I battled the fear of driving or asking someone to drive to me for many years, worrying there would be another fatal crash. And while it could happen, living in that fear is paralyzing. I believe we must live with the hope that all will be okay AND the reality that today is all we have.
1. He doesn't want me at the grave.
My senses arrest
whenever I go.
I don't understand.
Only the tangible part of him is there -
But sometimes it's easier to think of him at a certain place.
2. I worked so hard to
process my loss;
find my core again;
live with intention and appreciation.
Grief can still be a formidable river.
3. I'm glad I made the choice to move forward.
A mind shift is how I explain it -
acceptance of life as joy and sorrow,
acceptance of the rewards and disappointments within all relationships,
acceptance of answers I won't find in this life,
acceptance of loving again and needing occasional help.
4. I may not have thought about him today.
We were so busy. And happy.
playing at the park,
listening to live music,
Being a mom is the best thing to ever happen to me.
5. Fear's nightly storm crushes me rarely now.
Did I ever think the rain would let up?
I drive again, almost any distance.
I don't envision loved ones dying - unless there is a powerful trigger.
I can speak about acceptance and truly mean it five minutes, five hours, five days later.
6. Kaleidoscope living:
We are broken pieces and whole pieces
creating new patterns
as we shift and look up into the Light.
7. My heart will always ache when to my mind he comes
and that's okay.
My heart swells for our beautiful life,
as it does for the beauty surrounding me now.
This article was published by OpenToHope.com on August 17, 2016. More articles in this new series will soon be following!
“You can go two ways when you have a tragedy,” she began as she unrolled her white, pressed napkin. “You can be the victim, or you can change your story.”
On July 6, 2016, I was honored to have lunch and conversation about loss, the lasting impact of fatal crashes, mindsets, and motherhood with a woman who exudes optimism and honesty. Sometimes, it seems those two traits don’t often go together, as harsh realities make it difficult to live with a glass-half-full mentality. Now in her late-thirties with four children (one adopted), my new friend, Nicole Roufs, finds healing and life through owning her reactions.
“My life mantra used to be ‘Everything happens for a reason.’” Believing this was the only way through the loss of her parents and difficult life with an austere aunt. “Now, I still think some things happen for a reason, but there is also much control we have: how we respond, the impression on our soul, and what we do with what happens to us.”
When Nicole was nine years old, she fell asleep in the car, on her mother’s lap, and woke up in the hospital where she would stay for two full months to recover from injuries sustained in a crash. A crash caused by a teenager playing a dangerous road game where he accelerated down the wrong side of the street until the last possible second before impact. Nicole’s mother and her boyfriend, the driver, were killed instantly; Nicole’s entire left side of her body was crushed.
When she was finally discharged from the hospital, her new legal guardian was her mother’s half-sister. “She did the best she could, but it just wasn’t what I needed.” As Nicole’s new home lacked space to grieve, access to a decent counselor, and most importantly, regular visits with her brother…Nicole became isolated. Nicole and her brother – only 15 months younger – shared a room before the crash; after, they went to separate houses as his father was available and hers was never known. However, Nicole did not know they had different fathers – and that her mom refused to tell anyone about Nicole’s real father – until her aunt casually mentioned it after the crash.
Another. Huge. Loss. (And after three paternity tests, Nicole’s still looking.)
The two kids took very different life paths, though both continued to suffer great adversity. Nicole was kicked out of her aunt’s house at age 15, a consequence for refusing to do the dishes. Drugs were in her brother’s new home – and he has been an addict, in and out of treatment centers, since his teenage years. Her brother now has seven children, and Nicole adopted one just last year after he was removed several times from an unsafe home with his mother. “Dana has quite a path in front of him, but he is such a thoughtful, hard-working guy,” she says with tears in her eyes. Nicole strives to give him the adopted home and love that she needed at his age; they can surely relate to loss on many similar levels.
“I try to tell my brother that he can change, that he has some control,” Nicole relays. “But his mindset is so different than mine. He is stuck in this ‘Poor me’/’They owe me’ attitude.’” Dissimilarly, Nicole and Dana have always focused on answering the questions: “What am I going to do?” and “How the hell am I going to get out of this?”
