Monday, March 29, 2010

On What I Said to the Crowd

Early in February I was asked to speak at our evening church service. It is a tradition in our church to have a service conducted and implemented completely by the men each year. I have never participated in this and am still not really sure why I was asked to speak (of all things). The only guideline I was given was to take a passage of Scripture and speak on it for about ten minutes (I took almost fifteen).

It was immediately apparent in my mind that I would speak about how to help widow/ers and I remembered the verse about helping orphans and widows (though I admit I had to look it up as I had no idea where it was in the Bible). And since I also have a heart for orphan care, I managed to throw in some information about helping orphans as well.

I know many of your spiritual beliefs may differ from mine and I completely respect that. I ask only for that attitude to be reciprocated as you read what I shared and know that I used the opportunity I was given to get the word out about helping widow/ers.

I actually presented this information on Sunday, February 28, 2010, just two days after the third anniversary of my wife’s death.

Please turn in your Bibles with me to James 1:27. While you’re turning there, I’ll offer a bit of background on the book of James. It is believed to have been written by Jesus’ brother, the first fully biological son of Mary and Joseph, who was instrumental in the development of the early Christian church. It was written less as a way to explain Christianity to the early church, and more as a guide for teaching Christians practical applications for living out our faith.

It sounds like most of you have found the verse, so let’s read James 1:27. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV).This is a verse we often hear, especially in the context of orphan care. It is the “theme verse” for Show Hope, the adoption organization Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife Mary Beth began several years ago. It is a verse that is often used in this context and is one of the few places in the Bible where orphans and widows are specifically mentioned.

So as not to take the verse completely out of context, I’d like to offer a little background. James 1:27 falls at the end of a section in which James is instructing the early church regarding sin and adherence to the Word of God. It seems that the early church, just as many of us today, was pretty good at listening to what was preached, but not so good at actually following through with it on a daily basis. They were good at getting dragged into a variety of sinful behaviors because of their, and our, focus on the things of this world. Earlier in Chapter 1, James even likens this to looking at oneself in the mirror then forgetting what one looks like when the mirror is removed. God wants us not only to hear his Word, but to put it into practice as well.

This is where verse 27 comes in. Here James gives us a very practical way that we can put our faith into action: by caring for orphans and widows. Or, in the most literal translation of this verse, by sharing the Word of God with them. James goes on to remind us again that we are to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, which is something that would require much more time than the few minutes I have allotted this evening.

So now that we’ve looked at the context surrounding this verse, I’d like to look again at the beginning of James 1:27. Let’s read it again. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”.

I am not going to spend a great deal of time tonight discussing how we can help orphans. Though I do have a heart for orphan care and adoption, there are several organizations in place, such as Show Hope, which I mentioned earlier, that are doing an excellent job of getting the word out about orphan care. There are numerous resources online for any number of these organizations that would be glad to help you get started in assisting with orphan care on some level.

There are however, very few organizations that deal with practical ways to help widows and widowers, so I will spend the remainder of this time focusing on that.

The fact of the matter is that it is very easy to help children who are unable to help themselves. And even to a lesser extent, it is easy to help widows who have small children, especially if their husband was the sole breadwinner. But what to do with self-sufficient widows? And what do we make of widowers with small children?

For those of you here tonight who are not aware, Friday made three years since my wife passed away. I was 29 at the time and my daughter had just turned 3.

Some of the ideas I will mention momentarily are things that were done for us by members of this congregation and other friends during the early months following her death.

Many of you are probably also aware of [another family in our community], and I know some of you know them personally. If you do not know them, write down these items anyway as you will almost certainly know another young widow or widower in your lifetime. And even if you don’t, these ideas also work wonders for single parents…

In the interest of time, I will only be sharing ten practical ideas for helping widows beyond praying for them and sharing the Gospel with them (if necessary).

They are presented in no particular order.

1. Offer to watch the kids.

Widows and widowers often very quickly develop a sense that we have to do it all alone. It doesn’t occur to us to ask for help, and when it does, we decline the notion for fear of imposing on anyone, especially if we don’t have family close by to rely upon. I recall only asking for help if I was in a bind, and typically for me that was mainly during the summer when I had to mow the lawn.

