Day 346. We have almost moved fully around the sun. We have weathered fall and the holidays and a wedding and his birthday and The Master’s and Father’s Day. All that’s left of the ‘firsts’ are the Fourth of July which is a big one for reasons I may or may not explain down the road and The British Open, which formed the backdrop for Steve’s death and I will always, always think of it that way.
So, nearly one year in, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what I’ve learned and how I’ve grieved and grown through all of it. Over the next few weeks, I hope to share more with you about what I’ve discovered because I think it might be helpful for those coming behind or alongside me in the adventure (?) that is widowhood. It also might be useful for those of you hoping to encourage someone experiencing the grief journey that is losing a spouse. My mind works better around lists, so I give you: The Twelve Things I Really Miss About Being Married. (And, duh, there are more than twelve – but also, there are some good things in my single-life season, which I will share in a future post.)
- Let’s start with one that won’t seem important, but I promise you it is: I hate fastening my own necklace. Steve used to do that for me and it was sweet and intimate and romantic and made me feel really cared for and loved. Again, I know it’s weird, but it’s exactly these sorts of things that create the rocky terrain of navigating loss. It’s not usually the birthdays and holidays, it’s that moment alone in my bedroom when I go to fasten my necklace that says “brave” on it and wonder: am I really? It’s been a tough one.
- I miss having someone to call on my way home from work. Or after a tough meeting. Or when I’m waiting in line at Starbucks and don’t want to wait alone.
- I miss having someone else drive. On the rare occasions Josiah and I travel in the same car, he always drives and I really like that. But it’s different and I think most widows would agree.
- I miss having someone tell me if this outfit makes me look fat. Mostly, I miss Steve’s answer because it was so amazing that sometimes I asked him just so I could hear him say it. (Yeah, I’m not going to tell you what it was.)
- Vacations. I know I can still take them and I can take people with me who love me. But it’s not the same. My husband made me feel comfortable and safe. He made each place home just by being there.
- The very empty bed thing. I actually sort of love having all the closet space, but I do not enjoy sleeping alone. Even though Steve was in a hospital bed during the last two years of his illness, he was still there with me and I didn’t feel as alone.
- Decisions. I miss having someone to collaborate with on decisions, big and small. What car to buy. What to give our kids for Christmas. Where to go for breakfast on our day off. Should I say yes or no to a speaking gig that falls on one of the kid’s birthdays. There’s not a single one of these decisions that I am incapable of making, but it was so lovely to have someone else weighing in and even carrying some of them entirely. I get tired of having to figure everything out on my own.
- Weddings. Ugh. Seriously. Weddings are a surprising tough spot for me. I’ve tried to think through all the reasons and some are obvious, but some are more subtle and sneaky. I don’t really want to explain it all, except to say: I am an introvert (no, really) and while I actually do enjoy going to them, I do not enjoy going to them alone. Also, it’s worth noting here, for the sake of those who want to say the right thing to widows: resist the urge to offer easy answers. Often, when I share a painful point like this – especially on Facebook where it’s easy to give fast input – people will respond with one-sentence solutions, like, “That’s why you have a son! Make him go the wedding!” Please understand two things: 1) While having Joe go with me to an event is a blessing, it is not the same. 2) Josiah is also navigating the waters of grief and fatherlessness. There is a limit to how much of my load I want him to carry. If I know he will also enjoy the event, I will ask him to go and he will say yes because he’s fantastic like that. But if the event would not be fun for him, then I’m essentially asking him to pick up the weight of my loneliness and I’m not going to do that. I determined early on that I would not place the “man of the house” title on the shoulders of a 16-year-old and I am sticking to that commitment even if it doesn’t make sense to the rest of the world.
- Kids. I don’t miss my kids -they’re right here – I just miss having someone who loves them in the same way I love them. I miss having someone who knows their history and their weaknesses and that one thing they did in fourth grade that made us laugh til we cried. I miss having someone to tell me what to do when I don’t know what to do as a mom or would be willing to pray through the night until we found the answer. In fact, the thing I just said about Josiah and not wanting to accidentally make him the man of the house? Sometimes the lines are unclear and I’m not sure how much is too much to expect of him and I go to ask Steve and he isn’t there and, yeah…this one is just really hard.
- Mayonnaise jars. Though I’ve yet to run into one I couldn’t break into, sometimes it’s quite lovely to be able to feel like the weak, helpless female. Sometimes I really miss being rescued, even though I know I can usually save myself. I mean, apologies to feminists everywhere – but also: it’s true. I think sometimes men want to be rescued, too, and that’s just fine.
- I miss the lovely language Steve and I shared. We understood facial expressions (especially in the last few years as his communication was forced to become increasingly non-verbal) and had developed a certain lexicon over thirty years of life, love and battle together. Maybe a better way to say this is: I miss feeling understood by a spouse, and so I gravitate toward friendships that offer easy understanding and acceptance and away from those that feel laborious. Maybe someday I’ll be ready to invest in relationships where I have to do the work of explaining myself, my history and my idiosyncrasies, but right now I don’t have the energy.
- I miss being part of a team. I really liked that and I think I was pretty good at it. I also think I’m doing well at going solo, but sometimes I miss having someone who is always on my side, no matter what. And I miss him.
Those are my honest thoughts and I know they might not seem very encouraging, especially if you are also facing an uncertain future. But I promise I’ll share the good stuff I’m learning, too (and there’s a lot of it!) – maybe even tomorrow!
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. “