Friday, December 7, 2018

On Grief

I’ve been on this journey for nearly nine months now. This is my first true grief journey and I haven’t been on it long. I know that I don’t know everything about grief (far from it), but I have discovered bits of wisdom along the way. I have debated whether to share those here, but reading about others’ experiences grieving helped me immensely, so it’s my hope that sharing my journey will help someone, too. Most especially, my children, who will someday walk a similar path. 

Good grief, where do I start? (Ha. Haha. Ha. Okay, that was my first and last pun for today.)  

Before my Dad died, I thought grief was a linear path. You started out heartbroken and after time (likely years) your heart was healed! What I discovered was while there is definitely a beginning, there is no end to grief. We will grieve those we love for the rest of our lives. Some days will be overwhelmingly sad, some days will be full of anger, some will be filled with joy and most days will be filled with a mix of emotions. Our grief will always be with us in one form or another. The most obvious shape it takes, and the one I pictured in my head before this, is sorrow. But over the last several months, I’ve seen my grief take the shape of gratitude, wisdom, understanding — even joy. 

In a way, the idea that my grief will always be here is oddly comforting. My grief is a direct result of my love for my Dad and I don’t want that to ever leave. So, instead, I carry him around in my heart and try my best to feel whatever emotion the grief hands me. Today, my grief was in the shape of sorrow. I was missing my Dad so fiercely it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Last week, my grief was shaped as gratitude, for all of the time and experiences and lessons and memories I had with him. Who knows what shape it will take next week. I try hard to not fight the emotion, but to just let it wash over me. Those feelings that are bubbling up to the surface need to be felt and heard and allowed to exist. And if I give them time and space to be felt, they are usually followed by wisdom or new perspective.

I feel like I’ve had so many little epiphanies about life, love, death and our purpose in this world and nearly all of them came after I let the raw emotions be felt. So, I guess that’s my first piece of advice. Take time to feel your emotions. There were many nights that I buried myself in a TV show because it was easier to be in the characters’ world than my own life. And you need that, too! You need to be able to have a break from the grief and the deep thoughts. Sometimes I felt so lost inside my own head I wasn’t sure I would find my way back out to “normal Katie.” So, take as many breaks as you need — the grief will wait for you. But, just as important as the breaks, is the grieving. 

Another misconception of mine was to think that “grieving” just happened to you. And at first, it did. I’d be sitting at a stoplight and just sobbing. Or I’d drive out to my parents' house and the tears would start as soon as I turned onto their road. The grief was just spilling out at first — almost entirely sadness at the beginning. That’s the kind of grief that’s hard to avoid. That grief wave is coming whether you want it to or not. But I found there is another kind of grief. The kind that’s sitting in the back of your head and heart, waiting to be tended to by you. 

Shortly after my Dad died, I got a card from a friend who I hadn’t talked to in awhile. It was simple and beautiful and just said “I hope you are able to take the time you need to grieve.” The idea of taking time to grieve was new to me. I thought sobbing at a stoplight was taking the time. But it wasn’t. 

This idea kept rolling around in my head until I decided it was time I started taking my morning walks again. Away from the kids and my phone and all the distractions. It was just me, nature and my grief. And it was there that I started to come to terms with my Dad’s death. 

I have walked nearly every morning since April. Before Dad got sick, the wildflowers’ beauty and persistence would bring me so much joy. The sunrise would fill me with a sense of peace and hope. But as I started walking again after he died, all of those things brought more sadness. It hurt to think he’d never get to see these wonders again. I’d just sob. I’d walk and cry, cry and walk. I let the grief come to the surface, the memories, the anger, the hopelessness — all of it. I felt it and heard it and let it roll over me. 

After I wiped my tears, that’s when the reflecting and deep thinking would happen. For example, it occurred to me one day that eventually every single person in the world would feel this kind of pain. Well, at least the lucky ones. The ones who were lucky enough to have loved and been loved. That took me by surprise. I’m actually one of the lucky ones. Here I am, feeling so very heartbroken, sitting on a rock in the middle of the prairie sobbing, cursing the unfairness of life, and I’m actually one of the lucky ones. 

