Empty Chairs and Pictures of Three

I used to scrapbook.  I was never terribly good at it and would certainly never win any “cutesy” awards but I enjoyed telling the story of each of my children through cropped photos and journaling.  All of that came to a grinding halt after Patrick died.  

We crappy club single moms have a lot of guilt we have to learn to compartmentlize and handle.  Guilt over everything from “no father” for the “father events” at school to guilt over unfinished projects like my scrapbooks and what the heck to I do with all these videos on my phone?  We lack time and often we lack the intestinal fortitude to just dig into a project that is so wrought with memories.  The potential to break down is great and sometimes it’s just easier to leave the photos in a box or on your phone…but then you feel guilty…again.

So with my “guilt albatross” around my neck I recently dug into those photos.  I had over 18 months worth of pictures developed and have been putting them into regular photo albums.  It’s summer, I’m a teacher, so if this project was getting done in the next year then the time was now.  What I found in those pictures was strangely both eerie and hopeful. 

Within the photos from the last 3 weeks of Patrick’s life, I found a number of pictures that were almost a prediction of my future.  There were pics that he took of us- our immediate and extended family.  In several, the  chair he had occupied prior to taking the picture was sitting right there…empty.  In others from our California vacation there were multiple shots of myself and the children smiling and laughing in front of the gorgeous scenery.  It was more pictures of just the three of us I think we’d ever had from a trip before.  (I usually jumped in one picture per trip so we’d know I was there too…you camera lugging parents can relate).  I stared at these pictures overwhelmed with emotion.  It was both haunting and holy to look at those glimpses into a future I didn’t know at the time and so reflective of how I feel right now.  

In many ways we have gelled as a family of three- myself and the kids.  We are that photographed smiling threesome innocently laughing by a scenic vista in a picture from San Francisco Bay.  We are now a unit and we function as one (well most of the time anyway).   There is now a normal rhythm to life that does not constantly revolve around loss.  We eat, we play games, we cackle with laughter and we even have a vacation coming up.  We’re finding that ever elusive “new normal.”  (Now if you are reading this and your loss is fresh,  please know it took months and months to get to this point.  But you will, I promise). 

These photos remind me of the way grief works over time.  We don’t get over it we move through it, our hearts heal and we learn to live again.  The chair remains forever empty but the new family unit can still find happiness, laughter and grow together all the while honoring the empty chair.  Grief doesn’t get better it just gets different and God’s never failing provision allows us to move forward.  

Silver Linings from Saddness 

I’m pretty sure around 11 months ago I wanted to punch people who would tell me that somehow “good things” would come from the tragedy of losing my husband.  However, after nearly 40 total hours of counseling and many more hours spent on my knees, I’ve come to realize that silver linings do come from saddness.  Here are a few of mine…

1.  Improved/deepened family relationships             I have always had strong family ties and good relationships with both my immediate and extended family.  However, through processing and handling this loss, many deeper and more loving family connections have been made.  I no longer take my vast support system for granted and I am thankful daily for my tightly woven family. 

2.  An improved outlook on humanity                       My son and I were eating a super nutritious fast food breakfast  the other day when an older gentleman struck up a conversation with me.  He told me the world was terrible and that there was too much evil.  I told him that I’d basically turned off the TV because my family had processed enough saddness this past year.  I now just read my news.  I also told him that the saddest days of my life had been filled with people loving and praying for myself and my children.  Many times those people were folks from my community, from my school, people who just loved us through even if they weren’t our closest family and friends.  These many beautiful, kind acts had really renewed my faith in humanity.  This kindness continues even now- extended to us day after day.  I know there is evil in the world but I also know there is SO MUCH good! 

3.  The importance of church family                                   I grew up in church, my kids are growing up in church, it’s just part of who we are. However, until the chips were down,  I never gave nearly enough thanks for church family.  My church loves us so big and so hard that sometimes it feels like my heart is going to burst.  My church family has hung exterior lights, stained our swing set, fed us, cried with us and prayed us through so many stages.  I know my church makes Jesus smile.  

4.  Nurturing friendships                                                      Like many married, working mothers, I neglected a lot of my friendships for many years.  Losing Patrick has brought renewed closeness with so many of my friends.  I treasure the humor, perspective and joy that they bring to my life.  My friendships cheer me on as I navigate this single, 40 year old mom path and encourage me to be myself no matter how wacky or difficult that self can be.  I know God has put each of these people into my life for specific purposes- his planning is perfect as always.  

