One Year Ago

A year ago, we all said good-bye to the one and only Adam Czech.

I have been searching for the words to describe this past week, this past month, this past year.

Searching for those words to tell you how I have survived this year.

I don’t really know. If I go back and read what I have written over the last two years, the story I read reminds me.

Our sons, Edward and Reginald who help me find the joy every day. Our bulldog Matilda, who has been a faithful companion and the best comforter to my tears at three am. My faith, which gives me a promise that I will see Adam again some day.

Our friend, Witt, who has kept a promise made when Adam died one year ago. The promise that he, along with our families and friends would always be there for us. A promise I learned Adam asked him to keep a month after he was diagnosed with cancer.

My parents, who have watched me cry and listened to my anger over life, and supported me in any decision I have made. They have been asked to do the unthinkable and help their daughter grieve losing her husband. A loss that started the day he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

Our families, especially both my parents and Adam’s parents who have never said no to me when I have asked for help with the boys. Our friends, especially my widowsisters who understand this life and are always there for me. 24/7.

Year one has been a blur. I learned that every happy moment, will always be “happy-sad” because Adam is not here. I know that every dark wave of grief will be followed by a period of calm.

I learned to smile and laugh again. I learned how to have fun in this next chapter of my life. I have discovered the heart is capable of expanding to love again while never losing my love for Adam.

A year ago, we entered hospice on November 17. A day later, Adam passed away. While we were in hospice, I found a peace that didn’t know existed during death. I will leave you today with a very personal peace of my journal. Something I have thought about sharing for 365 days, but never felt it was right.

Today I feel is the right time. Looking back on the last two years, it is unbelievable the twists and turns, the pain, the anger, the love, the help and peace I have felt. Often all at the same time.

The following is a text conversation I saved with one of my best (and also widowed) friends. I saved it so I wouldn’t forget the peace I felt among the pain on that cold November day I saw my husband take his final breaths.

The death experience is almost a beautiful thing. It is so spiritual. Adam is afraid, but I am helping to calm and guide him. He’s not ready yet. It won’t be long but it won’t be soon. 

“I’m sure you are doing an amazing job. There is nothing more intimate than being with the love of your life fully in their time of death. Nothing as tragic and heartbreaking either, but your presence is giving him peace in his transition and that is such a gift. “

It is so odd. You know what I mean right? I feel relief but I am afraid I’ll feel guilt. And I am sure I will. I leave him 2-3 hours a day every other day and it’s too much. 

“It is odd. There are so many emotions at once. There is no wrong emotion. You aren’t crazy to feel peaceful. He’s at a point where he can’t come back from, he can’t live this way, there’s no suffering where he is going, that’s why you feel some peace.  My prayers went from Stop This!!! to Just let it be peaceful, let him know how loved he is, within days of each other . . .I can’t stop the pain you are going to feel. Trust me, I still feel it.”

Am I crazy that I feel peaceful? I know I won’t when it happens. Is it prayers? Does this really happen to spouses? 

I feel like it’s the calm before the storm. Last night I was so scared. Today, now that we are here, I’m not as scared. I’m sure this feeling will come back.

“Nothing you feel is wrong. We were telling stories and jokes off and on the whole time. Watched an awesome Packer game the night before (Jim) died.” 

It will be heartbreaking helping the boys. I’ve told him he will always live on in me and the boys. The boys will know who their daddy is and they are half of him. They have his DNA. If I ever (date again), I’ve told him they have to marry me and you because I will never stop loving him even after he is gone. I will love him more and more every day after he is gone.

“You are so right. I love Jim as much if not more. And he will always be my husband and the dad of my boys.”

He is very alert but not as sharp as 2 days ago or 1 day ago. He knows this and it scares him. The nurse and I talked to him about being okay to take the medicine to feel better. Only God will decide when it’s time and I told him, God won’t take him until he is ready.

He’s asked will he get to see his parents again? I said in the morning. The boys? Yes, in the morning. I told him he isn’t ready to go but he will know when he is. It is scary because nobody can tell him what exactly it is like. 

“The unknown is awfully scary. The medicine should help his anxiety….”

Indeed. He wanted ME to talk to him tonight and not take Ativan. What an honor. I was able to calm him to sleep. Amazing .