Day after day, these little epiphanies would pop up as I took the time to grieve. All of of these sayings and phrases you’ve heard your whole life take on a deeper meaning. “You only live once.” We’ve all heard it and we all would say we understand it. Some of us announce it right before skydiving or staying up late when you know you have to be up early with the kids the next day (which is about as scary as skydiving). But during one of my walks, when I was reflecting on death and its way of coming whenever it wants, I felt the weight of those words so profoundly. I actually FELT the profoundness of it. I had to stop walking for a minute as it settled into my mind. 

All summer long I had these moments and I told Scott I felt like I was experiencing a metamorphosis. The Katie he knew in January was no longer here. She was changing and deepening in ways I didn’t even understand. Everything just felt off. Like someone had come along and tilted my world. I could still recognize it as my world, but it was different now. (For my fellow Harry Potter fans, it was like seeing the Thestrals, which is another example where I felt the profoundness of something that before seemed very obvious and literal.)

Despite all of this wisdom I was gaining, I was still so overwhelmingly sad. There was happiness mixed in, too, of course. How could it not be with three hilarious little humans running around? But outside of the kids and my escapism into books and TV, my world was submerged in sorrow. Everything I saw, heard, felt, was through a veil of sadness. I was still taking my walks and trying to just walk my grief journey as best I could. Scott felt completely helpless. He could see my despair, but there was nothing he could do. I just kept telling him this is a path I have to walk alone. There is no way for him to give me a hand and help me off of it. I just have to keep walking, wherever it takes me, hoping that eventually, it won’t hurt so much. 

And one day, for only a moment, I saw a light in the metaphorical darkness. I had been avoiding my favorite place to walk all summer because it’s wooded and in the summer is full of mosquitoes and spider webs. One day this fall, the temperatures dropped for a few days (scaring away all the pests) and I ventured out to my best-loved trail. I started walking. The sunlight was shining through the leaves. The woods were a beautiful mix of greens and browns. The trees were hugging the trail, almost providing an archway as I walked. I was about five minutes in when the tears just started streaming down my cheeks. Surprising even me, these were not tears of sadness, but tears of joy. For the first time since my Dad died, I was feeling real, true joy. It wasn’t submerged in sadness, it was just joy. It lasted the whole walk. The veil of sadness returned quickly as I finished walking, but it’s all I needed. Just a bit of hope that someday, it wouldn’t feel like this. Someday, my world wouldn’t be full of despair. It was like a salve to my broken heart. 

After that, I returned almost daily. This place, with its towering trees and silent steadiness was healing me. If those trees could hear me, I’d thank them a million times for helping me find my way out of the darkness. 

Which brings me to my next piece of advice: find the salve for your soul. You may know exactly what heals you emotional aches or you may have to discover it, but find it. Take the time and the effort and do some trial and error, but find the place that brings you peace and let it wrap you in its comfort. It could be a literal place like the beach or the woods or the mountains or the prairie or it could be a figurative place like writing or singing or meditating. Just try to find it. Grieving is hard enough without a salve. 

Are you still here? You’re a trooper. Or you love me. Or your heart hurts and you’re looking for anything and everything that might ease the ache. If that’s the case, I’m so, so sorry you’re here. I wish you were living a life where you saw the blog titled “On Grief” and didn’t immediately click on it with hopes it might have that one tip that fixes everything. But this next bit of advice may help. Or it won’t. It’s a bit existential and I’m not even sure I have my head fully wrapped around it. I once tried to explain it to Scott and went down so many twists and turns in my brain, I think I finished upside down and inside out. 

So, (deep breath) here goes nothing. 

While on one of my deep-thinking walks, I discovered a truth about life. Once upon a time, if you would have asked me “what is life about?” my answer would have been similar to the kinds of things you find in an obituary. Or plot points in a book. Or milestones. Being born, childhood achievements, angsty teenage years, making best friends, starting and ending relationships, marriages, careers, kids being born, etc. What I realized is that while life is made up of all the moments both big and small — things you’d find in an obituary that isn’t all or even the main answer to the question, “what is life about?” I’ve realized now there is something much more important happening during and around and between all those moments. Life is about discovering our own truths. 

