Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Approach to Surviving and Thriving Through the Holidays: Part Two

Now, it’s 2011. We are approaching the last quarter of the 2nd year of our new life. This is the second set of holidays without daddy. This year’s approach was a bit different for us. Shortly after Thomas’ death my father came back into my life. I had not seen him in eight years and neither I nor my siblings knew where he was. Thomas faithfully prayed for a reunification every day even after the rejection I felt left me with only a hope that he was safe. It was one of many things I wished he’d survived to see. My father is of course older, a little slower, but he is remarried and happy. In 2010, he, my stepmother and brother all went to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. When I was invited I had already booked the Disney World trip. The children and I saw them a few months later when one of my nieces graduated from a university nearby. Fast forward to this year, I got a text from my sister again inviting us there for Thanksgiving. We were getting another chance to be a part of this get together and this time I took it.

There is rest for the weary after all.

I’m sure most of us have heard the saying, “There’s no rest for the weary.” I’d become very familiar with it during my married life and my time as a widow. Being a caregiver, running a household alone as a wife, being a single parent, running a household alone as a widow all while holding down a full time job, I could have had this saying tattooed somewhere if I was into tattoos that is. It would have to be a fake one that washes off after a couple of days.

But when I put the children in the van and started down the highway to my sister’s house last week, I wasn’t thinking about getting much rest. All I was thinking about was getting away from the house again and seeing my family. I had no desire to stay home, or make a big meal, or do the constant clean-up that is an inevitable part of my son being at home all day with his toys. Ariana was excited, mainly about seeing “paw paw”. That is what my father’s grandchildren call him. Elijah as usual just went with what was happening, even though I could tell he was very confused when the little box in front of him showed one of his favorite cartoons. I had picked up a Phillips two screen portable DVD player for the van after work. I ordered it online from Best Buy for store pick-up and installed it before leaving the store’s parking lot. It turned out to be the cure for the “Are we almost there-itis” my daughter seems to come down with 30 minutes into any long drive.

Something happened after we got there. My children settled in to the unfamiliar surroundings pretty quickly and found playmates as soon as we arrived. My sister was caring for two of her grandchildren while her daughter worked. Thank God for cousins. My niece is 7 and my nephew is 3. Ariana is 8 and Elijah is almost 2. You would have thought they’d known each other all of their lives, but it was only their second time seeing each other. Once their mother picked them up around 9:00, Ariana was so tired she passed out in bed. My father and stepmother arrived at around 10:00. Elijah stayed up long enough to see them, but once I got him to stay still for five minutes he was out too. I stayed up another 30 minutes to get caught up, but knew if I wanted to get enough sleep, I had to retire as well. My brother left his home later that night to avoid traffic, but arrived before dawn.

I got something out of the trip I wasn’t expecting. I was able to relax. One aunt, two uncles, a set of grandparents and several cousins meant for just a few days I wasn’t the entire world to my children. When my son wanted to be picked up, he had his choice of several people and he took to the "new" adults in his life better than I could have hoped. They all knew how to deal with him. He and “paw paw” became fast friends and it quickly became clear to Elijah that this guy was impressed with everything he did and said. He pointed to an apple and within a few minutes there was an apple in his hand. He pointed and said “cracker” and POOF, several came to him. He said "milk" and someone gave him a cup. My sister made them breakfast and once Thanksgiving dinner was prepared, we ate it for days. My brother-in-law fried a turkey outside, my sister made potato salad and several sweet potato pies. Other members of my sister’s and my brother-in-law’s families brought other side dishes.

The cousins did not stay the night but they returned each day we were there and two more came to the house on Thanksgiving Day. My sister in addition to having two daughters has two stepdaughters who each have a daughter. There were children everywhere and my sister and brother-in-law have a big yard. When they weren’t outside, the Wii video game system in the back room kept them busy for a while. I’m surprised Ariana’s arms aren’t sore from playing the boxing game. Only thing is I might end up having to buy one of those things.

On Friday I didn’t even bother getting dressed. We all except my brother who had to go to another city for the day, stayed in our pajamas. I really hope this gathering becomes an annual event. I could use the rest.

With a bit of sadness, I drove us home on Saturday afternoon. Everyone else was staying over to Sunday, but I needed Saturday evening and Sunday to get us settled back in to our life. On Monday it was back to work and school. I had rather ease back into reality than be tossed back into it. I had a simple plan in mind. On Saturday evening, I wanted to unpack the suitcase, do two loads of laundry, put the Christmas tree up and decorate it. We had a leadership meeting and church service on Sunday.

The tree is up and I love it even more than last year. We added a new ornament this year. I found it at a holiday store in our local mall. It is a picture frame with angel wings. On the top it reads “Forever in Our Hearts”. In the blank space above the picture I had the store employee write “Daddy” with the year 2010. I put Thomas’ picture inside. Sunday evening I baked cookies and began to decorate the outside of the house. The presents for the children have been on lay-away at Wal-Mart since October. I still have to make that photo session appointment. My approach to Christmas will still be to dive in head first and pull out what is good. We’ll have a chance to have fun and to further explore the true meaning of the season.