No one ever really wants to hear about silver linings when they are in the threshold of grief.  It’s after you come out of the fog and take a look around, that you really see how God has never stopped working in your life through all the people around you.  I once read somewhere “rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”  I think that might just be true…stay tuned. ūüíô

I’m not OK and that’s OK

I’ve been up since 4am…on a Saturday morning…churning.  That’s the only word to describe the multiple emotions that are whipping through my mind right now.  It’s almost impossible to pin each emotion down but dread, excitement, anxiety, saddness, joy and exhaustion are amoung the contenders as the sun rises today.  They are swirling around in my brain, my stomach and in my tender heart…a soup of emotions…churning.  

I’m not ok today.  I’m not ok because today is my son’s 4th birthday party.  Part of me is so excited for him because when you’re little, birthdays are SO MUCH FUN!  I can’t wait to decorate and pick up his cake and watch his sweet face light up.  But I dread it to.  I dread it because Patrick won’t be there.  Yet another milestone he won’t be there for and oh boy, here come the tears. 

I’m not ok because I’m overwhelmed with all I need to, how tired I am and how it sometimes just stinks to have it all on your shoulders.  I’m dealing with the anxiety that I might not have all the food ready and perfectly timed out (even though I know it ultimately doesn’t matter).  I’m just not ok today.  Not even a little bit.  

The good thing that I know now after nearly 11 months of learning to live this new life is that it’s perfectly OK that I’m not OK.  It’s ok because I will get up here in a few minutes, go through my list, line out my day and proceed.  I will hug my son and rejoice that the party is, in fact TODAY and we will start blowing up balloons.  I may cry the entire time I’m in the car going to get the cake and that’s ok.  When I get home and I’m cutting up fruit I’m may be angry for a bit because Patrick is not here but that’s ok too. 

I may pray the entire time I’m setting tables, vacuuming and mopping the floor for God to give me strength and energy and peace and that’s more than ok.  I may tear up when family arrives and my mom gives me one of those knowing hugs that mothers can give because she knows I’m struggling and that’s ok too. 

It’s all ok because I’m raw and human and it’s my little boy’s first birthday without his Daddy.  Patrick won’t be there for anymore parties and it sucks.  Plain and simple.  I’m allowed to feel joy for my baby’s 4th birthday and overwhelming saddness at the same time.  The churning.  

So this morning I’m giving myself permission to feel what I feel and not judge each emotion.  To pray and breathe through the churning and to not be ok but still be PRESENT and full of love because THIS DAY won’t ever happen again. 

I Can’t be a Daddy (no matter how hard I try)

With Father’s Day fast approaching I’ve once again started wrestling with something I thought I had moved past about 6 months ago.  I. Can’t. Be. A. Daddy.  I am single mother and my children are fatherless.  This reality still hurts me deeply and brings tears to my eyes even now as I’m typing.

For months after my husband died I rumbled and wrestled with the unique feelings that come when you suddenly have fatherless children.  I had done everything the way I was supposed to…right?  I married a wonderful man and loved him dearly.  We had 2 great kids together and raised them in a happy, loving, Christian household.  My husband was an amazing father who always put the needs of our family above everything else (even college football and basketball).  He was a sports nut but he was even crazier about his kids.   How come MY kids had to lose their father??  Huh?  No fair…not what I signed up for thank you very much.  (This was semi-frequent routine at my weekly counseling sessions for months.  It was a long, slow path towards acceptance for me.)

Over time I came to understand that on this side of heaven, I will never understand why my loving God took my kids’ wonderful father.   For months I questioned…how can I be both Mommy and Daddy?  Then I realized…I CAN’T.  I can’t wrestle with my kids the way their Daddy did.  I can’t be the low, quiet voice of reason that my husband was with my daughter.  I can’t put my little boy on my shoulders and be too tall to fit through the doorway.  I can’t make the perfect cheesy eggs.  I’m not their Daddy.  I can’t be him and I can’t bring him back.  I also can’t spend my life angry with my God that he took this wonderful man from us.  None of that is productive or creates a joy filled family.

However, I CAN put family pictures all over the house, make photo books and tell countless stories.  I can cheer my kids on in an obnoxiously loud voice like I’m two people.  (Thank you Lord for my big mouth.)  I can plan awesome trips, cook special dinners and decide on a whim to go get ice cream even when it’s almost bedtime.  I can pitch baseballs, drive toy tractors and run around playing superheroes.  I can let my kids pummel each other in the living room and NOT tell them to “be careful.”  I can turn on Selection Sunday each March and fill out our family brackets.  I can take the kids to our college to tell them stories of their Daddy the football player.  I can surround my children with awesome male role models who provide a positive masculine influence.

