.

At the wedding this weekend there was a time when the DJ said, “I’m going to play a special song, so listen up kids. Girls, go and get your daddy and bring him out on the dance floor, and boys, go get your mommy.” Reanna looked at me like “What do I do?” and I broke.

The tears came and I reached for her hand. I said, “I’ll dance with you honey.” At that moment my sister stepped in and told Reanna to go get her Uncle Don. She did, so that left Kaelyn. Kaelyn had found a little boy to dance with and he preferred to keep dancing with Kaelyn instead of his mommy.

I stood on the sidelines and did everything possible to stop the flow of tears, but found that it was just impossible. I wanted to curl into a ball and cry – I wanted to run away, I wanted to do anything to “fix” the fact that my children had to look for someone to dance with. Had Steve been there I would have loved this dance and this idea.

Life doesn’t change just because there is a widow in the room. It shouldn’t. In fact, it never would have crossed my mind that something so simple could cause someone so much pain. At the same time, I was happy that so many children got to dance with a parent that may not have been out on the dance floor with them otherwise.

My dad came out about half way through the song and danced with me. We were the only adults dancing together, but I didn’t care. It was the same song we danced to for our father daughter dance at my wedding. We both had tears streaming down our faces – he knew I needed him at that moment.

Living through moments like this are part of living through loss. The moments that break your heart also remind you that you have a choice in every situation – you can run, or you can dance.

Every Wedding Is Different

The first wedding I went to was a destination wedding with a friend. I went only knowing one person. The sermon had some laughter which kept the tears that threatened my eyes from falling. I focused on taking pictures and doing what I could to keep my mind occupied and the tears from falling. That night I danced with my friend and many new friends, there was only a rare moment off the dance floor.

The second wedding I went to was for my cousin and my daughters were the flower girls. I cried seeing them look like little brides. I remember when Nina asked if the girls would be part of her wedding and how excited Steve and I both were to give them the “princess” treatment for the day. I made sure that dream we had came true.

There were many moments when I could feel their father with us that day and the pride he had in his two princesses. The toughest part about that wedding was the clear lack of a dance partner. At the first wedding, I danced with my friend and I didn’t feel alone. I’d had a partner for so many years with Steve that I honestly didn’t know what to do without anyone there. I’d walk outside during the slow songs and dance with my girls the rest of the time.

The wedding this past weekend is the first one that I was able to focus on the ceremony and the service. The words were beautiful, deep and true. There may come a day when I choose to spend my life with another person. When that day comes, every word will be held dear, every moment will be appreciated – and this time there will be no fear. I have known real love, real loss and survived.

Participation In “Single” Activities

You know the ones – the garter and bouquet toss. But as a widow, are you single? By law, yes. In my heart, absolutely not.

Do I participate? So far, I haven’t. I think this is a completely personal decision and at the same time one that doesn’t have to mean much. I may choose to participate someday or maybe I won’t.

Weddings as a widow can be uncomfortable. Bouquets and garters are not worth the worry though – your decision does not affect anyone, do whatever feels right to you in that moment.

Attending and Celebrating Life Events Is Good for the Soul

Weddings remind me of how much I was loved. They remind me of my hopes and dreams. They remind me that the world still dreams even while I am trying to piece together new dreams for myself and my girls.

Weddings remind me to hope and pray that others get the opportunity to grow together for many many years. They also remind me that there are no guarantees in life, so we must love as much as we can with the time that we have.

Fellow widows, what would you add to this list? Divorcees, are your feelings and perceptions different than mine?

6 Ways to Keep Living While Grieving

Photo Credit: Helga Weber via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Helga Weber via Compfight cc

Life is hard.

Living through loss makes it even harder. There is a period of time where you feel dead. Your soul has been ripped out and you just feel numb. When you’re not numb, you hurt. Sometimes numb is better than feeling pain. I used all of my energy each day to just make it through – the paperwork, the processes, paying the bills and making sure my kids had food.

As I was battling to survive each day, I started to remember what Steve and I had promised each other. We promised that no matter what happened to us we would always put our children first. I also promised Steve that I would LIVE life and take care of our children if anything happened to him. Everyday that I spent feeling dead was a day that I was breaking my promise to him.

