Writing Chapter 2: My First Year of Dating as a Widow

8254344229_cc4e945c10I have surpassed the one year anniversary of stepping into a new relationship – chapter two if you will.

Stepping forward into a chapter 2 is scary, regardless of why or how your chapter one ended. Here are five things I learned along my journey.

1. You Will Never Be Ready

There is no “right” time. There is no magic timeline that exists.

If I had not met Jon, I still wouldn’t be ready for a chapter two. It isn’t about the time that’s passed – it’s about the people that come into your life. You are paralyzing yourself if you over-analyze your “readiness.” Be with people that make you happy – that is what life is truly about.

2. Be Confident

Confidence is hard to come by when the world as you know it disappears. You will never feel like you have enough confidence. The key is to have a clear understanding of what you do and do not want in your future life.

What I wanted was to be happy, to live in the moment, appreciate the people that add joy to my life, and be a good role model for my children. I didn’t know exactly what action I would have to take to get there, but those are the four things I wanted to focus on for the rest of my life.

When you are starting a second chapter, there will be people that actively support you, and unfortunately, there will be people that do not. Be confident in who you are. Understand why this person is important enough to invite into your life.

For me it was relatively simple – he made me smile and he gave me the gift of his time when I needed a friend. Cling to that knowledge when people doubt you.

3. People Will Surprise You

The surprise could be very good – there are some wonderful, kind, caring, and compassionate people in this world. The surprise could also be negative, because there are also people that are judgmental and those that believe widows “should” be doing/not doing certain things on a timeline.

You will be surprised where people fall on the spectrum. Just remember that their response is a reflection of them, not you. Refer to #2 – and have confidence in yourself!

4. Get to Know Your Chapter Two

Take the time to get to know him/her as a person. They are not your chapter one. There are many things I miss about Steve, but there are also many different things I love about Jon. There are new traits to appreciate, and it is okay to miss what you don’t have – just don’t let missing that something take away from the great things you do have.

No two people are the same, and no one is perfect. What is important is your ability to appreciate and enjoy your chapter two for all the positive things they add to your life. They will never take anything away from your chapter one – that chapter was written, and the words cannot change – for better or for worse.

5. Be Open to New Conversations

As I said above, a chapter two relationship is very different from a chapter one. People don’t go through life expecting to ever have the chapter two experience – you go through life hoping to find “the one” to spend your entire life with. When that doesn’t happen you are left trying to figure out how to piece together a life that you never imagined.

There may be kids, exes, extra in-laws, and grief to work through. There are new “meet the parents” moments and families are dynamic to say the least! Your chapter two may be going through their own loss or life transition, and you will need to support them just as they should be supporting you. You will wade through conversations that you never imagined, but having those conversations is the key to developing a strong long term relationship.

In Conclusion

Transitioning from chapter one to chapter two has been a journey of personal development for me. Developing confidence in my ability to survive without Steve, and being a strong role model for our children has not come without challenges and a lot of self-doubt.

This past year has had a lot of ups, downs, and major life changes. There were many tears, but also so many moments of happiness. Life is never easy, but I have learned that adversity makes a person appreciate life just a little more.

This year has made me into the person I am today – happy, confident, and optimistic about the future. I guess that can happen twice ;)!

If you have a chapter two, what else would you add to this list?

Photo Credit: Chiew Pang via Compfight cc

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.

10 Life Lessons I learned in Peru

Machu PicchuWe took a bucket list trip to celebrate my chapter 2’s 40th birthday – a milestone that my husband, Steve, did not get to experience. I expected to see some Inkan ruins and learn a little about the Inka culture. What actually happened was an experience in life lessons weaved throughout the history and culture of Peru.

Most people will not have the chance to visit Peru in their lifetime, so I wanted to share the top 10 things I learned about life on this trip.

1. Explore the world around you.

I love to travel. Love it. Peru was never a place I thought I would go, but I am so glad I did! Machu Picchu exists today (as well as most of the world) because people were not afraid to step away from their comfort zone. They were willing to not only take the road less travelled, they created the road. By doing this, they created a history worth remembering.

Create the opportunity to learn about the journey of others – seek it out – you will be surprised what you can learn.