I used to think there was a set of answers to life’s questions and eventually I’d learn them all with enough life experience. But, you guys, there are no answers! The “answer” is the question. It’s more the journey to discovering our truths, less the truths themselves. Makes total sense, right? Now you see why when I finished telling Scott, I was upside down and inside out. 

Let me give you an example to help with clarity: Last year, Grace had problems with a friend-bully making her school days miserable. I took it as my mission to help her find the answer to this bully problem. I tried to pass along all of my wisdom on friendships and true friends and fake friends and all of that. I had learned so many lessons from my younger days that I NEEDED her to know so her heart wouldn’t hurt so bad. And while my intentions were pure, I was missing the point. The point wasn’t for her to have happier days at school, the point was for her to discover the truths inside of her that would allow her to have happier days. If I said, “She isn’t a true friend and you shouldn’t care what fake friends think of you,” she’d hear me, but it wouldn’t have the same impact as her doing some soul searching and discovering for herself the meaning of true friendship. 

So, that leads me to why I was initially hesitant to write about my grief journey. If I believe that life’s best truths are the ones you discover yourself then why am I sharing all of my truths with you? After much internal deliberation on that question, I decided this: my truths aren’t your truths. They aren’t meant to be. But that doesn’t mean that my truths don’t help you find yours (and vice versa). I read every bit of info on grief that I find and I take bits and pieces of what others have discovered that really speak to me. I combine others’ perspectives with my own and end up discovering a truth about life that rings true to me. 

The same is true for parenting. I’m not going to stop giving my kids advice or share my experiences with them — I’m still here to guide and help them navigate life. I just view my role as a parent a bit differently now. I’m not trying to hand them all of life’s truths, but provide a stable, nurturing foundation so they can seek out their own truths. 

Yeesh, did that make any sense? I hope so. If it didn’t though, that’s okay, too, because my truth isn’t your truth, so you didn’t miss the secret to life or anything.     

We’re coming up on the end here, I can feel it. 

So, this is my story of how I started my lifelong journey of grief. I have bits of wisdom that I picked up along the way, but I’ve only just begun. I’m still walking the path and if I’m lucky, I will experience this kind of deep grief many times over before my book is finished being written. This all sounds like the kind of thing someone posts after they are healed! fixed! cured!, but as I said earlier, there is no cure for grief. My sadness and my ache for my dad are ever-present. I carry them inside me, just as I carry my love for him. Forever and always. 

If you are here because you’re just starting your grief journey or you’ve been on it for some time now or even if you haven’t begun yet — good luck finding your truths and making peace with your journey. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

I See You

Dear Grace & Claire - 

In a world that is dominated by the emotions, desires, capabilities and needs of your three-year-old brother, I feel the need to tell you something. 

I see you. I hear you. I love you. 

I see your spirit as you dance in the driveway like no one is looking. 

I hear your maturity as you take a deep breath and restrain from screaming when you get frustrated. 

I see your vulnerability when your emotions get the best of you. I hear your cry for help navigating those complex emotions. 

I hear the hope in your voice when you ask to play a game with your Dad and I. 

I hear the disappointment when we can’t. 

I see your compassion when you try to cheer up your sad brother. Or mother. Or father.

I hear your growing sense of humor when you zing your Dad. 

I am quite sure this world we live in feels and looks and sounds very Henry-focused. He’s our squeaky wheel, no doubt. But I see you. I see your happy moments, your sad moments, your angry moments. I see the challenges you are struggling with — both external and internal — as you grow and discover your world. And no matter how distracted I look or exasperated I feel with your brother’s 47th tantrum of the day, I see you girls. I hear you girls. I love you girls. 

Always and forever. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween 2018

I bought the kiddos’ costumes weeks ago. Grace knew immediately she wanted to be a queen — the one thing she desires most is to rule over all of us. Claire’s first wish was to be a white tiger, but after I told her that would take some DIY strategies, she decided my ideas wouldn’t look enough like a real white tiger. So, she switched to an orange one and we purchased some sweet tiger footie pajamas. And knowing Henry and how much he loves Thomas the Train, I asked him, “Do you want to be Thomas for Halloween?” He agreed and I went about purchasing all the costumes. I then patted myself on the back for being so on top of things (that rarely happens) and went about life knowing that the question of Halloween costumes was answered.  

