(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?

8 Years Later: Our Story & My Loss

Today we have a guest post from Holly Hrywnak, who blogs regularly at The Common Queen. Even though Holly isn’t a widow in the technical sense, she does know what it’s like to love deeply and lose the person she thought she’d marry. Holly has an authentic and engaging voice that tells beautiful and insightful stories. Here’s one that she wrote just for us based on her real life experience of love and loss.

Photo Credit: Aih. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Aih. via Compfight cc

His 35th birthday is this month.

It’ll be his 8th birthday in Heaven.

For JD’s 26th birthday, I surprised him. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Autumn, which made the four hour commute much more enjoyable. My plan had been to show up at his church and spend the day with him.

In the end, it was he who surprised me.

Arriving at the church, I saw his mom greeting people at the door, which is where he was supposed to be. We hugged and she told me he left the house early, but that he’d be there soon. I’ll admit, I was a little bit disappointed. I spent four hours dreaming up the look on his face when I entered the building, but now the moment was lost. Or so I thought.

I began helping his mom hand out bulletins, and greet people as they entered. I knew no one, but they all hugged me and smiled. I was distracted though – my eyes darting to the door whenever someone entered. Finally, I saw those familiar blue eyes. They met mine and his face lit up with such joy and love and it was better than I had dreamed up during my drive.

JD and I hadn’t been dating. We had known each other for a few years, but I could never accept that someone like him could like someone like me. Three years earlier, our eyes had met across a crowded room. We became friends – much closer than any of our classmates had known. We’d spend hours talking on the phone. I’d write him letters. He’d take me out for coffee. I’d find excuses to talk to him. He’d steal my friend’s seats in class to be near me.

It went on like this until graduation. He went back to his hometown and I prepared to move halfway across the US to work in full time ministry. Surprising him for his birthday would be the last time I’d see him before I moved, which is why it was so important to me.

After the hugs and line of questioning, we sat down as church began. I couldn’t tell you a song that was sung that morning, or the theme for the sermon. All I knew is that I was where I should be – next to him. During the message, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I want to take you up to grandma’s.” I looked at him and smiled.

JD’s grandparents had been very important to him. He’d spent hours on their farm as a boy and it was one of his favorite places. Now that his grandparents had passed away, the house was empty, but JD had hoped to make it his own. As we walked through each room, he’d share a special memory or renovations he’d like to make. In one of the side rooms, he pointed out the window to the apple orchard and the vineyards. He continued on to the next room, not noticing I hadn’t moved.

It was there that I knew his dreams were also my dreams.

The fact that JD was dreaming at all was hopeful to me. About a year after we met, he told me he had a terminal illness. He’d had it since he was a little boy and it had him in and out of the hospital. I still remember the night he told me. We were sitting across from one another in the noisy cafeteria eating dinner, but I was focused solely on him. There were lots of questions and he answered them all – I remained calm and collected, but told him I’d be praying and standing with him.

From that night on, I’d spend hours praying for him. Begging Jesus to heal the man I loved.

“Even if he never loves me. Please, God. Please.”

I was more diligent praying for him than for anything or anyone else. It was the fight of my life.

A few months after his birthday, I moved 1,300 miles away from him like I had planned. Each month, I’d send him a letter full of scriptures God had given me, quotes from songs I had heard and prayers that I had been praying for him. We’d talk on the phone when we could and I’d soak in the sound of his voice.

In May 2006, JD was back in the hospital and because of the nature of his disease, it would make it difficult for him to talk – he was on the lung transplant list waiting for a donor match. I received a text message from him that read, “I love you.” He’d never said that to me before. Things had been unspoken between us. I knew where I stood, but my insecurities kept telling me that JD would never love me.

But he did.

I called my best friend that night asking her what she thought it meant. She laughed and said, “It means he loves you, Holly.”

In August, I was able to fly back to visit him. He had been out of the hospital for a few months and I was excited to get time with him and feel his arms wrap around me. The night before my visit, his mom called me and said they had to go back to the hospital, but I was determined to get to him regardless of where he was. I spent the day by his side. In between doctors visits, he’d share the hopes of our future together. After all that time of waiting, he was finally telling me everything I had wanted to hear!

The tears rolled down his face as he told me how tired and discouraged he had become and how he felt like he couldn’t even pray for himself anymore. I reassured him that it didn’t matter because I’d continue to pray for him and that I wouldn’t be giving up.