2. Walk

When was the last time you walked somewhere new in your town? We walked an unbelievable amount and by walking we discovered delicious places to eat, neat souvenirs, participated in the local market, and saw incredible Inkan ruins. In Peru, everyone walks – children as young as two can walk longer distances than many American adults. Peruvian adults with children carry them on their backs using a blanket tied around them. People young and old carry items from the market or field to their homes – heavy stuff! The human body is amazing. I am thankful to have a choice whether to walk or not, and just how much I am willing to carry at a time. I’m committed to walking and exploring my new hometown as a family this summer.

3. Find God in your heart

One of the most profound messages I heard from our tour guide was said in passing. In Peru, the Spaniards came and destroyed many Inka structures in an attempt to bring Christianity (Catholicism) to the people. Many Peruvians today practice both Inka traditions and catholic traditions (including our guides). When asked about the blending of cultures, our guide stated, “when you find God in your heart, it does not matter how you worship him. When you truly find God, you will have peace and love in your heart and you will live your beliefs.” The Inka Gods are different than the Christian Gods, but they do not compete in the hearts of Peruvians.

I am a Christian that has struggled to find a church “home” and this perspective was a great reminder that it is much more important to live your life as a reflection of your beliefs than it is to focus on what you need to do to fit a certain mold.

Many people question God when they lose a loved one – believe me, I did! What I quickly realized was that in order to see Steve again I had to believe. If I didn’t believe in Him, then there was no chance of seeing Steve again. I also continue to receive signs that he is around me – these signs have solidified my faith that Steve is always with me. He continues to give me strength and guidance on how to live my life post-loss.

4. Give thanks for the good in your life

The Inka culture uses Shamans (healers) to help them give thanks for what they have in their life. The culture recognizes that everyone has challenges and struggles in life, but there are also many opportunities to give thanks. When a new house or building is constructed, the construction company must have a Shaman blessing with the family or owners before it can be used. If a family purchases a car, they should also have a Shaman blessing for their good fortune. The Inka culture requires a form of meditation (taking the time to reflect) when blessings occur in your life. This could be a house, a child, a job, a new animal or any number of things.

We were able to participate in a Shaman healing ceremony during our trip. The blessing includes gifts to the Gods (these are very small items, but tokens that represent significant beliefs in their culture), but the most profound thing was the 3 coca leaves that each individual receives from the Shaman. There is a leaf that represents a prayer or blessing for oneself, a leaf that requires a prayer or blessing for someone you love, and a leaf that represents a prayer for the pacha mama (mother Earth – this could be something as simple as rain for the crops, clean water, or could be as complex as peace in the world). You breathe life into these prayers by giving a breath over each leaf as they are given back to the Shaman.

Take the time to give thanks for the blessings in your life. When I was at the depths of my grief, the one thing that could bring me out of my black hole was finding something to be thankful for. This takes practice, but practice becomes habit. I plan to focus on developing this more with my daughters. I already ask them “what was your favorite part of today?”, but I have added, “What is one thing you are thankful for today?”. This has led to some adorable dinner discussions!

5. Add Value

In Peru, the expectation is that every person provides value. They have an unemployment rate around 28%, and yet I only had one person ask me for money. One. When was the last time you walked around a US city and only saw one person begging? We have millions of people that plan their lives around government assistance in the US – it is not the same in Peru. Peruvians expect that even those with nothing will add value. These individuals can sell small trinkets and Peruvians will pay more than necessary to help the family. People shine shoes for 1 sol (about $0.32), they wash windows, they knit, they clean. The point is that they must sell or provide some value to the person that is spending the money. Anything less is considered laziness and is seen as disgraceful in their society – they will not contribute to that behavior.

This is one trend I wish America would learn. Life isn’t about handouts. It isn’t about what is fair. Life is what you make it. Everyone has setbacks, challenges, and losses. Some hide it more than others, but we all have struggles. What we do with our time on Earth is what matters. Focus on what you can do in this life to add value to your family and your community. This may be in the form of time, talent, or treasure, but please, please, add value! You are here to make a difference, you are here for a reason – don’t waste it!

6. Help your neighbors and friends.

In Peru, if a person needs help (like a new roof on their house) they will bring bread and some beer (the amount is based on the size of the request) to their friends and family to ask for help with the project. By accepting the bread, the individual commits to providing assistance. Neighbors, friends, and families work together in the fields, in markets, and in their homes.

