As the holiday season grows closer, it doesn't take much to remember how many people struggle just to get through this month. Six and a half years after the death of my first husband is far easier than the first or second years, because it doesn't hold shock and debilitating despair. But, that doesn't mean deep sadness is gone. Last year held a whole new set of emotions as it was the first Christmas being remarried. Even though I am very happy to be remarried, "firsts" of any kind after traumatic death inherently carry one back in time. I couldn't help but compare this first Christmas with the first I had with James and the first I had without him. One of the troubles after four, five, six years is that our families and friends don't often acknowledge the intensity that still roars in our hearts. 

Even though I have a new life, I still need support. And I'm writing this because I'm sure there are people you will encounter during this holiday season that need much more. Death is part of our life cycle, but that doesn't make it easier to cope with. We cannot slide our fears and sadness under the mat, wrap up our expectations as we do our gifts, and expect that "keeping busy" is the answer. I cannot say this enough: You will not help someone in grief this holiday season by assuming it's too hard to talk about or it will just make them desolate. 

The greatest respect you can give is acknowledgement. Here are some examples of what to say:

1) "You've been on my heart lately, as I know any kind of anniversary - including holidays - bring up memories that can be really hard. If it sounds helpful to talk about any memories or listen to one of mine about your spouse/child/sibling/friend/parent, come find me."

Listening to someone else's memory of my husband is one of the greatest gifts I receive. It reveals that you know me, that for a few minutes I can concentrate on a happier story instead of how much I miss him, and that it's okay to be where I am.

2) "I don't know what to say, but I want you know that I wish s/he were here too."

Believe it or not, saying "I don't know" is one of the best things to do. Everyone's journey is so unique, and by comparing theirs to yours - especially when the roles are so different - you unintentionally become an unsafe person. 

3) "Want to take a break and go for a short walk?"

Most people are grateful to take a few breaks during long days with family, co-workers or friends. We get lost in our thoughts and overwhelmed by needing to be social, even if we want to be there. It is so nice when someone provides an "out" for a little while. 

4) "I know that I haven't said anything before (or in a long time). I didn't know him/her, but I'm really glad that I know you and that you're here. I can see you're in pain today. If there's anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable or welcome, please know I want to."

I've never heard this, but I've dreamed about hearing it. 

In a culture that is uncomfortable with prolonged sadness, what validation it is to hear "I see you. And grief takes as long as it takes!" That is the message you send by acknowledging people. 

I want to end on this note: Recently, I participated in a "Beyond Active Grieving" forum on the Young Widow Bulletin Board. The topic surrounded the risks inherent to remarriage; specifically, how it can't be worth them. I felt the need to respond and share why I decided to take the leap; I've pasted my entry at the bottom of this page, if you're interested. However, what I'd like to add now for emphasis on this current blog post is: If you're also one of the people who've moved forward, the messages above still apply no matter how long it's been. Saying "I do" again does not mean we've started over. It is okay NOT to be okay sometimes.


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Post from ywbb.org:

"After five years, I decided to risk it (marriage) again. These are my reflections. 

- I also wondered if I could ever love anyone as much as I did before. I felt very broken and fragmented as I moved forward. However, when I finally met someone who also knew deep loss, the desire to connect and share my life re-awakened. A big part of being willing to engage again is finding someone who can understand. He saw me not as a broken woman, but a woman who had lived life and understood the hardships that tested people to their core. Who found their core. He saw a real person who didn’t pretend that everything was perfect, but rather was real and cared about real issues – not makeup, or waist-size, or shopping. He saw the strength and capacity of my heart, because of how deeply I loved. And he knew, so he tells me, that I was a woman who would live with my priorities in the right places. 