As our cream of broccoli soup arrived, Nicole and I wondered if people are born with certain mindsets, and/or how easily those mindsets can be changed as adults.
“You can go two ways when you have a tragedy,” she said again. “You can be the victim, or you can change your story.”
Changing one’s story doesn’t mean that you just appear resilient (but really have not processed your grief). True resilience is about “looking internally and moving forward because you carry your pain with you in a new way.” I asked her at what age she was able to look internally. “Not at 9 years old. At that age, it was like I was drowning in water, but I didn’t actually drown. When I was teenager and started to think more, I fought back. But it’s really been as a mother that I’ve peeled away the layers of my grief.” And during that peeling, she has found herself journaling: to her kids, about her kids, for her kids.
“There’s definitely a push to do something now. I live way more consciously.” What does living consciously look like? “It’s about being intentional, realizing every day is such a gift. My morning routine is centered on appreciation, as my eyes are open to how things could be.”
As our time together drew to a close, she told me about a book that was inspirational to her: Theresa Caputo’s There’s More to Life Than This. One of the “nuggets” from the book focused on the journey our soul chooses. In Nicole’s words, “I may have picked this life to grow up without my mom, to deal with her death.” This sentiment is part of her changed philosophy – that some things happen for a reason. “I don’t think there were specifics about when and how she would die. But I do believe that this is part of my journey.”
As I walked back to my car that day, her words about choosing her journey stuck with me more than anything else. It brought up many memories from the first years after my husband died, as my initial reaction was usually: “God doesn’t plan for bad things to happen. Life is not scripted for us, and people’s actions have consequences!” (My husband was also killed in a car crash by a negligent driver.)
But after everything I’ve been through these past eight years as a widow – from spiritual connections I don’t understand, mentoring kids dealing with loss, the feeling that I’m called to write about the grief process – I just can’t be black-and-white anymore with my view of the world. There is so much unexplainable mystery and opportunity that arises out of the ashes.
I know one thing for sure: The positivity that people like Nicole use as a result of their growth through loss is influential, inspiring, and important to share.
I found this poem while digging through some old files today. I keep returning to read it again, so I feel called to share it here.
"I believe there is no denying it: It hurts to lose.
It hurts to lose a cherished relationship with another,
or a significant part of one's own self.
It can hurt to lose that which has united one with the past,
or that which has beckoned one into the future.
It is painful to feel diminished or abandoned,
to be left behind or left alone.
Yet I believe there is more to losing than just the hurt and the pain.
For there are other experiences that loss can call forth.
I believe courage often appears,
However quietly it is expressed
However easily it goes unnoticed by others;
The courage to be strong enough to surrender,
The fortitude to be firm enough to be flexible.
I believe a time of loss can be a time of learning unlike any other,
And that it can teach some of life's most valuable lessons.
In act of losing there is something to be found.
In the act of letting go, there is something to be grasped.
In the act of saying "goodbye" there is a "hello" to be heard.
For I believe living with loss is about beginnings as well as endings.
And grieving is a matter of life more than death.
And growing is a matter of mind and heart and soul more than of body.
And loving is a matter of eternity more than of time.
Finally, I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss.
In the midst of darkness, there can come great Light.
At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope.
And deep within lonliness, there can dwell a great Love.
I believe these things because others have shown the way-
Others who have lost and have then grown through their losing.
Others who have suffered and then found new meaning.
So I know I am not alone; I am accompanied, day after night, night after day."
Titled: "An Affirmation for Those Who Have Lost" by James E. Miller
"What an idiotic thing - to deface your own body," an uncle said after I got my first tattoo. He wasn't interested in the story behind it. Like many people, he's one that goes through life without checking his assumptions and, as a result, often misses the opportunity to see beauty in unexpected places.
Contrary to popular opinion, most tattoos are not butterflies in the small of a woman's back or skulls and crossbones on men's shoulders. Recent reports describe the most common tattoo now as tribal, connecting to natural scenes and animals that depict inner strength, spirituality, or protection. Personally, I've yet to meet anyone who didn't have a thoughtful and compelling story behind the permanent mark their body unveils. In fact, I get pretty excited when I see the opportunity to ask.
