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.

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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?

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.

My Bucket List

I turned 40 years old last year and I made some MAJOR changes in my life too. It was a liberating year where I felt as if I started becoming the woman that God has intended for me to be. I took my children to the beach for
Father’s Day, just the four of us and simply because I felt like it! I took a trip by myself to a place I had been wanting to visit; I met a friend there and had a great weekend. I repainted some of the rooms in my house and I bought new furniture. I started dating again. I started making my life my own.

I’ve been thinking about how to continue moving forward, healing, growing and becoming a woman of God. I’m enjoying my life, exploring new interests and meeting new friends. So…..I’m envisioning a kind of “bucket list” for the next chapter of my life!

In the movie, “The Bucket List,” two terminally ill men decide to travel the world doing a bunch of things that they have always wanted to do before they die. The movie is quite funny as the men do daredevil things like jumping out of airplanes and climbing mountains. Along the way, however, one of the men discovers that he really loves the life he shares with his wife and children. The other man repairs a broken relationship with his daughter. They both realize that the relationships in their lives are more important that what they have or haven’t done. What a lesson to learn before leaving this Earth!

I don’t think I’m terminally ill and I have no desire to jump out of an airplane! But, there are a few things that I’ve always wanted to do. Studying the Bible has been a desire for me but I’ve constatntly had an excuse of some sort. This year, I have committed to two Bible studies. The first one is a woman’s Bible study that I started today, “Embracing Your Strengths.” I have already met some new women and know that I will love doing this! The second is one on parenting called, “Parenting by Design.” I am leading this Bible study at my church starting in March. I am excited to grow in my faith and my relationship to God by reading and studying His Word.

I was a competitive dancer when I was younger. I have done various forms of exercise over the years but have not done anything consistently since Steve died. I have been busy raising my children and really didn’t put too much priority on making time for working out in my life. I recently started a bootcamp, however, and it’s had some really great side effects. Not only do I feel stronger and healthier, but I’ve met some new friends too! I signed up for my first race and I’m excited to do it with my bootcamp friends. I can check this off the bucket list in May!

Enjoying every minute that I have with my children is also at the top of my list. I cannot believe that my son is already a teenager! I do not have that many more years until he will be off to college (hopefully!) so I want to cherish all of the time that I have with him. Cameron and Caitlin have been asking to visit Washington D.C. for several years but I’ve been waiting until my little Connor was old enough before I took them there. We are going this summer but I am a little nervous about taking them by myself. I know I can do it, but it is kind of scary thinking of being in the city and going to so many places. Hanging out at the beach is very different than riding trains and going places where I can get lost. I am most definitely directionally challenged so we’ve gotten lost plenty of times! I am going to push through my fear, however, and take them anyway. I will check this off of my bucket list in July!

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So I guess my bucket list consists of going outside of my comfort zone spiritually, physically and emotionally. It has to do with building stronger relationships and being healthy. I am excited to develop new interests along the way too. My journey has taught me that life is very short so……what’s on your bucket list?

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