Christmas Peace Comes After Loss

Holidays have been really tough for me since 2013, a few months after my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Those last holidays together were excruciating and the years after have been difficult to say the least. You are just going through the motions feeling empty inside. While you try hard, it is never quite the same again and really that’s okay. It’s a change in your life, you keep old traditions and strive for new ones to make sense of the loss. The change is a way you cope and it seems that each year you embrace the old with the new, like feeling a warm hug from your lost loved one.

My mom loved the holidays and Christmas was her birthday so that day is a double whammy of grief for me and my daughters as well as the other people who loved my generous, kind badass of a mom. The first Christmas without her was blur and by the second Christmas, we no longer lived in the same house as so many of my memories which helped me immensely. But not everyone wants, can or needs to move, it’s just what happened in my life for other reasons but the change helped me spark into a new part of my life.

Last year, my oldest and middle daughter moved out just days before Christmas when my oldest bought her first house. Exciting and a little disconcerting at the same time. More changes. The nest was more empty but what I have found is that while at first, when that whole empty nest starts hitting you, you want to cling to the old and familiar life you had. That’s normal. I went from being a caretaker for my mom, to being an orphan, to having a mostly empty nest in just a few short years. Mid-life can be tough sometimes. There is a ton of transition not to mention the fact you realize, hey, my life isn’t all out there in front of me now like it was twenty years before. But that in of itself isn’t a bad thing either. I mean it sounds horrible but what it does is focus your energy, you start becoming very picky how you spend your time and whom you spend your time.

Chances are if you have made it midlife, you’ve seen some shit. You’ve dealt not only with joys and happy moments, but tragedy and loss. You’re nostalgic for the old days when you gathered at a table with your grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles but you realize that a good many of them may have passed or you live at different corners of the country. While this seems sad and it can be, you refocus once again on the ever-changing station of your life. This is the same things your grandparents and parents probably had to do. Let go of the past and embrace the present, the future. Nothing stays the same but there is joy in today.

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Mom opening presents

Today is a bit snowy and grey in northwestern Ohio promising a white Christmas tomorrow. After leaving my daughter’s house this afternoon, I decided to visit my mother’s grave as it will be arctic cold tomorrow and really, other than checking on it, I never feel that my mom is there. The graveyard sits on a hill above the small white clapboard Lutheran church where we have attended church off and on since the mid 1980’s. Many of the graves around my mom are people I knew as a kid and were very welcoming to us all these years. Before my mom passed, I would ride my bike on these hills and on a hot day, stop and sit under one of the pines to cool off. The graveyard is a peaceful, beautiful place if you aren’t creeped out by dead people (I am not). But since my mom has been buried here, it always made me incredibly sad and I avoid it for the most part other than to look after her grave.

When I drove out, I thought I’m probably just setting myself up to be down in the dumps. I was alone for the remainder of this Christmas Eve afternoon until my husband gets home later from work. I parked in the snowy circle next to my mom’s grave and bundled up. As I stood looking at her grave, I found I didn’t feel sadness but peace. My mom isn’t there, just her body. The graveyard is not a big one, but I walked to the side that faces the church standing between tall evergreens that have been there longer than I have been alive. The snow blanketed the plowed field between the church and cemetery, creating a pastoral winter scene that one might frame and hang on their wall. Maybe this is the point of acceptance. Not that I don’t miss my mom every day, but the point where peace finally settles over you like a warm blanket of love and memories.

I hesitate to say that I won’t have a day where I’m back at the cemetery in tears but this is a step beyond what I have felt. Grief isn’t something I do well but who does? My mom should be here with us, celebrating, wrapping presents, giving us orders on what food we will bring and so on. Except she’s not and it’s taken me four long years to get back into the Christmas spirit. A spirit that is different from my last happy Christmas. Loss changes you, changes the way you see life and now I embrace the small things even more. The edge softens and you start to be able to enjoy the happy memories without crying. There is no magic number or time that this will happen as I am certain it is personal for each one of us.

However, there is hope that one day the pain will dull, your heart will fill again with your changed life and while there is always that empty space, love fills that void allowing you to feel mostly whole again. The road to here isn’t easy. It really f’ing sucks. But now I understand how my grandparents were able to move on, their parents moved on and still be happy. They say that mid-life is one of the most unhappy points of a person’s life and I think with all the change along with just the stuff you have gone through just from living, it’s true. The flip side of that is that as people age past mid-life, they generally grow happier. I thought how could this be? But I think you grow and learn to appreciate the moment more. Each moment becomes more and more precious as your life quickly speeds past.