These practices made me realize that I need to put more effort in to developing these relationships in my new town and be willing to help and be helped when needed.

When Steve died a group of our co-workers (both Grotberg Electric and John Deere) came out to my house to help me finish our barn, repair the horse arena, and help me winterize my house. Their presence meant so much to me as it reminded me of how much Steve was loved by so many, and it lifted a burden off of my shoulders.

Jon and I are planning to pursue opportunities to devote time to local charities along with our children in the Quad Cities. We want to teach them to contribute to the community by being good examples ourselves. Stay tuned – there may be some posts about these adventures!

7. Teach children to contribute

I was amazed at the children of Peru. They are beautiful souls that work hard alongside their parents and relatives. Our guides explained that everyone is expected to contribute (see #5) and it is the parent’s duty to teach children how to work, farm, sell, and buy items. If a parent raises a child that does not contribute, the child is deemed lazy, and the parents are to blame.

We saw children with alpacas on leashes (running around town laughing!) or carrying lambs to allow tourists to take pictures with them for money. We saw 2 and 3 year olds working with their families all day at the markets (and they were very well behaved). We met a 9 and an 11 year old that cleaned the graves at the cemetery for money for their families. I was able to give the children in the cemetary bread as a gift for their families and it was truly humbling to think that bread means so much to them.

Children, especially those from the poorer families, must contribute to the overall success of the family. This in turn teaches the children how to work and survive in the real world. At 5 they know how to safely cross streets alone. They can find their way home. They learn the value of money.

My take away from this is that my children are capable of much more than I ask of them. I need to teach them to contribute to the family more and give them a sense of pride in doing so. They are not too young at ages 4 and 6 – I just need to give up the idea of perfection, and be thankful for the contribution.

8. Honor life with celebrations and remember those that impacted your life

We visited a cemetery to understand the Inka traditions surrounding the loss of loved ones. On the outside of a cemetery was a mural with a celebration. Our guide stated, “Of course we are sad when a loved one dies, but it is our duty to celebrate their life and be happy that they have gone to be with the Gods. We owe it to them to continue to live our life.”

The trip to the cemetery in Peru was hard for me. I missed Steve. At 29, I saw my own headstone – the place that someday will be one of my final resting places.  I worked my way through the grief and sadness the best I could in that moment. I was reminded that my love for Steve is reflected in the way I live my life, how I raise our daughters, and how I remember him every single day. He is with me no matter where in the world I am, and he is always in my heart. I visit Steve in a different way, but just like Peruvians, I take the time to remember and that is the important part.

9. Have fun!

We happened to be in Cusco, Peru for the final day of Carnival. And, wow, what an experience! There are parades and music, dancing, laughter, and fun. Carnival involves people spraying each other with squirt guns, throwing buckets of water on people, covering each other in silly string, and even some shaving cream. There are drive by squirtings…I have never seen so many people having so much fun – adults, children, tourists, and locals. I will say as a tourist *most* of the locals did not try to “get” us. However, it didn’t take long on our walk to get covered in shaving cream, have a water balloon popped by my head and all over me, and get squirted with a water gun. And I laughed, giggled, and just took it all in. What a pleasure to be a part of an event where people genuinely have fun together no matter who you are! It was a great sense of community and it was so humbling to see the people of all societal levels enjoy the camaraderie of each other. Carnival was one of my favorite memories on this trip.

10. Do the unexpected for others.

This trip was humbling in many ways. Our tour guides did so many little things that made a huge difference in our experience, but there are two specific stories I would like to share.

We opted to have a traditional Peruvian supper at the home of a local Peruvian family one night. During the dinner, the question was asked about why we made the trip, and we replied that we came to celebrate a birthday. Raul (one of the tour guides) immediately leaned over to me and asked how to spell Jon’s name. He wrote it down, finished his food quickly, and got up from the table. This was not unusual as he was translating for the host family and us due to the language barrier. Between the main course and the end of dessert, he was able to find a cake, get it personalized, get candles, and communicate with the host family what was going on. How he found one at 8:30pm I will never know! The host family sang the Peruvian version of happy birthday and we sang happy birthday in English immediately afterward. Once the candles were blown out, Raul informed Jon that he had to bite the cake – like bite into the side of it before it could be cut! When he went to do that, Raul pushed his face into the side of the cake – and it was all caught on film. Jon got him back by kissing his cheek with his cake covered face. It was a celebration to remember and my absolute favorite memory of this trip!

