Learning to be brave on Easter,
our first without Daddy.
During breakfast on a recent Friday, I started sobbing pouring cereal and making toast. I just couldn’t stop crying. Rarely do I enjoy a good cry. Who does? My tears over the last 18 months have been tears of sorrow. At 18 weeks pregnant with our youngest son, my late husband was diagnosed with cancer. Less then a year later, I was burying my forever 34 year old husband days before we would have celebrated his birthday.
My husband died at 11:30 pm on a rainy, cold Friday in November. Some Fridays, like other days of the week, the loss I feel is starting to soften but it will always be there. This particular Friday morning, it was so raw and fresh. It felt like he just took his last breath, all while it felt like he’s been gone a lifetime from our young family.
My oldest son Edward told me, “Be brave mommy.” He went on to comfort me and explain “people die, Daddy is in heaven.” My three year old explaining death to me, encouraging me to be brave until I stopped crying. When my tears subsided, my always large appetite for breakfast came back. I had my coffee, ate my eggs, and went on to race remote control cars with my two sons.
I teach my son about death and grief because I have to. His daddy died and he misses him. In a few years, I will teach his younger brother about death and grief. Many adults have not experienced the kind of loss my sons and I have. I teach my sons it is okay to be sad. Tears are not a sign of weakness, they are a sign of having loved someone so much that you miss their presence in this life. We have not lost our love, but we have lost seeing them, feeling their hugs, talking to them, hearing their voice and so much more.
I also teach him we can be happy and sad at the same time. Edward often asks me if I am happy or sad during the day. Sometimes my response is “I am sad, I miss Daddy” and other times it is “I am happy right now, but I am always missing Daddy.” He calls this “happy-sad“. What a perfect way to describe grief and moving forward in life! Three year olds really can simplify death and grief. They are amazing teachers.
In my experience, grief in my oldest child looks like it does for adults, only simplified. It shows up as anger through tantrums, withdrawal from playing with others, being more quiet or loud than usual, and new unexplained behaviors that weren’t there before. As an adult I have problems sleeping some nights, and there is no doubt my oldest son has shown signs of needing more naps, more snuggles, and more structure around bedtime to get adequate sleep. It is a fine line determining what is grief in young children and what is their “new normal” development.
I am not a teacher or child development specialist, although I passed several of those classes in college until I declared my degree. I am simply a mommy learning about grief with my son. Be gentle with children (and adults) grieving a death, divorce, illness, or other loss. Patience is key, both in looking for patterns to determine the behavior and in dealing with them. In the last month, slowing life down and spending more time together has helped our family begin to relax more at home. Their daddy was a patient man and believed in quality time together. This is a great way to live life with or without loss.
Brave. One word describing my husband and how he lived with cancer.
Be Brave. Two words I tell my son often when he is afraid.
Be Brave Mommy. Three words my son now tells me when he sees me feeling sad and afraid of our future.
Learning to be Brave. Four words I now try to live by every day. In the last month alone, I celebrated Easter with my sons and took them to church by myself, without their Daddy. I booked a trip for myself to the Netherlands with my girlfriends this fall. I got a tattoo in Adam’s handwriting from our journal, reminding me of his love and encouragement. Soon, we will celebrate Reginald’s first birthday. Another milestone in our life I will need to be brave for.
Go out in your life and really live life. Do something for yourself, do something for others. Make memories. And be brave doing the tough stuff.
Our neighbors left us a thoughtful gift basket this fall. It included an address book, complete with their pictures, names, numbers, address and what they could help us with. #Thoughtful
Let me know if I can help.
Is there anything you need?
Let us know what we can do.
When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, these messages would ebb and flow in volume through texts, calls, and as a top comment someone would make while saying good-bye. Since his death, the same is true. The offers to help are still there, but they ebb and flow in volume.
People move forward with their life. This is normal and expected in our culture. If someone hasn’t been through the layers of loss that living with cancer brings to a family or the immense loss of a spouse, it would be difficult to know what a caregiver or widow(er) might need. Until I walked in these shoes, I didn’t know what would be helpful for a family living with cancer or surviving the death of a spouse.
A few months ago, a friend asked me what was the most supportive while our family was living with Adam’s cancer. She wanted to be supportive to a friend going through a similar situation. A few weeks ago, her friend’s husband passed away. She came to me again and asked what was helpful after Adam died. This got me thinking, “What was the most helpful?”
Here is my list of what I found the most helpful while I was a caregiver and what helps me now as a widow.
1) Meal Train. A friend set this up almost immediately after he was diagnosed. We had steady meals for months. Those who lived far away sent us grocery gift cards for grocery delivery service and those who lived closer brought us meals. This was one of the best and most supportive ways people helped us.