- I believe fear is to be fought and accepted. I tend to lose it and feel like all my progress disappears every time I hear about a motor vehicle crash and fatality. I'm still scared that my best friend, parents, or new husband is going to die and I'll barely survive again. But at the end of the day, I know that I want to fight against feeling this fear because I have such little control over things like the weather, other people’s choices, and freak accidents. There is no guarantee of safety for anyone. Because of what happened six years ago, it's inevitable that I'm going to endure recurring nightmares and PTSD triggers in my present reality. However, I've learned that it doesn’t have to stop me from living or being the person I want to be. It stops me from pretending to be someone I’m not. 

- I loved being married so much. I have come to believe that saying yes again honors my first husband because it continues the life we cherished. Instead of existing in fear, doubt and bitterness ... I'm nurturing another, sharing what I've learned, and living fully as the woman my first husband loved. He'll never be replaced, as that's not what remarriage is about. 

- Here is what I have found about Reality:
(1) People need people.
(2) Our hearts can expand to love another person.
(3) Sensitive people will never ask us to replace a loved one.
(4) Loving again does not diminish past love."
 
 
Dear Little One:

More than anything, I wish for you to experience life with a kaleidoscope in your hand. A tool of hope for your exploration of the world, which your dad and I can't wait to start with you. There is so much to see, and you will learn as much from the ugly as you do from the joyous times. 

I dream about swaddling and singing to you - I think I'll either be bouncing up and down to Aretha Franklin or gazing into your eyes with tears as I rehearse Garth Brooks' "The River" and "If Tomorrow Never Comes." Not sure if you'll hear some of the classic baby melodies about beluga whales or girls named Miss Mary Mack. I may not be that type of mama. There is one about a spider that I've always thought had a lot more to it, though: After rain washes away our progress, the sun comes out and we climb again. That sounds real.

You're coming into a family, and a world, that will always show you two sides. Whether its music, school, relatives, friends or Minnesota winters, nothing is all good or all bad. When the world seems most fragmented in groups and broken in spirit, you will find minds and hearts of passionate people exploding with creative ideas for change. While you'll meet cynics and people who dwell in the negative, there are so many positive people you'll observe as well - and it doesn't matter if some call them dreamers or idealists. People who give the world their all in an attempt to make it more meaningful and safe are the kind that provide hope. It's the kind I want to be for you.

Hope is a feeling that we cannot live without. My favorite college professor one day jumped on a desk and shouted: "Folks! The human race can endure more suffering than you can ever imagine, but they cannot do it without hope." This phrase stuck with me because hope can seem so dichotomous: It's an empty platitude or a life force. Let me explain, as life is not going to be easy. There will be times that you are very upset and will hear from a few: "Cheer up, have hope. Things will get better." These words will not likely comfort you, because they don't validate the intensity of your emotions. However, there will be others who've been through hell and back, and their stories of light from darkness will fill your soul with strength and hope. 

It is due to these truths that I wish for you to experience life fully, and with a kaleidoscope. That image was once a tangible object given to me during a black night that lasted many years. Long before I met your dad, I was married to another man and he died. My life and dreams became a collection of broken, jagged glass, and it didn't take much to feel one of those sharp pieces pierce my heart. I cried so much. One day, our friend Beth told me and a group of other people that life is not about Plan A (what we perfectly intend and prepare); in fact, life is about Plan Bs. She said that when we feel broken, those pieces within us can shift like the pieces in a kaleidoscope and create new patterns.

I've now dedicated my life to finding new patterns from broken pieces, within myself and others. There are such wonderful people waiting to meet you - people who walked with me when I was lost, and people I've walked with when they were. To these individuals, you are a sign of hope and a beautiful new triangle in my kaleidoscope of life. I'm so glad I survived, as I've never lived - nor wanted to live - more fully. I am grateful to have your funny and compassionate dad to share my days and to have you growing in my belly. 

You know a dream is like a river
Ever changin' as it flows
And a dreamer's just a vessel
That must follow where it goes
Trying to learn from what's behind you
And never knowing what's in store
Makes each day a constant battle
Just to stay between the shores.