So the only question that remained was what to do with Thomas’ Christmas money. This year’s charity will be "Love Haiti’s Children". I give to American charities throughout the year, but this one is dear to me. The pastors I had before I joined Word of God Fellowship opened an orphanage there after the earthquake. It’s true, my children have no father. They are however, blessed with a lot of people who love them intensely. The children in Haiti this orphanage was built for have no one until the missionaries get there. I think of all of the times my daughter tells me she misses her father every day, but is so glad that at least I am still here. It doesn’t comfort me to think of others who are less fortunate, but it does move me in ways I can’t really express.

We still hurt. We still miss Thomas. We still have plenty of challenges to face. We still have days where we seem lost. We still have so much growing to do. We’re still here though and we’re still a family. We still have hope. We still have love. We still have laughter. We still have our faith. We still have the ability to give. Every day of our lives I am aware of all of those things. The approach of Christmas and the New Year though allows me to become aware of them on a higher level. I can slow down and see things more clearly, plan for that growth, appreciate our progress, and remember how fortunate we are. As 2011 ticks away, I’ll aim to do the same thing I did last year, but more so. I’ll take some deep breaths, thank God for His mercy and His patience with me, tighten my grip on my children and do my best to move the three of us forward.

Monday, November 28, 2011

My Approach to Surviving and Thriving Through the Holidays: Part One

The holidays are pretty much in full swing. It can potentially be a really rough time for my set of the population. This is our second set of holidays since Thomas’ death. We actually had several months between his death and the holidays and I appreciate that. I know several people who in addition to dealing with going through the holidays without their spouse, have the memory of losing their spouse close to a family holiday. Thomas died 17 days after our wedding anniversary and the first one afterwards was very difficult for me. My approach to the holidays last year had different themes. For Thanksgiving we abandoned tradition and our house. For Christmas, I decided to mix old ones with new ones, but to dive in head first.

For Part One, I'll go back to 2010.

Last year, we spent Thanksgiving at Disney World. I wanted to take the children there in 2011, but after Thomas died, I decided not to wait. Ariana’s fall break, which shifts according to an annual teacher’s conference fell on the week of Thanksgiving so instead of having 3 days of the week off from school, she had the entire week. I booked and planned 6 days at Disney World over a span of three months. I kept the trip a surprise for Ariana just in case we didn’t make it, but we did and we had a wonderful time. Every year of our life together we hosted several people for Thanksgiving in our home. Thomas did the bulk of the cooking because that is what he loved to do. I contributed a side or two and did the cleaning before and after. We never traveled because he had to be right back at work the next day. I found traveling to be a good alternative.

As was our tradition during Thomas’ life, we spent Christmas at home. I tossed our old Christmas tree and most of the decorations (an artificial one we bought in 2005). One evening after work/school, I bundled up the children and we went to Wal-Mart for a brand new tree and all new decorations. I found us a pre-lit Colorado fir tree. It was 7 feet tall with over 800 tips. It was full bodied and beautiful in the picture (and was outside the box as well). Elijah sat in the cart looking around while Ariana and I went up and down the aisles picking up individual decorations ranging from $1 to $3 in price…stars, spirals, a key, a reindeer, a church and some other things. I picked up the small traditional ball shaped ornaments in packs of 5 in gold, silver, red and green, then a larger box as well. Ariana picked out an angel for the top. I put together and decorated it while Ariana did her homework. It was gorgeous.

On a different day, after church, we traveled to visit Thomas' family and his grave site. He is buried in his home town. I left a picture of the children and spent some time with my in-laws. On yet another day, we wrapped up and went out in search of groceries. I set myself to make a dinner worthy of being called a Christmas dinner even though one of the three of us was barely into table food. In Thomas’ honor we had Cornish game hens (a favorite of his). We had fresh cabbage, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, cranberry sauce and two desserts.

As to presents, I generally have a photo session done with the children and give the portraits to family members. I buy very few toys during the year, so when Christmas approached I had a really good idea of what I wanted for the children and picked things up when I could. I generally spent $200 on Thomas each Christmas. Last year I donated that money to Saint Jude’s Children’s Hospital and also took every opportunity to teach Ariana about charity. Even though this horrible thing had happened to us, I didn't feel it was time to shield her from other harsh realities of the world. She's a giving child. It wasn't hard to get the message across. After breakfast on Christmas morning, we read the Christmas story. Then, with a restful smile I watched Ariana and Elijah open and enjoy their toys and tried to rest. Like Ariana at her first Christmas, Elijah was a bit overwhelmed when his toy supply literally tripled, but he got the hang of it.