That was the last day I’d see JD alive.

A few days later, I was sitting in a church, his open casket a few feet away from me. I watched his chest hoping to see it begin to rise and fall.

I thought you were going to heal him, God. Why did you take him from me?! This can’t be real.

The day his mother told me he died, life left me. All of my dreams and hopes for a future were buried six feet under. I just couldn’t figure it out – why would God give me such an amazing man only to take him away before we could enjoy life together? I still ask God that question. I’m not sure He ever plans on answering it.

It’s been eight years without JD and the loss has not gotten any easier. My grief has gotten easier to hide since most people have stopped asking about it. Everyone seems to think that eight years is enough time to “get over it”. They’ve forgotten it – why can’t I? The thing is, I don’t want to get over it or beyond it. I want to experience its depths even when it comes in waves. Waves so fierce they take the air out of me and my heart feels like it’s going to collapse from the weight of the loss.

Each day that goes by, is one more without him. The gap between us ever widening. I’m afraid the details of our time together will become more and more hazy – that I’ll forget the sound of his voice, the blueness of his eyes, or what it felt like to have my hand in his. I grasp on to the memories in an attempt to keep them from slipping away.

Within the past year, I’ve started dreaming again instead of just merely surviving from day to day. The dreams have many more question marks and blanks, but they are beginning to take shape. I’m no longer dreaming with a partner for the adventure, which makes the process that much harder and slower. I didn’t think it would be this way.

I never regretted loving him. I only regret not loving him even more fiercely. For far too long, I had kept myself at an arms length afraid to have my heart broken from rejection. I’ve stopped loving carefully. If I learned anything through losing him, it was that.

Holly H.Thank you Holly for sharing your beautiful and touching story! Feel free to connect with Holly further by visiting her blog, Twitter, her FB page or via Google+.

Holly is a 30-year-old writer who strives to share honestly and transparently in hopes that it will encourage others to be open about their own struggles and lessons learned. She’s been accused of being sassy, which she finds to be an admirable attribute. Her favorite things include: making people laugh, chocolate, sweatshirt weather and authentic conversations over coffee.

10 Learnings From My First Year As a Widow

10 Learning's From My First Year As a WidowOne year ago I lost my best friend, my husband, and the father of my children.

I also lost myself. Losing a spouse means losing the person you planned your life with. You lose the future as you had dreamt it. These past 12 months have taken me to the very depths of my soul. It completely drained me of everything – and forced me to find myself again.

Reinventing myself meant finding my new purpose in life. My husband, Steve, had a purpose. He wanted to be remembered as a man devoted to his family and a person that contributed to making our home, Valley City, North Dakota, a great place to live.

At his funeral, I realized that he achieved his goals – in spades. Weird as it sound, his funeral motivated me. The world lost a great man and now I needed to figure out how to live my life with a purpose to honor him. In short – that is why this blog exists.

I’m learning that a big part of my purpose is my desire to positively contribute to other people’s lives. Where this adventure leads me is yet to be fully known, but if I can make a difference for even one person my time writing is well spent.

Through my new world as a widow I have come to see life a little differently. I hope to connect with widows and non-widows alike, as we all try to get the most out of this one life we have. Through my experiences over the last year, I now see the world differently – in a way I wish I would have seen it all along. Here are ten ways my perspective has changed.

1. Amazing People Exist Everywhere

A person I hardly knew became my daily support, confidant, and shoulder to cry on. I also met widows that gave me great unsolicited advice and affirmation that all of the mixed emotions (highs and lows) I experienced were completely normal. They helped me feel okay when nothing in life was normal.

There are times in life where you need people that have walked in your shoes. It reaffirms that you are neither alone, nor losing your mind. Connecting with others in my grief helped me to see these beautiful souls and how they lived their life after loss. They gave me strength and the belief that not only would I get through the grief, but I would be able to live again.

There were also many people that truly stepped up to help me during this past year. There are so many “little” things that truly make a big difference to a new widow – there will be a future post on this topic!

2. Make Sure to Implement Your Financial Plan

My husband ran the finances in our marriage. A few months before Steve died I commented to him that if anything ever happened to him I wouldn’t know where to start. He turned on his computer and showed me where all of our financial information resided.

When he passed and I had to start figuring things out, I realized this information was only the tip of the iceberg of what I actually needed. Even though he was a financial savvy guy, there were some small details that were missed that left a big impact on our family.

