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.

 

Feel Good Friday – 656

I have decided to try a different outlook on Fridays. Instead of waking up and counting the Fridays since I last kissed my husband,  I am going to think of a happy memory.  After his diagnoses, we had to dig a little deeper to enjoy all the daily moments because they were bittersweet.  Adam would want us to keep smiling today and remembering how awesome he was…because Adam never lacked any swagger.

Adam was a gem.  Most of you already know this. His friend and I have been talking a lot lately about Adam, his humor and how proud he was of himself.  And he was proud, ALL the time.  We have had a lot of good laughs about him lately, it feels so good to reminisce.

His dry humor and the way we would tease each other is one of the daily things I miss the most. Sometimes he would take it one joke too far, and his response was always “I kid, I kid” followed by a big Adam hug and groveling.  His friend Witt was always the butt of Adam’s jokes when they were together, okay, even when they weren’t. The more Adam teased you, the more he showed his love.

My notes for this post are growing fast.  I have a smirk on my face, so let’s do this! (An old co-worker of his gave me permission to use as many exclamation points as I want now, but I don’t want Adam to start hiding things on me in the house so I’ll make sure to tone it down.)

He organized about 536 wrestling DVDs in October.  A friend completed the last 120. (Photo taken 10/5/16)

656. This is the number of wrestling DVDs Adam collected from other wrestling fanatics, who converted old VHS recordings of matches to DVD of 1980s and 1990s AWA, ECW, WCW and WWF. Adam was so excited when he received a big envelope in the mail of 50 or more DVDS at a time to organize.  He would download them to his hard drive and then to the iPad so he could watch them anywhere, anytime.

In October before he passed, he bought this giant, heavy, suitcase DVD organizer. He was so proud of it while I cringed thinking about where we would store this monster. On this night, three days before we learned his cancer was back, I watched him start work on organizing 656 wrestling DVDs. He was so serious about it.

I enjoy a good, hard belly laugh when I look back on a video I have of him organizing them, while I tease him in the background. He doesn’t say a word, but his smirk grows bigger and bigger the more I dish it out.  This was Adam and I.

Watching wrestling together in the hospital.

Now, I am grateful we have it. Wrestling was something that helped ease his mind during his cancer diagnoses. When he wasn’t in the mood to watch it, I knew his mind was in a bad place. One of my worries, yes, worries, was who would help me teach the boys all about old school wrestling? I mean, I have probably watched over half of these matches in this suitcase with him, but Adam was an expert on all these wrestling. Books, blogs he read and participated in, he was invested.

When I asked him who I should go to, who knew the most about wrestling, his obvious response was, “nobody knows as much as me.” {Insert my laughter while Adam had a stone face.} I listed friends off, and he put them in order who I should go to for help on “all things wrestling.”  Adam then looked me square in the eye on that hospital bed, five days before he passed, and said “Julie, you are going to have to do some homework on your own.”

My husband had a lot of confidence in me, and I’ll never forget these words. All things wrestling was part of our last heart to heart, where he gave me his blessings and advice for the future without him physically by my side. Do my homework. There was a lot he told me to do my homework on and I will, because he had all the confidence in me, just like he had in himself.

Adam never gave up on trying to grow my love for old school wrestling. He never let up on watching Japanese wrestling on TV before bed (incredibly distracting to listen to wrestling commentary in another language while trying to drift off to dreamland). He never gave up on teasing me. He never gave up on making sure I knew how amazing he was. He never gave up on showing me how much he loved me and the boys. And he certainly never gave up on living, down to his final Friday.

I will never give up Adam, and I will do my homework.

Finding the Good

Adam & Julianna at Lambeau

Adam & I take in a sunny day at Lambeau Field

The Packers’ season and their fall in the NFC championship game is symbolic of our last year. The season started out hopeful, then took a bad turn about six weeks in at a game we were in attendance for. The team was left with slim odds to make the playoffs by the end of November. The Pack got a butt whooping two nights after Adam died. The Packers went on to “run the table” and got in to the postseason.

Extraordinary determination and play from the entire team. They rallied hard for two playoff games nobody expected them to win. Then came the NFC Title game and they collapsed. Hard.

Adam’s fight against cancer felt like this football season. We were hopeful in the beginning for surgery, then had a gash in our hope when surgery was aborted five weeks in to his diagnosis. Adam mentally felt like a dead man walking with a toddler and pregnant wife by his side. With help from Adam’s Pack, we kept his fighting spirit alive. I didn’t give up HOPE for Adam and our little family. He rallied and put together a winning streak during his 11 rounds of chemo, pushing the cancer back. We made it to his “play-offs” and he had surgery  in New York. The hopeful surgery to buy us more earthly time.

But it was like Adam made it to the big game and his body couldn’t drive it in to the end zone. His mind was tough and the fight was there but his body had too many “players” on injured reserve. He had been through so much physically that he needed a break, a break he simply wasn’t awarded. Only God has the answer why.

Too many setbacks from the beginning of the title game. The Falcons were too much for the Packers this postseason. Likewise, too many setbacks for Adam after his surgery. His body never allowed him to get back on chemo, back to his game plan to drive the cancer out of his body.  The cancer was too aggressive for Adam’s body after the massive surgery.

Football offers a great distraction in life. Adam and I lived and breathed football. We enjoyed how it let us escape reality every Sunday and be part of something bigger that was out of our control. In the last season, football offered us something to look forward to on Sundays just like every other season.

It will always be a huge part of our household, an important part of our lives. Growing up in central Wisconsin, it is in my blood and I hope it’s in our sons’ blood too. Nobody could ever replace the football bond we had. I hope our boys will share this football bond with me that I shared with their dad.

My point is this. Enjoy life. Even the parts of life that are brutal, try to find a way to enjoy it. A year later and I am first beginning to reflect and process what has happened in my life since December 1, 2015.  One thing this year taught me is to find the good in every single day. Sometimes we have to dig deep to find the good, to find a smile or laugh, but it is so important each and every one of us look for the good in life.

Our boys, my boys, will always be the good in my day. Adam’s best gifts ever given to me. He always liked to give me a challenge and Adam didn’t miss a beat with these two little men. My mini-Adam’s through and through and for that, I am beyond blessed to see him everyday in our sons’ brown eyes.

Until next time, be kind to one another. And thanks for the good run Packers. Go Pack Go!

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