It was probably around seventh grade that I first remember teachers pounding the “Be Yourself” drum. Hard. I remember thinking that it was weird to make Be Yourself number one on the junior high agenda when numbers 2 through 12 had to do with where to sit, where to eat, what to say, how to act and how to dress. Now, at the advanced age of 50, I find the idea of self-actualization is still loaded with conflicting signals and internal confusion which has grown even more complex since my husband died.
In spite of how the print version of Bo Stern may read, I am often a study in internal contradictions. My desire to grow old gracefully is often at war with my determination to stop the effects of time. My need for independence fights with my longing for companionship. My certainty of purpose and calling gets caught in a choke hold of insecurity and inadequacy. My introverted longings for privacy clash with my desire for public acceptance and approval. My seriously opinionated personality wrestles with my desire to keep the peace, stay in my corner, be liked.
Behind each one of these statements are stories of moments when I was too small, too proud, too insecure, too hesitant, too terrified to be true to my realest self. In fact, it’s sometimes been difficult to identify my realest self as she was always so intertwined with the person and personality of Steve Stern. Being his was the one immutable fact of my identity for 30 years, and I’m so thankful for that and for his influence on my life. But five years of illness began the untangling process and then widowhood, which sometimes seems like a guillotine, chopping off all I remember about myself in one fell swoop, though in fact, it was several gradual swoops.
So ten months later, I am still unmasking and unmaking. Not that anything was inherently bad in who I was, and not that anything is inherently better now – but the best I can be is me. For instance, I have always felt an obligation to you, dear readers, to be as hopeful and positive as possible. I like being that – it feels good to me to think that way. But I’m beginning to recognize the signs when the desire to be hopeful slips into pretending things are better than they are. I’m seeing that my revulsion to being viewed as a tragedy sometimes make me push, push, push my best self forward, hiding the scared, frustrated seventh grader away in the locker room until she can get her crap together.
I guess what it boils down to is a cold-water-in-the-face awareness that I worry too much about what people think of me, my family and our story. And while I will always feel protective of my kids, I have also grown protective of my image and that, I’m discovering, keeps me paralyzed and unhealthily self-focused. But the times, they are a changin’. I feel it. I hear the wind blowing in the tree tops, calling me out to a bigger, broader, braver life. I feel my heart moving toward the adventure of authenticity in a whole new way. And it’s admittedly scary, because I’m not sure who will or won’t like the real me when she comes out of hiding, but even that feels a little awesome, you know? Finally being willing to relinquish whatever control I thought I had over other people’s opinions is like taking this huge chore off my to-do list.
The past few years? Wow. They’ve been hellish. But I’m getting to know the girl emerging from the wreckage. And I think I like her.
And I’m not editing this. Because it’s how I really feel.
And I love you.
Confession: I visited Steve’s grave last week for the first time. I don’t know why I put off going, but I know I did. It wasn’t an accident or an oversight or, “Wow, look how time has gotten away from me.” It was intentional avoidance of what I thought would be painful, though I wasn’t sure why. I know that’s not the real him. I know it’s just a little plot of land that marks his earthly life while his eternal life is vibrantly strong and whole. But still I waited.
I went on his birthday. We had put off ordering a head stone as we debated what we wanted to write on it – turns out, it’s a lot of pressure to pick the words that will literally be written in stone to mark someone’s life for the rest of all time. I was under the impression the cemetery would put a temporary marker at the site, so we hadn’t rushed our decision, but I was wrong about that. My first feeling upon arrival was disappointment and guilt that my husband was in an unmarked grave, with weeds growing around it. I don’t love flowers – especially silk and/or dead flowers – so we brought golf tees with little tags tied around them to put by the grave. It seemed like a perfect idea at home, but they ended up looking tiny and inadequate. It was a disappointing and difficult experience. And it didn’t dawn on me right away, but in the days that followed, as I sifted through some of the emotional fallout, I think I figured out what was so hard and it’s this:
Visiting Steve’s grave doesn’t reconnect me to the real him, but to the old me; the Wife part of me.
