Moving Past Guilt

Phil and I had a good marriage—more than good, but it was not perfect. As soon as Phil knew he was going to deploy and for the length of the deployment, he checked out.  He did the distracted sort of there, sort of not there communicating.  He would forget key days such as my birthday and even Christmas once.  It wounded my heart because I was the girl at home waiting and trying to be both mom and dad to our five children.  Because I hate conflict, I did what I always do; I shut down.  He withdrew because it was the only way he could get through the time away from the family.  In either case, those behaviors came back to crush my spirit when he was killed.

 

When Phil deployed for a year in 2011, I voiced my concern.  All of our children were out of the house and our dog had to be put down a few months before the day Phil left.  I was shy and unconnected to anyone outside of family.  Phil promised that this time would be different.  While he still refused to Skype, he did send me an e-mail every day and he called me three times a week.  It did feel like he was making an effort until Easter Sunday.

 

He called me on Easter Sunday and was surprised that I was at one of my student’s house.  He told me that he would call me on Monday or Tuesday.  Monday came and no call or e-mail.  Tuesday passed the same way.  Normally I would have reached out and tried to engage him, but this time, this ONE time, I decided to wait him out.  Yes, I was cranky and yes, I was playing a game.  Phil was killed 27 April 2011—Thursday in Afghanistan.  I was cranky and waiting for the white flag.  I chose to play a game and I lost.

 

When his planner came home in those black footlockers, it bore a testimony to what had happened.  Monday was meeting; Tuesday was convoy day.  Wednesday would have been meeting preparation for the big meeting—the meeting on Thursday.  Thursday’s planner had two things:  the meeting and call Linda.  The call Linda was circled over and over again.  In his planner were a bunch of unsent cards about missing his wife and a unmailed Mother’s Day card.  I CHOSE to play a game without knowing or realizing that there might be a cost.  Had Phil lived, we would have laughed about the days of quiet.  In death, there is no rectifying my feelings or behaviors.  I have written often about only wanting one minute to look at him eye to eye so he could see my heart, but in death there are no do-overs.  I simply cannot change that time and I know that had he lived, we would chuckle about this.

 

It is that simple.  Do I wish I had done things differently?  More than life itself, but I have learned.  I am no longer the girl I once was.  I wear my heart on my sleeve and I tell people what they mean to me.  I make time for those people who need me and who care about me.  Sometimes I am a little too transparent, but I have learned that I may never get the chance to tell another about their importance in my life.  Perhaps that is the key.  I let people in and I live my values.  I live the lessons I have learned through the shattering of my heart.  I have learned that there are no do-overs and that right or wrong, I write or speak my thoughts and feelings.  Never again (or as much as I am able to) am I going to play stupid games at the risk of standing at another grave wondering if the deceased loved one knew how sorry I was.  Never again.

Afraid Of Being Happy?

When Phil was killed, I cried a lot. I couldn’t keep it together. I hadn’t cried in 42 years, thus to be crying on airplanes, while running, and to wake up weeping was a discombobulating feeling. I had no control of my life and only by morphing into a numb waking state was I able to survive the implosion of my life. As time lapsed, I have found myself doing things I never thought I could do, but it wasn’t until recently that I recognized that while I was busy, crazy busy, I had lost the joy of day to day life. I no longer looked forward to anything and I approached life as a series of challenges to do or to overcome. I drew walls around my heart and figured that my days would be spent working, running, going to school, and, well…just surviving.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends; I did.  Many people supported me and still support me, but there was that layer that divided us.  I simply couldn’t allow myself to let loose, look ahead, and to be excited about life.  I felt like a spectator of my life at times because I simply couldn’t get off of the bench to join the game.  I wanted to jump in, but I was afraid at losing something–anything–more.

