The Darn Yard

How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  I’ll go ahead and admit I had to look that one up.  You see I’ve never been good at one bite at a time.  I want to take the entire elephant, shove it down my throat first and then figure out the bites.  I’m a doer and usually on a big scale.  That strategy was not an option after loss.  

Our yard is 1.2 acres but might as well have been 1000.2 acres late last summer.  I have to immediately stop now and commend my neighbors.  They mowed my yard EVERY WEEK last year from August through early November.  It was like a sound from heaven!  About the time I would look out the window and sigh that the yard was getting tall, I would hear the sound of a motor and boom- there was a saint on a John Deere cutting my grass.  It was truly one of the most wonderful things that could be done for a broken woman who could barely pour her children a bowl of cereal.  

The beginning of cold weather marked the end of mowing and the beginning of rebuilding.  Slowly, over those late fall and winter months, I begin to figure some crap out.  I learned to build a fire in my wood burning fireplace (shout out again to my neighbor who taught me how to open the damper.  I know…it’s embarrassing.)  I learned to orchestrate our lives so that everyone had clean clothes, relatively healthy meals, transportation and (most of the time) a happy, somewhat sane mother.  I figured out all the parts of the household as a single parent.  


Spring had arrived.  The birds were singing, the bunnies were hopping, work and activities were humming…oh and my grass was growing.  Again.  Grass does that in the spring but for the life of me I couldn’t manage to get the yard mowed and the trimming done.  Insert my saintly father who hauled his mower over every week this past spring and mowed my yard.  He also taught his 40 year old daughter how to use a trimmer so the fence line and the swingset didn’t look like Heather’s World of Random Weeds. 

Then, one day, it finally happened- I mowed AND trimmed the darn yard.  I’m not certain I’ve been more proud of myself as a single mom. It was that final item, the albatross around my neck that had separated me from achieving total independence.  I was now able to do ALL of the “stuff” that I needed to accomplish as a single mother.  I could really run my household, all by myself and it worked!  

There are still plenty of things I have to ask for help with like changing the light bulbs in my double tray ceiling or all things related to plumbing (a few of you are laughing right now) but the day to day, week to week things- I can do those.  Many times I may do them with one eye open, two children simultaneously yelling “MOMMY” and something boiling over on the stove- but I do them! 

I guess my lesson through all of this is to give yourself time and heaping piles of grace.  Time to be sad, overwhelmed and angry about what could have been. Time to learn, to make missteps and to trust that things will get better.  Time to let people help you, to carry your “I can’t do this (and that and some more of this).”  Then, time for accomplishment and triumph when you finally embrace your imperfections and figure some stuff out.  

I am writing this on a Saturday morning. We are back in “school mode” at our house. My family’s laundry is towering in the laundry room, the Clicklist is awaiting pick up, there are bills to be paid and guess what?  My grass is tall again.  One bite at a time Heather, one bite at a time. 

A Year Later 

To quote one of Patrick’s best friends “I’ve lapped this thing.”  I’ve been completely through the first year.  All the firsts- holidays, birthdays, anniversary and college football season.  I’ve been through the first school orientation, dance recital, awards ceremonies, the filling out of forms and writing “deceased” where it says father (that NEVER gets easier by the way.)  I’ve done all the firsts. 

The first year was a buffet of emotion, of fog, of light and of overwhelming thanks to my healing God.  I can remember one night just a week in when it took me almost 3 hours to change the sheets on our (my) bed for the first time.  I remember driving my kids to school when I was on leave and then coming home to just sit and stare.  I remember going back to work and thinking I could never possibly EVER be good at my job again.  I remember cleaning out Patrick’s closet and feeling as though someone had cleaned out my insides at the same time.

However I also remember the first time I let go and belly laughed with my kids.  I remember my first night out enjoying a glass of wine with my friends.  I remember kindness from family and I remember the first time I enjoyed being alone.  I remember walking on the beach during Spring Break and crying at the overwhelming beauty of a sunset.  I remember standing on the deck of the Disney Dream this summer humming “It is Well with my Soul” and realizing that a whole bunch of my broken pieces were finally stuck back together.  

