Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding My Voice

Last week, I received an email from a dear friend; in it, she responded to my earlier emailed request to please give me feedback as she reads my posts. With her permission, I'll share the 2 points she raised.

First, she noted that I may be limiting my scope and, therefore, not reaching others who might find this blog helpful. Her point is that my  focus has  primarily been on adjusting to a radically-changed life after the loss of a spouse, child, or marriage (as a result of a divorce). She noted that there are other very difficult losses that bring the end of life as a person knows it, demolishes their dreams and hopes and plans for the future, and causes them to significantly revise their lifestyle. For example, she noted a mutual friend whose life changed dramatically when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; the physical and emotional toil this disease has taken on our friend has caused her to give  up her beloved teaching career, interferes with her ability to play and do things with her children, etc. My friend also reminded me about one of her coworkers, a woman of 45  whose dreams of being a wife and mother go unfulfilled year after year. Both of these women are trying very hard to adapt to their situations, to build creative and fulfilling lives despite the obstacles they face.

She also explained that she was seeing only one side of me here -- my serious side, the "I want to help others" aspect of my personality. She felt there was nothing wrong with that, of course, but that she would also like to me to not be afraid to be humorous (which she assured me I often am "in real life") and to not worry so much about each and every post providing advice or steps or tips.

I respect my friend's opinion and believe she is right (she usually is!). As I told her, I feel I'm still finding my voice as a blogger. I appreciate your comments and feedback, your support, and your presence here, and I hope you will continue to hang out with me and to share your thoughts and your feedback.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Getting the Job Done -- Judy's Story

This evening I'm going to share part of someone else's story, with her permission. First, though, a bit of backstory. Judy was a friend/older sister to me from when I was about 11 years old until I started college. I admired her zest for life, her spunkiness, her great sense of humor, and her honesty. Judy was the type of woman who didn't wait for others to do something -- she rolled up her own sleeves and got the job done!

Unfortunately, over the years that my family lived in Texas, New Mexico, back in Texas, and finally back home in Missouri, I was so busy with my children and work that Judy and I drifted apart. Happily, a few years ago we reconnected and began chatting via private messages on Facebook. I discovered that Judy and I have more in common now than we probably did back when I was younger. She shared with me that as a retiree whose children are grown and live in other states, she longed to sell her house and move to a place she had visited and fallen in love with -- Wilmington, North Carolina.

I visited Judy one weekend a few months ago, and she shared her plan with me. She had already begun getting her house ready to put on the market; once it was sold, she would put her furniture and most of her possessions in storage, move to Wilmington, and rent an apartment to live in while she figured out where in the city she wanted to live on a more permanent basis. Then she would have her things shipped to her new home. She hoped to be in Wilmington by winter.

Things moved quickly after my visit. Judy sold her house much sooner than she expected, put her items in storage, and moved to Wilmington last month! She did what I want to do. Oh, I don't necessarily want to move to Wilmington, North Carolina, although everything I've heard and read paints a very appealing picture, but I want to follow in her footsteps in a more general sense. I want to know -- with absolute certainty -- where I want to move. And then, I want to make it happen -- find a job, sell my home, and make the move.

I said in the opening paragraph that I admired Judy when I was a young girl. Well, I admire her even more now. I'm sure she had some reservations about making this big change, and I'm sure it wasn't easy to leave the town she had lived in for over 35 years to move half-way across the country to a city where she knew not a single person. But she did it anyway. She had a dream, and she rolled up her sleeves and made that dream become reality. She has inspired me to do the same.

Do you have a dream, one that tugs at your heart and your soul? What is keeping you from making it a reality? I hope you will share both your dreams and any roadblocks (through either a comment below or an email to And if you've already overcome obstacles to make a much-desired major life change, I hope you'll share that as well. Later this week, I'll share what I've learned about the most common obstacles and share some ideas about how to get started making your dreams a reality. 