“That is amazing. Such an honor.  Some people never experience the love we have. So blessed in spite of this.”

We are. The social worker here said he was in awe, said at our young age, only knowing us for an hour, we have experiences and love most will never ever know or touch. Heartbreaking and blessed. 

 

Love Never Ends

I remember Adam telling me to slow down as we walked out of church. “I want to remember every second.” This is how we treated our time together, enjoying every second.

October 3, 2009 I married my best friend and soul mate.

October 3, 2016 we celebrated our last anniversary.

Or so I thought.

Our seventh wedding anniversary weekend. It was the last weekend Adam felt well. We went on three dates, THREE! Date one, The Mixed Blood Theater to see “BBQ” on Friday. Date two, The Stripclub for Adam’s (last) steak dinner (really a four star restaurant, not an actual strip club!). Date three, we attended church together (for the last time) on Sunday morning, followed by a visit to the Highbridge in St. Paul where he proposed one hot summer day. I’ll never forget this weekend. Adam made sure it was as special as ever.

I thought about October 3, 2017 for months. What would our first wedding anniversary look like without Adam by my side? Was I celebrating seven years forever or would I celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary?

Adam was in my heart and thoughts as he is every other day. As I ate breakfast on our anniversary morning, I watched and listened to our boys run around laughing, playing together, and intermittently crying {more like screaming} as one bumped into the other too hard. Edward and Reginald, a product of our love and future. His legacy. My anchors in life.

In that moment, I felt joyful. I felt thankful for the seven full years of marriage and the love we gave to each other. This day was about memories and our commitment to love each other until death do us part. It should forever be celebrated. 

Renewing our vows on November 16, 2016. The same look of love while we are holding our two little loves.

We renewed our vows on November 16, 2016, two days before he died. I remember clearly when our Pastor took me outside in the hospital hallway before we renewed our love in front of our family. He talked to me about updating the words to reflect our vows living on into eternity. It was so beautiful, I loved the updated version for Adam and I.

On our wedding day, we wrote personal vows to each other. After the advice of our Pastor, we also used
the traditional vows so we could renew them at any wedding ceremony we attended. We vowed to love one another until death do us part. When we renewed our vows, we said “love never ends”. It hasn’t, and it doesn’t.

Some might not understand how you can love someone more every day, even after they are gone from this earth. Hell, I still get mad at Adam. Some, probably many, might not understand how you can love again after you lose a spouse. 

It is an incredible blessing and absolutely possible to love two people at once. I have been a witness to this, watching close friends who are widowed love their late husband while at the same time, honoring their legacy by loving life. Honoring their marriage by reopening their hearts to love again and grow.

A close widowed friend compared it to the love a parent can have for more than one child. When we got pregnant with our youngest, I wasn’t sure I could love another baby as much as my first. But I do!

My heart has expanded and grown in ways I didn’t know was possible. It has been able to grow because of the strong marriage Adam and I had for seven years and in my heart, continues. I will always be committed to him and remember him.

I visited Adam and brought him our two favorite beers for our anniversary. Wherever heaven is babe, cheers to our love!

This year there were no wrapped presents to give each other. No cards with personal messages and our signatures. This year, our gift to each other was our eternal love. Adam’s gift was the confidence he had in me and how he filled my love bucket every day for the entire nine and a half years we were together. The gift of his blessing for me to live and love life. His wish for me to love others after he was gone.

My gift to him was to follow through on my promise that I will be okay. My promise to be the best mom I can be to his sons. My gift was to continue honoring his legacy by writing, sharing memories of him, and finding a way to love again. I celebrated, yes! I celebrated our anniversary! This year my friends were my date and we toasted our anniversary.  

Widowed friends understand all the anniversaries and hard days like no one else. This sweet treat was sent to me by one of my amazing Widowsisters.

When we renewed our vows, a member from our church gave us this gorgeous gift with our wedding Bible verse. It hangs in my hallway, and every day I think to myself, “love never ends.”