That grave is my responsibility. It is, in fact, my only remaining responsibility from my 30-year run as Steve Stern’s wife.
The day before the visit, I shared some concerns with a friend of mine who then wished me “closure.” I’m not actually sure closure is possible or necessary in regard to the sorrow of losing Steve. That seems like it will be a lifelong journey with different levels of angst or pain along the way. However, my friend was right. After I ordered the headstone, I felt it. Weighty. Crushing. Closure. The wrapping up of my Wife Life. These past few days have been like emptying out the house that had contained my hardest, happiest work and handing the keys back to Jesus. And it has been really hard.
I know it might be tempting at this point to jump in here and tell me I’m still a wife and I’ll always be Steve’s wife and I still have all my memories and other things that I know are meant to comfort, but please resist. This is a road I need to walk and words like that tend to minimize what’s been lost and aren’t actually helpful. I loved being Steve Stern’s wife. I loved cooking for him. I loved hearing his theories on life and golf and friends. I loved encouraging him when things got rough. I loved taking long walks on summer nights. I loved being someone’s very best friend. I loved knowing there was a good chance that, at any given moment, he was thinking about me. I loved knowing that if I disappeared, Steve Stern would search for me til his very last breath. I loved sharing Saturday mornings with him. I loved going to Costco and weddings with him. I loved sitting with him in church. I loved the way he let me read in bed instead of making me go to another room. I loved opening a bottle of wine before we paid bills together. I loved sharing a home and children and a whole, big, wonderful, difficult life with him. These are the things that made a we out of Steve and me and these things cannot be replaced.
Closure. This season is over so much sooner than I wanted it to be. And, yes, the memories remain and I’m grateful for them. But the memories don’t make me feel like a wife any more than photos of vacation make me feel like I’m still in Mexico. Grief, I’m convinced, has no closure. But seasons do. Seasons begin and seasons end. I thought closure would look like comforting resolution, but for me it’s been a sort of painful, gasping resolution. Both work, I suppose.
What happens next? I guess the same thing that happens when you hand the keys of a house over to a new owner. You move into the next one. And even if the next one is a grass hut with a mud floor, you’re still going to hang a few pictures on the walls and find a nice throw rug, you know? I might not get to choose the house, but I think I do get to choose what I make of the place. I want to make this new, single life a good place to call home. I am, in fact, quite determined to do exactly that.
I argued with myself (as I often do) about publishing this one. It feels a little raw to share openly. In the end, I decided that I wanted to put it out there for those of you navigating the shadowlands or the pain of divorce, but also for those of you who are married. I harbor the hope that you might take the chance today to love your sweetheart a little deeper, give grace a little longer and work a little harder to care for the gift you’ve been given. Maybe take a walk or pay some bills together or go on a fancy date to Costco just because you can. That’s my hope, because I love you and I love love.
P.S. One note: I understand that I’m still in process here and that where I land today may not be where I land tomorrow. My feelings will change, but I think there’s beauty in chronicling the way things unfold in real time. I also certainly know that my journey is not universal. The details will be different for everyone; I can only write about mine. Hopefully they will be helpful for some.
I had this light-bulb moment the other day as I was thinking through the advice I give to hurting people who contact me. Actually, I was thinking through the advice I don’t give. At least, not typically. I rarely say: you should see a counselor. And I rarely refer to it in my blog posts.
