BITTERSWEET…

I am now 302 days into living, for the first time in my life, alone. I lived with my mom and then became a wife at the tender age of 18. To say it has been a challenge is an understatement. I have always functioned very independently and took pride is my ability to conquer anything I set my mind to…but this is different. For 302 days I haven’t had my person to come home to, to share with, to confide in.

I believe, with all my heart, it isn’t the initial shock or the funeral or all that goes with these catastrophic events, but the learning to live without the one you love that is the most difficult. It doesn’t matter what the loss is, but your life will forever change without them in it. I do believe the loss of a parent is one of the most difficult because they are the first people you look to for virtually everything. They teach you to use a spoon, read, ride a bike, basic math and every single life skill that becomes your compass. If you grew up with both parents, you probably saw them as a team, running the house, working and providing what the family needed. Many had only one parent at home and that mother or father did the work of both. Some grow up with aunts, uncles, grandparents and they become the parent figures. These are the first people you learn to trust and that filters into the rest of your life. The loss of a mom or dad is like losing your foundation. The challenge is to see if the rest of the structure can stand alone. Tall order I think, but we do because honestly we aren’t given a choice.

Child loss is a loss that destroys something inside of you. It’s a deep, searing pain that you honestly don’t know if you can survive, but you do, because we aren’t given a choice. Your child is a part of you, two people who come together to create something extraordinary, a human being. If you don’t think this is a miracle, you haven’t been fortunate enough to watch a baby enter the world. It is without a doubt, the most miraculous event you can witness. I have seen this thousands of times in 40 years and it is the same feeling every single time. It’s pure unadulterated joy. So when something starts with pure joy and ends with pure devastation, it is a challenge to even get out of bed. The highest level executive, the most famous actor or actress, the highest political offices, the clerk at the local grocery, the truck driver, or the nurse, it doesn’t matter. We are all equal when it comes to grief. I remember when Lindsey died that I felt the same as Carol Burnette, Marie Osmond and even Barbara Bush. We were all moms and that put us on equal ground.

To lose a child is to lose a piece of you. It is part of your identity, it is who you are. You don’t know how to be anyone else, you don’t know how to go on. There is a real thing called “Broken Heart Syndrome” that many believe is a depth of grief that actually causes physical illness leading to weakening of the heart and symptoms of a heart attack. This is actually written in medical journals and is very real. It can be treated and if not can cause damage that can follow that person the rest of their life. Valentines Day made me think of this a lot. When everyone was talking about love and buying heart shaped everything, how many had a broken heart? This, like everything else, has to be a process, one of work and eventually healing. It doesn’t mean you don’t love and miss your child the same as the day they died, it just means you incorporate the loss into your everyday world in a way only you can do. Memories become treasures and you change, because you are not and can’t be the same.

This brings me to my 302 days of being alone. I think I miss not being able to share news, good or bad, more than anything. If something happened, my first thought was to call Rick and that’s exactly what I did. He would listen intently, sometimes having no real idea what I was worked up about, but he was always there and always supportive. He was my person, good or bad, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, we had many challenges, but in the end, we always had each other. That, I think, is the hardest part for me. When you lose your spouse, it feels like half of you is missing. You no longer feel whole. In a marriage, each person takes on different roles and each marriage is different. It becomes like a well choreographed dance as you move through life. When one person doesn’t show up, the dance is not the same and although the show must go on, the dance is not the same and will never be the same.

Yesterday was one of those days. I stopped in the maze to call Rick to share my news that our precious Lucy passed her test for The Alliance of Therapy Dogs. This had been a goal of ours since before we got the dreaded news that changed everything. This was a retirement goal for us, to bring smiles and maybe moments of joy to those in poor health, nursing homes, hospice care etc. We wanted to give back and use retirement not only for us to have fun, but to fill voids for others. I made it my mission to follow through, although many tears were shed along the journey. It’s official now and as exciting as it was, I felt alone. I miss him, but this is the way it is everyday. I miss those I shared so much with, my mentor, a piece of my heart and my other half.

That being said, I’m doing ok. I live life everyday with an appreciation of even the tiniest things. I have my girls, my grandchildren and countless people who check on me, send cards, remember me when the world keeps spinning and a wonderful work family. I am touched when others share their loss with me. I am constantly meeting someone who is struggling, whether it be recent or in the past. I have Facebook friends and readers of this blog that I don’t even know, who send messages of encouragement to me as well as telling me how I helped them. That, my friends, is a gift. Feeling like I have touched someone through my experiences is a blessing and one I do not take lightly. Thank you as always for taking your valuable time to read my thoughts.

Lucy and I strolling through the maze, sometimes slowly, sometimes at a brisk pace, but always, always going forward.

CHUTES AND LADDERS…

The young girls stood excited at the city bus stop, anticipating spending their day downtown. Downtown consisted of Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, beautiful brick and mortar multi level department stores. They were iconic to Richmond, Virginia, boasting the “Real Santa Claus” at Miller & Rhoads and the most beautifully decorated windows at Christmas. Both had tea rooms and bakeries and were places to gather with friends. There were ladies with hats and women in fur, men in dress shirts and ties and yes, even teenage girls out on a Saturday afternoon. It was the centerpiece of Richmond and “the” place to shop. The girls stepped onto the city bus, dropped their coins in the slot and headed out for the day. This particular route required a bus change and they made that without a hitch. Arriving downtown, they walked to their destination, usually starting with a little shopping, sometimes taking in a movie at the three old movie houses on Broad St., ending up at the tea room for lunch. Usually there was a stop by the bakery for eclairs, cream horns, mints or seven layer chocolate cake. It was a simpler time.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s was very different than today. There was limited access to world events, no social media and limited resources for many. Many moms remained at home caring for the family while dads went off to work. Family roles were defined in a different way. In my case, my mom was on her own when I was just shy of 4, so going out into the workplace was not a choice, but a necessity. She worked hard and did whatever she needed to make ends meet. I don’t know how she did it, but my memories of childhood are nothing short of perfect.