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. It is not irritable or resentful. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

As I sat and looked through probably 100 cards Adam gave to me over the years for our anniversary, for birthdays, and just because he plain old loved me; I was reminded of our faithfulness and fun we had with one another. It brought many tears to my face but it also brought many bursts of laughter, as I read the cards he wrote me (some even from our dog and her perspective). There was also plenty of proof Mr. Adam Paul Czech used plenty of exclamation points in his life! This card alone, had three! 

“I am the luckiest guy in the world to be married to you. If I could do my life over again, I would’ve married you after our first date so I could’ve enjoyed you as my wife even longer!! Love you! Adam

I visited Adam at his grave site over the weekend and gave him a toast with our two favorite beers. What I say in my heart every day, I will leave here for our friends and family.

I loved you yesterday.

I love you still.

Always have, always will.

No regrets.

 

Adjusting Expectations

{Susan Coyne Photography}

Becoming a widow at age 33 threw my expectations of life out the window.

There was an expectation July was going to be one of the worst months in my first year without Adam.  I didn’t want there to be much time to think about our last summer together.  Adam wanted me to live and enjoy life so I tried.

I really wanted to forget how much hope we had last year at this time because it stings so badly. A big part of me wanted to have this “new normal” that doesn’t exist, by keeping ourselves busy and making new memories so we wouldn’t dwell in the past.

See, I can anticipate when certain dates, certain seasons, certain events will be more difficult. What I didn’t anticipate, was that my grief would not get any easier. I did not anticipate that at some point my coping skills I’ve relied on so heavily would not be enough.

Lately my days have been busy filling out preschool, daycare, and screening forms for my boys. Parenting duties which were my job before, but fall all on my now. These forms ask for names of parents, emergency contact persons, and “special life events” teachers need to know about. A constant trigger and reminder  I need to talk with new teachers this year about my son’s deceased father, his coping skills, and our home life.

I am really at a loss lately. I have to dig deep to find the good in my day. I second guess all my decisions and hope I am making the right ones.

A few months ago, it felt like I was rocking this widow life. I leaned into my grief, cried, and would find the good in my day to keep going. Now I am more angry than not at cancer and the universe. Being a solo parent is hard. What is even harder, is remembering that my path to solo parenting started well before Adam passed.

This sounds harsh. It is harsh. I would yell at Adam and correct others when they would comment on how I was handling parenting and the house on my own. I wasn’t handling them on my own a year ago, not at all.

I still had Adam. He was still reading a few stories to the boys and could pay bills when I forgot. There were even good days sprinkled in after surgery where he made breakfast one day and supper the next. I was still married and wore my wedding ring with pride.

There was hope. Hope we held for more time. Hope for a miracle. Even if he only felt food a few hours a week, I had his humor and smile. I could still hold his hand and give him a kiss good night.

The truth of the matter, is that a year ago I became the primary caretaker of bills, the household (aka organizing help), and parenting. When people tell me how “strong” I am, I hear it, sometimes I own it. Other times, I silently say to myself “I have been grieving and preparing for widowhood since we learned there was a grapefruit sized tumor in his colon.

For the last twenty months I have been taking care of so many details. I am tired. I send my boys to their grandparents and I still feel tired. I feel guilty because I rarely accomplish anything other then some extra sleep. At the same time, I know to be a good parent I must take breaks. To grieve, I need time alone. I need rest.

This post was started a week ago but my body finally said “enough is enough”. What I thought was allergies, or maybe even hives from stress, turned into shingles on my left eye, face, and scalp. I have laid in bed the last few days, completely fatigued and angry because I am ill, falling more behind instead of holding my own.

It also made me realize, I got away from taking care of myself and let grief dictate what felt good in the moment. I shed more tears this summer, alone, with friends, and even in public than I have in months. The balancing ct of enjoying life and grieving is a fine art. I tried to run from my grief but grief will always find you.

The expectations I have for myself are unrealistic.  The little bit left of my logical brain knows this. Then grief rears its ugly head. The huge waves of emotions, while raising two small children leaves me mentally and physically exhausted. At 33 years old, I cannot make it through a day without a nap.

In a recent conversation with my new therapist and in my cancer widow support group, we talked about exhaustion. How in the world did I manage everything in the short year Adam was sick? I survived on a few hours of sleep at night and bits of naps during the day for most of 2016.