Once there was tears. I was sitting with a group of young widows who were sharing thoughts and activities that honored their husbands. Some talked about living for their children, others about relationships with in-laws, others about the trial of getting out of bed and not giving up. The last woman who shared that day raised her hand and pointed to the inside of her wrist: "This is stage one of my memorial tattoo. Around his name will be a hummingbird, reminding me of the calmest, happiest moments in our marriage. I need that to remember him in the way I want to."
She then went on to talk about the flack received from her family, which I assume many of us have heard:
It's not very professional; people won't take you seriously.
Are you sure you'll want his name on you forever? What if you meet someone else?
Is it really worth hundreds of dollars?
My widow friend didn't have the answers at that point; she just knew in her heart that the symbol chosen and its location were important and "right."
Many years have passed since that night, yet I still think about her story and those questions from time to time. Five years after receiving my second memorial tattoo, I'd like to share some possible answers to those pressing inquiries from family and friends.
First, people who seek memorial tattoos commonly make them small. They do not want to be stereotyped and are not looking for a reaction from outsiders because the symbol is personal and emotional. Most think extensively about visibility for not only a professional environment, but also a warm climate. Example: I am one of many who possess a leg tattoo just high enough to be covered by summer shorts. This gives me the freedom to dress as I choose in any season AND reveal my tattoo only if I wish to share the story.
That said, even if someone chooses a place that cannot be covered, the cultural expectation that corporate environments will be dismissive is quickly fading. According to a 2013 Forbes article entitled "Tattoos No Longer A Kiss of Death in the Workplace," establishing a diverse, skilled, creative group of thinkers is most people's top priority. Bank of America's Spokeswoman Ferris Morrison states: “We have no formal policy about tattoos because we value our differences and recognize that diversity and inclusion are good for our business and make our company stronger."
Second, since people who said vows always intended to be together forever, they are not worried about changing their minds and needing laser removal of their spouse's name. This situation is a far cry from the 18-year-old girl getting her boyfriend's name in the hope that their love will last. Further, I believe I can speak for most widow(er)s when I assert that they would rather be alone than stay with a new partner who does not understand (1) the importance of grieving and honoring their partner, (2) how affected one is and always will be - to an extent - after their spouse dies, and (3) the thoughtful stories they need to share.
I know that my new husband is not bothered by my tattoo for James. Not only does he says it's beautiful, he reminds me whenever I'm feeling broken that he loves the woman I am today. That my past and my decisions made me who I am, and that I'm far stronger than I know.
My tattoo for James is actually about my decision to have hope. On his three-year "angelversary," I marked the occasion with a message - one I learned during the grief process. Surrounding his initials lay two pink roses: the type we displayed and wore at our wedding. The top rose is large and in full bloom, signifying the full, beautiful life that I was privileged to lead with James. Representation through a flower felt so appropriate, as nature reminds me that nothing lasts forever. (Or maybe it just doesn't hold the same form forever. Minnesotans see this every year in winter and spring, as our gardens wither and freeze in November, then shoot up with new life in April.) The second rose in my tattoo is smaller and still blossoming, representing hope for another life of happiness. Happiness did not mean another married life, but a life I was proud to lead: One filled with purpose instead of fear, gratitude instead of envy, life instead of death.
Finally, in relation to the dollars a tattoo requires, many can be completed for the same price as one month's phone bill. My first tattoo, a memorial for a special aunt, was $50.00. It is a small black symbol that represents her parting wisdom to me about finding balance and not working my life away. That reminder has been an invaluable guide over the years. We all have freedom to choose how we live and pay our bills, and there are far worse things that people, who are often struggling to find a reason to keep going after their person dies, can spend their money on.
I cherish my tattoos, as they are signs of love and healing that will always be with me. They can't be broken, lost or changed; they are just a simple reminder of the beautiful people who've left a deep mark in and on me.
For me, it’s a Bryan Adams or Collective Soul song. The roar of a super-charged Mustang. A plate full of cheesy potatoes. Fall leaves. A blue suit. His name.
I grin, thinking about him smiling or wrapping his long arms around me and whispering in my ear. Then I remember: my husband’s gory autopsy report, pictures from the state troopers, pacing in my house wondering what the hell I am going to do now.
And then I hurt. Memories weigh like bricks on my chest, tears surface like the tide. For some reason, swallowing often helps me control the flood that is waiting behind my eyes.
