But give me some quiet time to think, and it is bound to happen.
My two youngest are tucked away asleep in their beds, my oldest is at an activity for the girls in our church, and my husband is out doing neighborhood visits with members of our congregation.
I should be enjoying some rare and precious moments of quiet and solitude.
And yet somehow, like every other time I am left alone for any given period of time, I find myself pulling an oversized men’s large cotton t-shirt over my head, listening to songs of nostalgia, flipping through pictures of my past life, while draped in the fuzzy blanket that kept my husband warm on his final day.
It hurts so much. And yet it feels so good. Bittersweet memories flow down my cheeks in the form of rolling tears.
I took it to another level tonight when I searched my old Idaho address on Google Earth. There, on the screen, was a clear view of my life five years ago. The flowers I planted, the kiddie pool on the back patio, our old pop up camper in the driveway… I felt sure that if I could jump into the picture, I would find myself inside rocking a chubby baby girl, and chasing after a tutu obsessed toddler. I was probably sleep deprived and worn out, and I absolutely was counting down the minutes until the garage would squeak open, and my RJ would walk in the door with a healthy dose of back up.
I was happy. And blissfully unaware.
How I miss being unaware.
I would be lying if I said that seeing my old house didn’t add a bit of salt to my already festering heart wounds. I really am happy with where I am at now, with the way that God has led me to where I am supposed to be. But as much as I am thankful for my new path, I also find myself grieving what used to be my reality, and what never got to be. I long for the picture I have in my mind of today, for the plan that never happened and the life we didn’t get to share.
The tired mom in that pretty little house could never have guessed how different life would soon be. How much harder it was going to get.
Now, the dark days are especially bleak, but the the bright ones are vibrant and more beautiful than before. Walking through the dark really has taught me to appreciate every drop of light.
But for me, the bad isn’t something that I “let in.” The pain already exists within me.
My battle is internal. I know that I have to allow myself to feel all of the good and the bad to experience true healing, but more often than not, what I feel really hurts. It takes such an emotional and physical toll on me that I have become an expert at trying to ignore anything that isn’t conducive to my emotional stability. 😉
I was explaining my avoidance techniques to a friend on the phone today. I do everything I can to feel “normal” (or at least the new normal I have created) until a huge wave of grief is triggered, and then I find myself thrown back into the darkness and the pain. It is, after all just waiting beneath the surface. And each time I feel the true extent of my grief, I have to claw my way back out of that difficult place. It is exhausting and overwhelming to feel such a significant amount of heaviness and grief again and again. I told her that I sometimes I have to take a day only minutes at a time, and that when I am in “the dark place” it is impossible to function or to see beyond all of the grief.
Her advice was to repeat a phrase to myself, a mantra if you will. Something that would help me remember how far I have come.
“I am a survivor, and I’m still here.”
She had no idea how her words would transport me back in time.
Suddenly in my mind’s eye, I was holding my sweet husband’s hand in the emergency room as countless doctors and nurses scurried around us. I saw him emphatically tapping his chest with his hand. With a look of pleading in his eyes, and with a great amount of effort he vocalized, “I’m still here.” He must have repeated himself at least ten times as the scans were taken, and while the many tubes and wires were attached to his body. Over and over again.
He was desperate to let me know that he was still inside of his broken body. That he was more than what the doctors were seeing. More than a stroke victim or the symptoms that were so horrifying and humiliating for him. More than the broken man that he knew he must seem to be.
He wanted me to know.
HE was still there. My best friend. The father of my children. He was still himself on the inside.
Of all of the traumatic moments that I try to avoid, that scene in the emergency room is one of the hardest to remember. But what I would give to be able to relive it. I would gladly take all of the fear, shock, and heartache just to be able to hear him tell me one more time:
“I’m still here.”
And yet I know that he is.
Though I can’t hear his voice, I know that if I could get a glimpse of the other side, I would be able to see him holding me when it all is just to much, walking beside me as I make difficult decisions, smiling as our children grow, and cheering for me when I make progress in this new journey. I’m sure that he is here with me more than I will ever know.
Have you ever had a nightmare about death–either your own, or someone you love?
I remember one night, only a few years ago, I woke up to my husband sobbing in bed next to me. He’d had a dream about me being sick. In his dream, he had fought to save me, but his efforts had been futile, and I had passed away leaving him alone to raise our children. It had been one of those dreams when it is difficult to distinguish subconscious thoughts from reality, and he was so relieved to find me sleeping next to him when he finally woke from his nightmare. I remember hugging him and telling him that I was fine, and that I wasn’t going anywhere.
