The Dream Is Real.

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

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

What will this foundation do?

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

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

The Back Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is so much more to come – stay tuned!

 

Life, Leadership, and Legacies

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

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

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

1. Know (and do) every job.

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

2. How can I help you?

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

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

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

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

4. Being a team player is more important than winning

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

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

5. Happiness sometimes means letting people go

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

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

6. Education can change the world

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

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

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

7. Coaching: the most important job a leader has

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

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

8. Seek the advice of others

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

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

9. Lead with your mind…and your heart.

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

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

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

10. Priorities: Family, Friends, Community, Work

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

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

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

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?