That broken promise began to become fuel for change. I gave him my word – I became determined to keep it.  It wasn’t easy – I can assure you it was not. However, the story you tell yourself is POWERFUL. You have the choice to be a victim or the champion in your life. As I thought about our children, I wondered what type of role model did I want to be for them?  What did I want them to see when they looked back at this period in their life? I answered these questions for myself. Here are some ways I moved myself from death to life. You can do it too!

1. Identify What’s Most Important

For me, it was showing my girls that they were safe, loved and cared for. They were going through a situation in life that no child should ever have to endure and it was my job to show them that we would make it through this together.

They needed to know that being sad was okay and we could talk about it together – but it was also okay to play.  If I couldn’t pull it together, then my children would have essentially lost two parents in a time that they needed one the most.

2. Focus on What’s in Your Control

I would have given anything to go back to that day and somehow change the outcome – anything! Unfortunately, no amount of tears, focus, guilt, or pleading with God would change the outcome. There was no redo or rewind button.

What I could control was how I engaged with my children. I could choose how I wanted my children to remember their father and I could choose to show my children how to deal with significant life challenges.

3. Ask for Help

Why is it SO hard to ask for help? This is what I am the worst at – even today. After Steve died, I had a crew come out and help me finish the barn which was one of his goals. They did what I could not do alone.

I had to get a tax advisor because I had never done taxes before and had no clue where to start. I sought advice from a friend knew a lawyer to deal with the beneficiary issues.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help with non-critical or technical tasks. People want to help and don’t know how – they’ll be happy to help if you give them something specific to do!

4. Write Down Goals That You Had Together

The one that stands out the most for me is taking our girls to Disney World. We had planned to do this in 2-3 years and were really looking forward to it. In my mind I questioned whether I would be able to give our girls this opportunity without a dual income household. I also had immense guilt in thinking that our girls wouldn’t get to experience life the way we had planned as a family, because I couldn’t afford it.

We may not be able to do everything – it may take a few extra years, but I know we will have these adventures together.  Disney became a priority to me and I opted to put a portion of Steve’s savings into a CD, so that the money would be there when we were ready. I’ll find money for bills in another place or another way. Daddy will make our Disney dreams come true after all!

5. Find Your New Life Balance

I realized that I struggle a lot on days that I don’t get enough sleep. Cleaning the house and doing other activities have to wait if sleep is needed instead. Sleep is essential for me to execute on #1 above.

Going for a run also helped immensely. At first, I ended up hyperventilating and really struggled through a lot of workouts – in the end I felt like I accomplished something. Running became my outlet and by the time I finish a run my head is clearer – I feel like I’m back in control of my life – at least for a moment!

6. Lean on a Buzz Word or a Theme Song

I have both. Steve had a wall hanging that I had given him as a father’s day gift one year that hung in his office. It was titled “Perseverance” and for me that word fit. I kept that picture where I could see it and it reminded me that I needed to persevere through this.

Steve also had a love of music and we connected often through the words in a song. There was one song in particular that he played for me when we felt like we were struggling with life – Faith When I Fall. After Steve died, my mind kept repeating the lyrics, “Give me strength when I am standing and faith when I fall.” I’m not sure if Steve put those words in my mind and heart, but those lyrics have repeated themselves in my head thousands of times in this past year – it’s now my theme song.

Different things will work for different people, but these are six ways I found to keep living while I was grieving. They are still things I do to this day! I hope that they help someone else through their grief.

Is there anything else that helped you keep living while grieving?

Widowed Life

Photo Credit: docoverachiever via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: docoverachiever via Compfight cc

Living life as a widow is something no one imagines or dreams of.

If you are not a widow – be thankful that you have never had to go through our pain. If you are a widow, know you are not alone. Widows are unique. We have lived through losing our future. We have had to wake up to the empty bed, fallen asleep with unwashed clothes just for the scent, and put on a brave face for the world to ease the discomfort of others. Loss of your spouse shakes you to your core.

Being a widow means surviving through times when you are surprised you can even breathe. It means gaining a mental toughness to handle the challenges of broken dreams and the memories of a life that ended too soon. For widowed parents it means telling your children that their parent is never coming home.

Widows Around Us

Once I became a widow, I started to notice all the widows around me. News of car accidents and plane crashes now make me think that someone else just joined the widowed life. I knew some widows before becoming one, but I never slowed down my life enough to truly attempt to understand their struggles. I certainly never thought I would be forced into this new world.

