Death is hard. No matter what others may say. No matter what kind of death. Sudden death. Extended sickness. Accidental. Tragic. Self inflicted. Slow. Painful. Peaceful. It’s still hard.
I call this new section “Heartstorms,” but not because I was having physical heart issues; my body hurt, but it was just the normal aches and pains that come with aging. No, my storms weren’t physical. They were spiritual. My very being went through difficult times. Really hard times.
You can tell if someone is physically ill or hurt. Moms give band aids, others rush friends to the ER. But hurting on the inside isn’t always visible. To many, I was coping just fine. But if you could have seen deep down into the depths of my soul, you could tell that I was hurting. I was in a storm. And it was in my heart.
In December 2014 I found myself dealing with death, widowhood, and a new sense of responsibility.
We had raised good kids. Scratch that. They were great kids. The funeral was over, extended family was gone, and now it was just the four kids, spouses, and grandkids. They must have put their heads together and come up with a recommendation, because at one meal, one of them spoke up and said, “Mom, we are all leaving, and we don’t think you should be here alone in the house. We think you need to spend the time between now and Christmas with one of us.”
I’m not sure how it was decided, but Chad and Stephanie drew the short straw. It turned out to be a good decision.
Chad and Stephanie left on Sunday morning. Scott and Jess left Sunday afternoon, but not before Scott bared his heart with me, showing how much he loved me and the sacrifice he was willing to make–just for me. I’ll not share the details, but that moment we sat in my bedroom, talking about future plans and his honest solution to me being alone– it is etched forever in my memory.
By Monday morning it was just Lisa, Lance and I. Lisa and I took Lance to the airport, and then she and I parted ways, she to Green Bay and I to Grand Rapids.
It was an odd feeling–me driving on my first trip without being able to call Roger if I had car problems. As it turned out, all went well. But I was so keenly aware of any unusual sound the car made. When I got to Michigan I-196, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I was close enough to Chad’s that if I had a problem, he could come and help me.
I saw two hawks and a group of wild turkeys on the way. Me, who NEVER notices animals (unlike Roger, who always scanned his surroundings, watching for anything unusual–and sometimes scaring me because I didn’t think he had his eyes on the road) actually saw hawks and turkeys. It was as though Roger was encouraging me.
December 4, 2014
The first of many “firsts” I would have during this year of heart storms. It was Roger’s birthday. He would have been 66 years old.
Stephanie and I spent the day together, so that was good. I sure did miss Roger. I found that since I had arrived in Michigan, I had cried, but not really sobbed. It was as though I had repressed a lot of emotions. I expected them to spill out when I got back to Illinois. I busied my time during the days while Steph and the kids were at school by helping her do mounds and mounds of laundry. It kept me busy and helped me keep focused on someone else besides me.
I’m torn between whether or not that was a good way to cope. I’m an educated person. I have a Masters in Education, and I have had some psychology courses, general and abnormal. I know that avoidance is not healthy. It is a “maladaptive coping mechanism characterized by the effort to avoid dealing with a stressor.”
But I also know that helping others is good for you. “The therapeutic benefits of helping others have long been recognized by everyday people. This concept was first formalized in a highly cited and often reprinted article by Frank Riessman that appeared in 1965 in Social Work. Riessman defined the “helper therapy” principle on the basis of his observations of various self-help groups, where helping others is deemed absolutely essential to helping oneself. These are grassroots groups that nowadays involve tens of millions of Americans.” Source
But, no matter how I coped, in those early days of grieving, I still felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. It was as though I couldn’t breath, or like I was drowning. To those who experience full blown panic attacks, I am in awe. I don’t know how you survive. I could have been swallowed up by the feeling, but for some reason I wasn’t.
December 7, 2014
My mother and dad always taught me to be willing to serve. They modeled that behavior. From my teen years and on, if there was an opportunity for me to use my musical talent, I did so willingly. So I wasn’t surprised to find myself playing the offertory or singing at Chad and Steph’s church. I even played for the Christmas cantata rehearsals and concert.
December 8, 2014
I spent the afternoon with Trudy across the road from Chad and Stephanie. She had lost her husband to brain cancer, just like me. She had him a little longer, but not much. I remember Stephanie telling me about Hank’s sickness and subsequent diagnosis. I remember saying, “Oh, that’s too bad.” “How sad.” I remember hearing about the funeral. I remember sympathizing because Hank was in his 60s. But I really didn’t have any true connection with what she was going through. Not until now.
We talked about what widowhood was like, and I was able to truly learn a lot about her husband and their life together. We spoke of heaven and how, after you experience a death, your perspective of what is important changes. Right then and there I determined not to waste my time. I wanted to be doing something for others.
December 9, 2014
Roger and I always believed that dreams are God’s way of kind of cleaning out your mind, whether it be clutter or garbage. We don’t put much stock in dreams, though my dad, a great dreamer, often recorded his dreams as he woke up. They were so vivid to him, and he didn’t believe they predicted the future; he just wanted to have a record of them so he could share with others.