What I do next really depends on the time of day. If in the evening, I just say goodbye to the day, knowing that sleep will help me start anew tomorrow. And, eight years out, I know tomorrow will be a sunny day. If the trigger comes in the morning or afternoon, it’s more complicated. Especially if the trigger is a difficult one by itself - without my emotions permeating its structure. I’m talking now about dealing with negligent drivers, insensitive people, medical diagnoses, ambulances. The ones that make me re-play the horrible crash that caused his death, over and over and over, and the complicated feelings of emptiness, rage, and loss.
My gut may be to curl into a ball and sit in my closet, or consume too many bars of chocolate, but I have learned that one or several of the following will help me regain a small sense control faster:
Verbalize. If the trigger comes and you’re with someone, one of the most helpful things is to say out loud what’s going on. Naming diffuses the trigger’s power by removing you from the prison of your own repetitive thoughts, as well as open the therapeutic process of storytelling. In the grief group that I facilitate monthly, I’m amazed with the transformation that comes when someone recounts all the details of their person’s death, the people who were there/not there, the sheer agony of those first days. The truth is that it’s good for us to expel the emotions, but it’s also good for others to listen and understand.
Meditate. If you’re alone or you deeply prefer being alone with your grief, try a relaxing breath-centered meditation. My first Zen teacher taught his students that the best way to ground oneself and stay in the present is to focus on breathing. When you start to notice the rhythm, your chest, or even the sound, all other thoughts start to drift away.
That said, there have been times - when I’m replaying my husband’s death - that I need more than the breath. In those instances, I often find solace with imagery: imagining walking with a friend on a beach, listening to their words or needs, stumbling upon a pattern in the sand, etc. Recently in my grief process, recalling people and events for which I’m grateful (“gratitude meditation”) has been centering. However, I know this would have made me resentful in the beginning; forcing gratitude to overcome anger doesn’t work well.
Rock with a Weighted Blanket. One of my grief counselors advised investing in a rocking chair. At one time, my “homework” was to rock, three times per day, for ten minutes each time. The movement is simple and calming. Paired with a weighted blanket, which serves as a physical containment of chaotic emotions (really), it helped me de-stress enough to fall asleep.
EMDR. This is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a common therapeutic tool to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It works with either a moving (just back and forth) object that your eyes focus on OR two small handheld receivers that take turns vibrating. Both types work with the assumption that you and a trained counselor can re-train your brain’s neural pathways by disrupting them. The disruption is either the eye movement or the vibration as you re-live the trigger and talk about it in new ways. It helps me now to remember the conversations from my EMDR experience: For instance, are there positive events that happen because of ambulances? Can I think about them helping people the next time I hear or see one?
Walk. Similar to rocking, walking is simple and automatic. Plus it’s exercise, which re-balances the chemicals in our brain. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a renowned professor created The Center for Healthy Minds as a way to investigate depression and healing. Next to meditation, exercise was the most important tool for a healthy brain.
Usually when I walk to dispel a trigger, I also Call one of my close friends. I know that they are trustworthy with my grief, and will understand that my brain is reacting automatically. In other words, they don’t use logic to counsel me, but rather stuff like this:
Break. I mean this as a noun and a verb. It’s important to allow yourself to “take a break” and physically leave a situation that causes or exacerbates a trigger. Staying in one because we feel it would be awkward to leave or any other excuse that supports a “should,” is only going to make recovery time longer. Three years ago, I forced myself to endure a PTSD attack at a Christmas celebration, and I suffered physically for three days after.
The verb “to break” is completely different; in grief healing, it’s about smashing old plates, tiles or mirrors to discharge anger. Some people let go less violently, but some of us need a physical release. Picking up the pieces when finished can lead to a productive art project, too: mosaics.
Read. I keep Derek Walcott’s poem, “Earth,” in my purse, car, and bedroom dresser. It’s about our belonging to and being of this planet.
"Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,
to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,
the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver
running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants
cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.
This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
you can never be dispossessed."
With its tangible imagery, I find Walcott’s words grounding. What words do you re-read in times of great turmoil? Some people find comfort in reflections on pain, assertions of hope, or even funny fictional conversations/distractions. It doesn’t matter what works in the moment, mainly because we need a plethora of coping mechanisms to deal with grief. Each one in this list has accompanied my journey the past eight years.
