Grief, Schools and Poverty – The Invisible Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you imagine being these children?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Angel and an Elf

rocking horseThe holidays. The good. The bad. The downright ugly. The holidays have been tough these past few years. This year, maybe, just maybe I’m starting to come out of the fog.

The feeling of having a real home again definitely helps. Family visiting near the holidays resulted in the enjoyment of decorating our new space to welcome them. The ornaments went on the tree with less tears than years before.

I’ve been reading quite a few posts over the past few weeks from widows and widowers experiencing the numbness, dread, and sadness that I’ve felt the past few years. There have also been occasional notes about how to help someone’s friend or family member that recently went through the loss of a spouse.  Everyone is different, but I wanted to share my story with the hope that it may bring to some ideas to others.

My husband passed away when I was 29 with 2 and 4 year old daughters. That first Christmas was a blur – mainly because my eyes couldn’t quit crying. I couldn’t imagine going through the holidays without Steve, not sharing the joy of watching our daughters open gifts with him, or even not buying someone so special a gift at Christmas. Shopping was painful. When Steve was alive I struggled to find the “perfect” gift each year. When he died I saw so many things that would have been “perfect” that year, if only I had one more year.  I rarely made it out of store without tears flowing. There were tissues in every coat pocket and throughout my purse. Our Christmas tree that year was one of the table top fake trees that we set out at his headstone. I just couldn’t do Christmas without him.

If this is you this year, I’m sorry. The holidays can suck. They will never be the same and no amount of time will ever replace the person that you lost. This year will be my 5th Christmas without Steve – I’m not even sure how that is possible. The loss hasn’t lessened, but I have learned how to find more joy in the season than years before.

This story doesn’t end there. That same Christmas my sister asked if they could provide the Santa gifts for my daughters. I gratefully said yes – it was one less thing for me to think about. What they did for my daughters is something I will likely never be able to repay.  And honestly, it was the best Christmas gift I have ever gotten.

Steve loved to woodwork. He had made other children chairs and rocking horses for Christmas and was looking forward to making our daughters the same gifts.  He was just finishing up his shop so he could get it done. Little did I know that an elf would land in his shop and find the plans for the rocking horses just laying out on a bench.  Plans that I had never seen in all my trips out there. Fate? Maybe.

You see, this elf had a little nudge from an angel, my angel, and just knew he had to help make Steve’s dream a reality. This elf was my brother-in-law. He took the plans without my knowledge (I didn’t even know they existed in printed form) and crafted the most beautiful rocking horses for our girls. He wood burned an angel on one side of the saddle – the exact angel from a necklace Steve had given me. He also took samples of handwriting from Steve and combined it to wood burn the girls’ names on the horses in their Dad’s writing.

On Christmas morning the girls received a note from Santa explaining why they were given the horses.  The note stated that their Dad had asked Santa and his elves for help this Christmas.  He wanted to give the girls these horses, but couldn’t do it alone.  Santa and his elves delivered gifts that I will never forget.

If you are reading this post and know someone that needs some help – be Santa’s elf. You don’t have to handcraft something for it to be special. A small gift with a heartfelt note means so much – it means that person is not forgotten this holiday season.

Widowhood is hard, and during the holidays it seems to be even more difficult. Widows are at risk for being forgotten – after all, their spouse may have been the only person to do something special for them on the holiday. If there are children, a story of their angel parent or sharing something their mom/dad loved can mean a lot.

Pick up the phone. Send a note. Make a meal. It doesn’t matter how long it has been since you have connected or how many years it has been since death forever changed their world. They will never forget the fact that this year you remembered.

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!

 

My Bucket List – Why You Should Start One Too!

Photo Credit: tubblesnap via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tubblesnap via Compfight cc

Bucket lists – they seem to be all the rage these days, but for good reason!

A bucket list to me is just a written list of your hopes and dreams. I find myself adding more and more to mine as I learn more about this world that we live in. After writing this post, I realized how true this is and promptly split this into a two-parter. Welcome to part one of two!