The second story was when we left at the airport. Raul pulled us aside and said he wanted to give the two of us a gift. He gave us each a necklace with the cross of life. He stated that he could feel that our hearts had been through a lot of pain (we did not share any part of either of our pasts with people on this trip), and stated that surviving that type of pain makes the heart stronger. He said that he could feel the love that we had for each other, and that a love like ours was a blessing that should be treasured. He gave us the cross of life to remember that when one part of life ends, another begins, and we have an opportunity to still live a great life.

What amazing and profound words from someone that has only known us for a few days – someone that had no clue what either of us has gone through.

There are times in life when you feel blessed, humbled, and thankful for the angels that walk this Earth. I believe Raul was sent to make a difference in our life, and give us a message focused on the strength and power that we have together. There are people that still don’t understand our journey, but that is OK. It isn’t their journey it is ours.

My take-away from this is to look for opportunities to go out of my way for others. I also need to step out of my comfort zone more often and encourage others to live life to the fullest. The day I returned, I recieved an email from a widow looking for someone to talk to. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Peru was a beautiful country – I can’t even begin to describe it in words and the pictures do not do it justice. The country is safe, and the people are very nice. Our experience on a very quick 4 day trip was excellent, and I learned an incredible amount about the Inka culture, Peruvian people, and most importantly, I learned more about life.

What are some lessons you have learned through traveling? What is the best place you have ever been, and why?

(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?

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?

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?

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?

Leaving a Legacy Through Education

College GraduateEducation is important.

Steve had a passion for coaching, teaching and developing others. He had a love of education and continual learning through life. One of his goals (and bucket list items) was to transition from a corporate role into that of an educator. He dreamed of teaching business courses – especially entrepreneurship and coaching softball.

Building a Legacy

Prior to meeting me he had spent his evenings teaching courses at Valley City State University in accounting and finance. He also coached the college softball team for a season. It takes an amazing person to do all of that while cultivating a career that would eventually make him CEO of his company.

Steve remained active on the Valley City State University foundation board and truly felt like the work of the board was making a difference in the world. We were honored to be the V-500 (campus scholarship program) spotlight family in 2013. Unfortunately, Steve died before he was able to see the bulletins be mailed out.

Leaving a Legacy

There are so many students that will miss out on learning from him. Knowing this, I found an opportunity for him to still impact future generations through the development of the Steve Welken Memorial Scholarship. The VCSU Foundation office worked quickly in helping me establish an endowed scholarship and we announced it at his prayer service and also at his funeral.

You know a person had an impact on a university when the Foundation director (who is also the state representative) and the college president give speeches at the service. These messages helped to springboard this dream I had of leaving a legacy at VCSU in Steve’s honor. In one year we raised $36,500 – simply an amazing sum and a true testament to the impact he had on the people around him.

Awarding Scholarships

This endowment enabled me to award three scholarships to students in Steve’s name. The foundation hosts a dinner between donors and recipients and it was an honor for me to meet the first students that were impacted by Steve’s scholarship.

This year we picked names from a shortlist given to us by VCSU. These were students that met the scholarship criteria, but had not recieved a lot of scholarships to date. Next year the students will fill out an application with a couple of essay questions which will allow us to pick those that best represent Steve. Even without that information, I was impressed by the students I met.

The Recipients

Barbara is a junior, majoring in business administration with minors in both accounting and finance. Her GPA is over 3.9 and she also plays volleyball for VCSU. She comes from a farming background and is originally from Canada. She also received another scholarship, so we didn’t get to have dinner together, but I gave her my card and I hope to hear from her. This girl has potential to do great things and I am honored that Steve’s scholarship could help her.

Michelle is a local from Valley City also majoring in business administration, with minors in accounting and finance.  Her GPA is also above 3.9. Michelle is gaining experience in the banking industry by working part-time at the local bank while attending school. I spoke to an agribusiness class earlier in the week and she happened to be in the class. We were able to talk about many different opprotunities she could have for internships and future career opportunities over our supper. In her spare time she likes to barrel race. I didn’t know this when she was selected, but it make the decision seem even more right since the barrel racing community helped contribute to the scholarship fund.