I can never be their Daddy but I CAN be a rock star Mommy who prays hard, plays hard, tries hard, laughs hard and loves hard.  I can do all of this because I know that MY God is a father to the Fatherless (Psalm 68:5).

Happy Father’s Day to all!

Running like Phoebe 

I absolutely LOVE the show “Friends.”  I watched all 10 seasons live when they were originally aired and then watched all 10 again during my young widow insomnia spell of 2016.  Those 6 friends became a happy distraction when exactly zero good things were dancing around in my head at 2am.  There is this great episode where Jennifer Anniston (Rachel) doesn’t want to jog with Lisa Kudrow’s character Phoebe because she’s embarrassing and runs like a kid.  (Actually, she looks like some sort of cracked out Muppet).  It’s  pretty funny stuff!

I might relate to the episode because I love to run.  Please understand I’m not one of those girls who runs marathons or even mini marathons.  I don’t even own any type of fitness tracking device.   I’m more like this girl with a blonde ponytail in her Target (PLEASE pronounce it TarJay) workout gear who takes off with Flo Rida blaring in her ears and runs until she had to be home to drive a carpool.  That’s me.  Nothing fancy but I love it.  

Anyway, after my husband died,  I didn’t run for a couple of months.  Grief can exhaust a person unlike anything I’ve ever experienced (and I had a child who didn’t sleep for 13 months so this is not my first exhaustion rodeo.)   Grief exhaustion is physical as well as mental and the funny thing is…you can never actually sleep.  

So here I am…this girl who used to run, binge watching “Friends” and beyond exhausted.  Then one day- I think it was in October but who knows- I put my shoes on and I ran (more like limped) around my usual running path.  It was not fun or enjoyable but I knew that it was ultimately an important first step to get back to some kind of physical normal.  

Then there came this gorgeous Saturday a month or so later.  For some reason my running shoes called so I laced up and went loping down the street.  As I ran my usual path, I realized that my body was just heavy.  Not physically heavy but heavy with grief, with responsibility, with emotional pain.  I looked up at that beautiful sky, took a big breath and I ran like Phoebe. My arms flew out, I smiled with my entire face and my legs propelled me as though I was some sort of actual athelete. I ran until I was breathless, until I could barely make my legs move.  It was this spiritual, burden freeing moment.  

I went on to finish my run (like a normal person) but I felt noticeably lighter.  Inside me there was a very tiny, but very real spark of joy.  It was magnificent!   My running became more regular after that day which certainly led to more positvity in my daily life.  Endorphins are very real and very helpful.  

That fall day was certainly not the only time I’ve run like Phoebe- oh no.  I ran like Phoebe when my basement flooded, when I experienced rejection and heartbreak and after dealing with sick kids.  I ran like Phoebe when my kids were grumpy, when I was fried from my job  and when I was so lonely I could hardly take it.  

These days when I run, I typically take in the beautiful surroundings, enjoy my music and let my mind wander.  However, on those super tough days when the week seems extra long, when my problems are extra heavy and it all seems too much… I throw back my head, lift up my arms and run like Phoebe!  

(A brief apology to all my nearby neighbors who witnessed this or any of my other weirdo running moments since November. Also, you’re welcome for all the stories you can now tell about the nutty blonde lady…I’m sure there are more to come.) 

Apparently I’ll take my June with SPF 30, a frosty beverage and a side of Emotional Landmines…

Let me tell you a poorly kept secret about teachers…WE LOVE SUMMER!  Don’t think I’m a bad person- I absolutely love my job, my students, breaking down foundational skills, my colleagues and all the piles of paperwork (actually not so much on the paperwork but the rest is true).  Summer is this beautiful time of decompression, lack of schedule and NO LUNCH PACKING!!   June stretches ahead like a beautiful landscape just waiting to be filled with pool days, late bedtimes, fresh tomatoes and dinner whenever we feel like it.  It’s glorious! 

However, in April, as I was putting dates in my planner, I realized that this June would also be filled with…what would have been our 18th wedding anniversary, my son’s 4th birthday, Father’s Day, the month 11 marker and what would have been my husband’s 42 birthday.  For those of you keeping score at home that is a total of 5 milestones and oh by the way, they will all occur in an 18 day span.  Holy emotional landmines Batman. 