Caregiver adrenaline, that is how. When my therapist and group told me fatigue is very common in the first two to three years, I almost crumbled.  At the same time, hearing this helps me feel more normal. It is helping me to adjust my expectations and get back to living life day to day. Focusing on what really needs to be done. Trying so hard to hear Adam’s voice, telling me to cut myself some slack.

Again and again, I need to adjust my expectations. Enjoy our boys while they are little. Relax my mind when I think about what really needs to be done. I erased the list on the fridge and put it away where it can only be seen if there is energy for it.

Get back to the basics.

Pray.

Rest.

Choose happiness.

And throw those expectations out the window.

 

 

 

 

Choosing Happiness

(Susan Coyne Photography)

Adam often comes through to me in songs and dreams. One of the most powerful ways he connects with me is when I am writing and a song comes on the radio. As I was writing to our sons about their daddy, the song Inner Demons by artist and songwriter Julia Brennan came on the radio.

Angels, angels please keep on fighting.
Keep on fighting.
Angels don’t give up on me today.
Cause the demons; they are there.
They keep on fighting.
Inner demons just won’t go away.
So angels please, hear my prayer.
Life is pain; life’s not fair.
So angels please; please stay here.
Take the pain; take the fear.

Life isn’t always fair. I feel like I have demons inside me some days, trying to drag me down. This song speaks to me on so many levels.

The fight for those “happy-sad” moments is a real battle some days. Fighting to choose happiness. Fighting to move forward in life and let go of some painful memories because all they do is stir up anger. Cancer stirs up anger.

This ongoing war within me leaves me exhausted.  I have learned to lean into my grief now and rest. I let the guilt go for resting and listen to my widow-sisters when they tell me resting is doing something. They remind me it is what I need to be doing in that moment.

Adam used to ask me, “What do you need to get done today? Nothing, just hang out with the boys. That’s all you need to do.” So I listen to him now and remember the only thing that matters is taking care of the boys, eating, and sleeping. Really, truly the basics.

My friend took this picture of us three days after Adam died. Three days removed from us, I chose to find joy in this moment.

Every morning, I have a choice to make. To smile and find a piece of happiness or let my grief steal these little moments with my sons. No matter how small that moment might be, I will always choose happiness. My friend took this picture of us three days after Adam died. Three days removed from us, I chose to find joy in this moment. 

Finding joy every day is not easy. Anger likes to creep in. The inner demons.

What would happen if I didn’t let anger slide in at God for taking Adam from us and leaving me with a hard, lonely life some days?  What if instead, I looked at what God wants me to do now? What if I focused and prayed on what my purpose is in this next chapter of my life?

What if I stopped being angry at myself for not being the mother or woman I imagined myself being at 33 years old? What if instead, I allowed myself grace on the days that life is really, really hard? What if I truly acknowledged I have become a stronger, more confident and complete person in the wake of losing my best friend to cancer?

What if I focused within myself for happiness? What if instead, I learned to be fully content with what I’ve been given today? How would I feel if I embraced my imperfections and learned from them?

I have faith my life won’t always feel this heavy. Letting go of the anger helps me heal and resolve the guilt. It is also realistic to know my grief will always be a companion. That is the price of true love with an incredible man.

Reflecting back now, I relied heavily on my late husband too often for happiness. I think we all do when we are in a relationship. As the years go by, you become dependent on each other.

Through my grief, I am learning to be more independent. I am finding new hobbies, like writing, and carving out time to do them. I am making myself a priority more then I ever have in my life and that is important. It is important for everyone, no matter where you are in life.

One evening, my friend was in a grumpy mood. I asked him to tell me what the best three things were in his day. I kept asking him to tell me two more things until he got to ten. I then added ten more things he could be thankful for. We had a good laugh when he said, “you just made me more grumpy by asking me all these questions!” I had violated my personal rule of “Sometimes it is okay to not be okay!”

This simple conversation made me think. I truly do wake up grateful every day. Now some days I do not wake up happy AND grateful, but I always wake up grateful.

Yes, always grateful.

Grateful for my sons, their health, and their smiles.

Grateful I woke up, for my health, and for those moments in the day when I laugh.

Happiness is a choice that starts within myself, that starts within everyone. My inner demons try to pull me back from moving forward in life and living a life Adam would want for me. Yes, some days it really is okay to “not be okay.” This is reality.

