How Death Changes Us

I hadn’t seen her in awhile, many months, and much has happened since that time. A warm smile and a sweet embrace followed.  Then the words, “How are you?”  These were sincere words.  A question from another widow.  Then the firing of questions back and forth between us, trying to get in as much as we could as we knew the time was short – the meeting was about to be called back to session.

This widow is older than I. Her children are now adults and grandchildren stumble at her feet.  My children are in elementary school.  She is now retired but still quite active working in so many other unpaid ways.  I am in a paying career at the moment.  Her late husband was told of his illness shortly before mine died, and her husband died just a few weeks later.  My husband’s illness lasted years.

The opposites that this widow and I shared were direct, but, at the same time, we had so much in common. I knew her.  She knew me.  The knowingness that comes with the transition to this new phase of our lives.

As I was contemplating these two sides of the coin that we shared, I heard her ask “Are you the same Erica?” Of course too much had happened over those seven plus years of struggling to regain my late husband’s life only for it to end in heartache.  She knew the answer, but was looking for a bit more.  I gave her the glance of knowing exactly what she meant and where she was headed.  Then without skipping a beat, she continued “I am not.  How can we be?  But you know what surprises me the most?”  I waited.  I really wasn’t sure what she was going to say.  I was intrigued and wanted to know – I have so much respect for her, and she has so much more experience than I do in her wisdom and walk in faith.  Would our answer be the same or on opposite sides of the coin?

With the twinkle I have come to see often in her eyes, she said, “What surprises me the most is that I have changed and I am happy about that.  I have changed for the better.”

With all the sadness, with the loneliness, with the heartache that can come in waves, so too comes the good. The knowledge that we will see our late husbands again in heaven and that they are great where they are now, free of pain and doing all sorts of things I can only dream about.  The hope that goodness can grow out of sadness.  The renewed people we have become.  The new perspectives we have.  The appreciation for gifts and life and new people that enter our lives.  The joy that can become with honoring and remembering our late husbands always but also carving out a new path for the rest of our journey here.

How my friend is “better” she couldn’t clarify for me. The meeting was being called back to order.  But I can guess.  The better when we realize we cannot control the events that may happen in our lives, but the freedom we gain when we control how we view those events and how we will approach the rest of our years here.   As for me and my family, we will continue to be “better” and grow “stronger” every month and we will continue to love and welcome new people into our lives.  This is important as relationships make life better.  Relationships make me better – they help to heal, they help to grow, they help me become a better mom, they help me become the person God intends for me to be.

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Holiday Reflection Time

This time of year always brings out the glad and the sad at full face value. Not that the sadness is not present throughout the year, it’s never fully gone as a widow, but it is more subtle than during the holiday season. I choose to see the good in life and can push back the sadness that comes when I think about my late husband. During the holidays when there is a conscious direct acknowledgement of family, gratitude, precious time and life, gifts of grace, and joy, reflection is more direct than over the previous many months. Such deliberate consideration of life comes when my young daughter asks me to write down what I am thankful for, complete with justification. It comes when visiting the house of friends for Thanksgiving dinner and watching the interactions of couples and children. It comes with the time off from work and school and the ability to sleep in and have lazy mornings and time for pensive thought.

It is during such times that I am reminded of how grateful I really am for all that I have. It is also during these times that the underlying sadness of what is present consistently decides to rear its head directly and gives me pause. I have now been a widow through two holiday seasons, with young children that would be thriving with my late husband’s attention and love. We have lost much, especially when I think of potential future – what would my children’s personalities be like with Jim in the picture? What lessons are they missing out on that Jim would have given that I cannot? Will they be at a disadvantage compared to their peers because they didn’t have his attention, direction, and love? Will they grieve as they age and feel a gap in their lives?

The ultimate question becomes one of provision – that is, will I be able to give my children all they need to be successful, thriving people? With this mindset, the goal of helping my children do just that takes center stage and sadness once again gets its rightful place as a backdrop. The reminder that there is so much good in the world still overrides the sad card. The holiday months bring out a more direct attention to what is good and what is possible still – not what is lost, as much as what is to be celebrated. My late husband Jim is to be celebrated, the amazing new opportunities that have appeared in our lives are to be celebrated, and the excitement of what is to come is to be celebrated. During this time of year I am reminded of gifts to celebrate – gifts of people in my life, gifts in the form of reminders at the precise moment I need them, gifts in the form of grace, gifts in the form of Jesus coming to earth. And because of this final gift, we are guaranteed that we will see Jim again and that for now he is active and joyful in heaven.  I now understand that Jim wants me and our children to be happy on earth.  I did not know this last holiday season.  I do realize that this holiday season.  And that is a big cause for celebration for us all.

