We Are Survivors

52f738102875dc99722ea18b3f1dcad9My neighbor died yesterday. Suddenly. In her sleep. Left behind a confused, dazed, grieving husband and two beautiful daughters. I was instantly thrown back into that moment of shock and denial from nearly 11 years ago. How could this be happening? How is it possible that a family can change so quickly? In an instant, my neighbor became a single, an ONLY parent. I know too well the frightening thoughts that brings. Will my children ever recover from this? Will my babies’ broken hearts ever heal?

Everyone kept telling me thank you for helping him, thank you for being there for him. On the one hand, I am glad to do it. I was surrounded by such love when Steve died. I wasn’t alone. I had help managing the murky waters of early widowhood by family and friends who stood by me so it’s my turn to repay those kindnesses.

On the other hand, however, I wish I didn’t understand so much of what he’s feeling. I wish I was just a caring neighbor, not a fellow traveler on this widowhood journey. My heart breaks for him in a way that few others can understand. It breaks for him as one who has walked in his shoes. To have your spouse ripped suddenly out of your life is a pain like no other. You are supposed to grow old with this person yet, somehow, they are gone in a flash. What does your future look like now?

Fortunately, I have been on this road for long enough to know that the waves of grief do subside over time. It IS possible to heal from the deepest wound that your soul has ever experienced. Will you ever be the same? No. You will not be the same. You will be a NEW person. One who has gone to the depths of hell and survived. You will find strength you never knew you had and courage to keep living a life that doesn’t make sense to you. One day, your life may even make sense again.

For some reason that only God understands, I was put on a journey that I didn’t choose. I can, however, choose what I do with it. I will help others, no matter how painful it is for me. Perhaps someday I will understand the “big picture” and why we have to suffer such excruciating grief to get to the life God has planned for us. Until then, I have faith that God has a plan for my neighbor’s life and the life of his daughters. Please keep them in your prayers.

Every Step of the Way

IMG_1842I always wanted to be a mother. Some of my earliest memories are of playing with baby dolls or playing “house” with my little sister. Growing up, I told my mom that I would be married and have children before I was 30. It was always in my heart to be a mother.

When I became a mother 16 and 1/2 years ago, however, I couldn’t imagine the journey that would become my life. I had my two oldest children within a loving marriage so I imagined that I would raise them that way too. I conceived my third child within that same happy marriage so I thought I would give birth as I had the other two.

I couldn’t have been more wrong!

My life, and the lives of my children, took a drastic turn on October 22nd, 2004. In the flash of an instant, I was a pregnant, single mother with two young children. The family I had created was gone. The only other person who could love these children as I did was no longer on this Earth. It was only me.

I didn’t know how I would survive and raise these children, but I did. Looking back, I now know that it was my faith, my friends and my family who encouraged me, helped me and strengthened me along the way.

Today, my daughter turns 14 years old. I remember the day of her birth as if it were yesterday. I looked over and her dad was asleep in the chair. I was watching the news coverage of Dale Earnhardt’s accident at the Daytona 500. My two year old son was at our cousin’s house so I wasn’t worried about him. I was about to give birth to my one and only daughter.

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Throughout the years, she has brought me more joy than I could ever have imagined possible. In the three short years she shared with her daddy, she was the apple of his eye. He adored her.

I look at her now and I’m reminded of how far we’ve all come since that fateful October day. I am stronger than I ever knew I could be. I am more independent than I ever wanted to be. My faith is my lifeline. I see these same qualities in my daughter: strength, independence, faith. She is ambitious and generous. She is loving and kind. If her dad were here to help me raise her, she would be exactly the kind of daughter that he would be proud of too.

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The Lord has carried me and my children through some dark moments and for that I am eternally grateful. During these past 10 years, I know that I have not raised my children alone. God has been with me every step of the way. I have always had an abundance of friends, co-workers and family to walk this road with us. How could it be anything but His plan when I am so blessed? Thank you, Lord.

God in Action

Northstar ChurchSometimes I get emotional in church. It usually happens when I’m singing or listening to the pastor preach about God being faithful, staying with us through difficult times and learning to trust in Him. When I sing about trusting God, or when I think about his faithfulness, I am overcome with emotion. He has been so good to me throughout my lifetime but I didn’t always see Him.