It doesn’t have to be much – a simple “Let me take the kids for a few hours so you can get some things done around the house” will suffice. But be persistent. I found that if I told people no once, they often didn’t ask again. The people who kept asking were the ones whose offers I eventually accepted.

2. Invite them over for dinner.

Again, this is an area where you might have to be a bit persistent. One thing about widows and widowers is that we suddenly find ourselves in a very awkward place in society, especially if we have children. We are no longer married, but we still feel married. We don’t usually fit in with the singles crowd, but we also no longer fit in with the married crowd either. For widows with children, it may be a bit easier to fit in with the Mommy crowd, but single dads aren’t generally welcomed into that group either (for a variety of reasons which I won’t spend time on tonight).

There were a couple of families who were very good about inviting us over for dinner in the months following [my wife’s] death. They were not always elaborate meals and we weren’t invited often, but those simple invitations were a great way to help me remain connected with other families.

3. Take them dinner.

So what if you’re not the best host or hostess in the world? That doesn’t let you off the hook either. Now, this is not to say that these people are not good hostesses, but there were also some families in this congregation who were good about bringing meals.

Here’s what’s important to remember about this: don’t take meals during the first few days. Everyone else is bringing in food then, and most of the time the family doesn’t really feel like eating it. The meals that meant the most to me were the ones that came two or three or even four months later, when most people had moved on with their own lives.

Again, don’t take no for an answer, Just call and say, I’d like to bring you such and such sometime soon, when would be a good time?

4. Don’t forget them.

As I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this list, timing is important. We all want to respond immediately when someone has lost a spouse and rightly so. But it was amazing to me how quickly people went back to their own lives and seemed to forget that we were still hurting. So make it a point to send a card, or cook a meal, or make a phone call periodically as time passes.

I have several friends who still do this on occasion, even though it has been three years. If you are worried about forgetting, flip ahead in your day planner or set-up a reminder in your cell phone to do so. It doesn’t matter by what means you’ve remembered, it just matters that you do remember.

5. Do something practical.

A little gesture goes a long way.

I knew of a woman who was behind on her ironing when her mother passed away. A co-worker insisted that she let her do the ironing. It turned out to be a blessing for both the woman and her co-worker. For me, it was mowing the yard. There were a few times when I’d come home and the yard would be completely mowed, trimming and all. I found out later that once it was a former co-worker and twice it was my nearest neighbors. It was a thoughtful gesture, and it was nice to come home and have one less thing to do on those evenings.

6. Send money.

Nearly everyone who is close to the family sends a sympathy card. This might sound like an odd suggestion, but consider including some cash or a gift card as well. I’ll be honest, the first sympathy card I opened with money inside threw me a bit. I was still reeling emotionally, and could not figure out why someone would send money. But there are significant costs associated with funeral services and burials, and not everyone has insurance to prepare for those things. And even if they do, the everyday bills suddenly need to be paid on one person’s salary, so any money you send will be put to good use.

Several people sent us restaurant gift cards also. I tried to cook as often as possible, but on those days when I just wasn’t up to it and there was no more lasagna left in the freezer, it was nice to be able to take [my daughter] out for dinner and not have to worry about how to pay for it.

7. Keep your condolences simple.

If you attend the wake or the funeral, say whatever you need to say about how sorry you are for the family then. But when you see them out and about for the first time after that – at work, at church, at the grocery – keep it simple. The best thing anyone said to me when I returned to work was “I’m glad you’re back”. It was a simple statement with no specific reference to what had happened, yet the person acknowledged it without upsetting me.

Too often we are worried about what to say and end up making the situation worse. So when in doubt, keep it simple. If the person did not share personal details of their lives with you before, they are not likely to do so after. And all they want is for things in their public lives to return to normal as quickly as possible.