We played outside whenever we could, in the yard, in the woods, building forts, collecting treasures. In the evening we returned for dinner, home cooked meals, sitting together at the table, sharing our day. As the light began to fade, we would return to the yard for Hide and Seek or Kick the Can. Catching lightening bugs was a highlight and we would make little lanterns with them. Baths and bedtime were next and as our eyes closed and we drifted into another world, memories of that day became etched in our mind. It was a simpler time.

I remember the excitement of playing board games. That may seem lame today, but there were no electronic games or computers or even access to movies outside the theaters. No cable, no Netflix, no tablets, and the phone was attached to the coiled cord which was attached to the wall. Board games were a staple of family life. Monopoly, Life, Candy Land and of course Chutes and Ladders. Families sat for hours around the table, talking, sharing, laughing and competing for everything from real estate to wealth.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Chutes and Ladders and it kind of imitates the journey of grief. You roll the dice, living each day as it comes and every now and then, you land on a space that either you find yourself sliding rapidly backwards or you find yourself climbing, going forward, embracing the changes. Each space, each day, each moment is filled with uncertainty, much like the roll of the dice. Will you climb today or will you slide back? It’s a minute to minute thing we call life.

You get used to the ups and downs and almost anticipate them. When you are able to land on the ladder, you relish the moment and remember the good times with your loved ones. Problem is, you know the chutes are always coming. It may be a special occasion, vacation, a place you spent together, the smell of a favorite cologne that causes you to land on the chute and rapidly free fall until at some point you grab on and hold tight trying not to go back to the beginning. You right yourself, roll the dice and once again take those steps, hoping in your heart, a ladder awaits. It sounds so simple.

As I continue to find my way through the maze, I find myself wanting to climb the ladder. I find myself wanting to be happy again and contented. I believe, with all my heart that the reason for this is because I have been blessed with a wonderful life. Although life is always a challenge, my life with Rick and my three daughters was so worth it. I sincerely want to find my ladder. I know the chutes are out there and I know there are huge ones in my near future, but I’ll take them as they come. If I slide, I will get up and look for a ladder, because only continuing to try will help you reach new heights. I think I’m up to the challenge.

Live and Love today like tomorrow will never come. Hold tight to your loved ones and the memories you make. You will never regret it.

GLASS HALF FULL…

The young couple carried their baby girl away from the Emergency Room of the local hospital. They were both very familiar with it as she had been working there as a nurse since graduation. It was home to her and she had total confidence in the care given there…until tonight. She looked at her husband and said “I don’t feel better. We’ve done all the right things, but I don’t feel better.” He agreed as he always depended on her for medical decisions, especially in this new father role he was still getting used to.

They arrived home and decided to put their precious little girl in their bed, her breathing was still abnormal, but better than earlier. She still wasn’t talking much and looked so vulnerable with her blond curls hanging loosely around her face. She was disheveled from the fever and from the last few hours of ER. Her eyes were tired, not the spark she always had. Being their first child, she had been very active and an overachiever from the beginning. This was not her, but the ER doctor had sent them home and he knew much more than they did…or did he?

The young mother lay beside her, eyes open, watching her breathe. It was still labored, but color was good and eventually she fell asleep. A few hours later she placed her hand on her forehead, best thermometer in the world, and the fever had returned. She crushed the baby aspirin in a tiny glass dish until it became powder and placed it in her cheek, rubbing it until it was completely dissolved. Minutes later, the three year old jumped out of bed and ran to the nightstand on the other side, picked up some ginger ale, drank it and immediately threw up. It was the first time she would stop breathing that night.

The frightened father grabbed her up and by this time her mother had the Pediatrician on the phone. Phones then were attached to long cords so it was very limiting. By this time they had been instructed to take her outside on a chilly December morning. On the front porch stood a fearful father, wondering what was happening. She immediately rallied and her breathing became less labored, as she lay there, her head on her daddy’s shoulders.

It was then the Pediatrician asked if they could get to the office right away. It was 4 am.

Jumping in the car, only taking time to put her in a car seat, they headed to the office, about 20-25 minutes away at this time of morning. They were both frightened and relieved. Arriving at the office, the doctor was waiting at the door. They placed her delicately on the exam table, trying not to scare her. The doctor looked at her for a matter of seconds and said she needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. He felt it was faster to go by car than to await a squad. He would be in the car behind and off they went.

On arrival, the nurses took her from the car and disappeared behind the double doors. The young parents could hear screaming and wailing and tears fell like a torrential rain. The little blond haired girl, so full of life was now in the hands of strangers and the people she trusted most sat in the plastic chairs in the dusky old waiting room, helpless.

In the next few hours the little girl would be admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of Epiglotitis, an infection of the epiglottis, a small flap that covers the trachea when swallowing so as not to allow food to enter the trachea. It was the #1 emergency in small children and they were told 20% of these children did not survive even with treatment. A tracheotomy would be the next treatment and the tray lay open by the bed.