I know that I have also had times, when I have heard heartbreaking true stories or have watched movies like “P.S. I Love You” and I have become absorbed in the “second hand heartbreak.” I have wondered what I would ever do if I lost a spouse, a child, a sibling, or a parent. The pain, even with an imagined loss was heart wrenching.
But why? Why do we as a culture feel so drawn to sad stories?
I think the inevitability of loss makes us curious. We all know that at some point in our lives, we will experience grief. No one is immune to mortality or heartache. It makes us wonder what it really feels like to lose someone dear to our heart. It was always something that I was intrigued by, and something that I wanted to understand better.
Until it actually happened to me.
For those who are new to this blog, let me give you a quick overview of my story.
My name is Monica. I married my husband, Ryan J Bell (RJ), on February 22, 2007. We were married for almost 9 years. In that time, we had 3 beautiful children, a house, a great career path, dreams, and that best friend kind of love that I had dreamed about as a girl. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was wonderful. He was my best friend.
My husband woke up one morning (October 15, 2015), and while he was getting ready for work, he had a few seconds where he was “seeing spots”–just for a moment. As he sat on the edge of our bed, I tried to talk him into staying home and resting. He was convinced that he was fine, and that the spots were due to a mild headache that he was experiencing. He took an Advil, dropped our first grader off at school, and started his commute to work.
Ten minutes into his drive, I got a phone call. He’d had an extreme wave of nausea, and he was vomiting violently on the side of the road. He was unable to drive. I hurried to where he was waiting with a police officer on the side of the interstate, and took him home to rest in bed. We assumed at that point that he had food poisoning or a horrible virus.
About an hour later, he was complaining of severe head pain, dizziness, and was vomiting uncontrollably. I left my children with his parents, and took him to the emergency room. After a few hours of waiting, IV fluids, a CT scan, and some medication we were sent home with a diagnosis: an inner ear calcification. We were instructed to take some prescription medication, and to come back if it didn’t improve in a few days. He was extremely ill by this point, and he wasn’t able to walk without assistance because of the severity of his dizziness and pain. I took him home, tucked him in, and after turning on a movie for my children and in-laws, I ran to the pharmacy to get his prescriptions. He would be due to take within a short time, and I didn’t want him to experience more pain than was necessary.
While I was gone, RJ got up to go to the bathroom and fell. When I called to check on him, I was confused at the news–he wasn’t making any sense. He was having a hard time talking.
I rushed home and found my strong, capable, healthy, thirty one year old husband struggling to form words. His many symptoms were horrifying, and I knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. We called 911 and were taken by ambulance back to the hospital. He received more scans and tests, and my worst fears were confirmed.
A massive stroke in his cerebellum.
I was handed a cell phone by one of the doctors. On the line was the lead neurosurgeon that would be taking on my husband’s case. I remember only snippets of our conversation as I heard the worst imaginable news. It was the stuff of my worst nightmares coming true.
“The area where Ryan has suffered this stroke is very difficult to operate on.”
“We will do everything in our power to save him.”
“We will use extraordinary measures to preserve his life.”
“This surgery has a 90 percent mortality rate.”
I sat on the floor in an empty hospital room and sobbed. My husband had a ten percent chance of living. TEN percent. And even if he did survive, there was no telling the effect that the lack of oxygen would have on his brain. He was taken to a hospital better equipped to handle such a surgery.
With a stroke, seconds matter. It took hours to get him where he needed to be, because there wasn’t an available helicopter in our area. And when it did finally get to us, there wasn’t room for me to go with them, because my husband required too much medical equipment to keep him alive. My in laws and I made the excruciating drive to the hospital where my husband was receiving surgery. I was afraid of what I might find when I finally got there.
The surgery truly was a miracle. Ryan made it through, and he was one of the ten percent to pass that crucial point. I was filled with hope, and for a short time believe that he would recover. I remember sobbing on his surgeons shoulder, hugging him, and thanking him profusely for saving my husband’s life.
And then he became unstable. Severe swelling in the brain. A second surgery.
And then we waited.
“He should wake up in a couple of hours.” He didn’t.
“His brain has experienced severe trauma. These things can take time.” Still no change.
