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.

Choosing to Heal

Moving on is hard to do. Every time I think I’m fully healed from the wounds left by Steve’s death, something happens to remind me that I may never fully recover from such a traumatic experience. I am healthier, for sure, than I have ever been since that October day in 2004, but it’s disheartening when those familiar insecurities find their way back into my soul.

I am in love. It feels good to be opening up to someone who is tender with me and knows my heart has been broken in the worst possible way. He has given me no reason to be insecure…..so why do I find myself questioning the solidity of our relationship? Is it because I’m afraid that he will be snatched away without warning the same way that Steve was taken away by God?

When I start to have these fears, it is all I can do to surround myself with reassuring friends who tell me that my anxiety is unfounded. Yes, we may break up. I have already survived the WORST case scenario so surely I would be able to live through a break up too.

Yes, my boyfriend may die. Isn’t it reality, though, that everyone dies at some point? I can’t spend my life worrying about that or I will be too paralyzed to live! For some reason, giving myself these “reality checks” doesn’t always make me feel better. I have to really pray for God to intervene and remove my fears. It usually takes me a day or two to start feeling like myself again so I know that’s God answering my prayers.

Before Steve died, I was so completely happy. I remember looking at him playing with our children and thinking to myself, “What did I do to deserve this life?” After 19 years together, I was still madly in love with him. When God called him Home, I was devastated. My very being was crushed and I felt “out of my skin,” like I wasn’t even the same person anymore. I walked through life as if in a fog. It took group counseling, individual counseling and anti-depressants for me to start to find a new normal without Steve.

Here it is seven years later, I’ve found myself and I’m opening up my heart. Most of the time, I’m content to move forward and leave our relationship in God’s hands. It’s just that every now and then, those same abandonment fears creep in without warning. When they do, it’s like starting all over again. I don’t think you can suffer a loss like I did and not to have some scars from it. My hope is that God will continue to strengthen me so that I can love openly without being afraid of getting hurt again.

Someone once told me that God’s gift to me is my life but what I do with it is my gift to Him.  I choose to heal and to love again. Thank you, God, for being with me every step of the way.

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.

Healing A Broken Heart

When my high school sweetheart, my husband of ten years, the father of my children was suddenly killed, my heart was torn in two. My very being felt ripped apart as if my soul had been shattered into pieces. I could never imagine a time when I wouldn’t hurt as I did in those early days, weeks and months.

As time went on, however, I learned how to live a new life. I wouldn’t say my heart healed because I still ached for his kiss, his touch and most of all, his companionship. He was my best friend and my life felt empty without him.

I remarried three years later because I thought my heart had healed. I was very wrong. I thought that I had already lost the love of my life so I couldn’t possibly expect to love like that again. It was the way I justified “settling” for being less than happy. It was only when I realized that I could live a truly content SINGLE life that God gave me the strength to end a marriage that should never have happened.

From the moment that Steve was killed and throughout that short marriage, I leaned on my faith. My pastor was with me from the day Steve died until I could stand on my own two feet again. My church family surrounded me with care and support that could only have come from our Heavenly Father. I could not have survived losing Steve without God’s help.

Even with all of my faith, however, I tried to heal my own heart. I dated before I was really ready to date. I remarried before I was ready to remarry. It was as if I thought I could distract myself from the hole inside my soul. As God continued to heal me, however, I became aware of my mistakes and I had to do my best to correct them.

My biggest error in judgement was getting married to a man who could not make me happy so my first order of business was to end that marriage. Even when I knew divorce was the RIGHT thing to do, it was still really hard for me to do. I was in a loving and supportive marriage for ten years. How would it look to others if I divorced after just two years of marriage this time? I had to stop worrying about others’ perception of me and realize that God was the only One who really mattered anyway. If I was doing God’s will, then I would be just fine.