I did not regret how I chose to deal with either ocassion. When the last seconds of 2010 ticked away on December 31st, I was at church. I expressed my gratitude to God for having made it as far as we had, and thanked Him for His mercy and patience with me. Then I let out a deep breath and tightened my grip on my children. Last year I was determined to show Ariana that God would see us through as our faith had been shaken at its base. I was also in high gear of my "Yes we are still a family" campaign and in the end it was successful.

Part Two: What about this year?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Year Two: Pulling Back the Curtain

Geez whoever said the 2nd year of widowhood could be harder hit the nail square on the head. We've got just over 3.5 months left in it. What I hoped would be a time of healing has turned into a time of revealing more of what needs to be healed. Having a new baby and some other things going on probably pushed the tough stuff back a bit. It took 18 months for me to break open about the anger I felt. I guess that is a necessary step. This is a really long road.

Children especially (and I have two) have complicated grief. With my son, even at 22 months, he is drawn to male companionship. He's fortunate to have a Godfather who loves him. He will about 50% of the time now recognize a picture on the fridge as his daddy because I told him that is who it was. My daughter, I now know will need 2 therapists. One for some reading and speech issues that showed up late and another for grief.

It's just been in the last few months my daughter has really started to talk in bits and pieces how she feels about what happened to her father and now she says it is on her mind a lot. Last night she said, she thought he would be around for her to grow up and she's outraged he is not here. She was very calm when she said it, but still hearing your child say she's outraged and you can't fix it stinks. Yesterday she saw a dad pick his daughter up and kiss her and I could see the hurt in her face.

School is an issue and an evaluation revealed some significant gaps in her learning. She tells me there is a lot going on in her brain.

And why wouldn't there be anyway? A large number of children who lose a parent also lose an entire year or more academically and have to catch up later. When we are struggling with the homework I try to remember that. Her father is dead. She's confused and she misses him. She's mad he's gone but also relieved he didn't give me what he had. He coughed a lot and at six years old of course she thought he was contagious. She's concerned about not having a father, but mostly because I have to do it all for her and her brother and she doesn't think that's fair. I certainly can't argue with her, but it is really any wonder there isn't much room left for remembering there are 3 feet in a yard?

She's a loving child who tries hard. She is brilliant in that when she is thriving she shines like the sun...the cutest little cheerleader, an animal lover, a budding Science geek, and a soloist in the children's choir. Test grades are low though and with this being an EOG year, it's worrisome. Her overall GPA is only saved by how well she does on her homework and classwork even though it takes her longer. And the mercy of her teacher who graciously sent me a packet of work she got behind on last week to complete by this Friday and still get full credit.

She is just zoning out at certain times, probably partially due to everything she is thinking about and the gaps the therapist found. Previously when she was corrected for zoning out, she'd start crying, but she has stopped doing that since I became aware of it. Yes, there's some drama queen in there too. Other than that she is very well behaved and I can count on one hand the number of negative behavior comments I've gotten in the last 2 years.

But a visit to her pediatrician is on the list too because if there's another issue causing the lack of focus I want to address it. The therapist didn't notice any, but one thing I do notice is when left on her own to write something, it comes out just like anything her father would write…a lot of misspelled words and grammatical errors that make her sentences nonsense. It's like there's a block between all the rules she is learning and putting them to use. She can convey she understands a story orally, but if left to write a summary of the story, it's a mess.

But if I put her down with her Science book and there's questions at the end of a chapter and she has to look up the answers in the content and write them down she can do it. One morning I discovered we'd forgotten to do her Science homework and she got it done in 15 minutes flat. Now she does love Science, but with her other issues, I'd think she would struggle with this. I'm glad she doesn't, but it doesn't make sense to me that she doesn't if that makes sense.

One thing the therapist did say was that there is likely nothing I could have done to prevent what has happened with her and that I'm doing the right thing getting help for her, which was therapeutic in itself. But I called our local hospice to make an appointment for myself. Life had not settled enough to fit it in previously and really I'm just peeling back the layers and able to talk about what happened in a way that therapy could be beneficial. I've always been sad or mad about him being gone, but have found a way to stay on the road to a good life. We have good times together and we stay positive about our challenges. I'm just really starting to feel the reality of what I'm facing. Some of it Thomas left me with because life and his illness meant we didn't address it during his life. Some things I'm facing directly because of his death and some things I might be facing either way, but they're magnified because of his death in one way or another. Exhaustion sets in and it is setting in when my daughter needs me more than ever.

During his life, our situation was very private out of respect for my husband and I don't regret it. But where I go from here is my decision. There's no fear of seeking professional help especially when it comes to my children. The trick of needing counseling being a structural weakness takes too many people under. Too many people are swallowed up in isolation surrounded by a fear of being labeled weak. Were I weak, I would never have survived to this point and that goes for anyone in the same situation. Is it fair? Nope, but fair only exists in children's games. Who knows why some people face things that would crush most people, but God has always proven Himself to be the equalizer and talking to Him let me know I am equipped for this. That could mean I use the strength God gave me to handle it or I use His strength to find the right resources for help. Either way, I just know that, I take His strength and take charge...hearbreak and all.