Somewhere this fall I realized that life was passing me by.  I don’t want to have eight degrees, hide in my house, or to live lonely.  I have avoided Christmas because Phil was due home on Christmas Eve, but by choosing to avoid the pain, I also avoided the new precious memories and fun my family might have.  I chose to celebrate Christmas this year.  My favorite memory was coming back into the house and hearing my children exchanging deployment stories, ribbing one another, and telling stories about their dad.  Nobody was feeling bad.  Nobody was making their dad a saint.  My children were just enjoying being a family again.  I nearly missed it because I was afraid to believe I could be happy and enjoy my life again.

With the steps forward have come some mighty big falls.  It was a terrible moment after Christmas.  I came home to a cold and empty house.  No laughter, no loud Jody’s being sung, no baby slobbers, and no hugs.  In that terrible moment, though, I realized exactly what my life would look like if I didn’t keep trying to take steps forward.  A step forward is still a step forward even if it is hard fought for.  Just as much as I love my job, travel, and running, I want a full life filled with laughter and love.  I may take some mighty hard falls, but I will get up and dust off my skinned knees and move forward one small step at a time into a life that is fully lived.

 

The Choice to Forgive the Unthinkable

The Choice to Forgive the Unthinkable.

Taking Back My Finish Line

Taking Back My Finish Line.

Light a Candle

Light a Candle.

Tearing Off the Bandaids To Become What I Need to Be

What does it say when my Fitbit says “Hug me, Runner Girl?” I sure could use a hug. One of my classes really made my heart hurt today. While I could avoid this pain, I won’t. I know that I have a voice brought from the agony of my loss which included the loss of Phil and the dreams, hopes, and expectations I had of growing old with him. I missed being a “witness to his life” at the end, but I know our love has transformed me into a better version of me and that the pain from the bandaid coming loose today will surely shore up and bring me to an understanding heart for those who struggle. I may not have any answers, but I can be an active participant in someone else’s journey.

One of the hardest aspects of a person who is in the throes of dying is that the illness is what gets all of the attention. People assume that if they are spending time tending to the ill person’s illness, they are there for the dying person. I watched it with my father. I watched him go from being a respected man to a man who was largely invisible in a care center. The care center was a good one, but his illness became all that mattered.

No matter when death of a loved one occurs, there is absolutely no preparation for the flood of feelings that come next. I still cannot, cannot think of the shock of the notification, standing with my children as everyone honed in on my family, or those awful autopsy photos. My breath catches. It is more than what it looks like on the surface.

Imagine for a second a family of military children (four out of five) standing waiting to see their father’s body hit American soil. They were grieving as those grieve with no preparation for the death. There they stood with runny noses, tears that continuously leaked from their eyes, yet they had to render proper military respects and courtesies. It shattered my already broken heart. That singular memory brought me to where I am now. I wanted someone who understood and someone who had been though it to walk with me during those first moments when I was all alone. I didn’t want platitudes or people telling me to trust God or telling me that Phil was in a better place. I just wanted someone to sit with me (okay, walk with me).

My life has changed and I have surely become a better version of the woman I once was, but this class is bringing me back to my father’s illness, what I lost when I didn’t get to say goodbye to Phil, and how much my life has changed since then. Sometimes choosing to embrace the pain can make us just a little bit stronger and a little readier to walk with others. Kind of like a marathon where a runner runs one step at a time, one mile at a time, one race at a time to the finish line, I must stay the course and remember to breathe though the pain to take back my finish line.

Choices

Choices 

Happiness is a choice. It isn’t always easy to make that choice and certainly life is not always fair, but looking for the blessings and for the small things that spark contentment is easier that the energy it takes to endure a enduring pity party. The choice involves thought and intentionality because people innately fixate on what is going wrong, what is missing, or on what should or could be. When Phil was assassinated, early on I recognized how that if I didn’t have the energy to waste thinking about Phil’s assassin. I recognized that anger or wanting revenge would not bring Phil back, but it would in essence give Phil’s assassin my life, too. Perhaps it would have been different if I was sitting in a room with this man, but I made a choice to use my time, energy, and focus on honoring the man Phil was as a military officer, husband, and a father. He was about so much more than the way he was killed.