I had a good life. I had a loving husband, healthy children, a home and we were a happy family. Not that we didn’t have hard times, because we did. We just weren’t particularly religious early into our marriage. Steve was raised Catholic and I didn’t grow up in church so our routine was to go on Christmas and Easter. When we did go, we went to the Catholic church.

As our oldest son got a little older, God started to really work in our lives. I felt the pull to find a church home. I wanted Cameron to be raised knowing that God lutheranchurchmissourisynodwould take care of him if anything bad should ever happen in his life. Steve was in agreement so we started visiting local churches. Some were too contemporary for Steve, some were too traditional for me. Finally, we found a small Lutheran church that felt like home to us.

We attended membership classes and I was baptized with my children. Steve started attending Bible study. We volunteered at the church and became highly involved there. Looking back, I am in awe of God’s hand in preparing us for Steve’s passing. We joined this church exactly one year before Steve died!

Not too long ago, I had an old friend ask me how I could still have such a strong faith after all I’ve been through in losing Steve. Here is my answer to that: when you SEE God, it’s very hard to question that He exists!

When Steve was in his accident, my pastor came directly to the hospital. After the doctors told me that he died, I was in complete denial. You have the wrong person! We’re not done with our family so he can’t be gone! He doesn’t even ride that way to work so you’ve made a mistake! Take me to him NOW! I need to see him!

I was afraid to go in to see him by myself, though. What if they were right? I could hardly breathe. I asked my pastor to go with me. He was the only one, I didn’t want any of my friends or family with me. Just my pastor.

When I walked into that room, I saw Steve’s hands and I knew it was him. I had held those hands for 19 years. I didn’t even need to see his face. I knew. As I crumbled, kissed him, sobbed, my pastor prayed over us. I don’t remember if I prayed too. I remember the smell of blood in his hair, but I don’t remember if I had the words to pray. I am confident that Jesus was with me as I mourned the loss of my husband.

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Throughout the following days, weeks, months, God continued to show himself to me. Strangers would send cards and money to me and my children. My children had more Christmas gifts that year than they’ve ever had in their whole life! Strangers did housework, cooked meals, cut my grass, put new tires on my van. The outpouring of love that I received could only be considered a gift from God.

My pregnancy progressed with some complications but neighbors, friends and family stepped in to help me whenever I needed it. They took care of my children, drove me to the hospital, stayed with me when I needed company. Every need I had was met. I believe that was God in action!

In the past ten years, I have seen God working in my life. He has always been faithful, when I have listened to Him. Even when I strayed from His plan, He always comforts me and helps me make the right decisions. My children are thriving, happy and healthy. I am in a relationship with a man who loves me as much as I love him. We have a beautiful home. I don’t think any of this would be possible had my faith in God’s plan for my life not sustained me through those dark hours.

Yes, this journey has been hard. God never said following Him would be easy. I am so blessed. Thank you, Lord.

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Life Goes On

There’s one thing that I’ve learned on this journey of widowhood: life doesn’t stop for grief. As much as I wished I could curl up and just grieve, the world still existed. My children needed to be fed. I had to go to work. In fact, my experience has been that the world expects grief to last a year. During that first year, people are more patient with grieving souls. They understand your grief, they accept it and you are encouraged to grieve.

After the first year, however, you are expected to “be over” it. It’s no longer acceptable to break down in tears for no apparent reason, to be exhausted because your grief is the worst at night, to have a hard time concentrating. What I found, though, was that the second year without Steve was actually harder than the first year. During my first year, I was pregnant and just trying to make it from day to day. My life centered around my children and the new baby I was carrying. Our first holidays without Steve are a blur. I went through the motions, for my children’s sake, with the goal of just making it through those days. The first Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, the kids’ birthdays, the birth of our baby, our wedding anniversary, Father’s Day. If I could just make it through the first year, I thought I would be okay.

I was wrong. The second year without Steve turned out to be the hardest of all. I had to find a new “normal” for me and the kids. I had a new baby to care for, all by myself. There was no denying that Steve was gone and he would not be coming back. I had to accept this life that God had given me. I started dating again. The world expected me to be healed but I was far from over the grief of losing him. It has taken several years for me to feel as if I am healed. I made terrible mistakes during my grief. I married the wrong man because I thought that being married would make me a better mother. I dated to avoid loneliness. I drank too much to self-medicate the pain. My journey of grief did not end after one year.