Is that foreshadowing I smell? 

So, for the past few weeks when Henry was asked by people what he was going to be for Halloween, he’d say time and time again, “a witch!” I’d laugh and say, “Henry, don’t you remember? You’re going as Thomas.” He’d remember and I’d chuckle at his foolishness. 

It’s definitely foreshadowing. 

Then Sunday rolled around. We were donning our costumes for the trick-or-treating event at the zoo. Grace as a queen. Claire as a tiger. Henry as Thomas. Scratch that. The Thomas costume rubbed against his chin and OHMYGODTAKEITOFFWHATISTHISGODFORSAKENDEATHCONTRAPTION. Triple scratch it. Replace with: Henry as a Toddler Who Refuses to Wear His Costume Because It Feels Weird. 

So, on Monday (three days before Halloween), he and I walked the barren wasteland that is the Halloween section at Target. A cow? A monkey? A car? A dog? A taco? No. No. No. No. No. 

Quite exasperated I said, “Well, Henry, then what are you going to be for Halloween?!?” 

He turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “A witch!” 

A witch. Of course. 

So, I went home, dug out a black cape, an old witch hat, a wand from our stash of wands and voila! Henry the Witch. 

And I patted myself on the back again for being a flexible and understanding Mom, who was able to put together a second costume quickly (and for no money!). 

As Wednesday rolled around, I had a brainstorm. He can still go as a witch, but I can have a little fun, too — and he won’t even be the wiser. I mean, did you see all that back-patting? I deserved a little fun! 

So, I present to you: Henry Potter. Of if you ask Henry, a witch!  

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Grace flitted about, ordering us to do this and do that while I told her I’d take her in for questioning if she didn’t shape up. Claire was SUPER excited to be the first marsupial tiger (her baby tigers could be found snuggled in the pockets of her costume). And despite a major meltdown on Sunday involving the fact that her costume was a touch too big, she rolled with it on Halloween night. And Scott and I were able to execute on the costume we created last year — Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of the X-Files. 

Finally, we were able to celebrate the night with nearly all of our loved ones. Scott’s parents drove over to go trick-or-treating and my mom and siblings were able to coordinate schedules and lives to be together tonight, too. We were missing my Dad, who could always be found on Halloween night lurking about in the background, eating out of someone’s candy bucket, laughing that joyful laugh and giving advice to whomever he thought needed it. I finished off the evening with a Snickers in honor of him. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Henry's First Day of (Prairie Dog) Preschool

Henry is our last kid. The caboose to our train. The dessert to our dinner. The exclamation mark to our sentence. Okay, you get it. He’s our last. 

And while I’m perfectly content to wrap up things at three kids, I am trying so desperately to make the most of my time with this fast-growing baby, who’s actually not a baby anymore and hasn’t been for some time now. 

So, we decided to wait a year before sending him to preschool. He’s certainly ready for the challenge, but his Mama isn’t. Sending my last baby to preschool is a challenge that can wait another year. 

In the meantime, we’ll be trying to take advantage of the fun preschooler-type things around town. Today was our first day of Prairie Dog Preschool at the zoo. It meets once a week for about an hour. I was unsure of how things would go because the first and last time we went to something like this (story time at the library), Henry shouted “I have to go pee!” right as we started and then refused to go back in after our restroom run. And although he did loudly announce today “I have to go poop!” I convinced him to go back in and finish “zoo school.” 

He couldn’t sit still for the books, but he colored his leaves and glued them on the paper himself (I cut them out). He also created his own pinecone bird feeder with minimal help and got to pet Patrick the duck. And after we were done, he shared a moment with the zoo snake. I would call it a successful first day and I think he would agree! 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Another End, Another Beginning

About a week before school started, I looked at the calendar to decide what fun things we were going to do with our last bits of summer. I hadn’t been keeping up with dates and things — each day of parks and swimming and endless sibling bickering bled into the next — until I finally looked at the calendar. I looked and then looked again. In my mind, school didn’t start for about 14 more days, but the calendar didn’t agree. When I realized we only had a week left, tears gathered in my eyes and I felt the heaviness of the looming school year. 