I laid in the bed beside him and held his hand. I begged him to wake up for days. I cried, and told him that I loved him. I told him that his children needed him. I told him that I didn’t know how to live without him. I shook uncontrollably, cried off an on, lost my appetite completely, and threw up anything I did manage to get down. I called friends and hugged family. I listened to the never ending beeps, to the clock ticking, and to the machines that filled my husband’s lungs with air. I memorized every part of his face. And I waited.
I will always remember the neurosurgeon’s pained expression when he sat down to tell me his recommendation: to remove life-support. He told me that Ryan wasn’t going to wake up. His brain stem was too severely damaged to be able to survive without the machines that were only prolonging the inevitable.
It was too late.
Five days after his initial stroke, our families and friends gathered together to say goodbye. I gathered my children in a small meeting room, and forced myself to talk calmly when I told them that their Daddy was going to heaven. I held them while they said goodbye to their Father. I watched the man I loved more than anything take his last breath. My heart felt very literally ripped from my chest when I finally left his body. It hurt to breathe, I was devastated, numb, and in shock all at the same time. It was like living in a nightmare, and not being able to wake up.
My husband passed away on October 19, 2015.
I know how it feels to lose someone who I love more than my own life. It truly is indescribable. But I will do my best, to bring a better understanding of grief, for the sake of any of you who are just beginning your own difficult journey through grief. If my experience can help bring clarity or hope to anyone who is going through what I have, for me, it is worth every second of sharing my story, and I will happily relive the pain. You aren’t alone.
I had heard about the “Five Stages of Grief” before experiencing loss. The stages denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance make grief sound so cut and dry. It makes it seem like a neat little process that is very linear. That grief is something that one experiences, that is passed through in sensible phases, and then after completing four messy phases, one is finally able to accept their loss and move on.
But there is no “moving on.” And I have found grief to be anything but neat and tidy. It is anything but predictable. Grief is feeling every single emotion imaginable, and having your body completely shut down because it is too much for it to take in all at once. Grief is feeling like you are literally going crazy, only to be told that you are completely normal. Grief is feeling incomplete, like a piece of yourself is missing. And it is. You have to find a new you because so much of your identity was linked to the one that you loved.
Grief isn’t a process that you pass through, but a painful awakening that becomes a part of you.
Although grief is volatile and the emotional rollercoaster IS very real, there has been a general movement through some stages (especially initially) in my experience. My loss was an unexpected one, and though I can really only speak for myself, I imagine that others going through similar experiences can relate to some extent.
The first “stage,” for me, was disbelief. I watched my husband in the hospital, but couldn’t believe that it was actually happening could possibly be real. My life had turned into a sappy Nicholas Sparks novel…my reality made absolutely no sense, and honestly it still doesn’t sometimes.
Next came shock. Shaking, loss of appetite, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, disorientation, panic attacks, vomiting, walking around feeling dazed…the reality and pain of it all was just too much for my body or mind to process. The initial shock took months to wear off. I remember sitting on the floor of my shower trying to cry so that I could feel some sort of relief, knowing that I should be crying…because crying is what we DO when people die. I felt like a horrible person when tears wouldn’t form. I have come to learn that there is no “shoulds” in grief. There are no rules. You only get to choose whether you succumb to the pain, or if you distract it away.
After a few months, the shock began to wear off, and the reality of my loss became apparent. I was so completely devastated. I felt pain emotionally, and very physically as well. I still was unable to eat or to sleep. I would lie awake late into the night sobbing and the tears that I had wished would flow in the beginning were impossible to hold back. Sometimes it all would be too much and I would find myself either completely exhausted, angry, or numb. I would relive the trauma that I had witnessed again and again, and my brain would try to make sense of my reality.
Honestly no words can even start to express the pain. It really is so all consuming. It feels oh so heavy. You constantly have a pit in your stomach, and your heart and chest feel tight and completely broken all at the same time. The intensity of it all has literally knocked me to my knees at times.
Its the type of emotional turmoil that leaves you surprised that your heart is still beating. And some days you almost wish that it wouldn’t. I was never suicidal, I promise. But I literally didn’t understand how I could possibly live without my husband. I expected to die of a broken heart. Dramatic? Probably. But it just hurt SO much. I understand now why when one elderly spouse passes away, it often doesn’t take long for the other to follow behind.