But every day, I will wake up grateful. I will find a moment in my day, just one moment, to find something I am thankful for. It really is one of the easiest ways to turn my frown upside down.

All I need to do is look at my sons, Edward and Reginald.

And I will choose happiness, every time. 

So angels please, hear my prayer.
Life is pain; life’s not fair.
So angels please; please stay here.
Take the pain; take the fear.

An Open Letter to My Sons

To My Dearest Edward & Reginald,

Your Daddy led by example and was a quiet, humble man. He was the best dad and husband, always involved and helping. He even went along with cloth diapers and would spray the poop out of them. Until of course, he figured a way out of doing that chore (he was clever like that!) He would bring you both to me to nurse, changed your diapers, gave you almost every bath up until the day he had his mother of all surgeries in New York City.

Reggie’s first bath. Look at his smile!

He always made sure I was taken care of, both as his wife and your mother. I will never forget one chemo treatment week when Reggie was a newborn. He gave you both your baths and headed downstairs to bed before you both because he felt so ill. He must have heard me break down and cry while nursing Reggie. Daddy came in to our room with you, Edward. He taught you how to rub my feet and legs.

The next night Daddy went to bed early again. Edward, you came and rubbed my feet while I nursed Reggie. You asked, “Do you like that mommy? Does that make you feel better?”  It was one of the sweetest moments as a wife and mother, to see how Daddy taught you to show affection.

You both know how to cheer me up when I need it. I think you have good intuition, even at your very young ages. Daddy works through you to make sure I keep laughing! I see so much of your Daddy’s humor and personality in each of you already, I am excited to watch you grow. 

Living with your Daddy’s cancer changed our relationship for the better. We learned how to live day to day because we had to, and because we had to, we made the most out of every moment. Suppers together, bedtime stories, going to a park, enjoying the Packers on Sunday, all of these moments were big moments for us.

One of our best family memories in fall of 2016, going to the Firefighter Hall and Museum in Minneapolis.

We started living and loving more fully, I never thought that was possible because your Daddy and I had an incredible marriage. We were a great team. Living with the fear of Daddy dying made our love even more amazing because we were pushed to be stronger and braver than we wanted to be.

Sometimes it was hard to always find the joy in moments when we really wanted to cry. I promise you, we always found the joy because you two brought that out in us. We met with a therapist and our Pastor almost weekly when he was well enough to do so. It made us stronger individually and together. It was so important we were living whatever life we had left to the fullest.

Enjoying a beautiful day in New York City after his laparoscopic procedure.

When we traveled to New York to meet with the surgeon, we found a Packers bar, went to the American Museum of Natural History, and met Daddy’s cousin for dinner. We didn’t let the reason we were in New York be an excuse to not enjoy each other and a city he loved so much. 

I always told him how brave he was fighting cancer, it was a scary beast.  He chose to fight for you both and for mommy.  Daddy gave up steak for spinach and fruit smoothies every day, eating foods he never dreamed he’d pretend to enjoy. Anything to make him stronger and give us one more day together.

One day I will share the short journal we kept with each other in those early days of chemo. You will read his handwriting and feel his commitment to our family. Make no mistake about it, his love for us three was bigger than anything in this world. His proudest days were when you were born and the day he married mommy. 

“Everything I do, whether it’s go to work, waking up, or fighting cancer, I do it for you, Edward, and Baby Brother.” 

Daddy was so sad and upset he had to go to New York for surgery. We chose New York because it was his best chance at more time with us. He wanted so badly to stay home, so he could be close to you. You BOTH were always number one in his fight.  We will never understand why God chose this path for our family, why your Daddy earned his angel wings at 34 years old. Please never lose your faith in God, He has bigger plans for us three.

Daddy will always send us signs he is there. He will be in our dreams and come to us in music. Trust me on this. I have a lot of examples to share with you about music, dreams, and signs through the television Daddy gives me. 

There are no coincidences Edward and Reginald. As you get older, if you think you feel or are sent a sign from Daddy, it is him. He is all around us and with us.