When I first became a widow I felt alone, scared, and devastated. Friends and family helped me to the absolute best of their ability, but I was acutely aware of the fact that they were able to go back to their normal life and my normal had all but disappeared. My normal had been stolen – shattered, and I had no idea how to even begin to piece it back together. A year out, I can say that it still hasn’t gone back together. Widows have to create a new life to move past surviving and into living again.

Embracing Widowhood

Accepting the term widow is a journey in itself. Months went by before I started to even say the word. Now it’s like a second name.  The word used to make me think of an old woman, who wears black all the time, surrounded by gray and dreary days.  I couldn’t wrap my head around associating that word with me.  I can now tell people that I am a widow without feeling uncomfortable.  The term “widow” describes something that happened to you, it does not describe YOU.

Being a widow means that you loved, lost, and survived. I was lucky enough to have been married to my best friend and honestly the best person I ever met in my life. Many people in this world never know that feeling. I was proud to be his wife – one thing I can do to remember the love we had in our marriage is to be honored to be his widow. He lived his vows and truly loved me “until death do us part”. What more could I have asked for?

Learning From Experience

My saving grace came in the form of other widows. Although I knew a few, I never realized how many widows were already in my life! Widows are like a hidden group of beautiful souls that have been forever changed.

My aunt became a widow when my uncle passed away in his early 40’s from cancer. I cried at the funeral and celebrated when she started dating again. But, in-between? Nothing. I didn’t know how to help – or that I should.

I met another widow at a neighborhood party hosted by Steve’s aunt and uncle. I had met this person a few times before, but never knew she had been widowed. She asked how I was doing in a way that only those that have walked through grief would understand. She gave me advice about making decisions that result in my and my children’s happiness. Most importantly she shared her story with me about the social stigmas of being a widow.

Society thinks there is an “appropriate” time to grieve. Some would say it is a year, some two years, while others are concerned if you couldn’t pull your life together in a couple months. In the grieving process you move too slow or too quick – there’s no just enough that is spelled out for you. You start to wonder what is wrong with you.

This is where we can help. Widows helping widows is POWERFUL. There is hope, guidance, and normalcy that can only be offered by those that have walked before you on this journey. It is a journey indeed and often one of self discovery.

For the Non-Widows

Have you ever been divorced? Lost a sibling or a child? Do you know someone who has been there? It’s a lonely place to be. My goal is to help those that are going through any life altering event. There are no winners or losers in the grief journey. There is no competition or measuring stick about who’s journey is worse.

We need to accept that life is the journey. Some of us are thrown hand grenades that forever alter our course. We all know someone who has had a life altering experience through divorce or death. We are all in this together.

Why Blog?

This blog was started with the hope that by sharing my story I can have a positive impact on others. I’ve learned a lot about myself through this journey and a lot about what it means to be prepared for the worst in life. There will be tactical, easy activities that you can complete within a couple hours to ensure you are prepared for the unexpected. I want everyone to be prepared – ideally before a life altering event. Most importantly I want you to know that you are not alone.

In the past I was guilty of temporarily feeling sorry for someone that just lost a spouse and then moving on with my life. Occassionally I would say to Steve, “I can’t imagine ever losing you.”  Your mind goes there after hearing of someone else’s loss (or at least mine did) and it was horrible to imagine. The imagery was was nothing compared to reality.

People surround you and help, but then everyone else gets to go back to their own life.  Their life may be altered by the loss, but as a new widow, you are left with the ashes of a life. It’s almost as if there is no life to return to. It takes time, strength, and sheer persistence to literally start your life over.

My goal is to make it OK to be a widow. There are a lot of “young” widows in this world and I want to empower us to make a difference together. Widowhood is now synonymous with strength in my mind – I don’t have a life like any of my friends. I don’t live a life that people dream of. In fact, one moment in my life reflects most people’s deepest fears.  One moment.

What I have come to realize is that there is one moment in time that changed my life forever.  One simple moment.  One decision that I would have made 100 percent of the time.  Steve did exactly what I would have done and yet, that decision resulted in the end of his life.

One moment changes a life, but it doesn’t have to define it.  What defines life is how you live each day. Being a widow means seeing the world differently than everyone else around you. Let’s embrace our differences together, empower one another, and give each other strength.

Are you a part of the Widow Club? Feel free to share your story in the comments or reach out to us via the contact page.