Grief just takes so much out of you. I have had newborn babies. I have been sleep deprived. But the word tired just doesn’t do it justice…feeling so many conflicting emotions at at once, puts your body and brain into overload. The result is a complete lack of energy and complete exhaustion.
The numbness that followed was a blessing. It was what I needed to function. I was a grieving widow, but I was also a mother of three, and I had to be able to take care of my three young children.
It has been nineteen months since my husband passed away.
Today, I go through phases of feeling normal (or at least the new normal that I have created since losing RJ), feeling guilt for feeling “normal,” feeling completely numb, or at other times I find myself swept away by a wave of grief.
But I also am learning how to let grief and joy coexist. I am feeling again. I am eating, sleeping, and I don’t cry every day anymore. The waves don’t stop, but you become stronger and you learn to live and to be happy despite the grief that is still a part of your every day. Most days, the pain is more manageable, and though in the beginning I could never imagine feeling happy again, the joy is real too. I feel hope again.
I know that I will see my RJ again. Even through all of the grief and the anger and the darkness, I know that “the end” really isn’t the end.
I’m not sure that in this life, I will ever truly accept the fact that he isn’t here with my family–that he isn’t helping me raise our children. There will never be a day when I don’t think of my RJ. Even after remarrying, and finding love again, I still feel like there is a special part of my heart that is incomplete. I will forever ache when I think of how much I miss him.
It still hurts, but I have come to feel differently about the pain associated with grieving now…it is a beautiful heartbreak in a way. The grief I experience shows just how much I loved my RJ. It shows just how much I still love him. It is a sacred pain.
Because, “Grief is love with no place to go.” -Jamie Anderson
The best way I have found healing, is to just allow myself to feel it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly. All of the pain, all of the heartache, all of the heaviness.
So cry, scream, yell, sleep, spray your in your husband’s cologne and wear his t-shirts to bed while eating tubs and tubs of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream (this is a trademark Monica move), pray, and then wash your face, stand back up, and keep moving forward.
You will never forget. But you WILL get to the point where you can think of your loved one without tears running down your cheeks (at least sometimes). You WILL get to the point where you live your life to honor theirs. And one day you will think less about the way that you lost your loved one, and you will think more about the blessing it was to have the memories you do, and will look forward to the reunion that is to come.
May used to be one of my favorite months. I find that it is now full of “all the feels.” With Mother’s Day, RJ’s birthday, my birthday, Memorial Day, with the approach of Father’s Day looming, May has been an emotional roller coaster for me, to say the least.
I have been thinking so much about my RJ. About the full life he lived in such a short 31 years, about the things that I wish we could have experienced together, and about the best way to honor his legacy now.
Last Sunday, I had such an overwhelming feeling…I need to live.
Like REALLY live. Not just exist and go through the motions of every day life, but to flourish and thrive and enjoy the beautiful life I have been blessed with.
I need to make the most of the precious moments I have been given. I need to continue dreaming and experiencing, and growing. This life truly is a gift. I feel strongly that the best way to honor my sweet RJ is by remembering him, by following through with the dreams that we had planned together, by making memories, by learning from the loss and treasuring the people that I love in my life, and by being unopologetically happy.
So I have spent the last week typing out this bucket list. It will probably change as I change, but for now, these are some goals that I have set:
Serve a mission
Serve as a temple worker
Keep a journal
Foster a child
Anonymously help other widows or single moms
Watch my children get married
Become a grandmother
Attend a birth
Be an organ donor- completed November 2016
Volunteer in an Orphanage
Exercise for one full year
Become a minimalist
Pay for a stranger’s groceries
Experience pregnancy and childbirth with Ryan and have a baby that looks like him ❤
Attend a temple session with all of my children
Be a missionary mom
Write a book
Be fluent in a second language
Build the coffee table that RJ was planning on making for me
Homeschool for one year
Learn more about photography and be able to be confident in a photo session
Become an expert gardener
Visit the Garden of Gethsemane
Float in the dead sea
Visit the Glow worm caves in New Zealand
See Roman Ruins
Add a lock to the Love Lock Bridge in Paris
See the Grand Canyon
Visit the Amazon
Eat sushi in Japan
See the pyramids of Giza
See the Northern lights in Finland
Visit a Castle- Completed January 2017 in England, Wales, and Scotland
Tour a Mayan Ruin
Go on a safari
Explore a rainforest
Visit all 50 States in the US and all of the provinces and territories in Canada
Marshall Islands and learn a bit of Marshallese from Ryan
Victoria Falls Zambia
Charter a sailboat
Eat pad Thai in Thailand
Explore the Greek Isles
Scuba dive the great barrier reef
Go on a Church History Tour
See the Great Wall of China
Visit Elder and Sister Little in Samoa
Go to the Dominican Republic, and meet the people RJ served on his mission
Live on a beach
Live in the mountains
Live in a third world county
Live in my dream home
Sleep under the stars on a beach
Swim with Dolphins
Go on a hot air balloon
Skinny dip in the ocean
Get certified to scuba dive
Let go of a floating lantern
Go storm chasing
Go internet free for one month
Learn how to enjoy snow skiing
Go hunting with my Dad
Go on a girls vacation with my Mom
Build something out of wood with my Grandpa Prince
Learn how to make Thanksgiving Dressing with Grandma Prince
Scrapbook and do family history work with Grandma and Grandpa Heath
I think death is awkward and uncomfortable. People don’t know what to say to a person who has lost such a significant part of their heart. They don’t want to ‘bring up’ any pain or trigger hard memories about the loved one. So they say nothing, or avoid the topic all together. Others try to sympathize and end up talking about their cousins best friend who went though the same thing. Awkward. It just is.