8. Don’t be afraid to share memories.

While it may not be appropriate to share memories with the person as soon as they arrive back to work, there will likely come a time when it will be. Don’t be afraid to do so when the time is right. One of the best things people can do, even now, is share a memory they have of [my wife] in the context of a conversation.

Since Friday was the third anniversary of [my wife’s] death, I posted a comment on Facebook for people to share memories of her. It was wonderful to be able to read those memories throughout the day and actually helped to make the day a bit more bearable for me.

9. Don’t deny the person’s existence.

To take this one step further, don’t be afraid to talk about the person in general and use their name when doing so. It doesn’t always have to be a special or elaborate memory. It could be something as simple as referring to “[my wife’s] parents” instead of “[my daughter’s] grandparents”.

One of the things that has meant the most to me is when people have made comments or told stories and used [my wife’s] name. It is validation that not only did she exist and play an important role in [my daughter’s] and my life, but that she meant something to other people as well.

10. Listen without talking.

If you find yourself in a position where a widow or widower is sharing their feelings with you. listen, listen, listen. You don’t have to say a word. Just listen. Sometimes all we want is to be able to get something specific off of our chest.

Now, most of you will probably never find yourself in this position as widows and widowers tend to be very private about their situation. But if you do, just remember that listening is the absolute best possible thing you can do.

There are plenty more things you can do to help a widow or widower in their time of need, but these ten will give you a good place to start.

If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you.

At the time I uttered these words, I did not know that the audio would end up on our church’s website within a few hours’ time. About a week after I received the e-mail regarding this, I decided to also post the link on Facebook. I’ve never been asked to speak about being widowed before, and I’m not sure that I ever will again, so I wanted to get this out to as many people as possible who might not otherwise hear this type of information.

Posting it here is yet another step in that process.

Monday, March 22, 2010

On Healing

Since I seem to be in a pattern of posting a maximum of once a month of late, I’m going to proceed with a series of mini-posts that will hopefully serve to catch you all up to speed on what has been happening in the last month or so. It seems like there is always so much more I want to write about than there is time and energy to actually type it out and post it here. I am hopeful that this pattern will change soon, but until then, please accept my “mini-series” of posts, if you will.

On Winter Snow

As even the most occasional reader of this site has likely discovered, I am not a big fan of winter. I do not enjoy cold weather. I do not enjoy scraping ice off the car windows. And I most assuredly do not enjoy snow or ice.

We have experienced both this winter.

One weekend late in January we had an inch or two of rain that froze overnight. I live far south enough on the East Coast that life pretty much comes to a stand-still when there is ice or snow on the ground. It had melted off by time for church the next morning, but it was enough to cancel Sunday School, which is unheard of in these parts.

Just a few weekends later, we woke up to a slightly different sight. On the Friday night before Valentine’s Day about eight o’clock, I looked out the window (knowing what had been forecast) and saw huge, wet snowflakes falling from the sky. I got my daughter and we walked out to the back porch so she could really see them well. By the time she went to bed an hour or so later, there was a groundcover of snow and the flakes were still falling rapidly.

The forecast had said one to four inches, which is a rare sight in this area. What we actually had in our yard the next morning was eight fluffy inches of pure white snow. If this had happened a year ago, I would have been nothing short of traumatized. But I have done a tremendous amount of healing over the last year, thanks in large part to being able to write out my thoughts and feelings here, so I was able to see this snow through a different lens.

So instead of grumbling and being in a generally lousy mood all weekend, I embraced the snow, knowing it would only stick around for a short while. So once the power returned (it went off just as we were suiting up to go out and play), we headed out to build snowmen, make snow angels, and have snowball fights. I took plenty of pictures and even some video (my daughter gave me a five-minute instructional video on how to have fun in the snow, which I will always treasure). All told, we spent about four hours total in the snow that day.

By the next morning there was significantly less snow on the ground and even less than that by the time we arrived home from church. But being unsure of when this might happen again (good for me, but not so much for her), we suited up again and played in the wet slush until there was literally no snow left to throw or build with. I think we eked out about another two and a half hours between morning and evening service that day.