Now the curls were falling over her daddy’s shoulder, once again, as she lay in his arms,head on his chest. This would be the second time she would stop breathing. IV meds, a call to the Pediatrician and gentle guidance for the parents and the little blond girl with the curls was flying down the road at 95mph to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in a downtown hospital. Her mother at her side, her dad in the car behind, trying to keep up, they arrived once again relinquishing their prize possession to the strangers in the scrubs with the understanding eyes. It was December 6, 1980.

I sit here this morning feeling grateful. Not sure where it came from, but I have this overwhelming attitude of gratitude. The last few weeks have been difficult and I know, without a doubt, that more are around the bend, but with that in mind I still have this peace. It is a peace I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

Maybe it is my intimate relationship with traumatic and indescribable loss, maybe it’s since I’ve been here before, maybe it’s what I’ve learned, maybe it’s me. I don’t really know, but what I do know is this. What a great life I’ve had. How blessed am I to have had the people and experiences I have had. The little girl with the blond curls is now 41. One different event could have changed the course in the story above, but as it played out, it was a happy ending. Not all events have a happy ending, life is not always rainbows and unicorns, but most of the time it is what you make it. I choose to make the rest of my life the best it can be. I know there will be mountains and valleys, but the mountains aren’t near as tall and the valleys aren’t near as deep. We don’t always get to choose our path, sometimes life goes in a different direction than we had wanted. It’s a choice to stay on the path and follow it to see what’s at the end or sit down, give up, and stay right where you are forever. Forever is a very long time.

I was almost finished with this blog when I heard the horrible news of the helicopter crash claiming multiple lives, some children. Today feels like the end of the world to these families. I’m sure the air around the crash site is thick with grief. In this case it is someone famous, but I can assure you there are others right now feeling that same seering pain of loss, those without fame or fortune, no notoriety, but they are feeling the same feelings and shedding the same salty tears. As they enter the maze today, please think of them, their families, their friends and all of those hurt by life’s twists and turns. If you pray, say an extra prayer, if you don’t send them good thoughts for healing.

The maze was very sunny today, bright and hopeful. Tonight it feels dark again as I empathize with all of those hurting. I am slowly but surely finding my way through the darkness and seeing that light of hope. Hug your kids tonight extra tight, tell your family you love them one more time, call your parents, visit your grandparents, forgive those that hurt you, kiss your dog on the nose. End your day on a positive note because tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Love, laugh, have fun, be kind, notice those around you, say hello to strangers and that is what will change your tomorrow.

This week I have been able to refill my glass, not all the way, but it is definitely half full again. I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful week.

THE COLORS OF GRIEF…

She was a little unsure about renting something sight unseen, but everyone was doing it these days. Besides, there were so many people it would be much cheaper. On a whim, she looked up Airbnb and there it was, The Skittle Shack. The pictures were precious, bright and cheery, good location, plenty of room and just a few miles from the grandson she adored. She placed the deposit.

The vacation with the family was good, but harder than she anticipated. The absence of her husband and soulmate was much more painful than she imagined it would be. She thought everyone having fun would help her get through it, but actually that’s not how grief works. Now they headed the van north to spend the last two days with her grandson. The trip was easy and they reached their destination a little early. Everyone piled out and before them sat the most adorable little White House with chairs on the front porch, table in between. The door unlocked just as the directions had said and before her was every color of the rainbow, decor, furniture, and everywhere they looked were Packets of Skittles.

Her daughter was immediately drawn to the coffee table and reached for a book lying there. Her mother noted the quiet and then the tears welling up in her daughter’s eyes. “Read this mom, wow” was all she could say. Her mom took the book and started to read about a beautiful little girl that had died, leaving these thoughts about life. Her mother compiled it and it is the centerpiece of the house. That mother also lost her husband after losing her daughter. Was this a coincidence or was the Skittle Shack exactly where she needed to be?

The Skittle Shack was not only precious, but full of personality. Everything there was done in bright colors of the rainbow just as the candy reflects. I realized they are the “colors of grief”. First you are drawn to the reds and in grief, this reminds me of the realization that someone is gone. Red reminds me of being upset and distraught and it almost screams at you that life is forever different, forever changed and nothing you can do will change that.

The purples reflect the sadness that comes with losing someone you love. It’s a somber feeling that washes over your entire being. Some have feelings of depression and sadness that don’t even allow them to function. Others, the hues are a little kinder and they manage to work through it a little easier.

The greens generally show growth and this is necessary for grievers. We have to start to sprout again, although very slow, the seeds must be planted for that to happen. Planting the seeds means doing the work and the work of grief is difficult. It requires tools, perseverance, patience, and stamina. The Earth is scorched so the seed must be placed delicately in the ground to eventually flourish. It has to have water and nutrients and plenty of sunshine.

Yellow is, to me, the color of hope. It is sunshine against a blue sky. It makes the world brighter in the darkest of days. It brings flowers and rainbows and overall makes everyone feel a little better. To look toward the sun is to look toward the light and following the light is what we want to do. The darkness is frightening and makes us unsure of our next step. When pursuing light, the steps are easier and more confident.

Orange is the color of patience. You must be patient with yourself and with others. The grief journey is long and hard and most of all worth it. Orange is bright and cheerful, but not stark like yellow. It reflects the time it takes to absorb the news, let yourself be sad about the loss, plant the seed and wait for the sun to help the sprout peek out from beneath the dark ground.

The rest of it becomes softer and the colors start to blend, just as the colors of the rainbow that appears after the storm. It’s the promise of tomorrow, of something else waiting to be discovered, adventures yet to be revealed. It is said you must walk through the storm to be able to dance in the rain. I’ve walked through the storm and although I am still playing in the puddles, I haven’t drowned yet.