But as one who has experienced significant loss, let me tell you, it doesn’t hurt to hear others speak his name. I love talking about him. I love when others remember him too. It makes him real. It reminds me just how loved and wonderful he was and still is. Speaking his name doesn’t bring up anything that isn’t already there, because I feel it all whether my loved one is talked about by others or not. There isn’t a day that passes that he isn’t on my mind. It is such a gift to my grieving heart when friends or family send me pictures or a text or anything that reminds me that I’m not alone. That he isn’t forgotten.
Can I just take a turn on the soapbox for a moment? This just needs to be said. Or, maybe I just need to get it off my chest.
I love listening to podcasts. I usually listen to them while I am cleaning or folding laundry, and it helps to take my mind off of the monotony of the task at hand. I often listen to conversations about parenting, marriage, religion, organization, or widowhood. I’m all about self-help. 😉
Today, I was reorganizing my closet, and I picked one at random: a podcast that was supposed to be all about improving the relationship within a marriage. As I listened, the couple speaking brought up the fact that marriages are meant to last for our entire lifetime, unless your spouse happens to pass away. They talked half jokingly about the likelihood of a car accident or a scary medical diagnosis, about upping life insurance policies, and about how hard it would be to adjust to sleeping alone. They bickered playfully and I was left feeling less than inspired, and more than a little annoyed.
I know it is silly. The strangers on the other end of my headphones really can’t even comprehend the impact of such a loss, because they haven’t experienced it. But that is my life, and a very painful reality for so many. I wanted to reach into my phone and shake both of them. I wanted to email them, and to get onto their silly podcast, so that I could tell the world (or the few thousand people in their audience) not to take such a topic lightly, and more importantly, to not take each other for granted.
I will be the first to admit that marriage is hard! But it truly frustrates me to see or hear others not fully appreciating their spouse. It makes me even more infuriated to think that I was that person at one point in my life. I was happy, but didn’t fully realize just how blessed I was to have my husband, until I lost him. In a moment that blindsided me in every way, I lost the person that I loved more than life itself, the father of my children, and the future that we had planned together.
My marriage was far from perfect. My husband and I had and still have many flaws and shortcomings–just like anyone else.
But he was wonderful.
He was an amazing husband.
He was a diligent provider.
He was an incredible father.
He was my best friend.
He still is all of those things.
As a widow, I can tell you that the things that I regret today are the things that were left undone. The words I didn’t say when I should have said them. The days that were spent grumpy or not connecting emotionally in the way that we could have been. The arguments that lasted far longer than they should have due to my pride or stubbornness. Guys. I wan’t perfect, but I wasn’t horrible either. RJ told me often just how wonderful he thought I was, whether I deserved it or not. I just see now that I wasted so much time not cherishing our relationship, time that was oh so precious and short–on this side of the veil anyways.
Obsessing over the possibility of disaster striking isn’t helpful. I don’t think that living in fear is the answer, but living intentionally is.
Love your spouse right now.
Don’t let a day go by that they don’t hear the words, “I love you” come out of your mouth.