I’ve learned a lot about personal finances through my experience. I’d like to help others avoid some of the financial oversights we made by sharing some of the simple plans I have put into place since his passing to ensure all of our affairs are truly in order if something happens to me.

3. Kids Are Amazing

They are the most resilient, innocent, and best things in life – period. We have two children who were two and four when Steve passed away. I always called Steve the 75% parent, because he was. He lived for our girls and I realized that I need to truly engage in their life.

I used to be content to sit back and watch them play or stay behind the camera. No more. It HAS to be me and I have to make time for play. My kids are amazing and they inspire me to be the best I can be. They deserve the best of me!

4. Life Isn’t Perfect

I used to think that I had to be okay, even if I wasn’t. I felt like I needed to live like everything was under control and “perfect” from the outside looking in. No more – I am a real person with real feelings. I have good days and bad days. I have reasons to feel extremely blessed and reasons to feel cheated. Don’t we all? Let’s be real together.

5. Sunsets and Sunrises Are Windows Into Heaven

Have you ever stopped your life just to watch the sun rise or set? Have you ever set time aside to just clear your mind and see the beauty in these moments? A sunrise or sunset is a metaphor for so many things in life. There is beauty all around this world if we just pause for a moment to truly see it.

6. I Have An Angel

Life does exist after death. I struggled for a period of time wondering if there was a God. If there was, how could he take such an amazing father, husband and contributor to the world? Then I realized we are given angels on Earth to teach us how to live. I had an angel on Earth and now I have an angel in heaven.

I have a whole new consciousness and accountability knowing that I live on Earth for both of us. Steve lives through me. I’ve been given signs, as have multiple members of our family that he is still with us.

My faith has been strengthened through this loss because I had to truly believe that heaven exists. It has to exist or I will never see Steve again. That is a reality that I cannot and will not accept. Someday, I will go home to Steve. After all, the last thing I ever said to him was, “I’ll see you at home.” I didn’t know how true that statement was at the time.

Mitch Albom said it best, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

7. Focus On Your Story

Goodbyes make you think about the story you made together and the chapters that were left to write.  The story that has been written never changes or diminishes. For those that remain, the ending is yet to be written.  Life is too short – write the story you would love to read!

IMG_40298. Write (and Keep) Love Notes

Love notes from Steve have become treasures to me. When I first lost my husband I felt this deep guilt and regret for not being a better wife. I regretted the times I was upset with him as what we were fighting about now seems trivial. I wondered if I ever told him how much he truly meant to me.

Then I found the letters. Not only can I see the love he had for me in his own handwriting, but I have tangible proof that while I was far from perfect I did tell him how important and loved he was in my life.

“When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure.” ~unknown

9. Journaling Helps

I was never one to sit and journal, but I started to write after Steve died. Fear was my motivator. Fear that I would forget the memories that kept flooding into my mind. Fear that something would happen to me and my children would never know these stories.

I found that writing gave me an outlet. It helped to calm my anxieties. In the moments when I was crying so hard I could barely breathe, I would do the only thing I could do – write. Calling someone was out of the question because I couldn’t even speak. I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway.

Being a widow is a lonely place, even with a lot of well meaning, caring, and genuine people around you. I very rarely started writing in my journal with a plan. I would just pick it up and write whatever came to my mind. Over time, I realized that each of my journal entries naturally flowed from memories or situations out of my control into what action I could take, or what changes I would make to my life to honor my memories.

I found that by the time I finished writing in my journal I was more relaxed, felt more confident, and had the start of a plan – all without even trying! If you are struggling with anything – grief, weight, relationships – pick up a pen and randomly write what is on your mind. You’ll be amazed and what you find within yourself!

10. Life Is What You Make It

No more and no less. Each day is a new opportunity to CHOOSE how to live your life. Only you can control the outcome of each day. Be aware of the “can’ts” or “shoulds” in your head. Then get your game face on and prove yourself different!

I plan on expanding on all of these learning’s in their own posts over time, but when I sat down and thought about this last year – my first as a widow, these are the things that came to mind. When you haven’t experienced a loss in this capacity, it can be hard to really understand the gravity of how your life will change. I hope that you’ll take the time to appreciate the loved ones in your life a little more today – maybe even write a love note or two!

Have you experienced a similar loss? If so, is there something you would add to my list of learnings?

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