A twelve year old girl wrote “A Guide to Life” and left behind her wisdom through simple everyday thoughts and behaviors. We could all learn a lesson from this precious life taken too soon. Her mother shares this journey and donates some of the proceeds to the local Children’s Hospital, not too far from The Skittle Shack.

This is the note I left for the owner and note it is written in colors.

Just like The Skittle Shack, I choose color in my life and although it gets dark at times, I will always continue to look toward the light.

THOUGHTS ON 2020…

Who knew that 2019 would again bring me to my knees, barely able to process day to day life. The pain of loss is a seering pain that affects you to the very core, something that you cannot possibly prepare for, a depth of hurt you did not know existed. Sometimes I feel like I am in a burning building and with flames all around, I wonder if I will get out ok. Will I be whole when this is over if I am lucky enough to survive. Honestly, I’m not sure you are ever whole again, more like pieces of glass being held together by Super Glue. As I contemplate 2020, I realize more lessons I’ve learned and more important, things I need to work on. Here are my top 10 and I’m guessing if you are reading this you may recognize some also.

1. Stop, don’t look too far ahead because it is frightening and can get in your way. Thinking about the big picture without the person or persons you loved is like an abyss. It is dark and endless because you really don’t know what is going to happen today so worrying about the future is wasted energy.

2. Set your goals in a way you can accomplish them. Don’t set the bar so high that you can’t achieve it. It is a possibility that you will never be that happy again, but it is also a possibility that you will, just in a different way.

3. Don’t depend on anyone. You are the only person that knows what you need and only you can make it happen. No one can do it for you, you must do the work yourself. Others may not be pleased with how you do it, but you have to make the decision that works for you.

4. Sometimes life sucks and sometimes it doesn’t. Try to glean what you can in the good times so when the bad times come, you have enough stored up to get through, much like a squirrel prepares for winter.

5. Life is not and will never be the same. You and those around you are forever changed. You can’t carry their burdens nor can they carry yours. People will handle things in their own way and not necessarily the same way you do. Let them clear their own path just as you clear yours.

6. Try to find things to be grateful for every single day. Some days there will be a lot and some days you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Life is a gift and that is never more obvious than when you lose someone close.

7. Find your niche. It may not be what you expect and you may be surprised what doors open for you. Sometimes you have to turn away from the familiar to find your way. It is scary, but can be worth it in the end.

8. Sometimes you have nothing left to give and that’s ok. People who walk with you understand and when those times come, they can be your eyes and ears, they can help with simple things until you feel better. There will be a time when you will return that for someone else.

9. Look around you every day and see the opportunities before you. Open your eyes to the rest of the world and see what others are challenged with. There are those with no food, no roof over their head, no job, bad health and hundreds of other things that we take for granted, not on purpose, but because we know no other way. Help when you can, it feels good and helps you too.

10. The most difficult part of losing someone you love is living without them. No one can tell you how to accomplish this. The collateral damage created by loss can have a rippling effect forever. Be ready to ride the waves because you won’t know they are coming and you can easily tip over and be swept away.

I think I’m on target with #4, 6 and 9, but everything else here is a work in progress. I miss my life more every day. I had just gotten my footing from Lindsey’s death and then another hit. I stood in lines this week with hundreds of couples, old and young. I watched older couples dance and hug and hold hands. I watched them wait on each other in the buffet lines and sit side by side at the shows. I watched them save each other seats and hold onto each other’s arm as they walked along, depending on that other person to be there if they stumbled. I missed “my person”. I missed being a couple, I missed Rick.

The maze is lonely tonight, no lights, no sound, no holiday crowds in the distance. I think I took a few wrong turns and have found myself lonely and confused. I’m not sure which way to go, but I know it needs to be toward the light. I’ll keep trying to find my way.

To all of you who take the time to share my journey, I hope you will have a kind and gentle 2020.

WORTH THE RIDE…

It’s here, the happiest time of year and although I don’t feel like I used to, it really is very special. There are memories of 65 Christmas Seasons for me and to be completely honest, most of them were amazing. Grieving in the holiday season is a challenge, but it also makes you realize the part of life that is really important.

It has been my experience that the actual holiday is no different than any other day, but the days leading up to it are filled with anticipation and mixed emotions. I find myself feeling increasingly sad as I navigate this holiday without Rick. I have a beautiful family and lots of support, but that does not camouflage what is missing. My daughter asked me this week “Why do we lose everyone we love?” That is a question I couldn’t answer because I don’t think there is an answer. What I can answer is this.

Life is not and will never be…perfect. There are ups and downs, sometimes side to side turns much like you feel on a roller coaster. The ups can be extreme like graduation, marriage, having children or they can be simple like getting a raise or even buying new furniture or simply having a good day. There are times that you want to sit in the first car, throw your hands in the air and scream with delight and there are times you approach that upcoming drop with great anticipation, white knuckling and hanging on. Then there are the times you can’t see around the bend, there is no preparation and the surprise drop takes all the wind out of you. These are the same feelings you experience in loss. What I have discovered is that whether you are prepared or not…it still takes the wind out of your sails and it still hurts.