Steve’s birthday was last week. It has been almost eight years since he died. When I reminded my son about his dad’s birthday, he said to me, “That’s gonna be a hard day for you, Mom.” My children have grown accustomed to my grief and they know that certain days of the year are harder for me than others. I am happy to say, though, that my grief has subsided into thankfulness for the memories, love and children that Steve blessed me with during his lifetime. I cried for a few minutes on his birthday but then I showered and got ready for work. Life goes on.

Letting Go of the Grief

My life with Steve is starting to feel like a dream. It’s been so long now that he’s been gone, I’ve forgotten the sound of his voice, the feel of his touch. In some ways, I think that’s a good thing. It’s only when I’m not physically longing for him that I’m able to truly open my heart and love someone new. I would like to think that losing the love of my life when I was just 32 years old means that God intends for me to have TWO loves of my life. One for creating children (Steve) and one with which I was meant to grow old. Some are blessed to have just one love of their life: they create children and grow old with the same person. That was not God’s plan for my life.

As I am losing the real “feel” of Steve, so are my children. In some ways, this is very sad. I lost my dad when I was just nine years old so I know how heartbreaking it is for a child to realize that they can’t remember specific things about their parent. I would grieve sometimes just for the fact that I didn’t remember him. I was lonely because I didn’t have A dad, not because I missed MY dad. How can you miss someone that you don’t remember?

In other ways, though, losing the memories means letting go of the grief. I am relieved that my children don’t cry as often as they used to for Steve. They spend most of their days enjoying their lives and being happy. Life without a dad is all that they know and we have settled into our own routine as a family.

My oldest son is starting high school in the fall yet he was in first grade when his dad died. I was startled to realize that I have raised him throughout his entire educational career, all on my own. It really puts into perspective how long Steve has been gone. I am proud of the young man that Cameron is growing into and I know that Steve would be too. I see so much of his father in him, it’s as if Steve is not really gone at all. Cameron looks like Steve and he has the same mannerisms and sense of humor. I am constantly being reminded of Steve as a teenager and it makes me smile to know that so much of him is still here with us.

My daughter is starting middle school in the fall but she was only in preschool when her dad died. She is a strong-willed, independent, athletic little girl who has the best of both of us. If Steve were here, he would say that she gets her ambition from me while she is fearless like him. As a straight-A student and competitive gymnast, both characteristics are serving her well!

At seven years old, my little man is finally realizing what it means that he doesn’t have a daddy. I have caught him crying and holding Steve’s picture. He never met Steve so it’s not really the person that he’s missing. Connor is grieving for a loss that happened before he was born. He’s sad because he sees his friends with their dads and he knows that he doesn’t have the same thing. It’s been really hard for me to see my baby hurting. All these years, Connor was the only one of us who didn’t grieve Steve’s death. It was like he was protected from our pain and, as a mother, I was relieved for him. Now, though, I can’t shield him from the fact that he only has one parent. Unfortunately, it’s our reality and, even at seven years old, he’s learning that there are some things that just can’t be changed.

This time of year, the ending of the school year, has left me feeling full of pride for these children that Steve and I created. They are growing into amazing people and I know that it is only with the help of God that I’ve been able to raise them. I also know that as we all move forward and let go of our grief, we will be able to live the lives that God intended for us. In my heart, I know that’s what Steve would want for the four people he loved most in this world!

His Life in Pictures

As we began the painful process of planning Steve’s funeral, I was told that I could display some pictures of Steve in the funeral home (this was before photos could be made into videos that are now shown at funerals). I had no idea what to do with the pictures and, as anyone who knows me can attest, I am not creative at all!

I don’t know which day it was, a day or two after he died perhaps, when I started going through years of pictures. I dug some out of my closet. Some came out of our garage. I took pictures out of frames and out of photo albums. I found pictures with each of our family members so that no one would be left out. I honestly don’t know how I did it. Selecting the pictures to be shown at the love of my life’s funeral. I don’t remember if I cried or laughed as I looked through them. The one thing that sticks with me, though, is the memory of being surrounded by family and friends. My house was full of people who loved me!

While I was sorting through pictures, we were also finding songs to play at the funeral. I have a vivid memory of singing to the song, “I Can Only Imagine,” by Mercy Me while I’m sitting on the floor surrounded by pictures of the man I loved. A man who was now gone.