I have struggled for a couple weeks with the right analogy for the first year- roller coaster?  Sinking ship with one lifeboat?  4 alarm fire?  Tsunami?  It all seems fitting in some way but I don’t know that there is really one way to describe this first year of young widowhood.  It is a journey full of mountains and valleys.  Of bone crushing sadness and the decimation of so many dreams.  It is also a time of acceptance, awakening and rebirth.

I know that some might find it strange that my oversharing self chose not to publicly acknowledge the anniversary of Patrick’s death.  That was a conscious decision on my part.  A decision based on what was best for myself, my children and his legacy.    Other crappy club members may choose differently and that is more than ok.  We all go down this road at different speeds and make different pit stops along the way.  What has resonated most for me is to remain authentic and true to me- to my feelings and to what I need.  At the end it is between myself and my Heavenly Father on how I handled things, how I honored Patrick, how I raised my children and how I forged ahead. 

My friend Amanda brought me a bag of groceries on the day Patrick died.  I don’t remember much of what she brought (although I’m CERTAIN it included Reese’s cups).  The one item she brought that I remember so very clearly was toilet paper.  Printed across the front, in huge block letters was the word STRONG.  She told me she thought I “needed strong” right now and boy I sure did!  I didn’t  know on that day, the most horrible day of my life,  how MUCH I would need that strength in the months ahead. 

I’m thankful for all of this first year- even the brutal, ugly parts. It has shaped me into someone different than the woman I once was.  I hope I’m a better child of God, mother, daughter, sister, friend, partner and teacher.  As I stand at the beginning year 2- I open my eyes, my arms and my heart to what God has in store for me.  Oh and by the way…I sometimes still buy the strong toilet paper.  

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Phil 4:13

I Was a Messed Up Martyr Mommy

“I just FEEL SO GUILTY.”  This was me sometime last fall sitting on the soft couch in counseling.  Why did I feel guilty?  Well my kids didn’t have their Daddy and it made me feel guilt unlike any other I’d ever experienced.  I had reached a place where I was stumbling along as a human but couldn’t begin to process the fact that I was a single mother.  That this life with only one parent was the hand of cards that had been dealt to my children.  As one of my favorite bloggers One Fit Widow puts it, our family had changed from “a strong square of 4 to an awkward triangle of 3.”

Single parenthood may be exceedingly common but it is also exceedingly hard.  Add the layers of loss, shock and grief as well as the fact that I didn’t want ANY of this and you wind up with one messed up Mommy.  In those early months I can only describe myself as a martyr.  It was as though I felt that by taking all of the burden squarely on my physically small shoulders, I could somehow make up for my kids being fatherless.  Fun? Rest? Self care? Joy?  Not for this girl.  Part of me truly thought if I gave every bit of what little I had then MAYBE my kids wouldn’t hurt so much.  As though a depleted, physically wrecked, emotionally unstable mother was what they so desperately needed.  I was a mess.

Over time (I’m talking months) I began to see how incredibly stupid that entire thought process was.  I began reading books about single parenting.  I confided in friends who lifted me up with love, prayers and scripture.  I began to schedule time for myself, not because I was selfish, but because I was human.  I realized that because I spend my weekdays with 20+ of other people’s children (and the rest of my waking hours with my own children) that perhaps adult conversation WAS important to my well being. 

My soul sister Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Option B that “Allowing ourselves to be happy- accepting that it is ok to push through the guilt and seek joy- is a triumph over permanence.  Having fun is a form of self compassion.”  There was no prize for being miserable.  However, through seeking joy, having fun and kicking that stinking guilt to the curb, I was giving my children and myself a gift that could transcend the pain of loss. 

I CANNOT change what happened to my family.  I CANNOT change the ripples of grief that come after loss.  I CAN change and shape my attitude, reactions and life choices.   I CAN release all the guilt and allow joy into my life and into the lives of my children.  