When I was a kid I loved the snow. And growing up in the Midwest, we definitely had our fair share of it each winter. I have three siblings and many fond memories of times had in the snow with them. This snowy weekend reminded me of those times, only I shared them with my own child instead of my brothers and sister. I was able to play with reckless abandon in a situation I would not have otherwise (or at another time) enjoyed.

And I took that as a sign of healing.

On My Daughter’s Sixth Birthday

The Friday after the “big snow” was my daughter’s sixth birthday. She loves birthdays and was, as expected, very excited about having another party. The thing she was perhaps the most excited about was getting to take cupcakes to share with all of her friends at school. But that turned out to be overshadowed by some other events that day.

Since it was a special day, I drove her to school that morning instead of having her ride the bus as she normally does. I was dressed for work, so she had no reason to think I wasn’t headed there after I dropped her off. However, I instead went into town to pick up the cupcakes and then back home to finish doing a few other birthday related things. Since kindergarten classes eat lunch first at her school, I was able to finagle my schedule so that I could take a half-day and join her for lunch. And seeing the look on her face when I showed up with the cupcakes and told her I was going to stay for lunch was definitely worth it.

I hated to leave after lunch, but she had more to learn and I had a mandatory meeting that afternoon, so I walked her back to class and went on my way. But my joining her for lunch was just the first surprise of the day.

My daughter usually attends an after-school program since her school ends earlier than mine, and she rather enjoys it. I can only imagine what went through her mind that afternoon when the secretary came over the intercom to ask her teacher to send her to the office for pick-up. And further still, I can only imagine the look on her face when she turned the corner and saw not her daddy as she had probably expected, but her grandma and grandpa who had driven down to surprise her again this year. (After last year I told them no more surprises for me, so I was in on it this time). Once we all got home, we headed to our favorite Chinese restaurant for dinner, then watched her open her gifts (again with plenty of pictures and video).

On Sunday we had her party and since the weather was a far cry from that of the previous weekend, she and her friends who attended were able to spend quite a bit of time playing outside. We also did the usual cake and ice cream and presents, plus a craft activity which the girls all really seemed to enjoy.

We usually have her party at home and invite a small number of her friends and their families. She has made it even easier on me by requesting Disney Princess parties the last three years (plus the one before that which her mommy and I chose), so I have been able to use the same accessories from year-to-year. She just chooses a different princess to highlight (this year it was Belle) and we make sure she is featured on the cake.

Each year it seems like the actual party-throwing part of the birthday festivities comes a little easier (though I’m still learning), but each year that passes is another year that her mommy has missed.

And no amount of personal healing on my part is going to make that any easier.

On the Third Anniversary

Exactly one week after my daughter’s birthday was the third anniversary of my wife’s death. I wasn’t sure how I would be affected on this day as this was the first significant grief event to pass since I started dating. I talked to my girlfriend ahead of time about the actual date and my plans for it, and she was overwhelmingly supportive.

So that morning before work, I posted this on Facebook: [My name] is attempting to see something positive in this day. If you knew [her name] please share a memory of her here.

It was the most positive thing I could think of to do, and it turned out to be really good for me. Throughout the day and well into the evening, my Facebook ring tone went off repeatedly as people posted their memories. It was nice to find reasons to smile that day, instead of focusing solely on how much I missed her and how much she was missing by not being here.

As tends to be the case with us, this day was also marked by two other events. Since I started this blog on the second anniversary, this date also marked one year of blogging (however sporadic) for me. That one was anticipated.

But the surprise event came that afternoon, when my daughter came into my bedroom and said “Daddy, I think my tooth is loose”. I checked, and sure enough, it was loose enough she could wiggle it with her tongue. I told her I’d pull it and she said “No Daddy, I think I can do it”. And sure enough, halfway across the bedroom she turned back with a tooth in her hand. It was so loose she had popped it out with her tongue! So the third anniversary of my wife’s death also became the first anniversary of the tooth fairy’s inaugural visit to our home. Only in this family could two such events coincide.

