Choosing Love Over Loss

It’s so hard for outsiders to understand my world sometimes. Those who have never had their soul ripped out of their bodies cannot possibly comprehend the journey of widowhood. I would not wish for them to have my experience, but it is so hurtful when there is a lack of empathy that comes with the misunderstanding.

I recently had someone question why I still drive a different route to avoid going near Steve’s accident site. At the intersection where he was killed, there is a cross with his name on it. It’s quite beautiful and was made by one of the firefighters that he worked with at his department. I love that he is remembered by others when they drive by there. Perhaps they haven’t thought of him in a while.

For me, he’s in my thoughts EVERY SINGLE DAY. When I look at my son, who is a reflection of him at 16, the exact age when I started dating Steve. When I watch my children play sports, when I discipline them, when my 9 year old does something new, when I look at them and marvel at the extraordinary people they are growing into, EVERY SINGLE DAY he comes to mind in one way or another.

So what does that intersection mean to me?

I called Steve that morning. October 22nd, 2004. When he didn’t answer his phone, that’s how I knew something was wrong. What I didn’t know then, but I know now, was that he couldn’t answer the phone because he was laying in the road in that intersection! He had been in a motorcycle accident that would take his life.

When I drive by there, it doesn’t bring back memories of Steve. It’s the place where my husband was killed, where my children lost their father, where my life changed in an instant. I don’t need that intersection to remember him as others do.

So, yes, almost ten years later, I choose to drive a different route when going near there! I choose happiness over grief. I will continue to make choices that are healthy for me and I will continue to remember Steve for all that he was as a man, not for how he died. I forgive those who don’t understand my journey because I am choosing love over loss.

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Remembering 9/11/01

Being the wife of a firefighter was never so scary as it was THAT day. Steve was working his usual shift at his station in suburban Atlanta. I had never given much thought to his training in hazardous materials before THAT day. I had no reason to worry that he was sometimes called to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. It was all routine until our world changed on 9/11/01. I cried. I begged him to come home. What if the terrorists were going to attack the CDC? Steve would be one of the first who responded to a crisis there. I was scared that he would die that day. But he wouldn’t leave his station. He wouldn’t come home. He was a firefighter and their duty was to stay at work, no matter what was happening in our crazy world.

As I watched the news coverage, over and over, I cried for all of the people who died, but especially for the firefighters and police officers. I knew Steve would do the same, he would run into those buildings trying to save lives. In fact, he went into MANY burning buildings to save lives. Police and firefighters put their lives on the line each and every day, but 9/11 was the first time that our whole nation saw their sacrifice.

As the days passed, firefighters and police officers were recognized for their heroic deeds at the World Trade Center. People were bringing food to their local fire stations, saying thank you for serving their communities. I remember thinking that our civil servants had been taken for granted for so long, it was nice that they were finally being recognized. But it came with a great loss. 343 firefighters and paramedics lost their lives THAT day. 60 Police Officers died. 1,609 people were widowed and 3,051 children lost a parent THAT day. In one day, our nation was changed forever.

As the widow of a firefighter and the girlfriend of a police officer, I am always acutely aware of the danger in those professions. I am also proud that I have been loved by such brave and heroic men. Men who would sacrifice their own life to save another. This is what they do, every day.

My prayer for today is that our country never has to experience a day of such sadness and grief. We should thank our civil servants for their dedication to keeping our country safe, each and every day. We should remember the spirit of our country in the aftermath of 9/11 – when we bonded together as a nation to help each other through the tragedy. I pray that God will be with those who lost loved ones on 9/11/01 and that He heals their broken hearts. Most of all, I pray for the safety of those who serve our country today: firefighters, paramedics, police officers and our military personnel. Lord, keep them all safe.

The Power of Friendship

I always knew how important my friends were to me. In our early twenties, Steve and I moved 800 miles away from our families so our friends quickly became our family. We spent holidays, celebrated special occasions and shared the ups and downs of early parenthood with our friends.