Friday, July 19, 2013

Stepping off the Board

My hometown in Southeast Missouri had a large community swimming pool when I was growing up, and each summer until my mom was convinced we could swim proficiently, my sister and I took swimming lessons. At the end of the short "leg" of the L-shaped pool there were 3 diving boards -- 1 very high board flanked by 2 much lower boards. Somewhere fairly early in the swimming lesson process, my class was given the opportunity to jump off the lower diving boards, with a couple of teachers in the water and lifeguards on duty. It took me at least 2 summers to work up to a leap from one of the lower boards. I had to force myself to walk out on the board; I chickened out and made the walk back to the safety of the concrete decking more times over those 2 summers than I can remember, but I did eventually jump. Eventually, I passed enough levels to earn the right to jump off the high dive. I wouldn't even climb the ladder!

That pool was demolished, the concrete removed, and dirt brought in to fill the huge hole left in its absence; it had become outdated and far too expensive to maintain, and now my hometown has just the pool (with a bubble in the winter months) that was built while I was in high school. It also has a high dive and flanked by 2 lower ones. I've never jumped from that high dive, either. Actually, I don't think I've even jumped from one of the lower boards.

Do I regret not jumping from those high diving boards? Not at all. I'm comfortable with the fact that I am not fond of heights (yes, that's a euphemism for "I'm afraid of them"), and jumping off a swimming pool's high diving board is not on my list of things to do in this lifetime.

But there are things on that list that I really want to do, and a few of those things are big, really big. So big that I stand here, just at the edge of the board, so very close to leaping into the air,  yet held back by all the unknowns, afraid of making a huge mistake.

Some books, some articles, some people bolster my courage, and I inch closer and closer to the edge. Then life's practicalities slap me in the face, and I back up quickly. But then I remember my dreams and how short life can be, and the inch forward begins again.

I want to make the jump -- I really do, and I look forward to the day when I can log on and share with you that I've done just that. Until then, I can only tell you that I took a fairly significant step toward the end of the board earlier this week. I'll keep you posted, of course.

What unfulfilled dreams do you have? Are there any major life changes you long to make? What holds you back? I hope you'll share. OR have you made a big leap of faith? I'd love to hear about your experience! And if you have any words of encouragement for those of us who are hovering there, right at the point of making a leap into a major change, I hope you'll share those as well!

Monday, July 15, 2013

You've Survived the Firsts, so now Everything Must be Fine . . . Right?

The "firsts". If you've attended a wake or a funeral or  have read even one article or book on loss  (as the result of the death of a loved one, divorce, etc.) and grieving, you've surely heard or seen some reference to the "firsts". Common knowledge tells us that the first Christmas, birthday, anniversary, and Thanksgiving, etc, are the most difficult for someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, especially that of a spouse or a child.

Without a doubt, these firsts can be unbearably painful, as the absence of a loved one seems amplified -- if that's possible -- on these days that hold so many memories. A dear friend shared with me that she couldn't even get out of bed on her first wedding anniversary after the death of her husband; she called in sick and spent the day wrapped in blankets and a cocoon of pain. Another friend told me that the first Christmas after her 5-year-old son passed away was "just a tad less horrifically painful" than the day he died.

One by one, though, the "firsts" approach, are endured, and become part of the past. The last hurdle -- the first anniversary of the death of a loved one or of divorce -- passes, and life goes on. And the next year is better. Right?

For many people, myself included, the answer to that question has proven to be "no". In the past few years, I've had more than a few conversations about loss and the grieving process with friends, family members, and even complete strangers. At first, I was surprised to learn that I wasn't alone, and that others had struggled as much with grief the 2nd year after a significant loss as they did the first. Some people confessed that for them, the 2nd year was actually worse than the 1st. I must admit, I was also relieved to discover I wasn't alone, that I wasn't grieving "wrong", and that something wasn't wrong with me.

As the very-difficult 2nd year after the death of my husband grew to a close, I began to search for information on the 2nd year after a loss. I consulted numerous books, searched online, and read an untold number of articles, all of which stressed the fact that everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. That said, except for a few blogs here and there and a passing mention in a few other sources, I found little discussion of the 2nd year in the grieving process. It was almost as if there's an official-but-unofficial calendar of grief -- and there are only 12 pages on that calendar.