My wonderfully creative friends saved me that night! They took the pictures that I selected and made beautiful posters with them. The posters were displayed at the funeral for everyone to see how special Steve was to us.

There were lots of pictures of me with Steve over the years. It was amazing to see how young we were in some of them! Photos of vacations to the beach, Disney World, Jamaica and many trips to visit our families in Michigan. There were pictures of our pets, our friends, our nieces and nephews. Pictures of us at weddings and graduations. All of the major milestones in our lives were documented in the photos on those poster boards.

Steve was a great father so of course I selected many pictures of him with our children. Some of my favorites were the unposed ones; like the one where he’s playing in the sand with our son or the one where he’s holding our baby girl and kissing her on the head. There was one extra-special picture on that poster, however. It was my ultrasound picture, dated 10/14/04, just 8 days before Steve died. He had gone with me to the doctor appointment so he saw our baby too. It was the only picture I had of our “peanut” so far, and it was as much a part of Steve as it was of me, so I put the picture on display for everyone to see. Steve had created THREE children, not just the two little ones running around with me.

After the funeral was over, I asked my sister-in-law to compile all of the pictures into an album for me. It was so hard to sum up Steve’s life in pictures but I had somehow managed to do it. I wanted to keep them all together so that our children could look at them whenever they wanted to see him again. She created a gorgeous album for me and I still treasure it!

When I look at the photo album now, it’s as if that life was all a dream. I hardly recognize myself in those pictures. I know that Steve’s death changed me, but it’s not until I look at old pictures do I realize just how MUCH I’ve changed. My faith is stronger now. I’m more independent. I’ve been raising three children on my own and they’re great kids. It makes me wonder if Steve would even recognize me if he were to see me today?

In My Dreams

When Steve died, it was painful to go to sleep. In my dreams, he was still alive and all was right with the world. When I woke up, however, I was still living in the horrible nightmare of his death. The pain in my heart seemed more than I could bear each and every time I had to open my eyes. I wished I could close them and be with him forever. If it weren’t for the two little souls named Cameron and Caitlin who needed me, I might have chosen to join him on the other side of Heaven.

As time wore on, my dreams moved from being WITH Steve to being ABOUT him. Sometimes, the dreams are comforting. In one dream, Steve and I shared a private joke and it still makes me smile to think about it!

I have never mowed the lawn. For some reason, that’s just not a household chore that appeals to me. When Steve and I were married, he would point out other women cutting their grass and I would jokingly say, “You should have married her!” It was always a joke between us that I wouldn’t even try to cut the grass. I felt like that was my husband’s job and he was good with it. One of the many things he did to take care of our home but an ongoing private joke between us.

After Steve died, several male friends and neighbors made sure that my grass was cut. This was no small feat since I had a huge front and back yard so it could literally take hours to mow my yard. After a while, I was able to hire a lawn service to do it.

About a year or so after he died, I had a dream where Steve was standing in our garage. He asked me about our lawn. I told him that I hired someone to cut it and I said to him, “You didn’t think I would cut it, did you?” I have a vivid image of Steve laughing like he always did at me! This dream brought me a lot of comfort. It was as if Steve was approving of the way I was handling some of the jobs he was no longer around to do. I could still hear his laugh too.

Over the years, Steve has come to me in my dreams less and less. Sometimes, the dreams are really disconcerting. When I was married, I dreamed that Steve came home after a long illness and he expected things to be as they always were with us. I had an awful feeling because I was married to someone else. The whole dream centered around my confusion about how to tell my second husband that Steve was home and how to tell Steve that I was married to someone else. This dream stayed with me for a day or two and I felt “out of sorts” as I tried to process it. I’m sure it had to do with the guilt of moving on, but upsetting nonetheless.

Steve visited me in my dreams again a few nights ago. This time, it was more of a strange dream where it was Steve but not really him. I was his girlfriend in the dream. I woke up feeling unsettled but not really upset. Once again, I’m sure the dream had to do with moving on without the guilt this time. I believe in my heart that Steve would approve of the choices I’m making and he would be proud of me.

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.