Unfortunately, difficult triggers will accompany us for decades - perhaps our entire lifetime; fortunately, their intensity is not always paralyzing. They do lessen with time and a diverse toolkit.
HOPE = Hold on, pain ends.
Originally published on TheGriefToolbox.com May 25, 2016.
Originally published by TheGriefToolbox on April 11, 2016
It was a normal moment. The last meeting before Easter was coming to a close, the cookie container was emptying, people were discussing next steps. Sitting in my church’s conference room at a large rectangular table, I heard one of my colleagues say, “Let’s close in prayer.”
As the ISIS attack on Brussels occurred just one day before, the first prayer request was for the safety of a friend we all knew traveling in Europe. “I’d also like to pray for my children, who are traveling for Spring Break. Please bring them home safely,” another chimed.
I don’t think I heard anything after that. Instead, I felt my temperature rise, saw my husband’s body dragged on the road by a reckless SUV, and revisited many thoughts I’ve had hundreds of times before:
(I should really write a piece about the trauma of triggers.)
Didn’t I pray for James’ safety? Would more prayer really make God intervene? How pointless is it to pray for safety in a world where God gives us free will? Free will means people have the power to make horrible choices, and choices have consequences. God is not a puppeteer orchestrating our lives … Oh I hope we’re not heading into a story that ends with, “God was watching out for him/her that day! S/he shouldn’t have walked away from that crash!” as I can’t believe we have a God who is picking which individuals he should save and which ones should die outrageously.
Here’s the thing: I understand why people want to pray for safety, as I want my loved ones to be safe, too. But instead, my rational and traumatized brain just becomes a resentful-angry-sullen-heated-exasperated mess.
Fortunately, I pulled my mess together and walked out of the meeting like an ordinary individual in good spirits. Time has allowed me to do that (it’s been almost eight years). When I came home, I opened my laptop and started working on revisions that the group assigned, despite the clock reading 10:00pm. It wasn’t long before I found my way to gmail and started drafting an email to my pastor.
I'm feeling like a bad Christian.
At tonight’s committee meeting, we ended with a prayer that was all about safe travels for people we care about. Pretty normal.
But inside, my heart’s stitches were torn open yet again. While one side of me wants to pray for protection, too, the other side says things like, “Yeah, ‘cause that worked for James, and the other 38,000 Americans killed annually on the roads.”
As I read the words I just typed, they sound rather tame compared to the turbulent waves in my head. Help.
She must have been up late too, as 28 minutes later, I received this response:
I hear what you are saying. Sometimes words and prayers can seem narrow and limiting. It is difficult, we want safe travel and protection always yet we do not live in a safe world. Accidents will happen, weather will be bad, kids will get hurt, marriages will end, people will die. What is prayer in such a broken world?
I think about prayer in terms of relationship-God promises to listen to what we say, scream, mutter, cry and sigh and somehow takes this all in and creates from it. And then it is an ongoing conversation and I think ongoing noticing. A prayer for safety does not mean we will always be safe. Maybe our words can only convey our desires and our deep need for God to listen to them.
I am swept up in Holy Week. It is so absurd to have a God who is forsaken by all and does not do a thing to stop his own suffering and death. He chooses to be known there and from there creates resurrection. Death remains but is transformed. Whatever we pray, God can create from it.
You are attentive and have a good nose for bad theology. Consider it a gift. You think deeper and wonder more vastly. Let the prayer tonight go and know that your continued questions and thoughts are heard as well. All part of a great mystery. Keep asking and perusing the questions-God is indeed stirring in you.
What I love about this letter is not only the validation, but the re-framing of prayer as conversation and mystery. I do believe that God works through people and that there is unexplainable energy. My favorite line of hers is “Maybe our words can only convey our desires and our deep need for God to listen to them.” This is something I can remember when I’m praying with a group of people. Moreover, it helps me know that when I yearn to pray for someone I love, the point of that prayer is not about everything turning out okay. It’s about reconnection, therapeutic expression, and hope.