This year we started even more new traditions to keep our family close. First we had a Christmas Craft day where we did different crafts to help decorated cheaply for the holidays. I’m not a crafter so I rarely do this kind of thing since the girls have grown up. But it was so much fun as it was like when I used to do little projects with them as kids and we laughed so much. Then a few weeks later, we had our first official cookie baking day. Now I see why families do these kinds of activities as it’s a way to recapture the joy of having your kids around and doing what made you happy years ago. Just because the nest empties, doesn’t mean you can’t sit down and decorate sugar cookies with your kids anymore, it just means that the decorating might be more R rated than G now. Well, at least in my family where we all have a crazy sense of humor.

Life changes, you lose people your love, your kids grow up and move out and you get older but there are many beautiful things as well. There are the memories of holidays with my mom and the appreciation today of how our holidays have gone from complicated and exhausting to simple. That my kids can actually cut out and bake their own cookies, so I’m not exhausted by the end of cookie baking day. Where we can relate on a much different level, like friends, where it’s more fun anyway than telling them quit eating the icing. I seriously don’t miss fighting with them over things. I don’t miss them being little. One day, maybe I will have grandchildren but like my mom said the beauty of grandkids is you can spoil them and send them home. I can see where she is coming from even though I’m not a grandmother.

My Christmas Eve has been quiet and relaxing with a hike thrown in this afternoon. Ten years ago, it was always a frantic mess of wrapping presents, trying to do as much cooking as possible among tripping over a bunch of bodies milling in and out. I’m looking forward to tomorrow as I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to rush through cooking, last minute present wrapping, etc. I’ve had the presents wrapped for a week. I have been spreading out the cooking the last few days. We have simplified our holiday menus, picking dishes that are easy to prepare rather than having more food than anyone could ever eat. Probably a leftover from when women stayed home and were graded on their homemaking skills. Now we’re out working and we don’t have time to make 3 kinds of cranberries. I get to pick how I want to do the day. There is no pressure. I wouldn’t care of my kids came over in the pajamas… None of that stuff ever mattered anyway. Being together matters.

I hope others who are grieving find some peace tonight and tomorrow, well, every day. As close as I was to my mother, I never thought I would really enjoy a holiday again. But I’m pleasantly surprised this year that I actually am looking forward to Christmas as is my daughters. Not that I haven’t had sad moments of missing my mom. They just are less frequent and intense. A relief from the past four years. Life changes, have faith that one day you will feel more peace. I don’t know when, but it happens.

Wishing you a very blessed Christmas (or your holiday celebration of choice) and a wonderful new year full of fun, love and laughter. Yes, there’s going to be some crappy stuff, but in between, I pray you find peace, love and joy. Bring on 2018!

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I Don’t Fit in a Box…

There are so many times when I want to scream the title of this post out loud.  People want you to fit into a nice neat package that makes sense to them.  Except I don’t.  Oh, there are all sorts of words for it.  Highly Sensitive Personality or HSP is one term I’ve come across.  Another one is that I have a high EQ or emotional intelligence or something like that, I would have to look it up.  More labels and more terms to describe the fact that I am a bit of a complex person emotionally.  I don’t do it on purpose, I just was made that way.

Trying to explain to someone why I feel the way I do, I usually have to simplify it for them.  For them A = B.  For me A = B but then it also equals I, P, Q and Y.  Even my husband who is highly intelligent cocks his head sideways at me like a puzzled dog at times when I try explain why I am feeling this way or that.  Trust me, I wish A = B and sometimes it is that simple and other times it’s not.  

A person who is HSP usually doesn’t like crowds and interactions with a lot of people can drain them.  This is true of me to an extent.  Depends on what the crowd is for and who the person or people I am dealing with.  It is not that there is something wrong with me, it is just I am sensitive to things other people are not.  A study published showed that after you reach a certain point of IQ, up in the ther higher intellect levels people rate themselves as less happy than their counterparts with lower IQ’s.  I believe it is because their minds never shut off and there are too many outcomes, too many outliers and too many things to consider to ever feel completely content and settled.  Of course that is strictly my own theory.  Maybe there is a thing as being too smart.  

Some of the most creative and genius people struggled with just day to day functioning.  Look at Van Gogh, ultimately creative and cut off his own ear.  I won’t bore you with other somewhat depressing examples but there seems to be a theme among the gifted. For me it is that I sometimes don’t feel like I fit in even in my own life.  My mind won’t shut off, I’m always over analyzing and over thinking things.  Sometimes I must be reminded to relax and have some fun.  Enjoy what I have.  I always feel I must be achieving something, doing something and being productive.  It’s hard for me to shut down and have “down” time.  I find my down time best spent riding my bike or hiking.  It combines peacefulness and doing “something” which seems to work for my personality.