I'm not a psychologist or sociologist or any -ist at all, but I have a theory as to why the 2nd year proves to be so difficult. First, because it's common knowledge that "the first year is the hardest", a person who has faced a significant loss braces themselves for those "firsts". I know that I was on heightened alert, so to speak, as each red-letter day approached, and I tried to steel myself in order to get through the day. When that first year passes, however, it is as if the danger has passed, and we exhale a sigh of relief and let down our guard. That was the case with me, and when our 2nd anniversary arrived -- just 13 days after I had made it through the first anniversary of my husband's death -- I was shocked when I woke up to find that the grief and despair had returned in full force.

The second reason goes hand in hand with the first. Our friends and extended family members, also aware of how difficult the "firsts" are, were also on heightened alert on our behalf throughout the first year. Family and friends sent cards, called, went out of their way to spend time with me, or in other ways rallied around my children and I for each of the "firsts". But like me, they thought the 2nd year would be easier. They were, and rightfully so, busy with their own lives and not as focused on us. As a result, my support system was not as strong as it had been the first year; in fact, for most of the "seconds", it consisted of only my children, and they were grieving as well.

Another reason, I believe, is that during that first year, a person is caught up in the almost-unending details and tasks that result from the loss of a loved one or a divorce. Dealing with medical bills, insurance issues, and paperwork that seems to come from every direction consumes quite a bit of time. Even though all of this is a result of the loss, it can also somehow take the survivor's mind of the actuality of the loss. For example, I spent an untold number of hours deciding on the shape, design, type of lettering, and images for the headstone for my husband's (and eventually my own) grave. While I can't explain how or why, I do know that as I made these agonizing decisions, my mind was so focused on getting every single detail just right that I wasn't focused on my loss specifically.

Of course, another reason is simply that after a significant loss -- whether it is expected or comes completely out of the blue -- the survivor is in shock. Even after that initial shock fades away, many people say that for some time they operated in a fog or as if on autopilot. I know that was true for me; I barely remember doing many of the things I know for fact that I did that first year. I sold a house and 10 acres, for example, and I cannot remember receiving a contract, whether or not I negotiated at all, or even attending the closing. In my memory, one day I was living in our home and the next, I was packing to move.

In the past two years, several friends have lost a parent. After a few months have passed, I've made a point of sharing with them that they and their surviving parent may struggle just as much -- and maybe even more -- with grief  in the 2nd year than they did in the 1st year after their loss. Most of them express surprise, and I briefly explain in the hope that they will be aware that their parent -- and they themselves -- may need more support during the 2nd year than they previously thought and that they will react accordingly.

While there are several recognized stages in the grieving process, they don't follow a set progression or schedule and, as many of us have learned, there is no magical date on which grief packs its bags and moves completely out of our lives. So if some day 2 or 5 or even more years after that year of "firsts" has passed, grief comes roaring back as strong as ever, be gentle with yourself, do the (healthy) things you have found helpful in the past, and don't hesitate to call upon your friends and loved ones for support.

Speaking of support, one of the reasons I began this blog was to create a place where people who have experienced the loss of a loved on or of a marriage could share their concerns, fears, struggles with others who are traveling the same path and so that those who have comfort or advice to offer can do so. I hope you will share through by commenting below or, if you would rather share privately, by emailing me at I will, of course, protect your privacy, will only share your story with your express written permission, and will change your name and any identifying information if I do share here on the blog what you've written. 


Sunday, July 14, 2013

You've Come a Long Way, Baby! (Living Authentically -- part 3)

Confession #1: Through my childhood and teen years, my room was a mess. I only made my bed if absolutely forced to, and any projects I was working on, books I was reading, and school stuff could almost always be found laying around on my bed or desk or on the floor. My mom wasn't overly-picky about the condition of my room, but if we had company coming over, I had to pick everything up. Then, my room was neat as a pin. My closet and the space under my bed and hidden by a floor-length dust ruffle were a different story. I'm sure you get the idea.