I suppose there is no real way to prepare for all of this.  My counselor and I purposely scheduled my sessions to book end the 18 days.  My parents and close friends are at the ready to pray, help, lay back or whatever I need.  Part of me wants to get a badge that says “BEWARE I may cry at any moment.”  Another part of me wants to run away and sip cocktails on an island somewhere.  However, I’ll be right here at home, leaning in and picking my way through.  

I guess what I’ve learned during holiday hell and this messy middle is that you can’t REALLY ever prepare.  Some milestones hurt more during the lead up than the actual day.  Other milestones are brutal from sun up to sun down.  There are milestones can actually make you smile a little and others you just float through almost too numb to feel much.  

What I do know, is that summer days and childhoods are fleeting.  No matter the emotional landmines that lay ahead, I MUST do my very best to be grateful for my blessings and savor the good.  My kids will only have one summer where they are (almost) 4 and 13 and it’s my job to make memories even during the difficult milestones…to keep moving forward (albeit ever so slowly).  So please pass the sunscreen and maybe a tissue or two.

The Middle is Messy 

I’m currently about a third of the way through Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong (excellent book if you are dealing with ANY kind of personal or professional crisis by the way).  Anyway, there is this one part where she talks about how the “middle is messy”. The middle of anything- a draft of a movie script, a divorce, a job search and yes, for me, the  first year of young widowhood. 

My middle was certainly messy.  It came just after what I lovingly like to call “holiday hell.”  It was that November through January 1 stretch that included the  first Thanksgiving, first Christmas prep, first Christmas Eve, first Christmas Day and first New Years.  It felt like I was dodging emotional tennis balls being shot from one of those rapid fire machines. It was a ROUGH stretch of time.

A fellow crappy club member and friend often says that we young widows put on a mask.  I think this is true.  We put on our “happy holiday mommy” mask and we plow through because our kids deserve it, our families can’t stand to see us in a weepy pile and it’s just easier that way.  Easier for everyone else but not for us.  For the grieving, exhausted one it’s  probably the most emotionally unhealthy thing to do but, it is part of survival. 

So in rolls January which has NEVER been my favorite month.  January can be DREARY where I live, holiday madness is done and it feels like an eternity until spring.  This January however, was even worse than normal.  One particular Thursday school was cancelled for 2 days, activities were cancelled and all the structure I had for a 4 day stretch evaporated (not good for type A me). Then a friend called and canceled plans and that did it…I fell (as we used to say on the farm) slap apart.  I’m talking sobbing in a ball, on the floor, my body shaking.  No reasoning skills available.  Slap apart.  

Yes I’d cried before…PLENTY of tears but this was different. You see, I was almost 6 months in. The grief cloud that had surrounded me had lifted so I was truly feeling all that pain in a completely different way than before.  I’ve talked to others who’ve said something similar happened to them after a divorce, a death, an affair…it’s an emotional floodgate that opens and you can’t damn it up or turn it off.  Brene Brown says we have to lean into that pain- and boy I did.  

My “lean in” to that emotional pain came in the form of prayers and journaling.  I think I wrote over 40 pages that weekend.  I wrote letters in my journal to my husband, to God, to someone I deeply cared about who had hurt me.  Those letters in my journal probably didn’t make any sense and I don’t know that they will ever be looked at again.  However, at that moment, they were my life vest in a violent sea of emotion.  I can remember praying in my closet with the door closed asking God to just lift my burden.  It was too heavy and I couldn’t go it alone.  How was I supposed to be all things to all these people when I could barely peel myself off the floor?  

In Rising Strong,  Brown finishes the quote by saying “The middle is messy but it’s also where the magic happens.”  She’s 1000% right.  It was after that horrific, messy middle that my God truly allowed me to find my footing as a young widowed mother with a full time job and 2 amazing children.  I began to take care of myself by finding time just for me.  I began to see that in order to meet the needs of my 2 kids and my 20 something students, I had to first meet my own needs.  I had to schedule my life to include morning devotions, excercise, time with the people I loved the most and yes, naps.  The magic that happened for me after that messy middle did not come immediately…I actually think I’m still in the middle of it…but there is a turn.  I can now be thankful for that awful, messy middle and the magic that came after.  