How can you tackle this thing we call life and not get hurt? I don’t think you can. That’s just my opinion, but you have to be willing to take the ride, never knowing what’s around the next bend. I believe love is the greatest gift we can give or receive. I believe even when it isn’t perfect, it is worth the risk. What would life be without having someone to love and to be loved. I think it would be like the roller coaster with no riders. There would be no screams of joy nor screams of fear, no hands in the air, just emptiness. An empty theme park is very different than one filled with people. The empty one is sad, no lights, no sounds, no smells and no happiness, just an empty shell. Once the gates open, there are sounds of laughter and pure joy, the aromas of fair food, the eye catching exhibits and rides. Everything there is intended to bring joy, but once in awhile even a theme park has a tragedy and it leaves a mark. After that, it takes time for the owners and the participants to feel comfortable again and to feel safe. In the meantime, everyone behind the scenes works hard to assure that safe feeling returns, hoping it will never happen again., but there are no guarantees.

This Christmas is like that closed theme park, it’s like DisneyWorld without any people. I didn’t decorate or put up a tree. I didn’t bake or plan dinner. I didn’t listen to Christmas music. I didn’t enjoy the season. I want it to be over, not for anyone else, I just need to get to the other side. It’s all about survival this year, plain and simple.

What I did do this season is reflect on my 65 years of life. I was blessed with an amazing mother, who I thank God for everyday. I was blessed with a best friend and husband for 46 years. I had an intact family for 29 years with three incredible daughters. My 29 years with Lindsey was and continues to be a blessing. My career has blessed me in innumerable ways, from the people I have met along the way to allowing me to adjust my work life to raise my three daughters. I am blessed with good friends, many of whom have suffered my losses with me. I am blessed with two brothers, who love and support me in everything I do. I am blessed with a sister-in-law who has been more like a sister over the years. I am blessed with a half sister, who shows her undying support over the miles. I am blessed with becoming a part of Rick’s family and experiencing life at the river with family all around. Rick’s parents demonstrated what a happy marriage looked like. My continued blessings come from my grandchildren who check on me constantly to make sure I’m ok. I have been blessed with co-workers and friends who have taken their time on Christmas morning to let me know they care. I am blessed to have found a new church family that is starting to feel like home. It goes without saying that my greatest blessings call me “mom”, my daughters Amanda and Tiffany.

The maze isn’t decorated today, but that’s ok. I have it all boxed away to bring out when I’m ready. It’s quiet here and that’s ok, sometimes quiet can be good too. The theme park has to be quiet in order to prepare for the next new and exciting adventure. I am resting now, but I will be ready to take on that new adventure when the time is right. You can’t rush grief. It has to simmer like a succulent sauce. Everything has to blend in order for the taste to be right. Grief is like that because there are so many parts that must blend to create healing.

Thank you for reading, thank you for your comments, and no matter what you believe or what you celebrate, I wish you peace and hope for your future. In order to celebrate Rick this year and his life, we made his famous BBQ sauce and are currently distributing it to friends and family. What you leave behind is really what’s most important, memories and love are forever.

“May love be what you remember most” Darcie Sims

Note she is wearing a Perrin’s BBQ shirt.

Our last Christmas together.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN…

Today is 239 days since I lost my soulmate, my best friend, my children’s dad, my grandchildren’s Poppy, Bobby’s brother, and to be honest a true friend to everyone he met. Rick was a vibrant personality, he was the guy who lit up the room. His sense of humor was probably one of my favorite qualities, although he would often use it to lighten heavy situations and I would get annoyed. We had a certain language developed over 46 years of marriage, often using certain “eye contact” or as the children called it the “eyebrow”. It was a language developed over 51 years of being friends and sharing the ups and downs of this crazy world we live in.

This year was an unexpected turn for us as a couple and for my family. Many have mentioned all the “firsts” I would go through, but honestly I’ve been doing that for ten years now. This life I am leading is not like the other. I know all the obvious things and expect the grief bursts on holidays and special occasions, but what I didn’t expect was the feelings of helplessness and loneliness. Oh I knew it would be different, but it is more than different, it is painful. Life goes on for everyone else, but for you, life came to a standstill. It is as if you are standing outside a snow globe looking in. You place your arms around it in order to get the very best view, as close as you can get, pressing your face against the glass. Inside there are houses, decorated with wreaths and lights, children playing, families putting up the tree, and snow falling. It is a peaceful scene. It used to be your family doing all those things, it used to be you putting up all the decorations. Now, you are the outsider. You are looking in and there is a glass partition between you and the scene before you. That glass is your grief.

Going through the motions and getting to the other side becomes your goal. Merely surviving it all is you really wish for. The other goal becomes hiding it, as best you can, from the rest of the world. Grabbing that mask as you walk out the door, smiling as you greet people, lending a hand when you can be of help, that becomes your everyday life. Now there are times you can be yourself, expressing what you really feel and allowing your emotions to show, but they are few and far between. Even with those closest to you, you are cautious, trying not to burden them with your problems. It is like a delicate dance, sometimes steps are slow and methodical and seem to go with the flow of the music, but sometimes they are deliberate and awkward and you feel like the rhythm is off. You scramble to regain your composure and gently return to stepping carefully, trying to return to the order of the dance.

All of these things take energy and time and above all, patience. You need patience with yourself and patience with others. No one understands your pain and you can’t understand theirs. Even if a situation is similar, you can’t understand. You can only understand how you felt in your situation and know it to be difficult. Empathy can be a wonderful gift at this time of year and it costs nothing. The greatest gift you can give a grieving person is a memory because memories we can keep forever. As time goes on, we are so fearful of forgetting.

Many who read this blog are doing so because, they too, have a broken heart. It helps to have companions on the journey, not to fix it, but to just be there. So today, after you read this can you leave a memory for me about someone you love and miss everyday. It can be a word or a sentence or anything you would like to share. That will help me continue my journey through the maze knowing we are not alone and hopefully help you too.