When Steve died, however, the friendships I had built over the years became monumental to my survival. My “chosen family” surrounded me with love and care in the absence of my real family. Friends brought us meals. Someone cleaned our house. Others pitched in to drive my children to school and sports activities. We received gift cards and donations to pay for things that we needed.  A neighbor replaced my broken garage door opener. My trash was taken to the curb and my lawn was mysteriously mowed. I even had a friend come over to get Cameron and Caitlin ready for bed so that I could rest after work. Another friend offered to be my labor coach so that I wouldn’t be alone at doctor visits. 

One of the most extraordinary instances of friendship occurred when I went into preterm labor with my baby. A neighbor kept Cameron and Caitlin while another neighbor drove me to the hospital, multiple times! Preterm labor happened regularly during the final weeks of my pregnancy so these two ladies were always “on call” for me.  The hospital I was using was over an hour away from our homes too!

It wasn’t just friends who stepped up during this hectic time of my life; strangers pitched in to help me and my children too. Firefighters collected money, gift cards and presents for my children at Christmas. A woman that had never met me went door to door collecting money for us because she lived near Steve’s fire station and felt a need to help us. Firefighters put new tires on my minivan. The list goes on and on…. 

Throughout all of this, I was overwhelmed at the love shown to us by friends and strangers. I had never felt so alone in my entire life yet God continuously reminded me that I wasn’t alone at all. I may have lost Steve, but our every need was being met without my having to ask for anything. It was okay that I couldn’t take care of myself because God saw to it that others would provide for me until I was strong enough to do it again. My children were constantly surrounded by people who loved them while their mother grieved. Some of the people who stepped in to care for us during those early months without Steve were merely acquaintances before his death. They reached out to us and became lifelong friends in an instant.

In the midst of our tragedy, I felt God’s love at work. I was in awe of all that friends, neighbors and strangers did for me and my children and I am still so grateful for it. I know I would not have survived losing Steve without the power of friendship. God truly blessed me.

Don’t Forget To Buy Milk

I learned about loss at a very young age. My father was violently killed when I was just nine years old. I remember kissing him goodbye and the next thing I knew, my grandmother was crying because he was gone. My six year old sister crawled into bed with me and told me that she heard our grandmother say that our daddy had died. I told her to shut up. That was stupid. A few minutes later, my aunt came upstairs to sit on the bed with us because she had something really important to tell us. Our daddy was really gone. My baby sister was just one year old. The three of us no longer had a father.

I had expierenced the death of my grandmother when I was sixteen but this was, somehow, different than losing my dad. You grow up expecting your grandparents to die since they are always so much older than you. As a child, it’s devastating when a parent dies because your security is dependent upon them. Most people do not die young. My father was 28 years old when he died. Things like that aren’t supposed to happen.

As a child, the most significant man in my life was my daddy. He said goodbye and never came home. As an adult, the most important man in my life was my husband. For years, I was worried that Steve would kiss me goodbye and never come home. My fears grew larger when he became a firefighter. It was particularly scary for me if I knew he was in harm’s way so he wouldn’t tell me, until he was safely finished, when he was fighting a fire. I was okay if I heard about it afterwards but I’m sure he left out many details for my benefit. After a while, my faith in our life grew but it was always in the back of my mind that bad things sometimes happen in life.

There were many times throughout our marriage when I would look at Steve playing with our children and wonder what I did to deserve such happiness. Moments when I would stop and think that I wanted to stay right THERE, in that MOMENT, forever. It was as if I was taking a mental picture.

Of course, something bad did happen. Steve left for work and he never came home. He had left me a note on our kitchen counter that said, “Don’t forget to buy milk today.” One of his friends summed it up this way: how do you go from, “Don’t forget to buy milk” to never coming home? Once again, the most important man in my life had died suddenly and way too young. Steve was 35 years old.