 

Like most people, I assumed a lot of things about my life. I thought I knew how my fifties were going to look, and this is not what I saw. The last of our five children had just left the house the year Phil deployed. Since he married me and became dad to Patrick, Josh, and Emily, we never had time without children. We were looking forward to traveling without children, building our dream house, and eventually retiring to WA state. I made assumptions about life in other ways, too. I assumed that if I prayed, and if everyone else prayed, that God would protect Phil from violence. I have had to come to grips with my assumptive world shattering. My thinking has shifted and I have come to recognize that bad things happen to really good people and that life isn’t always fair, thus I must not waste my life’s moments by living in the shadows, cowering, or wishing for what is not possible.

 

Shifting my paradigms to look at what I do have to be thankful for has been key. This gratitude starts with shifting my thinking from feeling cheated with Phil’s death to being thankful for the 23 years we did have together. On my dark days, I force myself to acknowledge three things that I am grateful for. This act is not easy and I have to really think about it on those days, but when I find those nuggets, it sparks something. Those sparks remind me of what I do have, what I have to get up for in the morning, and more than that, it gives me hope. 

The second act that I do on my dark days of my pity parties is that I consciously look for ways to do random acts of kindness or service to others. When my focus is off of me, I am able to act. In giving, my batteries are reset. My focus leaves me and becomes in a bigger world beyond me. I see pain in others and by reaching, we heal together. 

I also force myself to get outside. There is something in moving that brings me sparks of joy. I find myself centering and working through the tears. I run, listen to meaningful music, fall into my faith, and I come home and write those thoughts. Through those simple acts, I am able to purge the darkness most days. Make no mistake, it isn’t easy some days or even weeks, but in the conscious deciding that I cannot give up living because it would mean that the assassin got me too, I am able to act. Phil did not have a choice about his death, but I have a choice about how I want to live. I choose life always–that means I show up and live my life fighting for happiness and meaning.

 

 

 

Fighting For My Family

Fighting For My Family

One of the biggest impacts of Phil’s death was on the tight knit family we once shared. Our five children came home often and brought friends with them. My family liked spending time together. After three and a half years, I am awakening to realize that those days are over in large part because of the fog of pain I was in. It isn’t easy to repair the ties when my children are flung in every corner of the world with the military. I feel like an afterthought because even the simple things like Mother’s Day or Christmas are forgotten. It isn’t like I need a gift—nor do I want one really—but to know that I am remembered with a phone call or a card would mean all to me.

If I had a do-over, I would hope for the strength to see beyond my own pain and to reach through the miles to keep my family intact. I would fight with every breath to be the soft place my children fell into. In my brokenness, I got it wrong and I am afraid that the damage is permanent.  I do not blame them, but rather myself.  I was the mom and I was the one who kissed the boo boos better, but this boo boo was not fixable for any of us.

I am not sure how I would have reached my children because we all grieved differently. I was focused on my own pain and I withdrew which created rifts that were not there. I just didn’t want to hurt my children more with my pain. That emotional severance led to anger in one, withdrawal in others, and a lackadaisical uninvolvement in others.   This is not slap on them, but rather on my own abilities to be the mom I should have been and the mom I want to be now when they all live so far away and the time has lapsed.

If my children were younger, it would be easier because we would still have shared experiences both good and bad. I would have put the whole family in therapy in the immediate aftermath of Phil’s death. I would have fought to stay fully present versus being mired in the darkness of all that would never be. I would have dealt with the anger and the withdrawal in them because they did and do matter more than anything to this girl.

Time has lapsed and the scary thing is wondering if this is all there is. As I awaken and realize that I do not want to be alone on every holiday, I am fighting for the family I had and wanted. As I spent Christmas alone and as the phone stayed largely quiet, I realized that unless I put the work into it, I am going to lose my family. I have to take charge. I started with telling each and every one of my children that I wanted Christmas together next year. It will be the first time in years that all of my children should be stateside and not deployed. I sent gifts and I am not asking for anything except for togetherness next year. I want that. I need that. I am not sure if it is possible at this point due to the time that has lapsed and the miles between us, but I am willing to put the work and effort into making it happen.