As a college freshman, I moved into a dorm room in my sorority's on-campus housing. It was as if Mr. Hyde became Dr. Jekyll as I crossed over the threshold into the tiny room I shared with a pledge sister. Gone were my sloppy housekeeping habits; they were replaced by an "everything in its place when not being used" style of living. Mr. Hyde was gone for good. As a result, I've been bothered for some time by my basement, filled with piles of things I needed to sort as well as boxes and large plastic bins full of all sorts of things . Some of these boxes a bins hadn't been opened -- other than for my husband or I to peek in when looking for something -- from the time they'd been filled in March 2006, when we placed most of our possessions in storage to move into a small trailer while building a house (long story, best left for another day).

My #1 project for this summer was to sort through every single box, bin, and pile in the basement, bringing upstairs anything I wanted to use in some way, selling what I could, donating to a charitable thrift shop anything I couldn't sell or didn't want to bother with, and throwing away as much as possible that was left. Ultimately, anything that was left after that process would remain packed in large bins to be brought upstairs when needed (ex: Christmas decorations).

Confession #2: I put this task off as long as possible. First, I was out of town for 10 days. But after I returned, I found all sorts of reasons to avoid going downstairs and diving in. Eventually, though, I did, and I am now halfway finished. I started with the 1/2 of the basement that I knew would be the hardest to work on because that's where most of the boxes and bins were stored. In those boxes and bins, I knew, were the remnants of 24 years and 11 months of married and family life -- my husband's hunting clothes and supplies, mementos from family vacations that I was saving to put in scrapbooks, a quilt made for us as a wedding shower gift by my husband's grandmother, baby clothes, framed photos that hung on the walls of our home "in town" that were never unpacked and hung in the house we built, and other items that I dreaded unpacking.

I worked fairly methodically once I got started, and as of last night, I have finished sorting almost all of the stuff in that 1/2 of the basement. Left undone, but separated and organized neatly, are the boxes and bins of things belonging to my son and daughter. Two relatively small stacks that I can easily live with until they have a chance to go through things and have a place of their own large enough to take what they want to keep.

Confession #3: I'm feeling pretty darned proud of myself, especially since the other 1/2 of the basement houses larger items that require less sorting and hold fewer memories.

I've learned a few things through this process:

1. Sorting through things and determining what stays and what goes is not a one-time-and-we're-done event. As time passes, needs and wants change, and you may find that you want to dispose of some of the things you kept the first -- or even the second or third -- time around.

2. Don't push yourself to go through things until *you* are ready; on the other hand, don't put it off too long. Allow yourself to be the judge of when you are ready to do this; well-meaning friends and family members may have an opinion, but you should do what you feel is right. On the other hand, if a trusted, dear friend who always has your best interest at heart tells you they think you might need to start going through things, carefully consider that they might be right.

3. Having someone help can be very helpful. Having someone help can make it a little harder. Having someone help can make the job unbearably difficult. It depends, I believe, on your own personality, the personality of the "helper", the items being sorted, and possibly other factors.

4. If you do want help, don't be afraid to ask someone. If you are so inclined, turn it into a "fun" event as much as possible. For example, this past January a coworker shared that she and her husband were moving from their large historic home of 30+ years into a smaller condo. Several of us offered to help, and a few weeks later I received an emailed invitation to a "Packing Party". I arrived to find wine and snacks, lots of packing supplies and the a dining room filled with a variety of items, packing material, and boxes; we were told, though, not to bother with anything in that room. After we had packed and chatted for awhile, our hostess called a break and invited us into the dining room. She had written down what order we arrived, and we were invited to take turns taking one item we wanted -- *if* we wanted anything. She had some lovely glass pieces, porcelain teapots, tablecloths, books, etc, and we enjoyed choosing something, seeing what our coworkers chose, and then admiring our "finds". When we finished, we packed up what remained to be donated to a charity thrift shop.

5. Work at your own pace but without getting too bogged down.

6. Prepare for the process. Buy a roll of heavy duty trash bags for items you decide to discard. Collect boxes or plastic bins  for items you plan to keep and those things you decide to donate or sell. Also, create a space to work in, and designate areas as "keep", "donate", "discard", and (if applicable) "sell".