Hope is to walk toward the light, not shielding your eyes, but maybe temporarily wearing sunglasses. That allows you to continue forward at your own pace in your own time.

FOLLOW THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD…

Thanksgiving Day, for me, was a day of reflection. It wasn’t a day of celebration, but a day of coming to grips with a totally different life. We had a Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday, so more could be here. I didn’t really have the enthusiasm to do it, but my youngest daughter told me multiple times it was her favorite holiday. Point taken. My granddaughters kept talking about Meemaw’s mashed potatoes, so I did it. The blessing was tough on my oldest daughter and I saw the pain in her eyes. I cheated on dinner and most of it came from Cracker Barrel. I was glad I did it in the end, because it was time together we hadn’t had since Rick died.

I spent most of Thanksgiving Day alone, my choice, declining invitations that normally feel very comfortable. I became keenly aware of smoldering emotions that I did not want to take to someone else’s celebration. Although everyone understands, I knew I couldn’t handle it. The day was quiet, Lucy and I watched the parade, took a ride to play with Homer and Blue, and ate spaghetti. I really was ok, but my emotions were not. I reflected a lot on my life, as a child, as a wife, as a mother and as a friend. All of this kept taking me to the first weekend of March every year when “The Wizard of Oz” was shown on TV. You couldn’t see this movie any other time and I looked forward to it with great anticipation.

Why am I talking about a movie you are thinking. Dorothy lived a pretty benign existence on the farm and then one day out of nowhere, she was picked up by a cyclone/tornado and deposited in a brand new world. She didn’t ask for this and she didn’t want this, but that is where she found herself. All she wanted was for life to return to what she had known before, her family and friends intact and happy. Isn’t that sort of what happens in grief? Regardless of the circumstances, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a world we know nothing about. It is uncomfortable and painful and all we really want is to have back what and who we lost. I realized that this journey on the yellow brick road is much like the grief journey. It is the searching for something that we once had. For Dorothy it was a farm in Kansas and for me it is Hope and eventually Joy. Most grievers spend a lot of time trying to find their way, trying to figure out how to navigate this new world. The bottom line is, we, like Dorothy, must follow the yellow brick road for answers.

Along the journey, Dorothy meets the scarecrow, who instantly becomes her friend and her companion on her journey. The scarecrow’s desire is to have a brain. He sings and dances exuding happiness, but he is missing something. That missing makes him yearn for things to be different. He thinks if he had a brain his life would be improved. Yet the scarecrow is instrumental in all the decisions made to help Dorothy find her way. This is one of the most difficult things about the grief journey, searching for something, thinking you should be this or that, wondering if your brain is ever going to allow you to think clearly again, wondering if your ability to concentrate will return. The constant yearning for things to be different, and to eventually be ok with the differences is exhausting. So while the scarecrow is looking for a brain, the griever is looking for peace and understanding, a safe place, where the pain is not so intense.

Next is the encounter with the Tin Man, structurally a pile of metal pieced together with screws. He reveals he is searching desperately for a heart. He feels incomplete and unable to feel and is convinced a heart would change his life. A heart really does change your life because on the grief journey, your heart is broken. There is a lot of time and energy spent trying to repair it, but in the end your heart will always be missing a piece, the piece that belonged to your loved one. This missing piece cannot be repaired or replaced, but instead you start to methodically store your memories there, filling that empty space carefully, gingerly and eventually the raw pain softens. Throughout the journey, the tin man took care of Dorothy even putting himself in danger. In the end he had the biggest heart of all because he loved his little group of misfits and took care of them.

Of course everyone remembers the Cowardly Lion and what he deemed his lack of courage. At first, he couldn’t see past what he thought were his cowardly ways. He wanted more than anything to be brave and courageous and be able to stand tall among the other animals. In the beginning of the grief journey, we feel weak, scared, unsure, and all we want is our life back. We may feel weak and mere shadows of our former self. We don’t know the person we’ve become, nor do we generally like the new “us”. If we were leaders, we want to be leaders again, but what holds us back is the courage to take a step forward to healing. Many think healing means forgetting, but honestly, it’s the exact opposite. Healing is carrying our loved one forward and sharing whatever role they played in your life with those who didn’t get to know them, never letting them be forgotten.

The Cowardly Lion stepped up when he needed to, faltering at times and even rethinking his decisions, only to find he was much braver than he realized. He did it for himself and he did it for those that became important to him. In the end, he was proud of himself for taking a chance.

On the grief journey, we have to take a chance, to believe the new world we are thrust into, although not what you wanted or planned, can be a happy one. We have to take those steps forward or there is no future for us. Some days we falter, some days we backslide, some days we don’t even have the energy to try, but then comes the day we stand tall and kick that leg forward and find it feels ok. Another step follows and eventually we might even jog a little, but every now and then we have to stop and rest, take care of ourselves and sit with our grief. See, every single day is different and you never know what’s around the bend.

The story culminates with Dorothy finding the kingdom of Oz and meeting the Wizard. All her hopes and dreams are bashed when she finds out he is just a regular guy and does not have magical powers. Dorothy realizes that her ability to get home and find happiness really is up to her.

Isn’t that really what we need to do. There is no one with magical powers that can make this go away. It is a fact that we have to do this on our own power in our own time. We are responsible for our own healing, because we, like Dorothy, have the ability to live and be happy. It just takes the journey to get the answers.