Since my divorce, I’ve spent a lot of time taking care of me. Going on trips that I’ve wanted to take. Spending time with my children. Turning my house into a home. I started working out with a trainer. I’m more involved in my church. I’m even falling in love again. I’m more at peace with my life than I have been since Steve died over 7 years ago. I believe that God has continued to heal my broken heart in His time, not my time. I’ve learned that I can’t rush the healing but if I am patient and if I continue to have faith, it will come.

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!

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.

Thinking About Heaven

I read a book where a man was medically dead for thirty minutes. He wrote about his experience in going to Heaven during those thirty minutes. I didn’t really enjoy the book (I thought the writer was very negative and felt way too sorry for himself!) but there was one part that really stayed with me: he said that when he arrived at the gates to Heaven, everyone he had ever loved and lost was there to greet him. This got me thinking of course about Steve but also others whom I’ve loved that have died: my dad, both of my grandmothers, Steve’s grandparents, and several friends throughout my life.

Recently, a woman that I was blessed to know passed away from cancer. I was encouraging her husband so I said that perhaps she had met Steve in Heaven. This brought me back to that book I read and made me think about it again. I wonder if everyone I’ve loved and lost will be waiting for me at the gates of Heaven? That would certainly be Heavenly but even more, I wonder if they are with each other now? I would like to think that Steve and my dad are watching over me together. My dad died before I ever met Steve but there’s something comforting in thinking that these two important men in my life are with each other now. It makes me smile to think that Steve welcomed my friend, Faith, who died of cancer in 2009, even though he never met her and, even better, that they are waiting for me too.

My sister miscarried twins last year. One of the things, besides prayer, that helped me get through that loss was picturing Steve holding those babies. He was an incredible uncle and loved each of his nieces and nephews very much. Steve was an uncle long before he was a father. He had a natural way with children. Once he became a father, it was even more evident in the way he held our babies close to him. I have pictures of his nieces, nephews, son and daughter sleeping on his chest. I know this image comforted my sister as well…the thought that Steve would take care of her babies until she gets to Heaven to do it.

I know what the Bible says about Heaven but I’m not sure what to think about my loved ones who are there. I believe they get new bodies when they leave their Earthly ones behind, but are they really the people we know here? Will Steve remember me when I get there? Will my dad recognize me? I can only hope that they will know me and surround me with their unconditional love when I finally arrive at the gates of Heaven.

Heaven is a place so wonderful that it’s beyond human understanding. It helps me when I am grieving the loss of a family member, friend, baby or even an acquaintance to imagine it filled with the people I love. It makes me even more happy to think of them all together, waiting for me. Perhaps this is an unrealistic view of Heaven but it’s my dream so I will hold onto it until the day that I truly find out what it’s like.

Holding Onto Faith

There is nothing worse than when my children are hurting and I can’t take away their pain. I have held them so many times while they have cried, gut wrenching sobs, because their Daddy is gone. I have listened to them ask me why the God that we worship would take their Daddy from them. I don’t have an answer for them. All I can do is reassure them that God really does love us and I believe He took Steve quickly rather than let him suffer from his injuries.

My daughter has a friend who’s mother will probably pass away in the very near future. She has fought a brave battle with cancer but it doesn’t look like she will survive much longer. Caitlin, at 10 years old, knows too well how lost her friend is going to feel when her mother actually dies. Caitlin has cried for her friend, missing her own dad as the situation brings up Caitlin’s grief all over again. I just hold her while she cries, hiding my own tears. I have always tried hard to be strong while my children are grieving. I am afraid that if they see that their pain triggers my own, they will hide it from me. They have seen me grieve many days and nights all on my own. My babies need to know they can count on me to be strong when they are hurting.

So, I hold Caitlin and I reassure her that her Daddy is seeing her grow up into a talented, smart, generous and beautiful young lady. It’s all I can do as I hold back my own tears. My heart is breaking for Caitlin’s friend, for her brother and for her father. Our family knows all too well the loss they will feel when her mother finally goes Home.

We will continue to hold onto our faith and we will pray that Caitlin’s friend’s family has a strong faith too. It is what has helped us survive losing Steve.

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