In my last published article for OpenToHope, I shared the letter I wish I could’ve received after my husband was killed. It focused on validation and simplifying expectations for the truly important things to do in those initial months. It also held hope: for various coping mechanisms, helping others through grief, and in someday being a mother.
Today I want to share another letter with you, one that helped save a relationship when I was intensely grieving and beyond angry with the world. Written seven years earlier, it concentrates on what is helpful and unhelpful while processing loss. For me, the value of this letter was realizing that teaching others about grief creates a safety net among my core group of people. As I have tweaked it for many others, I believe it will work for you, too. Furthermore, I believe that engaging in difficult letters or conversations has the power to also address our culture – the one that is so uncomfortable and untrustworthy with pain. If we want it to change, we have to be willing to speak up and spread the knowledge.
Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Subject: Some Thoughts
Mom and Dad,
I returned from the Boundary Waters safely on Saturday afternoon; I needed some time alone in nature. Today I finally went through all of my mail, voicemail and email from the past week — and I had some pretty strong reactions to some of the messages. Over these past several months I’ve come to realize (and agree with you) that most people are very well-intentioned when talking with me. They genuinely want to comfort or help, but often their comments leave me really upset or hurt. It’s not their fault; they don’t know, but that doesn’t make it easier.
I don’t know if I have a lot of energy to “teach” people what I need to hear or not hear. I know that I need to learn how to deal with these comments when people say them – that they are unavoidable. But it would be so nice to have a “safety net” of sorts – a few people around whom I wouldn’t have to have my guard up.
These are the comments I really wish I’d stop hearing:
Times when I don’t have to think about these trigger phrases gives me permission to just “be” and that helps me figure out what I need and how to deal with all of this instead of spending so much energy being angry and thinking of how to respond.
I want you to know that there are things you have done that do help: cooking together, helping with remodeling, baking/decorating cakes, playing games, laughing about fun memories with James and integrating him into conversations. I think sometimes people are reluctant to do this because they don’t want to make me feel sad/think about/miss him if we’re doing something and it appears I’m enjoying myself. I like talking about James, and I’m always thinking about him anyway.
Sorting through all of this is difficult and exhausting for me. I can’t always be rational about it, either. Maybe at some point we can talk about it, but for right now I just want to share all these thoughts with you and have that be it. I understand if this letter and my request that you don’t respond feels unfair or like I’m telling you what you can or can’t say. But…I’m trying. I’m doing the best I can.
My parents were respectful and did not directly respond after this letter. In fact, it was a turning point in our relationship because they started filtering themselves and censoring their words. I know this was challenging at times, as they wanted to pass along some insights of their friends or intelligent authors they were reading; some of that stuff was helpful — later in my journey. Accordingly, there were times that I needed to refer back to this letter, and I did that by using the statement, “I really need you to be my safety net and not say things like that.”
What activities and statements are helpful and unhelpful to you? What do you wish your core group of people would know? Or behave like? It may sound arduous to put this list together and explain it all in your own words, but I think it’s worth the time if you want to have more than a grief group be a safe zone.
Significant losses will always majorly contribute to who we are and how we handle situations. That doesn’t have to mean we live in sadness; I think it’s strength to say that I live with fragments and dichotomies (like fear and joy), and out of that uncertainty and brokenness, I see kaleidoscopes. That’s my euphemism for saying I see new patterns in my shifting pieces.
Everything doesn’t happen for a reason, but we can choose how to use our grief. I found out when I became a teacher (three years after James died), that kids needed to see adults be real, as opposed to stoic figures who have it all figured out. When my students heard my path to becoming an educator, they not only opened up about their wounds, but they brought friends to have lunch with me and talk about how we cope and survive. These were life-changing conversations, and ultimately, the key to help me start writing about my loss.
What could openness do in your life?
Originally published March 21, 2016 at OpenToHope.com
Today a new adventure began, as I co-lead a different kind of grief group called Kaleidoscope Living. We listened to wise words and each other, while using our hands to make blankets for new life (babies). Conversations about grief always seem to be enriched when the hands are engaged. I'm so excited for this opportunity and deeply thankful that it was "better than expected," "productive," and elicited this response from many: "How often can we do this?"