Often people get so mired in their own pain, they do not see the blows to those that stand next to them or to those on the same journey. I was one of those ignorant people. I just assumed my relationships with people would stay the same. Grief is not a solitary pursuit and the scars that are etched on all of us bear testimony to the trauma suffered. Sadly, I inflicted some of that trauma on my children, but today I am looking at the girl in the mirror and I am vowing to do what I can so that I can say, “We are family, indeed we are.”

It’s All About That Bass

I’m All About That Bass

There is a song that states “It’s all about that bass, about that bass.” That song means something different to me than others, I am sure. When I hear that song, I immediately consider my attitude. It is all about that attitude. While I cannot deny that I still have pity parties and days that I break out in tears, I can say that each and every day I make a choice to be happy. How can I subtly shift my paradigms when the very person I built my past and my future on was unfairly taken from me? I fight for it.

Every day I get out of bed and I lace up my running shoes. That simple choice is one that I made from the start. I don’t always feel like it and it doesn’t always work, but in the early morning hours I find grounding. I am able to work through my fears, my tears, and a crushing grief that threatens to steal my life. When I am running, I can feel sparks of happiness, and I can see that if I press on one second at a time, one minute at a time, one hour at a time, one mile at a time, one marathon at a time, I can do it. There will be times that hurt and times when I am consumed with thinking that I cannot face what lies ahead, but if I press on through the ache, I will find my footing and I will find joy in the journey. Easy? Never, but the choice is to face the darkness and fight the will that sometimes is counter to what I should do.

Five days after Phil was buried, I made the choice to return to work. I didn’t have to, but I needed something to get up for in the morning. I needed to take my focus off of the crushing pain consuming me to finding a new normal. It would have been easier to hide and to isolate. It felt like nobody knew what I was going through and I had no roadmap to help me navigate. Work gave me connections and it showed me that even in my broken state I had worth and that there were people who valued me.

Work also gave me a platform to help others and then it gave me a platform to effect change in the military world. Because of how Phil died, and because of the way I have processed my grief through writing and speaking on military loss, the brotherhood, and the resiliency that defines my choices, I have grown as a person. I surely would choose to have the life I once had—a life where I lived in the shadows of my very successful family, but I cannot live my days wishing for what can never be. I cannot let anger, regret, or living in the past consume my actions and thoughts, for if I do, the assassin got me to. It is in that choice, I can make something positive come from the darkness.

Three and a half years later, I find meaning and purpose in helping others and in knowing that I am making a difference for those families coming after this girl. It isn’t easy and sometimes I want to be Linda and not “that girl”. On Phil’s angel anniversary, however, I have found that while my heart is bleeding, if I reach out and do random acts of kindness for other people, I feel better. It gets the focus off of me and those thoughts of what should have been….what I thought my life was going to be in my fifties.

One of the biggest shifts in my paradigms happened this fall. One day I realized that life isn’t always fair and that I had come to peace with the fact that I had prayed every day for Phil to come home to me. He didn’t and it rocked my assumptive world view. My shift was in realizing that bad things happen to good people,–children even—and that I had been blessed to have had a man who loved me well for 23 years. Many people want what we had and I am blessed that I had it for as long as I had it. I know what it is to love well, be loved well, and what a good marriage looks like. In the choice to embrace gratitude for the 23 years we shared, my focus shifted from the pity party of one when I am lonely. Do I still get lonely and cry? You bet, but I breathe through the storms and concentrate on the aspects of what I can control. On those days when darkness closes in, I embrace pink polka dots, bubbles, sparkles, and my friends. I know that soon the sun will rise again and I choose happiness because it is all about “that bass”—my attitude says it all.