After his surgery, Daddy texted me on a bad day in New York. “I love you very much and think of you for strength.” He always had more faith in your mommy then I had in myself at the time. We made each other better people and it breaks my heart every day he isn’t here with us to enjoy this life we built together.  I’ll do my best to teach you both to be brave, strong men.

I am so grateful you two have each other as brothers. You will help each other through your grief as you get older and understand more. You are each a blessing to Daddy and I, giving everyone around you a smile whenever they see you.

 

Daddy’s hope and dreams for you are to grow up to be good men. He wants you to have fun, play outside, make lots of friends, play sports, and throw the ball around with family (because it isn’t mommy’s specialty!) He really wants you both outdoors and in nature, being active and helpful to others. 

He enjoyed life and all it had to offer. One of his greatest joys in life were writing about the Packers and all of the games we took in at Lambeau. One day, I will take you both there and it will be our tradition together, just like it was with Daddy. You will experience all those things and more. 

Go Pack Go! Our favorite day together, Packers Sunday.

You will learn how much your Daddy loved teasing me, playing board games, and spoiling us. Your Grandparents and Uncle will tell you stories about hunting and teach you.  Your cousins will tell you how much time he always made for them and how goofy he was. His friends will one day tell you how he earned the nickname, “The Reverend.” 

I will share with you how much he enjoyed grilling meat, trying new craft beer and fine dining with mommy. You will finally get to play those board games Daddy and I played on date nights after we became parents. Daddy’s friends and I will help introduce you to heavy metal music, professional wrestling, the bloody horror movies and shows he liked, as well as the quirky sitcoms and dramas we binge watched together. 

You will hear and read stories from his co-workers and former bosses about what a talented writer he was and his strong work ethic. They will share how he was not only respectful but a RESPECTED man. Daddy enjoyed working and took pride in it, whether it was at the USDA, MCGA, AP, or in the kitchen at home. 

The All Star everyone came to see! Daddy loved writing for the AP & covering the Twins.

Some day you both will change the world, maybe it will be quietly like him or maybe you’ll make a lot of noise. Either way, I know he is in your hearts and with you everyday. Daddy promised he will be watching over you and me. I made a promise to him you will know who your Daddy.

We will always talk about Daddy and all he was and would have been to us if he was here today. He was a proud husband and father. He joked and laughed his way through life with our family and friends. There is an amazing village of family and friends who will help us and share those memories of him with you.

Proud, goofy, and loved every minute in his life he got to spend with you boys.

I pray you always have faith in God and know how much Daddy loves you from heaven.

We will live and love to the fullest.

No regrets.

Love,

Your Mommy

 

A Village

We did it. We made it. We survived Reginald’s first year!

Reggie’s birthday lunch with our doula.

When I say we, I mean Adam and I.

We also means our village now. Our roommate, Adam’s best friend, who goes beyond the call of friendship on a daily basis helping. Our parents, siblings, and amazing network of friends who continue to support us by spending time with us, watching the boys, and offering a listening ear. Our village is YOU reading this, sending words of encouragement and prayers for comfort.  

I remember the day we found out Adam had cancer. I came home to get some things. One of my dearest friends came over to watch Ed. After his bath, we sat in the boys’ room and talked. I cried holding my 18 week pregnant belly and shared with her my fears. I shared the heartache and fear we wouldn’t be able to raise our family together like we had envisioned. 

I knew in that instant life had changed. Our dreams had changed. Reality was adjusted in less than 12 hours.

My girlfriend didn’t tell me it would be okay because she is a wise. Instead, she told me our village would help us raise our sons, assuring me of the love our children would know.  Our children would grow up learning how to help others because of the help given to us.

She was right. Our village has been incredible. The first time I listened to this beautiful song by Cam, Village, it made me think of this first awful night when I came home from the hospital. 

Cause your whole heart’s a village
Everyone you love has built it
And I’ve been working there myself
And that’s where I’ll be
With a front-row seat
To watch you live your life well

Reginald and Edward, know this. Your daddy always took the time for you, for me, for his family and friends. He was a hard worker, a positive, kind, and respectful gentleman. He made everyone around him want to be a better person. Some day, with the memories you have and the memories your village will share, you too will be like your him. I have no doubt about this.

I wish so badly we could protect you from the grief you will experience as you grow into young men. Always remember you are so, so loved. Daddy is proud of you and is always with us.