7. Determine your criteria for keeping something. This may sound silly, but it's a key element to the process. If you don't have a standard in mind, the job will be much more difficult and time consuming. My criteria was two-fold:

a.) The item is used on at least a yearly basis and, if used yearly, is more difficult to rent/borrow than to keep

b) The item is one I at least really like and/or I have a sentimental attachment to it

I also kept the original boxes for appliances, electronic devices, collectibles, etc; I packed all of those in 3 larger boxes.

8. Handle each item one time; consider the item and your criteria and make a decision as quickly as possible. If you can't easily make up your mind about an item, put it in a box marked something like "Not Sure". Caution: don't place too many items in this box. Keep focused on your goal and work as quickly and efficiently as you can. Leave the "Not Sure" box in the basement. I have 5 item in a "Not Sure" box; next year on July 1, the items still in that box are leaving my house for good. 

What about you? Do you look your basement, garage, spare bedroom, or maybe even multiple rooms and think "I really need to get rid of some of this stuff?" What is it that stands in your way? I hope you'll share by commenting below. Maybe it would help you to have an online accountability partner or two. I'd be more than happy to serve in that capacity. Or maybe you've already gone through this process and have some words of wisdom for the rest of us. I hope you'll share your tips and/or your own experiences via a comment or an email to


This is a picture of the "finished" 1/2 of my basement. The stack of items on the near right are my daughter's; the stack of items about 1/2-way back on the left are my son's. I would share a "before" picture, but that would be far too embarrassing. :)


Monday, July 8, 2013

You're So Strong!

Between you and me, there have been points in the past few years where I have had to grit my teeth and smile when yet another person has said to me, "You're so strong!" There have even been times when, upon hearing that phrase, I wanted to lash out and tell the speaker that I'm not strong, that I don't want to be strong, and that quite honestly some days I want to break down with "vapors" (a la all those historical Southern novels I read as an impressionable preteen) and recline on the couch all day while others tend to me.  There, I've admitted it.

Often, I know the speaker means well. They don't know what else to say, or they truly are complimenting (for want of better word) me for hanging in there and not falling apart. These people's sincerity, concern, and compassion is evident. When that phrase comes from their lips, I feel humbled, not worthy of their words. I shared that with a close friend, and she was perplexed. Why, she asked, do I feel unworthy? She reminded me that I've sold a hard-to-sell home, found a full-time job in a market hit especially-hard by the economy, have moved twice as I've started over in a new town, etc., and I can only say that I merely did what had to be done. Every day -- and many, many days it was more like every hour, every minute, even -- I've simply relied on my faith, concern for my children's well-being, and the love of family and friends to do nothing more than the next thing that needed to be done, and then the next, and the next.

Other times -- much less often, thank goodness -- the speaker oozes compassion and concern, but sincerity? It just doesn't seem to be there. Perhaps I'm not being fair, but when they pause, lean close, and their eyes have more of a predatory gleam, I feel as if their words were just a prompt they hope will cause me to open up and share with them anything negative that has happened. Not because they care, but because they can share it with others. All in the nature of showing their "concern", of course.  There, I've admitted that as well. Yes, sometimes I've doubted a person's sincerity.

I try not to dwell on the other person's motive or possible agenda. Instead, I try very hard to stammer out a response that is equal parts honesty and comfortably shared at that given time. The first year or so after my husband passed away, the response was often just a mumbled "thank you", as I tried not to fall apart. As time has passed, I've gotten better at saying something like "thank you, but I'm just doing what many, many other people do -- I just kept taking the next step." Some days, though, I revert to the mumbled "thank you"; it's all I can muster.

I know I'm not alone. A friend and former coworker told me that when her daughter  died from leukemia at age 4 over 15 years ago, she became enraged when people said things like "Oh, she's in heaven now and not suffering. And you and Tom still have Joey." One time, she said, her mother-in-law wisely led her away from such a "comforter" before she could recover from the comment and slap the speaker. She laughed sadly when she told me about it and said, "I'm sure she meant well. I sure hope so."