The third recipient was Alexis, who majors in education. When I saw her name on the short list, I knew we had to give her the scholarship. Alexis is the daughter of Steve’s best friend, Tim. To Steve, Alexis was like a niece and one that he was very proud of. He told me that he wanted to figure out a way to give her a scholarship or money for school, so when I saw her name on the list I knew it was meant to be. I can guarantee he is looking down and smiling at the fact that Alexis was the first recipient of his scholarship. He was so proud of her and we both think she is an amazing, kind person who will be a wonderful teacher in the future.

Mixed Emotions

The scholarship dinner was hard. Very hard. I cried even though I tried hard not to. Steve’s dad came with to dinner and he also struggled. I looked around the room and saw many familiar faces – familiar only because of Steve.

When it came time for introductions I could barely get out who I was and what scholarshp I was representing. I’m usually fairly polished, but it was impossible to keep my composure in this setting. The emotions were more than I expected.

To finally have faces to bless with Steve’s scholarship was both rewarding and heartbreaking. How I wished he could have been in front of the room teaching them instead. The purpose of the scholarship was to tell the recipients about Steve and encourage them to make a difference in the world – to pay it forward.

I shared why we started the scholarship and about the man that Steve was. I also encouraged them to contact me as they prepare for internships or the start of their career. I hope they do and when the time comes I hope I can take some of the lessons that Steve taught me and pass them along to the next generation.

More Than Money

This scholarship is so much more than the money. As our girls get older we will select the recipients together. In doing so we will talk about their Dad, the man he was, the talents he had and the way he lived his life.

People say that children learn from what they experience at home. I hope this process helps my children understand what it means to be a true leader both professionally and in the community. I hope they see that we’re never “too busy” to make a difference in the world. Lastly, I hope they see that when you share your passions with people, they have the chance to become a part of your legacy.

Did you or someone you know ever receive a scholarship? What difference did that make for you or them?

Photo Credit: Will Folsom via Compfight cc

Building a Bucket List – Part 3!

Photo Credit: tubblesnap via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tubblesnap via Compfight cc

I only planned to have two bucket list posts until it dawned on me that I forgot a couple important categories!  One more bucket list post it is, as some of these ideas are worth sharing!

Read part one and part two here!

“Adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, because they are looking for ideas.” ~Paula Poundstone

Dreaming as Children

As children we all dream of what we will be when we grow up. I dreamed of being a veterinarian, a fighter pilot, a firefighter or a doctor. Steve had dreams of being a race car driver and a teacher.

Our dreams evolved as we grew older – as we grew together it became more and more important for us to understand what we truly wanted to get out of our working lives. We didn’t have 9-5 jobs, as we often worked on the weekends and many evenings. We’d spend this extra time working outside of the office at home, where we strategized and worked on each other’s projects.

We enjoyed the challenge that work presented us and most importantly, we truly enjoyed working together. The beauty came in that we didn’t work in the same company or industry, so we learned a lot from each other. We were also able to help each other do our own jobs better and came to understand our individual strengths and weaknesses. We understood what drove us and how that played into where we ended up in our careers. We coached, supported, and mentored each other as a natural part of our relationship.

An Ultimate Career List

Together we started an ultimate career list. Steve wanted to teach business classes to college students and coach softball during the summer. He had a passion for teaching and contributing to the next generation.

I realized that I truly enjoy problem solving, coaching and developing others. I like operations and I have a passion for safety. I couldn’t (and still can’t!) put my finger on exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I do know what I’m looking for in the jobs I am interested in.

We decided one night to put our heads together and try to figure out how we could live the life we wanted while still providing for our children. We came up with a plan and a dream that was all our own. We were in alignment and before I knew it Steve had put together a marketing plan and was designing a website. He couldn’t wait for us to live our career dreams together – because for us – it meant more time working on problems together (which we loved) and also more time together as a family. Ah, dreams!

We also had a discussion about what it would mean for our family finances if he wanted to “retire” in 5-10 year and start teaching. We mapped it out and I was fully supportive of his desire to teach, even if it meant a more stringent budget.

The benefit of a career bucket list is that it aligns you to what you really want to get out of a career. For some it is a paycheck, for others it is a title and for us it was the difference we could make on the organizations we worked in and the people we worked alongside. For our relationship it meant the feeling of support and freedom in our career options. The world was our oyster and we knew that we were each other’s number one fans no matter what dreams we had for the future.