It seems especially appropriate that the group began this weekend, the weekend of my first husband's birthday. No matter how much time passes, these special dates always hurt! But -- I find that I am okay now with the hurt (seven and a half years later). It helps me pause, know that I cannot fix (only carry), remember how he loved me, and be my best self.
Oh, and I make him brownies.
I've always been a planner. When I was 8, I had Christmas presents wrapped and cards made in July. When I was 14, I researched all of my college options. When I was 19 and graduated college, I knew that 26 was going to be the best year of my life. After all, at 26, you're deep into a career, are likely married, own your own home, and are financially stable and wise enough to provide for kids.
When the plan sped up and I found and married my best friend at 22 years old, we decided to live in a city called Vadnais Heights while raising kids, then retire near Superior Shores (northern Minnesota). Four kids was the ideal, and I was hoping for boys - I heard they're easier, and the world needed more men like my husband. Trust me.
Then...the love of my life was killed by a negligent driver.
And I paced, and paced, and paced around our house. What was I supposed to do now?
Seven and a half years later, here's the letter I wish I could've given myself at that time:
This is unbelievable, unfair, scary, maddening, and paralyzing. I'm so sorry you have to go through this. The platitudes people are repeating - "Everything happens for a reason" and "God doesn't give you more than you handle" and others - are said because the situation is shocking, and they want to explain how something like this could've happened. You know the truth, and it's simple: choices have consequences. The driver who hit him will never be the same, and both of you can save lives by talking about distracted driving (in the future).
But right now, all that matters is his extinguished life. I know you're wondering how to honor it, how to stop crying, how to get the bloody images to stop so you can fall asleep, how you'll ever be okay, etc. These are important questions, and you're feeling important emotions. The best thing you can do right now is let yourself grieve: fully feel the waves of sadness, anger, and desperation. Know that the path you are on is not linear, and the stages of grief will be different, then similar, then repetitive, then long, then boiling, and then sad. Don't suppress it. At some point, when sadness is where you stay, you will be able to make decisions about how to move forward. It will happen, and you will feel ready.
You won't ever be the same. You're not supposed to be. There will be elements of life that you'll always miss, and areas of growth that will give you more joy than you've known. While you're upset and depressed that the people you thought would be here for you aren't, please believe that new ones are on their way. Ones with survival experience, wisdom, patience, hope, and understanding. These friendships (and mentors) will help you, but you will not become dependent on them. In fact, within three years, you will find a strength and independence that makes you a light for others. Because of your pain, your light will save.
There are things you can do while you're waiting to experience the hope in this letter:
1) Get out of bed and go for a walk. Even if you only make it to the mailbox, that's enough;
2) When you have energy, write down everything. How you're feeling today, the details of your wedding, your favorite conversations, what he believed, how he made you feel, the dreams you've lost, the people who are helping right now. Keep these in a journal, and share some of them with support groups: the one in your community, online (widda.org and griefhealing.com), or at The Dinner Party (thedinnerparty.org);
3) Surround yourself with people who want to talk about him and validate you. You'll need to initiate - people want to help, but they're not good at reaching out;
4) Read a few good books: I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye, The Death of a Husband, and A Monster Calls.
5) Make some food that he enjoyed. If you have no appetite, offer it to others;
6) Break stuff when you feel mad (and keep the pieces, as someday you'll be in a place to create a mosaic out of them);
7) Pray. Be honest that you question everything, be mad about this "new normal," and be open to new people who'll walk this journey with you. Say it all out loud.
8) Heat up water, and use it to make some calming tea. Curl up with a weighted blanket and you will feel the unyielding emotions confine.
9) Cry. Just like when you were a kid, you'll feel a bit better when you've let it out. You may need to do this several times a day for the first couple years; it's part of the process.
10) Buy reputable, organic melatonin to help you sleep. In the long run, this will be far better and easier to wean off than the prescription medications.
You will be able to do this stuff. It won't happen everyday, and when it doesn't, remember what your beloved said, "It's okay not to be okay."
I should probably end this letter now. But my heart is yearning to tell you one more thing: In seven years, you will be joyful. JOYFUL. That doesn't mean happy every day, but it means a life with acceptance and purpose. You will have a variety of coping mechanisms, which you teach others, and you will want to live -- for yourself and your future baby daughter.
Originally published online by OpenToHope.com on January 9, 2016.