That night my daughter and I went down to the beach and ate at the restaurant we discovered on this date last year, although this year there were no dolphins to watch as we ate. It was however, considerably warmer than this time last year, so we walked on the beach for a little while both before and after we ate. (I took plenty of pictures, but no video this time). I had planned to post something here that night, but she and I were both asleep on the couch by nine o’clock instead.

In a lot of ways this anniversary was “better” than the past two have been. And by better, I mean more bearable. I think the passage of time had something to do with it. And the fact that I not only had considered dating, but was actually in a relationship (though I did not see her that day) probably made a difference as well.

Whatever the reason, a bearable anniversary is much-preferred over an unbearable one, and I considered the bearable nature of this one a sign of healing.

On a Different Sort of Milestone

Exactly one week after that, on March 5, I had a pretty rough day grief-wise. It was the anniversary of my wife’s funeral, but that was not the cause of my grief on this day. It actually had to do with what was to follow.

One semi-consistent pattern in this widowed journey has been that my grief tends to well-up more after a grief-inducing event, once the anticipation and the actual event have passed, than it does before. This usually happens within the first few days following the event. But as is common with grief, its patterns are often inconsistent, and this one hit me a day in advance.

When my wife died, my daughter was three years and one week old, to the day. On March 5, my daughter was six years and two weeks old, to the day. So March 6 marked the day that I had officially parented her longer alone than I had with my wife.

That’s the first time I have acknowledged this in any form outside of my own mind. I haven’t even told my parents (sorry you all had to find out with everyone else). I think it was something I wanted to keep private for just a bit longer, but in staying true to my journey and this site, the time had come to post it here.

Ironically, this is one event in this post that I had planned to mark with pictures, but did not. You see, my daughter has had her picture taken at day care and school many times over the last three years, but she and I have yet to have a professional family photo taken. I kept putting it off, then realized that maybe after this “milestone” I’d be ready. And I think I am. But I didn’t get it scheduled in time for that day, so it will have to wait just a bit longer.

I’m not sure where I am in terms of healing on this one. But I do know that I’m really thankful it’s a “milestone” and not an anniversary I’ll have to acknowledge (and dread) every year from here on out.

On Breaking Up

In my last post, I mentioned that I had been dating someone for the first time since my wife’s death. And throughout this post I have referred to her as “my girlfriend”, which was true at the time of each of those events. But early last week we decided to break up.

It was strange in terms of break-ups in that it was something neither one of us wanted, but both of us knew was necessary. The fault was not really with either one of us so much as with some external factors that were not likely to change any time soon. So it was a better decision to break up than to continue working against them.

I believe that she is okay with this decision as we arrived at it together. And I am okay with this decision, even though I think there was some unrealized potential in the relationship. Her daughter is young enough that it probably didn’t even faze her.

But mine is not.

So that evening, I sat her down and got the reaction I had expected to get when I first told her I was going to date someone – lots of tears. She was upset that she would not be seeing my girlfriend much anymore, but was more upset over the fact that she would not get to play with her daughter. She had allowed herself to start to get close to them, even though their contact was still fairly limited, so it was another loss for her when she realized they wouldn’t be coming around any longer. After a few minutes she calmed down and began to accept it, as she has had to do so often in her young life. Within a few days, she had stopped mentioning it altogether. That’s not to say she won’t again, but I think it’s a sign of her acceptance of the situation.

There is some good news in all of this though. I met someone who sparked my interest, asked her out, and built a new relationship with her. At the time of the break-up we had not said or done anything regrettable, which made it that much easier to create an amicable split. And the split was in no way, shape, or form related to my “baggage” as a widower. So I’d say for my first foray into the dating world things went pretty well.

In addition, I learned some things I will do again if/when I date someone else. I will be honest and up-front about my “situation”, but careful to disclose information at a rate with which she is comfortable. I will take things slowly. I will maintain minimal contact between my daughter and her (and myself and her kids should she have any) until the relationship is established and is moving to a more serious level. And I will remain content in my circumstances until then, so that I can be content if/when my circumstances should change.

And I think that’s the best sign of healing I’ve experienced yet.