Things That Made Our List

I didn’t mention things in either of my other bucket list posts and while we tried not to be materialistic, there were a couple things on our list. Steve dreamed of having a woodworking shop. Woodworking was also a source of pride for him and he dreamed of making many things for me and our girls. It was a stress reliever and something he truly enjoyed doing.

When we decided to build a barn, we allocated 1/4 of it to a shop meant for woodworking. He was so excited to get his shop done, but not before he hand built some gorgeous horse stalls for me. That was Steve.

After he passed, finishing his shop became a focal point for me. I don’t do woodworking, although I do know how to use many of the tools. Employees from Grotberg Electric, the company Steve worked for, came and finished the wiring and the lighting. Some of my co-workers came and helped me finish some of the siding. I finished the walls that Steve had started and it gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment. I finished a dream that he had started.

Steve also had a dream of restoring a 1967 (I think!) Mustang. I told him that he could do a project like that when he would actually have time to finish it. I was assuming this would be in 20+ years. It’s not something he ever got around to unfortunately.

We both dreamed of finishing our basement to make it a place that we could entertain friends. We dreamed of having a fireplace, a bar and unsurprisingly for everyone that knew Steve – surround sound. We have everything plumbed in and the wires run. All we needed to do was wait until our daughters were a little older to add in the nice touches.

Working on this project brought a lot of growth in our relationship – we had to take our two individual visions and somehow form one. We had disagreements, went to home shows and spent lots of time comparing notes regarding what we wanted. We both ended up giving a little and it reminded us that while we each had individual wants, we could come together and compromise to make us both happy. The vision we formed together was far better than what either of us had thought of alone.

More Than Travel

As you can see, bucket lists can be for more than where you want to travel. For us, they were a way to define the dreams and desires of our hearts. We could make them tangible by writing them down and assessing progress over time. Some of them were accomplished during Steve’s life, some I accomplished or finished on my own (or with help) after he passed and some are still on the list awaiting the right time or funding.

We all have to have goals in life – it’s part of what makes life worth living. You need some sort of direction to move towards. If you haven’t already, I challenge you to get out a piece of paper (or hop on your computer) and start brainstorming some place, things or events to add to your list. What’s keeping you?

What could you do in the next year to Live Your List?

My Experience with Life Insurance – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Photo Credit: feministjulie via Compfight cc Photo Credit: feministjulie via Compfight cc

Figuring out and obtaining enough life insurance is a task that is easy to put off, forget about or wrongly assume that you have enough of it.

Steve and I knew that we didn’t have enough. We took action and worked with a financial advisor to understand what we would likely need and were given quotes for different types of coverage. We completed our applications and only had our blood tests and physicals left to do.

Then, life got in the way. The applications proceeded to the bottom of the pile on our desk, which is equivalent to a black hole. We never got it done. Then Steve died.

Knowing that we did not have the coverage that we needed added A LOT of financial stress to an already extremely emotional and overwhelming time. When you add the surprise beneficiary issues I ran into, it made the worst time in my life even tougher.

Life insurance was one of many things I relied on Steve to handle. I trusted him implicitly, so when he said what we needed I agreed. After he died, I needed to learn a lot of things. One of my priorities was to learn more about life insurance.

Combing through my life insurance policies and adding additional coverage was a very high priority for me. I had to make sure that my girls would be financially okay if anything ever happened to me.  Here is what I learned (the hard way) about the different types of life insurance that are out there.

I am NOT a financial advisor, so before you decide what you need please pursue professional advice.

Term Life Insurance

Term life policies provide life insurance protection for a specific period of time. If you live past the end of the term, the policy simply terminates unless it is renewed. Renewal at that point tends to be extremely expensive.

With guaranteed level term insurance both the premium and the amount of coverage (death benefit) remain level for a set period of time, i.e. 10, 15 or 20 years are all very common. Many policies are also convertible to permanent coverage for a portion or all of the term.

You can also secure group term insurance through your employer benefits (provided you have them). Typically these are not portable, so if you leave your job (or your job leaves you), you no longer have coverage. Usually it makes the most sense to have some sort of individual life insurance.

Permanent Life Insurance

Permanent insurance policies provide protection for your entire life as long as you pay the premium to keep the policy in force. With a permanent policy, a portion of each payment goes to the cost of insurance and a portion goes into a savings or investment account that can build over time.