This is a pretty significant omission and the reason for it might surprise you. I am familiar, and have a lot of experience with, the school of Christian thought that says counseling is bad. All you need is Jesus and your B-I-B-L-E (you stand alone on that thing, for goodness’ sake!) I am not of that school of thought; not by a long shot. The primary reason I rarely mention seeing a counselor is because I pretty much assume that someone going through deep levels of grief has already heard that advice. I take it for granted, I think, and that’s dumb of me. The secondary reason I don’t mention it, is because I don’t want to offend an already-overwhelmed person by implying that they may need professional help – this is also dumb of me. On some level, we probably all need a little professional help. I know I do.
l started seeing a counselor just before my husband was diagnosed with ALS. Shelley helped me process my thoughts and deal with the overwhelming sorrow and anxiety in healthy ways. When I felt like I was drowning, she helped me learn to breathe underwater. I don’t see her regularly now, but I do when I run into a roadblock in my thinking. That happened last week. I hit an issue I could not resolve on my own. I was getting some conflicting advice from people who love me and I knew it was time to bring in the big guns. I sat on her couch yesterday and spilled a million jumbled thoughts. She helped me pick them up, one-by-one, really look at them and decide which could stay and which should go. She helped me adjust my self-talk. And, more than anything, she reassured me that – nine months in – I’m doing okay. I left her office feeling sort of wrung out and exhausted from the process, but I also felt ordered, clear and hopeful about the future. You know what I didn’t feel? Ashamed. I am not embarrassed that I can’t figure everything out on my own. In fact, I am proud of myself for being willing to ask for help when I need it and I think I’ve avoided a lot of time in emotional ditches because I know when to call the tow truck (that’s a weird analogy, but I’m sticking with it.)
As a pastor, people come to me for counseling often. They tell me their issue and I listen and offer biblical perspective. But if the thing they are facing is not primarily spiritual, then I often refer them to a counselor. I don’t have the training to deal with emotional or mental crises and I also don’t have the time that is required to give it the attention it deserves. I’m very particular about who I refer them to because – just like dentists, doctors and hair stylists – there are those I would trust and those I would not. And just like those other professions, sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right one, but the search is worth it for those who are truly committed to building healthy, happy lives.
I don’t know why it’s taken so long to address this on my blog, let’s blame widow-brain, shall we? The conclusion of the matter is this: If you are in a season of deep heartache – for any reason – or if you just need help getting your thoughts to come together and work for you rather than against you, please would you consider making one appointment with someone who can help? The days of the counseling stigma are over, or at least they sure should be, so go ahead and ask your friends for references. Try someone out. Give it a chance. It just might be the very thing that helps you escape (or avoid!) the ditch.
Comments are open – feel free to leave questions you might have and I will answer them if I can.
PS: Hospice offers free grief counseling for their clients and families as do many life insurance companies. If you feel you can’t afford counseling, there are resources out there for those who are willing to do a little digging.
Just a quick note on a beautiful Monday, and it’s mostly a note to myself. It’s a placeholder for a year from now or a decade from now, when I might sift through the words of my history and come upon these and be reminded who I am.
I’ve been wandering a bit recently. Not literally, but emotionally. Faced with a life I haven’t lived before, so many decisions that used to easy are now complex. Things that used to live outside my world are now right here in my own living room. I know my metaphors are vague. That’s on purpose and I’m truly sorry, because I hate when people are vague, but trust me when I say: the details wouldn’t matter much if you knew them. So here’s where my wandering landed: on my couch, in a bit of a heap, asking God to show me something that would help me figure out my future. At the risk of sounding woo-woo, spooky, spiritual – here are the words that came to my mind. I believe they were Spirit-inspired and I think they might help someone else who’s living in a waiting, changing season.
You are like a little girl at an airport, waiting with her Dad for a flight to you-don’t-know-where, but you know it’s good. And you don’t love waiting. It’s boring. And frustrating. And it steals the joy of anticipation of the trip.
You see a hallway. Just a regular, old hallway and you wonder where it leads. You ask your dad, “What’s down that hallway?”
He answers, “Nothing.”
You ask again, “Nothing? Really, nothing?”
You wait a bit and try not to think about the hallway, but it begins to consume your thoughts. It becomes the road less traveled. And so you try again, “But can I go see it?”
Your dad smiles and says, “It’s a dead end, Bo. There’s nothing to see.”
“But pleeeeeze? I just want to see it and all I’m doing here is waiting.”