The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  Psalms 34:18.

A Letter About God’s Love

Dear Friends, 

When I started this blog I really only did it for me.  (Sounds really selfish but it’s true.) It was a place to unload all the swirling thoughts in my head.  I didn’t know if anyone would read it and I don’t really think I cared one bit.  

Over the past few weeks I’ve started to receive messages from people and speak a bit more to folks about my faith and relationship with God through my grief journey.  I want to take a minute to respond in general to some of the raw, difficult things others have shared.  I am not a pastor, I don’t have a Masters of Divinity degree, I am far from a religious writer but here is what I know for sure.  

God loves YOU!  He loves you if you haven’t prayed for 15 years and haven’t darkened the door of a church for even longer.  God is right there ready to work in your life- all the parts of your life.  Even the little things.  God loves you and your story.  It might be one big sucky mess of a story but he loves you and wants to see you thrive.

God has great big shoulders.  He can take your anger, your questions and your fear.  He is right there in that horrid, darkest, darkness at 2am and also beside you when you’re sitting in a stupid meeting ready to smack the person beside you.  (Sit on your hands Heather.  Close your mouth Heather.)  Your faith may falter but he is unwavering in his love and care for you. 

There’s a song we sometimes sing in worship that goes “He knows my name, he knows my every thought. He sees each tear that falls and he hears me when I call.”  God REALLY does hear you.  He wants to talk to you and if he can handle my volume of tears this past year then I promise he’s up to the challenge of yours. 

Much love,                                                                Heather 

Grace, Forgiveness and Naptime

I’ve always been hard on myself which is not terribly surprising since I’m a first born, type A female.  I can actually hear Patrick laughing from heaven as I describe myself saying “Heather you are probably more like type A+.” I like high grades, lists, plans, the organization aisle at Target and order.  I meal plan a month at a time, put all small pieces in Ziploc bags and I love filing things.  At this point you are either nodding your head and smiling because you ARE me, are married to someone like me OR you have begun twitching and think people like me should be smacked.  I get it.  We aren’t easy to love sometimes (or maybe a lot of the time depending who you talk to).  

My “type A behavior” had always caused me to be hard on myself when life didn’t fit neatly into my fantastic plans.  Infertility, job loss, job changes, kid issues, the weather…there was always something.  I would berate myself for things not working out as I thought they should.  To say I tried to “get ahead” of God is a massive understatement.  It is also quite safe to say that my fears were often greater than my faith. 

Suddenly becoming a single parent was not on any of my legal pad lists or the family calendar last summer.  It was a like one massive explosion followed by small fires that had to be constantly put out.  My kids went from two super involved parents to one parent who was barely limping through.  I often felt like I was watching a slow motion video of my own life and boy it wasn’t pretty. 

Looking back, I was tremendously hard on myself those early months.  I silently beat myself up every time we had to eat fast food, return home for forgotten items or be late somewhere.  (Type A me does NOT like to ever be late- anywhere, ever.)  I would berate myself when I misplaced something, forgot an event, had to ask for help or just simply wasn’t my best self.  My kids had one parent and THIS was what they got?  

Over time and through A LOT of reading, praying and continued counseling, I began to see that I really wasn’t all that bad.  In fact I was doing pretty ok considering all of the heartbreak and changes.  God extended grace to me everyday and yet I couldn’t extend it to myself?  God forgave me when I messed up but it was next to impossible for me to forgive myself?  I was imperfect and stumbling but somehow surviving.  Finding my own way had to include huge doses of grace and forgiveness- from me to me.  I had to see my own successes (everyone ate today, was loved and got from point A to point B then point C then back to B).  I also could acknowledge my missteps and look for ways to do better the next time (get up earlier or take a breath before growling at small children).  However, after that acknowledgement, I needed to pray for peace, patience and then MOVE ON-not wallow in my mistakes.  