Sometimes in my work, I have a hard time letting go of the fact I have to wait for someone else to do their job especially when it interrupts my day or puts me behind.  I am sure it is because I do not have control of the situatuion and I just make myself miserable by being angry and anxious.  Laid back people wouldn’t even bat an eye but my Type A ways just works against my inner peace.  I need to learn to take a deep breath and remind myself, the world is not truly ending.  

As I venture into a new chapter of my life where my kids are grown and I’m thinking now what, I struggle with the fact I don’t have a set plan.  Before my life was on this particular track, whether it be surviving and keeping a roof over my head, raising my girls or taking care of my mother so I didn’t have time to think of “what’s next?”  You can revisit your old dreams and then you realize well they don’t matter anymore because you’ve changed and those things don’t seem important.   You’ve even put yourself in a box thinking this is who I am.  Then one day you wake up and you realize the box is too small. You’ve outgrown the parameters of the life you had once lived.

I will admit, it is a bit scary thinking of what’s next in my new chapter.  Right now I’m finishing a degree program I have been working on for 10 years though not consistently.  Most of my adjustments have been that my life has changed dramatically and I am not a caretaker anymore.  Being a caretaker took up a lot of my time.  I now may have a whole day where I don’t have anything I “need” to do and that feels very unsettling at times.  Though I used to dream of that day when I wouldn’t be so scheduled and taxed.  I look around and think, Okay, what do I want to do today?  What should I do? My Type A-like personality starts listing all these things I could do to be productive.  But what am I being productive for?  Usually nothing significant.  Busy work or chores that I can do any time.

As I crawl out of my self-made box, I have started to think of new possiblities.  Publish that book.  Travel more.  Start my own small-business on the side.  Mostly I want to learn how to really take care of myself.  I have a tendency to put everyone and everything else first.  I grew up in a very dysfunctional family and I tend at times to fall back on those types of relationships when things become difficult in my life rather than putting energy into the relationships that are good in my life.  I just recreate that which does not work only to be miserable.  Pretty stupid if you ask me.

I need to not worry about what others think and focus on what I know about myself.  Stop letting my own fears, other’s doubts and my own doubts keep me from creating a life that fully makes me happy and fulfilled.  Not a perfect life of course, that will never happen but there are a few areas in my life I need to work on.  I don’t want others to put me in a box so I shouldn’t do it to myself either.  One of my biggest impediments is my own self-doubt and fear.  And some of it is still following old defense and coping mechanisms of my younger years.  These aren’t needed anymore, so I need to leave those behind too.  Drop the chains in that box I’ve kept myself locked away in because it felt “safe”.

When you grow up in an unpredictable and volatile environment, your need to feel safe is paramount.  You will avoid risks and challenges just to keep things on an even keel.  You are afraid to give more of yourself, to open up your heart fully.  Just as a rape victim might keep themselves unconsciously overweight as a protection against people or men taking notice of her, you come up with defense mechanisms.  Then you have to shed the layers and become who you were meant to be rather than living in fear.  Bad things happen and it wasn’t your fault.  It is only until you let go of your coping mechanisms and behaviors that you can really be free.  And it’s a hard lesson to learn.  And even harder to fulfill but not impossible.  

I’ve been on a long journey to overcome much in my past that I never talk about because frankly it doesn’t need rehashing.  Every day is one baby step into a better life for myself.  Every time I set a boundary, say no, or decide maybe that wasn’t good for me is a triumph.  But now I need to start living my life a bit more in the direction I need to go.  To focus my energy on my talents, my hopes and my dreams or at least figure out what some of my new dreams will be.  I am hugely blessed in this life with a supportive husband, three amazing daughters, wonderful friends and family. I

In conclusion, I’ve come a long way baby but I’m not even close to being done yet.  IT’s time to shrug off my self-imposed chains and step out of the box… It’s time to stop being afraid and just do it.  It’s time to really start living.

The Many Shades of Grief

It has been several months since I posted a blog entry as I really have had nothing to write about.  Or maybe, I have and I just haven’t felt like writing.  This morning I was lying in bed thinking about the previous day where my husband and I worked in our yard, trimming back all the many bushes that grows in our quarter of acre patch.  Working in the yard since my mother passed March of 2014, is bittersweet to say the least.  She is the one who walked into this house the summer of 2000 while I was a single mother and said, Laura, this is your house, I can feel it.  And so it is and has been for almost fifteen years.

