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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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