So although like the Scarecrow our brain is affected, and like the Tin Man our heart is broken and like the Cowardly Lion we are afraid to take a chance, we look around us at our family and friends, those who have walked alongside us, and like Dorothy we keep searching.

Dorothy was different after her experience and so are we, but different can be ok if we learn from our experiences. Her journey had a happy ending as she found her way home, but I bet she was grieving her friends left behind. Although I’m not guaranteed a “happy ending” I know my brain, my heart and my courage will get me wherever I need to be.

Today the maze was lined with yellow bricks, strategically guiding me toward a goal. It was nice to have these guys at my side today, sharing and caring, and showing me the way.

GRIEF AND GRATITUDE…

This week is all about being thankful. How can you look around and see so much heartache, so much loss, so much suffering and be thankful? The world sometimes is plain overwhelming. Between TV and social media, we are exposed to tragedy all day everyday. There are people grieving everywhere. Those of us experiencing our own loss have discovered this thing we call grief. How do you carry grief and gratitude at the same time?

I believe you have to stop, look around, listen and pretty much everything you see will be a miracle. In my career I have been blessed to experience the miracle of birth with countless people. To watch a baby take its first breath is an experience like no other. The gleam in a new mother’s eyes is something you never forget. The tears that often run down a dad’s face are priceless. The satisfaction of “job well done” by the doctors and nurses lights up the room. When things don’t go as planned and young parents have to let their baby go, it is a gift to be present with them in that moment. Tears are shared as the moment is shared, never to be forgotten. As hard as it is to go through these experiences, it leaves you with true gratitude for being able to help during the most difficult moments of their lives.

Nurses at the bedside see human suffering every single day. Their days are filled with fear and uncertainty for their patients, uncomfortable tests and procedures, horrible disease processes that destroy their patient’s minds and body, and yet they go in every shift hoping to make a difference. Their own families change plans and reschedule holidays because patients have to be cared for and made to feel safe. As they leave each day, they feel grateful for their family and friends, their health, their ability to make a living giving to others, because truth is, one day you may need the services you are providing.

Watching someone suffer through a devastating illness makes you grateful for the simplest things. To be able to watch a sunrise or children playing makes you appreciate those that are blind and will never see the beauty around us. Listening to music, the sounds of waves crashing against the shore makes you appreciate those who are deaf and will never hear the sounds of joyful laughter. Taking a brisk walk on a fall day or strolling down the beach as the sun sets helps you understand how lucky you are to be able to move freely on your own, unlike the person confined to a wheelchair or bed. Reading and writing, watching TV or looking at social media, driving a car or simply balancing your checking account makes you realize there are those that suffer mental or emotional illnesses that are unable to accomplish getting themselves dressed in the morning. For my ability to see and appreciate these things, I am truly grateful.

When grief is your lifelong companion, you aren’t sure how to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. Grief is so heavy, it leaves you unbalanced and let’s face it, grief hurts. It is hard to look out into the world and think positive thoughts. That, my friends is normal. Watching the Christmas trees go up and the houses adorned with lights and yard decorations is painful for those missing someone they loved. Carving turkey and family get togethers are not the same nor will they ever be. The empty chair, the empty stocking, the empty spot in your heart is unable to be filled. What do we do to feel gratitude at a time like this?

I have found working through immeasurable loss that my mind is filled with the “good stuff”, memories made through the years. I don’t know how holiday time will affect me this year, being my first without Rick and my 10th without Lindsey, but I don’t feel resentment for those making plans and having fun. I understand that our journeys are different and their families deserve whatever happiness they can have. I was that family once, often unaware of the suffering around me, which honestly is normal. Life is hard when things are good and even harder when they aren’t. I am truly and unequivocally changed by the death of my daughter, and now my soulmate, but I am grateful for 29 years with Lindsey and 51 years with Rick. I am grateful to have my two daughters and my grandchildren in my life. I am grateful for family and friends and times gone by. I am grateful for my “Compassionate Friends” and all of those I’ve met on the “grief journey”. This group of people have changed my life.

This time of year was always my favorite. I was a “Christmas Nut”, one time having about 25 trees of all shapes and sizes, each with a theme. We were always big on tradition and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner was a joyful time. As I walk the maze during this holiday season, I know to take care of myself, to do what I can and to politely decline what I can’t. Please understand, this journey is individual. If you know someone hurting this holiday season, give them the gift of remembering. Let them know you care, let them know you can sit beside them with no expectations. Let them know that no one is judging them as they trudge their way through their own maze and they can take as long as they need to. Give them the gift of a story or memory of the person they lost. Let them know their lost loved ones are welcome at Christmas dinner.

LOOKING AHEAD…

I’ve been contemplating what I wanted to write about this week and I thought I would change it up a bit. I’ve talked about my mom a lot and many of my readers knew her as “Meemaw”. This name came from her first grandchild and at the time, I didn’t like it at all, but that is what he called her and to all who knew her, she has been Meemaw since.

My parents divorced when I was just shy of four. I don’t remember much about that time or any specifics about their life together. I think my brothers have more memories of that time, but I only remember this woman who I felt could do anything she put her mind to. I saw her as a a pillar of strength growing up and knew without a doubt I wanted to be just like her. I truly thought my childhood was perfect because of her.

We lived in a little house in South Richmond with a huge lot next to it. I can remember my brothers playing football in that lot with friends from the neighborhood. There was also an area between the house and the lot where I still see my youngest brother playing marbles in the dirt. There were roads and tunnels, mountains and bridges, and lots and lots of time was spent there, just being a kid. Another structure that looms large in my mind is a huge cinder block garage where I would spend hours playing with my dolls and stuffed animals.