When I moved into the house it had precisely two lines of honeysuckle bushes lining the back yard, evergreens in the front, one old maple, one old crabapple and two ash trees by the front street in the city-owned strip.  Now it is full of anything that flowers.  Over the years my mom and I have bought things for this yard, I have divisions of plants that come from my great-grandmother’s yard.  We pass down plants like some people pass down family heirlooms such as an antique clock or jewelry.  You can’t be from my mom’s side of the family and not want to dig in the dirt.  So now when I work in my yard, it is like walking among a tapestry of memories.  Here is the lilacs my grandmother gave me years ago.  Here are the forsythia bushes my mom bought me on sale a the nursery.  Almost every plant is tied to a memory including ones my kids bought me for Mother’s Day.

As I sat on my front porch after we had completed a long overdue task as I let much of the yard work go last year because I couldn’t even bear to even pull weeds in my gardens full of memories, I felt so restless.  My husband recently asked if we could look for a new house in a town about 20 minutes south of our current one so he could cut down his hour drive to work.  We had talked about it when we first got together, moving about halfway once my daughters had graduated high school.  This of course started a ripple of anxiety, stress and uncertainty in me.  On one hand I wanted to dig in and say well we don’t owe much on this house, why go into debt and on the other hand, I did make that promise to him seven years prior.  The search has netted little.  We did make an offer on a house outside of town that I think we both thought would work but neither of us was thrilled with the idea of living there.

The only house that really excited us was pushing our mortgage limit.  It is also a uniquely designed home from the late 1970’s that would be hard to sell.  It’s already been on the market over two years so we would have to really commit to this home.  But as we put the mortgage payment that would accompany this 5 bedroom, 5 bath, 6 level house tucked in the woods, we cringe at what it does to our discretionary money.  There just isn’t much left over.  We reconsidered it last night after a month of letting it sit on the discussion table, even driving by it and thinking oh how perfect it is for us because it’s secluded and everyone else in this “neighborhood” seems to be just like us.  Wanting to be left alone.  Coming home, he ran the numbers and said it just makes us too tight unless they came down significantly.   We sigh and let it go.  Maybe it just isn’t the time to move.  Or maybe deep down we are both struggling with grief and we don’t want to truly move, though that is probably more me than my husband.

However, I have days where I think, I want to start over in a new town.  One that isn’t full of memories and in a house where we just start over.  Then I think about the town that is half way between our jobs and I am less than excited about moving.  It’s a little bigger than my current town, puts me closer to things I do often, more stores, restaurants, etc. but it’s not my dream town.  Then my mind thinks, well do I even want to live in Ohio?  Maybe I want to move back south?  Then I think well maybe we should just bite the bullet on that expensive house.  Then I think no, I don’t want that financial stress.  In other words, I don’t think I know what I want.  There are days I don’t feel I fit in my hometown at all.  And other days it feels like home.  Days where my house feels like a warm, blanket of love and other days where I feel weird and restless in it because I see so many memories that include my mom.

Grief, I realize manifests itself in so many unexpected ways.  For me it can be as simple as weeding around one of the roses my mom bought me that can trigger it.  Walking into the garden section of any local store.  In addition, I am at that point in my life where everything has changed for me.  My daughters are all out of high school, one graduated college and one in college.  They are all independent and my mothering duties are slight.  I no longer have parents to take care of.  People call it empty nest but all my girls still live at home for the moment.  I work in the same place my mom retired from and my middle daughter works.  I walk the halls my mother used to walk for many years.  My life is like a shrine to my mother almost. I live in the same town, in a house she helped me choose and at a job where there are constant reminders of her.  Even some of my documents show the author as being her because the templates she created.   And I was always in her shadow.  She worked her way up to the top of the food chain at our company while I chose to stay in much more quiet roles.  Mostly because I saw what the stress did to her.

Now that I am at a point in my life that it is much like that last year of high school where I am scrambling trying to decide what direction I want my life to take, I find myself quite lost at times.  I realize how short life is so I want to live it to the fullest, do the things that make me happy but I am not really sure what all that is anymore.  What was important to me two years ago is no longer important to me today.  Watching someone die, you realize how little in life is truly important.  I”ve narrowed it down to the people you love, helping others and enjoying life.  What other people think doesn’t matter at all.  What you own doesn’t matter unless you get a lot of enjoyment out of that purchase.  I suppose for me, it is much like waiting for my calling to be revealed.  I sense there is something, not sure what, but it is out there.

Maybe I just am being taught to be patient, maybe I am being given time to heal before suiting up for my next big adventure…