From We to Me 

I was a “we” for almost exactly half of my life. ¬†I met my now deceased husband when I was 20 and he passed away just a few months after my 39 birthday. ¬†All of my actual adult life I was a “we”. ¬†You know what I’m taking about…”we are buying a new couch”, “we have plans- so sorry” or “we don’t like that restaurant.”

Being a “we” brings a level of comfort many of us don’t really think about. ¬†When you’re part of a “we” it is known immediately who will accompany you to a party, gathering or event. ¬†If we have to go alone everyone knows straightaway that our “we” must be out of town or at another activity with the kids. ¬†There is a level of comfort there. ¬†That was me…swimming blissfully unaware in the “we pool of happiness” then…BAM. ¬† It was only me. ¬†And it SUCKED.

I can only describe walking into certain places and events those first few months like I was walzing in wearing my underwear or even less. ¬†It’s as though someone had stripped all of who I was away and there was only this shell of me, my ever present satchel of grief ¬†and the “you poor thing” looks that people were giving me. ¬†I was now a “me” who looked like crap, couldn’t eat (who could eat while the “we” people starred at you??) and felt brutally exposed in whatever environment I was in. ¬†All the confidence I had spent nearly 40 years cultivating was slashed. It was unlike any kind of humiliation I’d ever experienced. ¬†I constantly felt raw and exposed.

(I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad about how they looked at me or treated me during that time. ¬†It’s human nature. I get it. ¬† I’ve done it to others. ¬†It’s part of belonging to the crappy young widow club.)

I realize now, 10+ months down the road, that I had to go through the “we” humiliation to become a quality “me”. ¬†Somedays I had to stand in a room (or wedding reception or beach) full of “we” to see that I was strong enough to be just “me.” ¬†It’s still not always easy or fun. ¬†There are days I ache for that feeling of “we.” ¬†Days I would give most anything to get that “we” feeling back. ¬†Defining this new “me” has not been simple and I’ve certainly lost my footing a time or two.

What I now understand is that the more time I put into being a praying “me”, to owning “me” to growing “me”, the more prepared I am if the time ever comes that I get be a “we” again. ¬†For now I embrace the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 and keep walking (sometimes trudging) forward in faith.

Why now?

For months I have filled journals with my grief thoughts, my occasional triumphs, stupid decisions and a LOT of darkness.  I’ve told stories through my seasons of grief to my counselor who has repeatedly encouraged me to write something for an actual audience.  Until now, 10+months out, I couldn’t formulate anything that was coherent, would have been readable and wouldn’t have had someone calling 1-800-HOTMESS to report me. 

Somehow now the fog is lifting, I have ideas rattling in my head and I’ve read 20 books on being a widow (about 15% of what I read was actually helpful).  My  sense of humor is in full effect and  I’ve definitely overshared on Social Media (sorry FB friends).  I tend to talk about things, the real stuff, that make some people uncomfortable.  My level of honesty might be too much but that’s just me.  This life I’m living is certainly not glamorous or noteworthy but it’s mine.  

I’m not sure if anyone will ever read what I write and  really, it doesn’t matter.  I’m going to put things down because there might be a slim chance that somewhere, a Mom is struggling with the early stages of widowhood.  She has piles of forms and hours of phone calls and relentless exhaustion (even though you can never sleep).  Someone has told her something akin to my blog title and she’s sifting through family photos at 2am wondering how in the hell she got to this point in her life.  I’m writing for her, for me, for all the members of our crappy club. We dodge emotional land mines on a daily basis and yet, we keep on truckin’.   

What? 

A little over 10 months ago I stood in a funeral home visitation line.  Well, I wasn’t in line…I was at the front of that terrible room.  The first person people were waiting to speak to, to cry on, to hug.  The widow.   The 39 year old woman (girl, mother, pile of tears) who had suddenly and tragically lost her husband.  Through the hours of standing (sometimes perching on my stupid stool) an enormous number of people passed through the line.  Most were lovely but some said some pretty crazy stuff.  One lady whom I didn’t even know, grabbed both my cheeks, shook my head and said “you’re too pretty to be a widow.” 

Those words have rattled around in my head for months.  I’m not exactly sure why they stuck with me but boy, they surely did. Was young widowhood (PS one of the CRAPPIEST clubs to belong to) only for the plain, the unattractive?  No of course not.  Losing a spouse at a young age, while you are busy with work, carpools and raising kids doesn’t discriminate.  It can literally happen to anyone…how do I know this?  It happened to me.