I am thankful. Thankful for your little personalities that bring a smile to my face every day and keep me moving forward. You remind me of the love your daddy and I had for one another.

Edward, you will always remember your daddy and the time he took to be with you. I have written down the memories you share with me that are your own so that you will never forget. Your memory never ceases to amaze me.

Reginald, you will always have your daddy in your heart. Your relationship will be unique and you will know him.  Lately, I feel his presence more. I know you do too.

Reginald, you felt his presence on the night of your first birthday. I was feeding you a bottle at bedtime in your room when the dog pushed the door open. You sat up mid bottle, as you do. Then you pointed to the hall, where pictures of Daddy and us hang. You smiled and said “Da”. You then looked at me, smiled, and pointed to the picture behind the rocker and said “Da. Da!” Again, you smiled. You pointed to the poster above Edward’s bed with a family photo on it and said “Da.”

Without a doubt, I know Daddy is with you in a way none of us will ever understand. I feel it, I see it. I believe it.

Time keeps moving forward. We keep going through the firsts in life without Adam. There will always be firsts without Daddy, and the simple everyday moments without him. Then there will be the second, third, and fourth times we celebrate a holiday or birthday without Daddy. Some of these milestones will sting more than others, and some might not be as bad as we anticipate. Daddy will always be with us though.

Like we say every night as part of our bedtime prayer.

“Good Night, Daddy.
We love you Daddy.
We miss you Daddy.
You’re in our hearts.

We will keep moving forward in life, remembering and honoring you Adam. You made me a better person when we said “I do.” You’ll always be in our hearts. 

Cause your whole heart’s a village. Everyone you love has built it . . . 

 

Be Brave Mommy

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.

 

 

Tips to Help a Family Living with Cancer

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. . .

 

 

 

Who Am I?

Who Am I? 

The last month I have been in a deep state of grief.  I fell into this dark hole I didn’t know existed.  Silly me, I thought the worst was past.  Boy, was I wrong.

I don’t even recognize myself anymore.

My person, my other half who helped define me for nine years is gone.

Who Am I?

The person who knew me better then anyone else is dead.

The person who could always calm me down or cheer me up is never coming back.

The person who held my hand while I gave birth to our two beautiful boys won’t see our sons grow up.

The person who held his hand while he was dying is numb. I have changed. In some ways I have changed for the better, and in other ways, for the worse.

Who Am I?

Grief is incredibly exhausting. It makes me forgetful.  I walk around in a giant fog.

My brain is constantly thinking about the past while trying to move forward at the same time. Over three months out from his death and I am merely in survival mode.

Completing tasks around the house is like climbing a mountain.  Sometimes the mountain is a little hill and sometimes it is giant. But that mountain is always there.

Every. Single. Day.

Who am I?

I’ve gone from being an extrovert to introvert. It takes a lot of energy to leave the house. It takes even more energy to spend time with other people. Crowds never made me anxious and now, being with more than a few people at a time overwhelms me.

I feel constant stress and pressure as the solo parentSome days I wake up feeling like I can conquer the world. The next day, it takes all my concentration to take care of my two little boys.

Who Am I?

I have allowed grief to push me over the edge and mutter “This isn’t fair. This is hard.”  Two sentences I didn’t allow into my vocabulary when Adam was living with cancer. Because it could always be worse, right?

I am trying to accept my life is hard.  Once I can fully accept that reality, maybe I will start to appreciate what I am doing in life to move forward.

I have decided to focus on what I accomplish at the end of the day instead of what I didn’t. My accomplishments some days are waking up, getting everyone dressed, fed, and keeping us safe.

Who Am I?

Grieving doesn’t work the way my Type A Personality wants it to. I move forward every day but still look back, missing my best friend, my husband, and my sons’ Daddy. Some days it hits me out of nowhere. “What the hell happened? Is this my life? This is UNFAIR!”

I am irrational one moment and understanding the next because one of the worst events in my life has happened. Most things in life don’t get me excited or upset anymore, yet I long to have those feelings. Long to not be so numb.

Who Am I?