My 7-year old daughter's reminder that life is to be celebrated

My 7-year old daughter’s reminder that life is to be celebrated

What Had Death Done To Me?

What has death done to me?  This was a question posed by another widow who wrote an article about change and moving forward several months ago.  This question was buried in the middle of that article, but it popped from the screen and seemed to etch itself in my brain from that moment on.  I thought about how I would answer that question.  Became overwhelmed and unsure.  So I did what made sense – I pushed it to the back of my mind only for it to resurface again a few days later.  This pattern continued for weeks until I finally decided to try to articulate what death has done to me.

It is so complex and hits on so many levels that trying to succinctly state something seems disingenuous.  It is almost like if I summarize in a paragraph what Jim’s death has done to me that I would somehow be dishonoring my husband.  But still when I am honest and I consider the pattern that I see in much of my attitude since his death, I recognize that much of what has happened to me is ironic.  As a result of Jim’s death I find myself being more open, more out there in terms of connecting with friends, expressing my thoughts, not wanting to dwell on the trite but to be open and honest.  Many people have the opposite occurrence.  They become more reserved and sometimes even closed.  For me, things (events, happenings, people) are more raw now.  They hit at a different level which is hard to communicate.  There is a boldness in how I approach things that is different from what it was before.  And the openness to it all is apparent.

This open quality is not something my oldest friends or family would say has been with my for the long haul.  In fact, I believe I was very much the opposite.  A private person by nature and happy to be open with loved ones, but it took time to reach this point when first connecting with someone.  When Jim started getting very ill years ago, we wanted to help educate other people about Lyme disease.  As Jim’s voice left him physically, I took on the charge.  It was not within my comfort zone, but I did it because it felt like the right thing to do.  Upon Jim’s death, another floodgate opened – this one even further.  Now I find that I tend to answer a person’s question fully and honestly.  I don’t stop short.  I am wide open most of the time.

As I have come to appreciate this new view of life that I seem to have acquired, it brings a smile to my face.  You see when Jim and I got married 16 years ago one of our favorite songs, one that we played all the time and sang at the top of our lungs and danced to in the late hours of the night, was “Wide Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks.  The song deals with wanting freedom and wanting a new life and wanting to become the person you were meant to be.  So in a strange way, there is a circle that seems to have been completed.   The rawness and the boldness of the future unknown.  To be open to it regardless of where I have been in the past and to be fully immersed in the now.

 

(below:  Valentine of Milan Mourning Her Husband, the Duke of Orleans,
by Fleury-Francois)

The Faces of True Friendship

Relationships make life worth living. And of course relationships take on all forms: romantic, parental, siblings, friends, colleagues, neighbors, etc. One of the strongest foundational types of relationships lies with friendships. When times get tough and often when there are problems with the other types of relationships, a person often looks to a friend for help and kindness.

I have been pondering friends a lot lately. My late husband’s one-year death anniversary recently passed and at the same time two other personal events happened that caused me much sadness and distress. So much pain was hitting me at the same time that I couldn’t handle it alone as I so often have attempted to do in the past. And so I did the obvious – I turned to my friends for help.

Friends come in all varieties and we certainly need them all. There is the long-term friend who knows you better than you know yourself sometimes. She is the one with the history, the one who understands your values and your core. She has seen you mature, grow, and develop over years. Then there is the sassy friend – the one who says what you wish you could say. The one who cusses when you should. The one who says it like it is. Another valuable friend is the spiritual one – she is the one who keeps you grounded, who reminds you of what is important – the one who calls you to be a better person and see things from a different perspective. The fourth type is the nurturing friend – the one who lets you cry on her shoulder, pats your back and tells you it will all be alright, and the one that will listen to you for hours even though she has heard the same story many, many, many times already. The sisterly friend is that person who is the straight shooter – she sees through it all and after listening to you, gives you the advice you know is true but you don’t really want to hear it. She is the “tough love” friend. Finally there is the considerate friend. This is the friend that invites you to Christmas dinner when she knows you will be alone. She is the one who sends you a Starbucks gift card and a nice note to remind you to hang in there.