I have always hated when they leave. Even when I need a break so badly I could pull my hair out, I hate when they leave. But this year it felt heavier. Maybe because I wasn’t prepared for it to come so quickly. Maybe because our summer felt like it flew by faster than normal. Maybe because my emotions are all over the map since my Dad died. But in that moment, I felt the weight of enduring an entire year before I can breathe that sigh of relief in May when they come home. 

All of these thoughts and emotions lasted about five minutes before one of the kids came screaming into the kitchen with a long list of complaints about the other two. “He took my toy!” “She won’t let me play my way!” “They not being fair!” 

And over the course of the next few days, the bickering reached an all-summer high and I forgot about how much I was going to miss them and was secretly counting down the days until all three kids got a break from each other. 

The day before school was spent double-checking supply lists and rounding up backpacks, first-day outfits and shoes. I could feel the irritation slowly seeping out and the sadness creeping back in. 

When we dropped them off at school, I hugged them for a few extra seconds, took the usual picture in front of the school and said goodbye as my sweet girls walked away as third graders. 

I stood there a moment and just watched them go as the tears filled my eyes. I spent the rest of the morning missing them. Missing their arguments over the silliest of things, missing them bopping around the house, missing the constant “Hey, Mom!”  

When we picked them up from school, I was loading Henry’s stroller into the back and I could hear the girls getting ready to start up another argument about something silly. Three weeks ago, I would have rolled my eyes and barked at them to shut it down. Instead, I hung my head a bit and smiled. I was so very happy to hear them arguing — to have them back with all of their laughs and irritations and non-stop talking. 

And that led to my mini-epiphany. I have known from the moment they were born that I was going to miss them someday. But I always assumed I would just miss the lovely parts about them like when they say something cute or funny or when they say out of the blue, “I love you, Mom.” I assumed time would erase all of the moments of frustration, irritation and anger like when I asked them to go to bed 47 times and they got up a 48th time. 

But I’m beginning to think that when the day comes and they leave the nest for good, I won’t just be missing the magical moments. I’ll be missing all of it — all of them. And when the older and wiser women around tell us to “soak it up,” they don’t just mean the good parts. Soak up the bickering because someday, the house will be too quiet. Soak up the endless questions and “hey, mom!” because someday, they won’t call. Soak up the messy bathroom and the towels that refuse to be hung up because someday, they won’t be here to drop them on the floor. 

So, that’s my plan while I wait for May. Soak it all up. Every last bit. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Henry the Three-Year-Old

When people ask if we’re going to have another baby, I laugh like a maniac in my head (and sometimes out loud) because seriously, have you met Henry? 

I mentioned a few months ago how sentimental I am and how I often yearn for days of yore. So, I’ve known for awhile that no matter how many babies I have, I will always want another. Cue, Henry. And while I have no doubt that I’ll still feel the baby itch from time-to-time, Henry has ensured that I will stop at three kids with a content heart. 

I know he’ll read this later and sarcastically say, “Thanks, Mom. How nice of you to say.” To which I will remind him that he was a handful and a half, but the sweetest, cutest, little handful there ever was. 

He’s the greatest challenge I never knew I needed. But taming this wild horse has its sweet moments, too. When he doesn’t get what he wants, his first reaction is to scream at me with the fury of a redhead. I keep calmly reminding him that he can just talk to me and I’ll still listen even if he’s not screaming. After months and months of this lesson, the other day I watched as he almost screamed, paused, tucked the scream in and said “Mama, you pwease listen to me?” 

Yes, sweet boy, I’ll always listen to you. 

Now that he’s started talking and communicating, life is SOOOOO much less painful. He still screams if he doesn’t get his way, but about 75% of our conflicts are resolved now because we can talk to each other about it. The other 25% are usually because he’s tired or hungry and no amount of rational conversation would ever fix it. 

Henry loves being outside soaking up the beautiful weather. He’d even be outside if the weather wasn’t beautiful. I’m pretty sure he’d live out there if bees weren’t a thing. He loves climbing and sliding and swinging and most especially, sand (or dirt). In a field of grass, he’ll find even the smallest patch of dirt. I take him to the park thinking we can run off some of that endless energy only to watch him play in the sandbox for an hour. The best-laid plans and all that. 