Grieving has made me completely disorganized. I have a hard time returning phone calls, even texts. I returned an email from two months ago last week. I will pick up the mail once or twice a week. I hate opening the mail. Seeing his name on bills is another reminder he is gone. Another reminder to call the energy company and tell someone my person died.

Who Am I?

My grief started long before he died. There was grief before the grief. Compounded losses when he had cancer and losses on top of losing him.

I am constantly reminded of his absence.  The absence of sports being on in the house and hearing wrestling on TV before bed. The loss of watching our favorite shows together. The loss of having my person to share our inside jokes with.

The loss of having my parenting partner there to back me up at dinner time when our toddler is throwing a fit and our baby is throwing food off his tray. The loss of having a second parent to put down on a form. The loss of calling him every day at lunch time to give him the daily report of how the boys are doing.

Who Am I?

The person who knew me best, who would know how to pull me out of this deep dark hole I am in is gone. Gone. I know where he is, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

I am working on finding new ways of pulling myself up when I am down. I am starting to see the light above this dark hole and ready to climb my way out.

I will probably stay here a little while longer yet, but it is a relief to know I am feeling something again.

Until then, I will find the good in each day. I will continue to smile. I will continue to laugh.

I will pray for God to guide me through my grief.

Because this is the only way to find who I am now.

 

Comfort and Discover

If someone would have told me on December 1, 2015 that we would develop a close relationship with a therapist, together, I would have laughed. Adam’s common response when I wanted to have a serious conversation was, “ok, let’s talk” proceeded by me talking, him listening, and Adam having a four word response. “Okay, I love you” was typically his reply to anything! We had a strong marriage and did up until the day Adam died.

We were able to maintain our rock solid relationship because of our therapist at the cancer clinic, along with our pastor who met with us for healing prayer almost weekly. Our therapist, Brooke, was an amazing part of Adam’s cancer care team. Those who knew Adam, will agree he was a quiet man who chose his words wisely. He went to the first counseling session with me because it was important to me. After one session, he said “okay, we can schedule another appointment.”

We met with her several times a month to talk about our anxiety, fear, and to help guide us in communication while we were juggling life and a terminal illness. In the last year of his life, Adam and I became better at communicating because of the guidance from our therapist and pastor.

Five days before he passed, we were in the ICU and learned he was rapidly declining. These stones were given to him by Brooke to hold if he was feeling worried, restless, or nervous. She chose the words comfort and discover.

To find comfort in the presence of his family and in the goofy, silly moments she knew Adam wanted to hold close.

Discover to find what peacefully lies ahead.

She told Adam, “And someday, you can give these stones to Julie so she can find comfort in each day and have the courage to discover what lies ahead for her and the boys.”

The morning Adam died, he was looking for these stones. It took me awhile to figure out what he was looking for. He described them first as discs, like waffles, something to toss. He couldn’t find the words and it broke my heart to know he was declining so rapidly.

“Toast, waffles,” he would say to me . . . finally, I figured it out.  He was looking for the stones. The stones our therapist gave to him.

I pull these stones out from time to time. On Sunday night, I took them out and really studied them. Thinking about our last day together and about my husband who I love and miss so much.

I held them and cried.

Sunday was the first night I had ever stayed home alone in our new house (okay we have been here for almost two years but 2016 feels like it didn’t happen to me.) The first time in almost four years I had stayed home alone with no kids, no family, no friends and no dog. I don’t think I’ve stayed home alone without my dog since she was a puppy seven years ago. Sunday night was a huge step in my moving forward and building strength.

I am sharing this with you because mental health and holistic care is so important for everyone. Palliative care are two scary words to cancer patients but they don’t have to be. Adam opened his mind to many holistic approaches such as relaxation, massage, acupuncture, essential oils, and supplements that complemented his treatment plan of chemotherapy.

As I move forward without Adam, I continue to use therapy as an outlet. I’ve added in a grief support group with my three year old and online support groups with other young widows.

My self care, my comfort, involves a few of my favorite things. Haircuts, massage, walking my dog, of course wine! and laughing with friends always bring me joy.

Joy? Yes, even a grieving widow can find joy in her days.

And each day, I look forward to discovering what lies ahead with my boys. They are my purpose and always will be. My everlasting gift from Adam.

Until next time, be kind to one another.

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