Building a Bucket List

There were many times that I tried to get Steve to sit down and create a bucket list with me. He was not really interested. I found it important because I felt like part of my job as his wife was to make sure his dreams came true – I couldn’t do this if I didn’t understand what they were!

When you are married to your best friend, you want to experience their dreams with them. Steve was a giver and was truly happy making other people happy. This is why he was content just living off of my list. But I know that every person has things that they want to do in life – for themselves.

What he failed to realize is the power of a written dream, a written goal, a written desire. You might not check them all off as done, but you’re sure to make a lot more progress (and have a lot more fun) if you have a list to begin with! Once I explained why it was important to me, he was willing to put his list down on paper.

My bucket list also helped me prioritize my desires. There are things that I have done this past year simply because I had an opportunity to live the list. Knowing that these experiences were on it made them even more special. I took a little extra time to slow down that day. I focused on making memories that represented the dream I had when I wrote that item down. Here are some of the categories that I used to make mine – consider them when making your own. Just remember, it’s your list – and don’t forget to dream big!

Destinations

There are many places in this world that I want to go. My list is broken up into places of exploration, relaxation and culture.

My culture list focuses a lot on Europe. It’s a big place – I want to see almost all of it! I love experiencing different cultures. I want to ride the train from country to country and find places to eat and stay along the way. I specifically have Ireland, Italy, the Fjords, Greece, the UK and the Alps on my list. Exploration can be found via hiking, biking and various drives.

Under exploration I have the Grand Canyon, Alaska, Africa, and New Zealand along with a few others. A few more simple options like Yellowstone Park, Medora (ND) and spending a week in the black hills of South Dakota were on our joint list.

I see myself relaxing someday in the Maldives, Bali and Hawaii. Yes, please!

Steve had a few historical locations on his list like both Fenway and Wrigley park.

One of the last things on Steve’s list was to drive around the US as a family. He did this growing up with the Eggert family and his own in a school bus. It was one of his favorite childhood memories. I would prefer flying – so the jury is still out on this one, since I wouldn’t get to experience it with Steve. I would still like to explore the US – once I get somewhere I love to drive, wander and eat local.

Events

Sports and music are two things that both Steve and I loved. Steve wanted to see a Cowboys game in AT&T Stadium, a Yankees game in their old stadium (which we did!), a Superbowl and an All-Star game. I’ve always wanted to see the National Finals Rodeo and he made that dream come true for my 29th birthday. It’s one of my fondest memories!

Steve was more the music buff than I. We both wanted to see Garth Brooks live – Steve wanted us to go together, since it was his all-time favorite concert.

Family

We had a dream of taking our girls on a vacation every year. Depending on our financial situation it may be something simple like camping and fishing in Northern Minnesota, or it could be as big as the Disney World trip. We figured we could alternate a trip that included airfare and one that we could drive to each year. The premise was to focus on something that the girls were learning in school as they got older (to make education more fun). Education through quality family time in a new place – perfection!

We had dreams to take the girls to some of our favorite places and also give them some of the adventures we had dreamed of as children. This included Disney World, Wisconsin Dells, and skiing in the mountains.

Connecting together through experiences and travel was one of the ways that we dreamed about our future. Providing educational and bonding experiences to our girls was also our desire. Of course we wanted a strong family – we also wanted to experience all that this earth had to offer while we were on it. Even though Steve passed before we could check a lot of things off, I’m still striving to make as many of these things happen as I can. For me – for him – for our girls.

What is one of the travel destinations or music/sporting events that you are most excited about bringing to fruition from your personal bucket list?

6 Ways to Keep Living While Grieving

Photo Credit: Helga Weber via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Helga Weber via Compfight cc

Life is hard.

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

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

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

1. Identify What’s Most Important

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

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

2. Focus on What’s in Your Control

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

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

3. Ask for Help

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

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

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

4. Write Down Goals That You Had Together

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

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

5. Find Your New Life Balance

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

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

6. Lean on a Buzz Word or a Theme Song

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

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

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

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