He loves numbers. He can count to 30 every time and sometimes, if he’s in the mood, he’ll go to 50. He recognizes his numbers up to 49 and knows the following shapes: circle, oval, square, rectangle, triangle, diamond, heart, hexagon, pentagon, semicircle and trapezoid. He can recognize all the letters in the alphabet. But here’s the really crazy thing. I’m not actively working on any of this stuff with him. I’ll play letter magnets sometimes or read his number book with him, but we aren’t sitting over here doing flash cards. He has this amazing ability to remember something after the first or second time he’s heard it. That is not a trait he inherited from me. 

He still very much loves cars and will sit and play with them for what seems like hours, but in toddler time is actually only about 20 minutes. He likes puzzles and LOVES being read to and reading books himself. 

This summer he has proven to be a little fish in the water. When the girls were this age, they were pretty apprehensive about putting their faces in the water, but he just jumps right in the pool and goes all the way under before his floaties pop him back up. It fits his throw-caution-to-the-wind lifestyle. 

He is fearless when it comes to jumping and swimming and climbing and running into the street without an adult, but he’s still pretty scared of the gorilla on Mickey Mouse. Go figure.  

One of my favorite things about him lately is his awareness of others’ emotional states. A couple months ago, he started asking me “happy or sad?” when he’d see that my face wasn’t happy. Usually, it was my mad face. So, I’d say “I’m mad, Henry, because you didn’t listen to me when I said 64 times to stay inside.” So then, the question morphed into “happy, sad or mad?” And every once in awhile, he adds another possible emotion. This week we are up to “happy, sad, mad, fwustrated or tired?” I haven’t met many three year olds who are as in tune with the emotions of others. Likewise, he’s also capable of telling me when he’s experiencing some emotional upheaval. Just the other day, I asked him to come downstairs so we could leave. Without stomping his feet or throwing a fit, he said “I’m going to my room. I’m mad right now.” Well, okay. Thanks for telling me so maturely. But seriously you have like 2 minutes to be mad and then we’re leaving. 

One of my least favorite things about him lately is his button-pushing tendencies. When he has discovered that something bothers you, he does it twice as hard and twice as fast and he eagerly watches your reaction. I noticed this about him a long time ago, but it's getting worse. It may just be that his sisters are home for the summer, so there are three times as many buttons, but their reactions are so glorious, he can’t even help himself. It’s especially bad with Grace. She’s so shriek-y that he loves to make her mad.

It causes a lot of fights and screams and tattling and time-outs and lessons on how to out-smart your three-year-old brother. But most of the time, the three of them get along pretty well. Or, at least, somewhat well. 

Watching him grow this past year has been so delightful. He started sleeping by himself through the night last April, so it was a much, much more enjoyable year since we were both rested humans. I kept him in the crib as long as I could because I knew once we removed the visual barriers, we were opening pandora’s box. But he was so good at getting in and out of the crib it didn’t make much sense to keep it. He transitioned to a big boy bed a few weeks ago and it really hasn’t been awful. It’s not awesome, but it’s not awful. He is quite incapable of staying in his bed without first getting up 15 times and peeking out his door. I’m hoping this will eventually get old and he’ll just be content to fall asleep, but knowing him, I really doubt it. 

The kid just doesn’t stop moving ever. He can’t sit still for long, and if his body is still, his hands are moving. The one time I saw all of him laying still just watching TV, I was immediately worried that he was sick. And he was. 

In early June, we said goodbye to his second year of life and hello to the big #3 with a Mickey Mouse themed birthday. There was a kiddie pool and a slip ’n’ slide and pizza and cupcakes. We invited his most favorite people and he had just a splendid birthday. 

I’m so looking forward to spending this next year with him. I decided to hold off on preschool until he’s 4 so I can soak it up as much as possible. I know he’s the caboose to our little train, so I want to hang on to the moments, make more memories and spend more time with my cute little menace before I have to start the process of separating. So, here’s to a year of fewer tantrums, more giggles and hopefully less button-pushing!!