Tough Enough

I’m starting a new Bible study on parenting and it’s got me thinking about something I’ve never considered before: Steve’s death is part of the plan that God has FOR MY CHILDREN. I’ve spent the past seven years praying for God to show me how to live my life without Steve, to lead me to where He wants me to be. I’ve found healing in helping others who are grieving their own losses. Throughout all of this, however, I concentrated on being a good mother without ever realizing that God has a plan for my children too!

My own father died when I was nine years old and I can now see how it prepared me for losing my husband. I had already experienced a life changing loss, and since I survived it once, I knew in my soul that I would live through this too. It didn’t lessen the shock or the heart-wrenching pain that I felt when Steve was suddenly gone but it did allow me to be swallowed up in the grief knowing that someday, I would make it to the surface and be able to swim again. I didn’t know exactly how I would endure the loss and I certainly couldn’t imagine a life without Steve, but something inside me kept reminding me that I had done it once in my life so I could do it again.

When I was watching the video for my Bible study, I had a moment of realization: I am only here to guide my children and to teach them because they are really God’s children. He has a plan for them. He already knows how their life is going to turn out in the end. In fact, He knew them before they were even born. This means that Steve’s death is part of the plan He has for them just as my daddy’s death was part of my life plan too.

What an incredible moment of clarity! I don’t have to protect them from the pain of losing their father. It’s only my job to teach them how to heal, how to live through such a loss. Perhaps they are being prepared for a loss later in life or perhaps they will use their experience to help others? Only God knows how Steve’s death will fit into their lives but it gives me comfort to know that He already has it all worked out for them.

I’m not sure why I’ve never thought about all of this before now. Maybe it’s because they were so little and I was consumed with the day to day caring for them? My children are growing up, though, so I’m starting to see bits and pieces of who they will be as adults. It’s easier for me to think about their lives in the “big picture” and also to start letting go of some of my responsibility as they begin to make their own choices. A huge part of parenting is teaching our children that choices have consequences. I’m not always very good at letting my children suffer the consequences of their bad choices, but I’m getting better at it. I think that it will become even easier for me now that I can lean into the understanding that they are really God’s children and it’s just my job to help them discover His plan for their life. I can let go of trying to shield them from the pain of a life without their daddy.

I am a stronger woman for the losses I’ve had in my life and my children are tough enough to endure their losses too. I have faith in God and I have confidence in my children too. I am looking forward to seeing how their lives unfold and the incredible things that God has planned for them!

Forever Grateful

I remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday. My one and only daughter, Caitlin. 30 hours of labor. Her dad sleeping in the chair next to my bed. How is it possible that was 11 years ago? I could never have imagined that I would be raising her without him but here I am, raising her alone.

Some of my strongest memories of Caitlin and Steve are of the two of them butting heads over little things. I remember her trying to tie her shoes, long before she could do it, and her dad getting frustrated because she wouldn’t let him help her. He would say that she was stubborn. I would say that she was strong willed and that no boy would ever push her around because of it. The fact was, they were very much alike which is why they had conflicts. Steve was set in his ways and stubborn if he thought he was right; his daughter was born to be independent and also stubborn if she thought she could do it on her own. Even at three years old, she wanted to try to do everything by herself!

Caitlin was three years old when Steve died. I’m not sure she completely understood what happened at that young age but she understands it now. As she’s grown up, her memories have become fewer. Sometimes, she thinks she did something with her daddy but it never actually happened. I think it’s pretty normal for kids to get confused between what they imagine and what is true, especially when it comes to memories.

Caitlin is still strong willed but she channels it into positive aspects like gymnastics and school work. She is a perfectionist (like her mother!) so she often won’t stop at something until she has it exactly right. I think her daddy would be proud of her! I imagine they would still have their fights, though, because she is so much like him….

Every year, as each of my children have their birthdays, I am reminded that it has been another year without their dad. Another year of milestones that he has missed. He wasn’t even here to take Caitlin to her first day of kindergarten. Now, she is halfway through 5th grade and will enter middle school in the fall. He has missed so much of her life. It’s heartbreaking for me when I think about it but, on the other hand, it makes me proud to think that I’ve raised her to be an intelligent, thoughtful, generous, hard working little girl. I know Steve would be proud of us too. We have not let his death destroy us. We have grown in our faith and Caitlin has seen that women can overcome obstacles in their life. I am so blessed to have her for a daughter. I will be forever grateful to Steve for giving me these children during his short time here on Earth.

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