And then show them with your actions. Be the first to forgive. Choose to look for the good. Give him/her grace. Make your spouse feel appreciated. Let go of pride, of proving a point, or of being right… and just DO what is right. Be understanding and supportive. Make the choice every day to put the needs of your marriage above your own personal needs. Cherish the all of the imperfections, and the quirks. We are all just doing our best after all. You aren’t perfect, so how could you ever expect your spouse to be?
And believe it or not, those little things that used to bug you are the things you will miss the most if you ever have to live without them.
Realize the gift that your marriage is, and treasure it.
I’m grateful that I get to spend the rest of my life doing just that, with my wonderful new husband. I remind myself daily not to take what we have for granted. I know exactly how it feels to lose it all, and then having to live with all of the “what if’s.”
Thankfully, I will have eternity to get it right. ❤
Anyone who has experienced deep grief knows that it doesn’t take a year, or even ten years to mourn the loss of a loved one. This type of profound grief changes you at your core. It becomes a part of you, and the impact will last a lifetime. I am still so new in my grief journey. Although I am moving forward, I still have a long ways to go, and so much healing that needs to take place.
He doesn’t understand how I feel. But he hurts with me anyways.
He holds me when I cry at night.
He takes over when it is all just too much.
He helps my children remember their daddy in heaven.
He reminds me that life is beautiful, and of how much I have to look forward to.
He tells me every day how lucky he is to have me, and just how long he has waited for me to come into his life.
He adores my children. They are his now too.
He reads stories, changes diapers, gives shoulder rides, kisses little foreheads, and makes pancakes on Saturday mornings.
He loves me through my pain, and helps pick up the broken pieces of my heart.
As much as I ache for our loss, I am equally as thankful for him.
I have struggled with feelings of discouragement, heartache, and doubt. Sometimes, I feel so very alone. I can be surrounded by people who love me and want to help me, but I know that no one truly understands my heart.
Grief can feel so isolating.
Today, I put my two youngest children down for a nap. My two year old has gotten in the habit of sneaking out of bed and waking up his sister, so after I put him down to rest, I sat in a big cozy chair just outside of his door.
I had to remind myself to breathe normally. I was too tired and numb to even cry. My emotions were on overload, and I was so far past the point of feeling….I was just numb.
As I sat alone, I began to pray. I pray often, but this prayer was one of silent pleading. I begged God to help me. To make it hurt less, or if it was not his will for it to hurt less, to make me a stronger and more patient person.
I sat silently afterward, and waited for some type of divine intervention. I waited for answers, or for the pain to go away. When nothing happened, I felt abandoned. I felt so hurt. How could my loving Father give me more than I could handle on my own, and then not help me when I went to him so sincerely? I have had moments where I have prayed, and a feeling of instant peace has engulfed me, but this time was different.
I felt almost more alone, as if I were talking to someone who was ignoring me, or who was too busy to care.
And then I had a thought. I needed to seek answers. I opened my scriptures and read for a while, until I got to 1 Nephi Chapter 21.
And then I found what, I believe, God wanted me to read today.
I felt like these verses were written for ME. They were meant for me at this exact moment. He was speaking through his scriptures to my heart.
14 But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.
15 For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.
16 Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
My Savior has graven me upon the palms of his hands.
His hands were pierced for me. He died to save ME. He understands every heartache, every desperate cry, and every silent tear that has escaped from my eyes. He knows and he has felt all of my pain too.
He will never forget me.
I didn’t even realize that I was crying until I touched my face, and realize that I could feel again.
I worked on making a slideshow for my kids yesterday. I spent hours pouring through files of old family pictures and home videos. I smiled when I found pictures of my three children, and my heart ached a little when I recognized just how much they have grown over the years. I teared up occasionally when I came across long forgotten snapshots of my RJ. Every time I find a “new” picture of him, it is like a gift. A love note from heaven, reminding me that he is still mine.
Looking through our photos was so difficult, but to my surprise, the pictures that I struggled to look at the most were the ones of myself.
When I see old pictures of myself, I see a girl who was so blissfully unaware of real pain. I see a young mom who stressed over things like making the perfect chore chart, Pinterest worthy birthday parties, and organization. I see a happy, innocent girl who had no idea what true darkness really even could feel like.
I don’t even recognize myself in the girl I used to be.
I will be twenty nine in two weeks. I am young, and have so many chapters in my life that are yet to be written. I am still so early in my journey.
But the pain that I have endured makes me feel older than I am. The darkness that I have experienced has taken away my innocence. My heart is often heavy, and I feel the constant weight of grief on my soul. I am just so tired.