Close friends continued to bring meals after his surgery and continue to surprise me with a meal now, almost five months out. One friend brings supper once a month when she watches my boys. I look forward to those Mondays because I know a healthy warm meal is on its way, NO THINKING INVOLVED! Every now and then, a friend or a neighbor sends me a message to check the front porch. Those meal surprises are the best! Something so simple but means and helps a lot.
2) Be specific with your offer to help. Caregivers or widows are not likely to ask you to help but if you offer something specific to do, it narrows down what their needs are. Neighbors told me they would rake our yard in fall and shovel in winter. They didn’t ask, they were specific with their offer and followed through. They showed up like little secret elves from October to March. Nothing warms the heart like looking outside in the morning to see the snow falling and looking outside a few hours later to a driveway clear of snow.
Family offered and followed through to help clean, fix things in the house, and do yard work. Friends gave me dates they could take the boys to their house before and after his passing. It took away planning and guilt on my part for asking for help. Caregivers have a ton of guilt over every aspect of life, especially their life. It is hard for us to ask for help.
3) Give the family a calendar with available dates. If you are a family member or close friend to the family, communicating and collaborating with other friends about a specific plan is incredibly helpful. It takes some of the daily planning and decision making away from the caregiver. Little decisions really become exhausting! When a family is living with cancer, there are constant, daily decisions to be made about doctors, appointments, treatment, and plans for the patient.
After we had our youngest son Reggie, our siblings emailed one another and set up a calendar with who could help me at home on Adam’s chemo weekends. For two months, I knew someone was coming every other weekend to help me watch the boys, clean, make a meal, and let me nap. It took away some of the guilt we had to continue asking for help. It helped give Adam, the patient, a little bit of comfort knowing I had someone to help me when he couldn’t.
The last two weeks of his life, when we were in the hospital and then hospice, my family and friends behind the scenes set up a schedule for who was watching the boys. Thinking about their help still brings tears to my eyes. My friends set up a schedule so my family could go back and forth to the hospital or hospice house in Adam’s final days. They didn’t have to worry about meals or the boys.
After he passed, a friend gave me a calendar with one Monday a month she would come to watch the boys and bring a meal. I look forward to these Mondays! They are like built in holidays. I see a friend, she plays with my boys, never asks where or what I am doing, and leaves me with supper.
4) Check in Monthly. A family’s needs change often while living with cancer and after a death. Check in on a regular basis, see #2 and #3. I have friends who seem like they have reminders in their calendar to text me and offer days they can help with my sons. They are wonderful surprises. Sometimes I take their offer to help and other times I don’t. What is important is they keep on checking. They respect my need for quiet time and a sense of normalcy to try and do it on my own.
Another friend was given the daily task of texting me to make sure I was eating and drinking water while I was pregnant. Reminding someone you are thought of and giving them reminders to sit down, eat a meal, and drink a glass of water are more important than you could imagine. Most people don’t need to be reminded to eat and drink, but when your body and mind are running in circles, it is often the first and most dangerous part of a caregiver or widow(er)’s day that gets neglected.
5) Cards. Receiving cards in the mail months after the cancer diagnoses or death announcement has been made is thoughtful and appreciated. After a couple months, the cards slow down and seeing Adam’s name on all the bills makes checking the mail painful. Another daily reminder he is gone and one more company to call. There are a couple members from my church who send me a card every week. I look forward to these and reading their notes. Nothing beats an old fashioned greeting card!
6) Respect. Sometimes, helping is simply respecting the cancer patient, caregiver or widow(er) doesn’t want help or a visitor. Please do not be offended if you want to visit and they say no. Living with cancer means constant doctor appointments, massage or acupuncture appointments, labs, chemotherapy treatments, and the daily grind of life. Thinking about cancer and all it’s uncertainties is exhausting and emotional.
Grief is full errands, phone calls, chores, and paying bills your husband used to do. There are still appointments, only now they are support groups and weekly therapy session. Grief is filled with exhaustion.
7) Gift Cards. We had so many generous people who sent us gift cards. The most helpful cards were those to Amazon, Target, and grocery stores and gas stations near our house. We did not use gift cards to restaurants because we had no time or energy to go out to eat. On the rare occasion we did dine out, we went to our favorite restaurants.
8) Prayers. This one explains itself. I have learned it is helpful to be specific when praying for someone else. Some people even asked me what they wanted me to pray for.
On our journey in the last year, we chose to make Adam’s diagnoses and treatment public. We shared many intimate details of his cancer, our relationship, and our faith. We chose to do this because it was an easy way for us to give updates, ask for prayer requests, and to also offer hope in any small way possible to others. Making our private life public led to so many wonderful offers to help.
Cancer is a marathon, not a sprint. Families need help after the shock has worn off. Caregivers are exhausted trying to keep everything running smoothly so the patient can focus on their health and family. After a loved one passes away, the caregiver becomes the person who needs looking after and rest. See tips 1 – 8 and repeat. . .