One friend may have several of these qualities and another friend only one. Regardless, the personalities, the values, and the gifts these friends offer are unique and to be valued. When I consider how I would have survived the last couple of months without these friends, I realize that I would still be sinking without their kindness. A friend is such a gift and not to be forgotten when we are considering our days and what and whom to be grateful for.

So for all my beautiful and wonderful friends, thank you for your presence in my life. I am truly grateful!

A Year After the Death

I’ll try not to complain
About the things I have lost
Cause when you have something great
That just means there’s a greater loss
So when you look at yourself
Tell me who do you see
Is it the person you been
Or the person you’re gonna be
Don’t take your life for granted
Don’t take your life for granted
Why don’t you hold on tight
To what you’ve been handed”

—-From the song “Hold on Tight” by Greg Holden

I have been listening to this song a lot lately as the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death is here.  So many emotions bubbling to the surface – many of which I thought I had dealt with, maybe rearing their face again as other sad moments unrelated to Jim’s death come – reminders of the “makes no sense” and the lack of control.  The ripping away of something good when it is good and without a choice, a voice, or the ability to change the course of events.

Listening to this song reminds me of two things that should be shouted out as I reflect on my late husband and the gift that he was to me and to so many others.  Jim and I had a great life together.  We produced two wonderful children to remind me of this everyday – part of the reason why the loss is so great.  But as the song states –  I don’t complain.  I try to appreciate.  I try to give back some of that kindness, grace, and love that Jim showed every day.  If his life is to mean what I believe it did – in part his reminder to us all is that life should not be taken for granted.  Life is wonderful, but it can be short and taken away prematurely.  And regardless of how much time we have left, we should not take our lives for granted.

The second “hit home” portion of this song is about me as a person – who I was and who I will be.  When you have such loss, when you see such suffering, when you witness such horrible things, and feel the betrayal of institutions, friends, and family, your perspective and outlook on life changes.  How could it not?  Part of this maturation comes with age and experience in general but there is something about the extreme loss that shoots those of us in this camp down a different path altogether – a diversion along life’s main highway.  There is a crispness in what we see, an intolerance for fluff, and an instant deep connection to those who are also traveling on this path, shaking their heads and trying to make sense of it all.  I do not know who I will become, but I do know it is different from that which I had envisioned before Jim’s health started to fade.  Before Jim’s death.  I will continue to pull on my resilience and force myself to take some power back by deciding what to do rather than letting the event dictate to me.  And I pray that I can enjoy the new path and focus on the new, unexpected, but good things that wait for me along the way.  And as the song says I “will hold on tight to what [I’ve] been handed.”  It is good still.

If you are interested in the song and/or video, click here

The Question of Timing

Over the past several weeks I have found my thoughts returning to the issue of timing.  Various events have happened that have given me pause.  Our sweet 14-year old dog died, a friend got into a potentially very serious car accident that turned out to be just fine, several encounters with people who said something amazing, made me reflect on life, or gave me reason to wonder about “why.”  Throughout all these weeks the one recurring theme to my thoughts is “Why now?  Why this specific time and not weeks or years from now?

So there may be good timing, bad timing, or just timing that doesn’t quite fit in your plans but the event turns out to be alright when all is said and done.  But I have to believe that the timing of the event itself means something.  Or at least it should.  If you reflect on it appropriately.

And I guess that’s part of the trick – how do you know when an event is “worthy” of thoughtful reflection and how much time should you dedicate to the act of thoughtful engagement?  It seems like the answer is simple enough: if the event is powerful enough that you pause, even momentarily, it is worthy of a consideration.  And, if it is worthy of your time, then you should ponder and reflect until you feel settled.  This might mean a few hours or it could mean several weeks.  The point is that we too often let ourselves off the hook and get pulled in another direction or allow ourselves to get caught up in something else before we have adequately processed the timing of an event.

I would argue that we do a fine job considering an event, especially if it is something traumatic.  How can we avoid considering the event when it shakes up our world?  But, we aren’t so good at considering the timing of the event.  I may not be able to answer the specific question of why an event happens when it does, but I can take something away from the lesson of the timing.