I quickly scrolled through pictures of myself, and let myself only linger on one. It was the one that RJ had taken of me two months before I became a widow. Two months before he passed away. I remember him smiling as he snapped it on his camera, and he showed it to our kids afterward saying, “Look how beautiful your mom is.” Days later, I saw that he had saved it as the background on his iPhone. When I plug in his phone and turn it on, it is still the picture that I see first.
I started crying when I saw it. I wanted to reach into the picture and shake myself. I wanted to warn myself just how hard things were about to get. I wanted to tell myself to hold on to every last second that I would have left with my husband, because I was almost out of time. I wished I could relive my last months with him so I could do them better. I wished I could go back to the carefree person I was before.
I was reminded again, just how much of myself had died when my husband took his last breath. He took so much of me with him.
But today I reconsidered as I got ready for the day. I realized I wouldn’t go back to being that girl, even if I could. Yes I have changed. Yes I have gone through pain that has aged my soul. Yes I still feel emotional trauma that hurts into my bones and makes it hard to breathe at times. Yes I am so incredibly tired, and don’t see an end to the heartache or exhaustion in sight.
But today when I looked in the mirror, instead of seeing a broken person–the one I so often see, I saw a fighter. I saw a girl who has looked despair in the face, and who has chosen to search for happiness instead. I saw a girl who has clawed her way out of the darkness and who clings to the light. I saw a girl who understands love, and who loves more deliberately than she did before.
I saw more than the pain and the exhaustion and the grief.
I saw hope.
I will keep pushing, and will keep growing, and will continue healing until I can look at pictures of myself, and not only see the heartache and the pain.
Today is my late husband RJ’s birthday. He would have been thirty three. I reminisced this morning, looking at pictures of the last birthday we got to celebrate with him.
On Ryan’s thirty first birthday, and we had planned a weekend trip at our favorite local camping spot. Camping was our favorite thing to do as a family, and it was our first time taking out a newly purchased pop up trailer. We were so excited to try it out. When we made it to the top of the mountain, we had a picture perfect dinner by a campfire. I had baked Ryan’s favorite cake a couple of hours earlier, and we sang happy birthday and he blew out his candles, all the while surrounded by the majesty of nature on our favorite little mountain. Every thing was right in the world, the rain that soon came pouring down didn’t even bother us. We prepared the kids for bed, and turned on the furnace as the high altitude of the mountain turned our rain showers into sleet, and eventually snow. It was cold, but we would be fine in our cozy little pop up camper.
And then the night took a turn for the worse. It was almost dark when our furnace went out. Ryan pulled all of his tools out, and tried in vain to reignite the flame that was so necessary to keep us warm on such a cold night. After an hour, he realized that his efforts were futile and he finally gave up, frustrated and unsure of how to fix our problem. He became impatient with our whining tired children, and I reacted angrily angrily at him for being so short tempered. And then everything fell apart. What had started as a lovely family outing, soon turned into a unfortunate mix of hurt feelings and pride, unkind words, and a trailer that was furiously packed up and hauled back down the mountain in the middle of the night.
That was his last birthday.
This morning, as I thought about that day, I agonized over the things I would change if I could. I wish I would have been more patient. I wish I would have been kind. I wish I had tried to diffuse the already stressful situation by laughing it off and packing up without complaint. But I didn’t. I was a complete brat on my husband’s last birthday.
As I rehashed the events of that day, I tortured myself with guilt and regret. When I really started to spiral downward, I had to intentionally stop myself.
Of course I would give anything to see my kids help him blow out his candles today. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to make the cake that he loved so much since that day. If I had a chance to relive his last birthday, with everything I know now, I would make him at least one hundred chocolate cakes, and would happily pack up camp with him during a blizzard, in the eye of a hurricane, on top of a volcano. But how could I have known?
The fact is that I’m human, and I would never have guessed that today my kids would be sending notes attached to helium balloons up to their dad in heaven. I never would have thought in a million years, that we would be celebrating his special day without him.
I just didn’t know.
But now I do. Now, I can try a little harder to be more patient with my family. I can remember the happy times, and try to learn from the less than ideal ones.Though I am far from perfect, I can see now just how fragile life is.
I am thankful for the way grief that has shaped me into a person who loves more deliberately. And I am thankful for my RJ. Loving him was beautiful, and losing him has painfully changed me for the better.