This cash value grows tax-deferred as long as the policy is in force (and you follow the rules). If you cancel the policy before you die, you will receive the cash value in the account (minus any surrender charges), but may be subject to taxation (depending on your cost basis).

There are other definitions that are used to represent different types of permanent life insurance.

  • Whole life enables a person to make equal payments for their life or as long as they want the policy in effect. The death benefit and cash value are predetermined and guaranteed. Gerber life is a good example of this.
  • Universal life allows policyholders to pay premiums at any time, in any amount (within set limits), as long as the policy expenses and the insurance costs are met. The amount of insurance coverage can be changed and the cash value will grow at a predetermined interest rate. The interest rate may vary over the length of the policy, but there is usually a guaranteed minimum.
  • Variable life also enables a person to pay a level premium for their life. The difference between this type of policy and the whole life policy is that the death benefit and cash value will fluctuate depending o the performance of investments. This policy has sub-accounts which are similar to mutual funds. Another way to think of this money is a pool of investor funds professionally managed. The policy owner has the ability to select the sub-accounts in which their money is invested (from the available list) to coincide with their individual risk tolerance.
  • Variable universal life is a combination of universal and variable life insurance. A person can pay premiums at any time and amount (within limits) as long as the costs are covered. The amount of the insurance coverage can be changed and the cash value goes up or down based on investment performance in the sub-accounts.

My Experience Filing Claims

Some insurance companies give policy holders the option for “extras” such as accident, cancer, or long term disability coverage. Generally speaking (and depending on the cost) they may be worth it. I say “may” because of the experience I had. Steve had three different policies through three different companies.

One company (Aflac) refused to pay out the policy because of their long list of exclusions. The second company (MetLife) paid out the entire amount only to request half of it back – apparently due to a policy change that no one could find documented. PLEASE hang on to your actual insurance policy and any policy changes, especially those with your signature on it.

I fought this one and asked them to produce the copy that showed the new exclusions (I apparently had the “old” policy which did not list the contested exclusion) and they never produced it. They eventually turned it into collections and threatened court all without ever producing the proof – how awful is that?

The cost of fighting it coupled with the fact that I was fighting to survive each day forced me to return half the money without having the simple courtesy of seeing Steve’s signature accepting a change.

The third company (Dakota Capital Life) is a private life insurance fund and they paid the whole amount. I was beyond grateful to this organization for not trying to get out of what they owed.

Do Your Homework

Read the exclusions in each policy and determine if the exclusions are so far reaching and vague that they will exclude any “likely” cause of death for you. Compare the exclusions to your normal activities. Some companies are great – while others seem to be there to collect money, but never pay.

There are a ton of options out there – don’t let the extensive list keep you from taking action. Life insurance is an investment, whether you buy a term or a permanent contract. We all hope it is something that ultimately isn’t needed due to a premature death.

Remember, the policy isn’t for you – it is for those that you leave behind. The small cost is absolutely worth it.

What I Did

Again – I am not a financial advisor!  I opted for a 30 year term life insurance policy. My reasoning was this – in 30 years I will not have a mortgage. My children will be out of college and I will have enough cash saved in my retirement accounts to cover all of my final expenses and any debts I may have at that time.

The primary goal of my life insurance is to ensure my children are taken care of if God forbid something happened to me. As adults, I fully expect them to be capable of paying all of their own bills. The 30 year term policy was really affordable, it can be cancelled when/if it is no longer needed and my rate is locked in until I am 59, which is great!

The policy is not tied to an employer – it is my own personal policy. Having this coverage means I do not need to rely on an employer to provide it and it can’t change as benefit packages change.

I also have a second life insurance policy through my employer. This policy allows me to have 8X my annual salary, up to a specified amount. I chose the max, so as my annual salary increases (hopefully!), so does my coverage until I hit the limit.

This policy also allowed me to have up to $10,000 of coverage on each of my children. I chose to include that coverage since I know too well that unexpected nightmares do happen.

The total cost of Steve’s funeral, cremation and headstone well surpassed $10,000. Death is expensive – please make sure you have some coverage for those left behind. I hope that by me sharing my journey full of challenges, that you’ll do things differently while you still have time.

When’s the last time you looked at your coverage? Do you know where your policies physically are?