From my journal
I had a dream last night. It was the first one about Roger since he died. I can piece together the reasons I dreamed about some of the events. For example, I was going to spend the day in Stephanie’s kindergarten class, so that age group and setting was on my mind. I was intrigued by how the neighbor across the road had added on to her house so she could live near her kids after her husband died. She spoke of the architect and roof lines when I visited her.
So the dream started out with me in a kindergarten class and assessments were being given. Really rough ones. The teachers weren’t doing it correctly, and I was going from group to group helping.
Suddenly I was in a car with Will and he was driving me to my old house on Henry Street. We pulled in and found two ladies (one was real estate agent Doris) looking at the roof lines of the house. They were getting the house ready to sell. I explained that there was a new roof so there should be no leaks.
I went inside to find Roger on a bed. His color wasn’t good, so he was still sick. For some reason they had put blue jeans on him…..they slit the sides of the pants so they could get them on.
I leaned over him and he was like different shades of flesh color: cream, yellow, pale, red. I bent down to kiss him and he kissed me back. That was so wonderful. And then I woke up.
December 12, 2014
I got a lot accomplished at Chad’s. Before I left Illinois, I had made a list of things/people/institutions that I needed to contact with information about Roger’s death. I am a list person. Most every day I have a list of what needs to be accomplished. I’m sure that stems from the way I organized my day as an elementary school principal. Lists. Cross off things that are done. Add the undone (most often because they were difficult!) to the next day’s list.
The funeral home was helpful in providing a “starter” list. I personalized that list and went from there. Roger had always said if there was a dispute, “Whoever has the notes and documentation wins.” I was careful to write down the date and name of the person I spoke with as accounts were closed.
I can’t find my pictures of my three-week stay at Chads. I took them. We went roller skating with their youth group. I played for their cantata. Steph and I went for coffee. I know I took pictures, but I just can’t find them. I did purchase Christmas gifts for the kids, and it felt odd. Not that Roger ever helped me much with the wrapping of gifts, but this year instead of writing, “From Mom and Dad” or From Grandma and Grandpa” it was “From Mom” or From Grandma.” That was hard.
Another First–I did a car wash all by myself while at Chad’s. It was a “pull you through in neutral” one. I did get sprayed with a little water when I went to roll down my window to ask a question. I was struck by the element of faith you had to have when you couldn’t see where you were going, and something other than your own power was pulling you along. That was one of the many “new life” lessons I would hid in my heart for future encouragement.
December 14, 2014
From my journal
I had another dream last night. Roger and I were driving down a four lane road with no median. I think we may have been in Decatur. I was driving and for some reason I had to pull over. Roger got out and climbed in the trunk and laid down and urinated. A .ot. I went and put the flashers on and came back. He was finished and imi changed him and wrung out his clothes, but a pad down for him to sit on in the back seat and got him back in the car.
I was also at a church activity….felt like faith bible in Joliet. But Della was there. And Mike. And a sound system in the park. And construction workers. And me in a bathrobe. And food and laughing that Roger wasn’t there to monitor the amount that everyone took.
Stephanie and I went to a Gaither Christmas Homecoming at the Van Andel Areana in downtown Grand Rapids. We used a suite from Chad’s company. I had never been in a suite–it was wonderful And I had a refreshing time with Stephanie.
I felt I was pushing all of my emotions down, like a beach ball in a pool. I knew it would eventually surface when I got back home. I even mentally prepared myself for it. But until that time, I kept on stifling the tears that welled up in me. When I saw old pictures, I thought of Roger. When I thought of Christmas Cantatas, I thought of Roger. When I thought of church…When I thought of what he would order to eat…When I ode in the car and looked out the window…
Roger was everywhere I looked. He was in all of my thoughts.
Helpful Hint: Let your kids help you. More often than not, they are thinking more clearly than you are.
Helpful Hint: Spend special “first days” with someone. It’s not good to be alone on those days, no matter how much you want to sit and cry alone.
Helpful Hint: Don’t delay in getting accounts up to date
Observation: You only are sincerely aware of the struggles of others when you struggle similarly.
Observation: I wanted to talk about Roger in general conversations. I wanted to talk about when he was sick. I wanted to talk about when he was well and what we did. But I didn’t want to be that annoying person who talked only about the dead one, so I didn’t talk about him. To those of you who want to help the grieving, I have one word: LISTEN. Actively listen. Ask questions.
Observation: People talk. People like to talk about themselves. People like to talk about their experiences. I have learned a lot by listening; that’s what I have done my whole life. But suddenly, as a grieving widow, I just wanted people to listen to me.
Observation: If I ever move near any of my kids, I would want to have my own place. I found that I loved all of the activity at Chad’s, but I also needed to be alone. To be able to concentrate. To be able to meditate. To be able to focus on God’s Word. To be able to beg God to understand my weak faith.