Jennifer Maggio, who writes for single mothers, calls this “handing over your bags.” You give those bags…those heavy, sucky bags to God and then they are gone.  It is then your responsibility to move forward with God’s help.  Learning to do this has certainly taken me a lot of time and focus.  I still have a ways to go but I’m definitely getting better at it. 

I’ve also learned to take care of myself.  For me that meant taking naps some Saturdays and nearly every Sunday during the school year when I’m teaching.  Sleep is a luxury for all parents especially full time, single parents.  There were many weekends this past spring when I laid down to take a nap with a washer full of wet clothes and roughly 276 cars, trucks and tractors all over my family room floor.  It didn’t matter though, my body needed the rest and the magical thing was- it was all there when I woke up an hour later.  (Fun fact- small children and teenagers are amazingly capable of cleaning up their own messes but that’s another story.) 

I recently read a Facebook post about how we “move through” grief.  We don’t move on but through.  I think a key to this- to moving through any life altering change- has to be offering kindness to ourselves.  Extending the grace and forgiveness that God gives so abundelty to ourselves.  We have to release ourselves from the negative talk and hand those sucky bags to God.  Once you’ve handed over those bags- I mean really handed them over…go grab a nap!  

In order to heal we must first forgive…and sometimes the person we must forgive is ourself.  ~Mila Bron 

A Lesson in Resiliency- “Choose Happy”

Up until the past year I don’t know that I’d ever given much thought to the word resiliency.  I’d hummed along pretty well with a ridiculously normal childhood, great college experience and 17 stable years of marriage.  I’d certainly suffered setbacks, disappointments and heartache but nothing that was truly insurmountable to recover from.  Until last summer…then the “r” word started appearing. 

“Children are so resilient” people would tell me.  “Your tougher than you know.”  “You’ll be amazed at where you are in a year.”  At the time those words were well…words.  Hollow, empty, useless words. Words that people say to “dress up the suck”. I was sad, lost and so very broken.   I didn’t care about any of it- at least not at first.  

Then I started watching my children and you know what?  Children ARE resilient.  They can have something terrible happen to them but they find a way to play, to laugh to continue being children.  They still make messes, belly laugh, push their Mommy’s buttons and sing loudly in the car.  They still are wide eyed at Christmas, go crazy with party poppers at their New Year’s party and wake you up at 6:30am by poking you in the face to tell you they love you (why must it always be the face??)  Their resiliency left me amazed.  

One spring evening I asked my daughter about her year (she was absolutely amazing in handling her busy life despite the loss of her Daddy.)  We talked about how she was feeling and where she was emotionally (rare, special moments with a teenager). Without missing a beat she told me “I know that each morning I can choose to be sad or I can choose to be happy.  I choose happy.”  BAM!  Choose happy.  

Now I’m NOT going to go all Pollyanna on you.  There have been and will continue to be some ROUGH days for all 3 people in this household.  We get tired, overstressed, overwhelmed and cranky somedays.  There are nights that my bedtime prayer is “Dear God help me be better tomorrow because I totally screwed up today.  Amen”.  I lash out, I make mistakes and I cry.  However, I’m working more and more at choosing happy…to channel the resilience of my children.  I’m trying to let the little junk go to focus on the big things- the things that really matter.  It’s not a perfect recipe for success but more than once choosing happy has pushed me out of a funk and toward a funky dance party with my kids or a fun night out with my friends.   Choosing happy has allowed me to focus on the beauty of the sky and not the vast number of weeds in my flower bed.  Choosing happy has meant more runs, more laughs, a heart that is healing and less worry about tomorrow.  

Elizabeth Edwards once said “Resilience is accepting your new reality even if it’s less good than the one you had before.  You can fight it, you can do nothing except scream about what you’ve lost or you can accept that and put together something that’s good.”  We human beings are wired for resiliency.  It comes from deep within, from unwavering faith and belief in a future that we can’t yet see.  

Choose happy on the days you can and pray extra hard on the days you can’t.  Be resilient. 

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. 💙

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!