But truth be told -- and perhaps only if you've lost a spouse or a child or someone else very close to you will you understand this -- sometimes the motive of the speaker just doesn't matter. Sometimes, there's that one phrase that grates on our nerves, that causes us to cringe or maybe to stiffen our back no matter who utters it. If for you there is such a phrase, I fervently hope you never hear it again.

What about you? If you've lost a loved one, particularly a spouse or a child, or if you've faced divorce or another loss that has devastated you, has there been a phrase that gets, as my fb friends say, "on your last nerve"? Is there some expression you wish would be permanently banned from the English language? Feel free to share in the comments below or in an email to me at Have you found a way to deal positively with this kind of situation? I hope you'll share your experience and any advice you can offer us as well. 



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Making "Good" of Even the Worst

Several months ago I heard about "Hello, Mornings!" an online website/group that helps women who are trying to develop a more productive, positive start to their day.  I've never been a morning person, and I knew that what I was doing -- rushing around in the morning, feeling cranky and out of sorts with the world -- wasn't healthy for me or the people around me. I signed up for the summer session with pretty high expectations; in all honesty, those expectations have been exceeded! But that's a post for another day. :) "Hello Mornings" is offering a wonderful opportunity for a blogger to attend for free the "The Declare Blogging Conference 2013", so I'm departing from my normal topic of redesigning your life after a devastating loss to focus on earning that opportunity. I do this only because I firmly believe that attending this conference will help me be a better blogger, which in turn will help me better achieve my goal for this blog. With that in mind, let me share with you my one and only goal for this blog and how it came to be.

When my then-47-year-old husband was diagnosed with cancer in July 2009, , I couldn't see past the next moment, the next doling out of medicines, the next doctor's appointment, the next treatment. I couldn't see how any good could come of what was happening to my husband, to my children, to my in-laws, to me. I definitely couldn't fathom any good coming from Steve's passing 6 weeks and 1 day after his diagnosis. I knew, though, that Romans 8:28 declares that "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." And I clung to that. I clung to that promise when I saw my husband suffer, when I and my children held his hands as he drew his last breath, when I stood alongside my children at his gravesite, when I saw my children's raw pain and grief, when I watched my in-laws age before my eyes, and when my future seemed so uncertain and frightening. I clung to that promise when, moment after moment, day after day, even month after month, I couldn't see any good; when, in fact, the mere idea that my husband's passing could somehow bring "good" repelled me even as I clung to it.

And then one day, I mentioned on facebook that I felt like I was redesigning my life, a life that I never expected to live, and something I said in that post prompted several friends to suggest I start a blog and share my experience. I resisted for months. It seemed so self-centered. I mean, who was I to presume to be an authority on the subject? I was just doing the best I could, like so many other widows and widowers. I was nothing special. And then one morning, I read these lines, written by Henri J.M. Nouwen: "Often we think that we do not know enough to be able to teach others . . . It is only by giving generously from the well of our knowledge that we discover how deep that well is." The next morning I read more from Nouwen: "But when we want to drink the cups of our lives, we need first to hold them, to fully acknowledge what we are living, trusting that by not avoiding but befriending our sorrows we will discover the true joy that we are looking for right in the midst of our sorrows." I knew then I couldn't, I shouldn't, sit back and wait for the promise of Romans 8:28; I had a responsibility to make something good from the greatest loss of my life. I'm a fervent believer in the power of the written word to change lives, to make them better and to make the world better, and as a writer and teacher of writing, I stress that power to my students every day.

And so, I decided to "practice what I preach", to blog about my experience. I'm not the best blogger on the internet, nor the wisest. But I am honest, even when it would be so much easier to either paint a better picture or draw the curtain on the scene. I believe that by sharing my experiences and what I've learned about not just surviving but overcoming and rebuilding after tragedy, and that by offering others who have walked this same road an opportunity to share their experiences, I might be able to help someone. Someone who has just lost their spouse or their child. Someone who can't imagine anything good coming from that. And if I do -- if I help just one person -- than something good will have come from my husband's passing. And that, my friends, is my goal each time I set  down in front of my laptop, read your comments, and then write another post.