Across the street were woods filled with creeks, paths, and treasures. We could walk through those woods, play in those creeks, all the while feeling safe and knowing when to check in at home. Our dogs went with us everywhere as dogs in those days roamed free. My companion was a collie named “Sarge”. He was an icon of the neighborhood and everyone knew him. Everyday at 3 o’clock he would head to the city bus stop to meet my brother getting off the bus.

I have a vivid image of a kitchen table where we would eat our meals that mom had prepared all day. She was an amazing cook and the aromas from her kitchen traveled to another house, then an apartment and finally our house, as she spent her last days with Rick and I. You could sometimes smell cakes baking at 6 in the morning which made it difficult to sleep. Holiday time was filled with home cooking featuring all the traditional foods. In those days eating turkey was reserved for the holiday meal so that made it extra special. She would cook for two days, but hot foods were always done on the day it was being served. She could have 15 dishes, but when it hit the table, they were all right out of the oven and all the perfect temperature. Sometimes, especially the last few times she was able to make one of these meals, she would almost collapse, eating very little, but making sure everyone else enjoyed it. I treasure each and everyone of these memories.

Mom would also let us have pets, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, you name it, we had one. Goldfish came home from the school carnival, turtles were common, ducks and chickens at Easter and once even a baby alligator my father had sent my brother in the mail. I have such fond memories of these times growing up. I, on the other hand, am not sure how she accomplished this. I didn’t see the struggle she had on an everyday basis, raising three children on her own.

When I was in the 4th grade, we moved into a new house not far from our elementary school. It was so exciting, but at the same time, we left behind the woods, the empty lot and the garage where we started our life.. Sarge returned there many times in the first few months and mom would have to get in the car and go get him. Finances were tight, but I remember having everything I ever wanted. I truly thought she hung the moon.

In that house we experienced family and unconditional love. The next few years my oldest brother would be in the Cadet Corp. and become the drum major. We went to every event, parade, game etc. where he would march with his classmates. I remember bursting with pride when I saw him in the band or leading the Cadets. He also began playing with a band called “Little Harvey and the Kings of Soul”. It was magical for me and I think I looked up to him like a father at times. He was my “big brother” and I was so incredibly proud. I remember the day he left for the Marine Corp. and watched mom cry for weeks, worrying if he would be ok. We even traveled to Parris Island to see him graduate from boot camp. I always knew no matter where we all ended up, he would be there for me.

My younger brother tried the Cadet Corp., following in his footsteps, but it really wasn’t what he wanted. He was a rough and tumble kind of kid and always excelled in sports. He became Quarterback of the football team. Again, mom and I were at every game and every event watching him and beaming at his accomplishments on the field. He went on to play for the Championship in Jr. College, followed by his life changing football team at Marshall University. He was and is my big brother and those days were extremely special growing up together.

The young teenage girl stood before the audience, knees shaking, heart pounding, and listened for the results. Her mom had made it all happen, just like she always did. Her formal dress was just as pretty as the others, but her talent competition made her extremely nervous, as she didn’t sing or dance like the other girls she was competing against. They had been in these contests before, some even groomed for this sort of thing. This was a first for her, but she thought it would be fun. She had been a finalist after the academic portion of the pageant, so here she was. Honestly, she never even considered whether she could win Miss Teenage Richmond, she just jumped in, both feet, and entered. The judges passed the tiny envelope down the row to the emcee, who opened it gently and glanced at the row of teenage girls. As her name was read aloud, the tears welled up and flowed like lava down both cheeks. They gently placed flowers in her arms and snapped her picture as she strolled across the stage wearing the tiny tiara. She felt like a princess as if all her dreams had come true and there in the audience sat her mom, smiling ear to ear and right beside her sat her high school boyfriend.

The year 1972 was magical as I became Miss Teenage Richmond. There was a free wardrobe to pick out and plans to make. Going to Miss Teenage America was going to be an unbelievable experience and I had to make the best of it. How did I, a young girl from meager beginnings, get to experience such a life changing moment? To me, the answer is simple. Mom always made me believe I could do anything. I went on to compete in the Miss Teenage America pageant in Dallas-Fort Worth and it was sort of like a magic carpet ride for me. I met girls from all over the US, while doing photo sessions and working on the production. We worked hard and were treated like royalty for that week. I felt like a Disney princess in an enchanted world. The show was televised for all to see and there I was on National TV and in the audience sat my mom and my high school boyfriend, Rick. The store where my mom had worked as a clerk had given her a plane ticket and every department had given her an item she would need to make the trip. She had made the unthinkable happen, so it was her turn now.

These are treasures I keep close to my heart these days, memories of days gone by, a childhood filled with dreams and expectations. I truly do not know how I have been blessed with so many wonderful experiences in my life. What I do know is that it revolves around a simple word…HOPE. As a child we are filled with hope for the future. We are busy creating a world for ourselves and hoping for a future full of love and understanding. As we grow, we might encounter bumps in the road as we try to continue that journey unscathed. It is sort of like walking the maze I’m in today, looking ahead, hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel. Thing is, when you are young, you don’t keep looking back at what you’ve lost, you continue to look at what you have now and what you want for the future. Children run toward their goal where we often find ourselves trudging along as if we are being pulled into quicksand trying to hang on to what was.

So today, I will take lessons from the children. I am a person with a beautiful life full of memories to treasure and as I walk the maze today, I’m reminded to pull out those pictures of happy times whenever I need to be reminded that the road ahead may be filled with potholes, but going forward is the only way out.