Again He smiles and says, “Okay, but don’t stay too long or you’ll miss the flight.”
Suddenly, you remember: the flight. This is, after all, why you’re here at all. But…that hallway. This is a conflict that seems easy to resolve. “Okay,” you agree, “I’ll be back with plenty time to spare – what time is the flight?”
Your Dad says gently, “I’ll tell you when it’s time.”
Well, that’s a problem. It will be hard to enjoy the hallway if you have to keep running back and forth to Gate 56 and checking in with your Dad. And yet, you know better than to question Him outright. “So, can you give me a general time frame? Ten minutes? An hour? More? Less?”
He shakes His head, “I’ll tell you when it’s time.”
Frustrated and weary from waiting, you ask, ” Why can’t I know when the flight is going to leave?”
Your Father smiles again and says simply, “Because both of us can’t be sovereign. “
Every day, I hear from grieving spouses. They are either in the process of caring for a terminally ill spouse or have recently lost him or her. The question I am asked most often – by a landslide – is some variation on “Why would God let this happen?” Because I’ve written a lot about the beauty that comes from battle, people often assume that I don’t deal with this question or that I’ve found a magic answer, but neither is true. I don’t have anything in the way of a formulaic answer, but I do think I’ve learned a little about what to do with the question itself. For the next couple of days, I’m going to write about what has worked for me on this and you can feel free to take it or leave it. Also, this may apply to situations beyond losing a spouse after a lengthy illness, but I can’t say that I know that for sure. I write from my battlefield and I know some principles will cross over, but I don’t know how many. Having said all that, here’s Part 1.
I know you want to know “Why?” I know the question is screaming at you for an answer. But the first thing I want to tell you, need to tell you, because I wish someone would have told me, is: you are not okay. I mean this with all the love and grace I possess. But, really, you’re not. If you are in the middle of caring for a dying spouse, or have recently lost one, you probably also:
1. Haven’t slept well in months, maybe years.
2. Have learned to ignore your own physical and emotional needs in order to keep the needs of your spouse first and foremost.
3. Are dealing with a myriad of external stressors related to long-term illness like insurance and money and doctors and paperwork and stuff with children, friends and relatives.
4. Are perhaps even dealing with a fair amount of PTSD.
5. Are really, really sad.
These things are completely normal, but they do not make this a good time to tackle deep, philosophical or theological questions. Imagine a rescue diver who just kept someone afloat in an ocean for hours, treading water, dodging sharks and praying they would both survive it. Now imagine, that as that diver stumbles into the boat, exhausted and overwhelmed, he is presented with a three-page test on bio-chemistry. He might know the answers are out there somewhere, but he is going to need a little time to restore and recover before he can trust himself to think coherently, much less solve complicated problems.
And the thing about this question – this big, beefy, large-consequences question – is that it will wait. It will be there when you’re back at your fighting weight. And when you get to that place, there’s a really good chance the question will look a little or a lot differently than it looks right now.
Let me be clear: you own this question and you have every right to tackle it whenever you want to. But nine months on the other side of my husband’s passing, I’m glad I waited. I’m glad I gave myself permission to shelve some of the big stuff while I learned to know myself again. There were moments when the question thumped like a drumbeat in the background, and I would have to say out loud: “This is not the time for that.” Instead, I focused on breathing deeply, eating well, sleeping again, journaling often, running some trails, loving my tribe and letting something that looked like “normal” seep back into my being. Once I arrived at month four or so, I felt a definite shift in perspective and I could see more clearly, think more comprehensively. Was the question still there? Yes. Sort of. But it wasn’t as weighty and desperate as before. And I had a broader frame of reference to bring to the process of answering it.
I have more to say about the Why God question, but for now, just know this: even if you’re not okay, that’s okay, because you are amazing. You are still standing and still fighting for hope and that makes you heroic. You have questions, I know, but you also have my awe and respect for the way you live and love. May you find all that you need for the day at hand.
Photo credit: www.lifelovelauren.com