No matter how many times I try to tell myself that God will take care of me, I struggle with trusting Him completely. I know He will take care of me. My children and I have been blessed in ways that I never could have imagined since that fateful day in October, 2004. In fact, I can clearly see how God was preparing me and Steve for his death for months before he died. We joined our church one year before he died and we had never belonged to a church during our marriage. We had finally gotten around to writing our wills just eight months before he died. Steve kissed his hand and made the sign of a cross on our children’s bedroom doors before he left for work that day. It was his way of saying goodbye without waking them up. I had never seen him do the cross before that final day, though.

I am afraid that if I am too happy and love someone else too much, that God will decide I am strong enough to live this life without him. AGAIN. This fear has kept me from opening my heart completely to life. Losing Steve wounded me and changed my soul. After seven years, I feel as though my wounds have healed and I’m finding my soul again. I have found a peace that hasn’t existed in my life since he died. My faith has grown and I am content in ways that I never thought possible.

I now have someone in my life that makes me feel some of the same things that Steve did and it’s scary to me. He is his own person and makes me feel special in all his own ways. I never thought I could meet someone who would touch me like this again. I have a deep fear of loving him too much because there are no guarantees that he won’t die. It is a daily struggle to lean on my faith, to pray to God for His will and most importantly, to TRUST God to know what’s best for me. I will fight this fear, though, because I was blessed to love Steve for almost twenty years before he died. Perhaps I will have another twenty (or more) years of loving someone else before God takes him Home too?

Moving Forward Without Him

My faith has been tested during the past two weeks and I’ve found it hard to blog. Someone I know was killed while running; he was hit by a car. He was just 32 years old and left behind a wife with two young children. He was at the same hospital as Steve was when he was hit while riding his motorcycle to work. Experiencing this from a friend’s perspective caused me to grieve for his wife in ways that only a widow can understand. When I saw her at his funeral, I was taken back to Steve’s funeral and the bewilderment I felt.When Steve died, I was hurting so badly but it was also surreal. My life had changed in an instant and I felt like I was living in a horrible nightmare. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion as if I was underwater.

Steve had hundreds of people at his funeral: fire chiefs, friends and family from all over the country, firefighters from every major department near us, so many people that I didn’t even know. I was honored to be his wife and I remember thinking that his funeral was the last chance for me to make him proud.

As I got ready for the hardest day of my life, I did my hair and I put on make up. I had already gone shopping and picked out the clothes that my children would wear to bury their father. I don’t remember if I dressed them or if someone else did. So much of those early days are still a blur to me. It hurt just to breathe so I’m sure that I wasn’t able to care for my children much during that first week and I am blessed that others stepped in to do what I was unable to do.

Of course, time has gone on and I have healed in ways that I could never have forseen. I have a very strong faith in God that has allowed me to move forward with my life. But, when this man I knew died, it all came back and I found myself asking the same questions all over again. “Why God?” “Why did my friend lose her soul mate at such a young age?” “Why are those children going to grow up without their loving father?”

I know from personal experience that there aren’t any answers to these questions that make sense to our human hearts. We are just meant to trust that God knows what He’s doing and has a plan for us. I’ve come to realize that part of His plan may be for me to help others who are grieving because I have been there. In the deepest part of my heart, I can understand their pain. Perhaps I can offer hope because if I can live more than seven years without Steve, then they can survive the loss of their loved one too.

Not only have I continued to live without Steve, but I have found happiness along the way. It’s taken me a long time but I am finally comfortable in my own skin. I will never be the same after losing him but I can see my old self returning and it feels really good to be whole again. My children are thriving which makes me believe that I have done exactly what Steve would have expected of me: to be the best mom I could be without him. I know that if I had died first, I have no doubt that Steve would have raised our children in exactly the same way by being the best father he could be to them. I can feel him smiling down on me as I continue moving forward in this life without him.

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