For example, our family dog was getting older but still seemed to be in fine shape.  At times she would even act puppy-like running around the house and still active on walks.  Then one day she was struggling to walk and then 2 days later, we lost her.  It was so sudden, so unexpected in many ways, and I was left with the question of “Why specifically now?”  My children had already had much sadness, losing their father almost a year ago now, and now on top of that, another great loss.  For me, our dog was “our” dog – a connection to Jim – something else taken from me.  We found the dog together on a hike shortly after we married and the dog acted as a bond and connector between Jim and I.  Even though Jim wasn’t here, our dog was.  There was comfort in that.  So, again, the question of timing: Why did this happen now? 

I cannot answer that, but I can take something from it.  I am reminded that we cannot control events, but that we can control how we view the events.  We chose to celebrate our dog with friends coming to the house and sharing a meal with us, complete with an interpretive dance about dogs from my 6-year old.  We chose to consider the joy the dog brought us and how fortunate we were to have the privilege to own and care for a dog when not everyone can do this.  Questions from my 8-year old came during this time: questions about heaven and pets and his daddy.  We consulted the bible, we read some great material from Randy Alcorn’s book “Heaven” and I felt good considering that our dog was with Jim now and there was comfort in that.  Perhaps, ultimately, the timing was not for me, but for Jim.  The bible says there are animals in heaven and it is likely pets can be found there.  The idea of our dog now providing that connection to me and the kids for Jim is a gift.

If this is true, it makes me wonder if the timing of all events in some way offers a gift.  The gift may not be what we wanted or what we thought we needed; however, if we devote enough time and discipline ourselves to pondering the timing of an event as we should, will we be able to see a silver lining in that?

Can a 25-minute encounter change your life?

The doorbell rang.  I was impressed on the punctual arrival.  A sweet elderly lady greeted me with a smile.  She had travelled an hour to pick up a hospital bed for her husband.  The same one my late husband used.  We went to the garage and I showed her how to put it back together (it was in parts for easy mobility) and we talked logistics.  Then the question came, “Why are you selling the bed?”  I had to explain.  I was grateful for the question – so many people avoid talking or asking about Jim these days for fear they will upset me.  She looked shocked.  I was reminded how shocking it is that neurological Lyme disease can kill a person.  Then she told me her story.  Her husband had a stroke.  At first the physicians misdiagnosed it as Parkinson’s disease.  Then while he was walking in his disabled state, a car struck him.  I was horrified for her.  We both fought back tears.  We talked about the pain of seeing someone you love suffer and the frustration of not being able to help them in the ways we would want to.  Then she announced, “Come meet him.”  I didn’t realize he was in the car.  We walked over and I opened the door.  Another lovely wide beautiful smile.  A face aged by years of “doing”.  Wrinkles, crow’s feet, and signs of stress and age on the face.  A beautiful face.  We chatted for a bit and then I excused myself so I could get the bed into their van.

After we loaded up the bed, the woman asked, “How much do I owe you?” as she pulled out an envelope of cash.  “There is no need,” I replied, “I hope you enjoy the bed and that it is helpful for your husband.”  Then I paused and added, “I’m happy it is going to you both.  It served Jim well and I hope it does the same for your husband.”  Again, the woman had the look of shock on her face.  “No, I insist I pay you something,” she protested.  I again said no.  Then her tears flowed, she embraced me with the biggest bear hug I’ve had in awhile.  “God bless you,” she said.  “God bless you too,” I replied back.  She stood back and then came to hug me again, so genuine in her gestures.  Several more times she commented “God bless you,” and she meant it.

I approached the man again in the passenger seat.  His wife had told him the bed was a gift.  He started tearing up and then the tears started to fall.  The three of us were all there crying with the connection of pain, blessings of having lived good lives, and the frustration that comes with the knowledge that things sometimes go wrong and you can’t control them.

As the van drove off and I waved goodbye, my tears continued to stream down my face.  This couple, elderly and so full of love for each other, had just blessed my life.  I was saddened in that I had thought Jim and I would get to that point – be the cute elderly couple who still enjoyed each other so much.  I was glad too though to have made a small difference in this particular couple’s lives.

My 25-minute encounter with these two beautiful people reminded me that there are blessings always and that even though we are not in control of events, we are still in control of our attitudes and perspectives.  Thank God (literally) for amazing people to come along and remind us of the important things in life.

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