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Should You Pull The Trigger?

In less than twenty-four hours my father and I board the plane in Romania and head for home. Its been a fantastic week. New friendships started, old friends greeted, new foods eaten, lives shared, encouragement given and received for the journey ahead. As I prepare to leave, I find myself energized and expectant about the future.

Three years ago I was in the same position. My father and I had just completed a similar trip to Romania. I returned home full of excitement about what was to come. One month later, Kristi was diagnosed with cancer and we were plunged down the rabbit hole that is cancer treatment. Expectation was thwarted, dreams crushed and hope smothered.

That was an awful time, not so far removed that the emotions are deeply buried. It doesn’t require much effort to dig them up. If I wanted. But I choose not to. I choose to not burden this experience in Romania with the negative events that followed my last visit. “You are wise, Chad. You would be foolish to live in such a way.” I can hear the comments now. But that choice wasn’t automatic or quick. Loss and grief of this magnitude color all your decisions.

Obviously this trip has brought to mind the previous one and the events that followed. Its been a natural trigger. I knew it would be before I even agreed to come. I knew I’d be faced with this situation again. But rather than cowering in fear of what comes next, I’ve chosen to walk through this trip and the events that follow with expectation of a different outcome.

When dealing with loss and grief, you encounter trigger events all the time. As I wrote here, many of those events are little things that surprise you. You have two choices when you encounter trigger events, especially those you see coming: Avoid or Embrace

Avoidance can be especially helpful, especially when the grief or loss is fresh. I took my children and skipped out on the usual Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations the first year by going to the other side of the world. We still celebrated but in a way that was so new and unique that it didn’t drag us through all the emotions and pain we were still processing.

But this year I embraced all the holiday celebrations. We fully decorated the house, even doing it before Thanksgiving. There were many trigger events throughout the season that I had to wade through and process. But I was prepared this year and we had a wonderful time together as a family. Poignant with loss yes, but filled with joy nevertheless.

As you approach an event that you know is going to trigger feelings of grief and loss, ask yourself, “Is it OK to pull this trigger?” “Am I ready for this?” There’s no shame in saying no. Its your call. Don’t feel obligated to move forward when you’re not yet ready. The time will come. You’ll know it. And then you can pull the trigger, step into the event and live. If you’re not there yet, know that the day will come. There is hope.

If you’re trapped in fear of trigger events, avoiding them at all costs, and have been stuck there for a while with avoidance your only coping tool, try some training. You’ll be amazed at how good a brisk walk, bike ride or jog will make you feel. You’ll feel better prepared to face those events and pull that trigger to get life moving again.

“PULL!”

Designation VS Definition

My dad turned seventy on Friday. I gave him eight birthday cards, one for each decade he’s lived plus one for his special day. Each card had a title with a prominent name or position he wore for that decade: Donald (0-10), Donnie (10-20), Daddy (20-30), Dad (30-40), Father-In-Law (40-50), Pawpaw (50-60), Personal Trainer (60-70).

Within each card I listed other names and titles he used during that decade of his life. For the eighth card I titled it simply, Friend. Out of all his titles and names through the years, the one I like best now is that one. It’s how we relate to each other.

What started as a cute idea quickly became a profound lesson as I reflected on all his names and titles. I’ve worn many of the titles he has and many of them I hope to wear some day. But right now I’m wearing one he’s never worn: widower.

I never planned on having this title, at least not at this age. This is something that only happens to people my dad’s age, right? Right. But hiding from it doesn’t help. Denying it doesn’t deny the reality of the circumstance. It’s the correct designation. But what does it say about me? Will I let it define me and my future?

There it is. Designation versus definition.

With a life change as significant as Widower, you can’t help but be affected. It is certainly a defining moment. How I choose to handle this will affect the rest of my life. Will it be a designation for this period of my life or define the rest of my existence?

Widow and widower both are terms that grate on the nerves. They portend deep loss, broken hearts and dreams, grief, sadness and fear of the future. Will that be the definition I saddle on my life?

Its a hard place. But in that place I have found resolve. Resolve to continue to love, to expect restoration, to heal my heart, to laugh again and to build new dreams. Where did I get that resolve? Love.

The opposite of fear is not fearlessness, but love. In fact there’s an ancient Jewish saying that says, “Perfect love casts out fear…the one who fears is not perfected in love.” Where do you find that kind of love? Only one place I know. It was demonstrated perfectly in the life of one person. Jesus.

In the tumult of care-giving and fighting Kristi’s cancer and in the wilderness of fresh grief and loss, love is hard to hear and easy to let slip out of sight. Training helped me find it again. Training won’t heal your grief. The love of Jesus can. Training can help you find your way though until you discover it.

I don’t know how long I’ll wear this designation, widower, but it won’t define me. How about you?

On Being OK with Being OK

As we finished up a family devotional time yesterday morning, it came up in the conversation that it has been eighteen months since their mother died. My ever-energetic eleven year old son shouted, “Best eighteen months ever!”

I grinned. But inside I thought, “Hmm, should I be OK with that? Am I OK with that? Shouldn’t he be devastated, heartbroken, weepy and desperate to see and hug his mother?” But I’ve worked hard over the last year and a half to connect with my children and make sure they understand that they are OK and that life hasn’t stopped for them. Certainly not to forget their mother, but to know that she wanted them to keep living. So I was stoked to hear his spur of the moment judgement.

But there you have it. The seeming dichotomy of grief and life. Oh he misses his mother. He tells me that often, usually at bedtime when he also whispers that I’m the most important person in the world to him. But at the same time he’s been able to keep living life. He’s been able to keep living because I’ve chosen to keep living.

And being OK with being OK is a big step and big part of the choice to keep living life fully and fulfilled. If you’re not there yet, I understand. But know that you don’t have to throw a wet blanket on your life with feelings of remorse or regret at being OK.

I remember the first day where I thought, “Today was OK. It wasn’t horrible. I made it to the end.” It was weird. Once that thought was out there, the questions immediately hit me: “Is it OK to be OK?” “Is this somehow downplaying my grief?” “Am I belittling the love that Kristi and I shared for two decades?”

Yes, No and No.

Give yourself permission to be OK.

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This Deserves A Response

Another benefit to letting go of your anger is you’ll find space to respond to life instead of reacting. A response is driven by thought, faith, and deliberation. A reaction is driven by emotion. Rarely will you regret your responses. However reactions, especially those driven by anger, are often embarrassing and hurtful.

Navigating widowerhood demands a continuous string of responses throughout each day. Life does. But when you’ve been used to sharing the burden of those responses with your wife and she’s no longer there, having to handle them all alone seems daunting, overwhelming and impossible. It tires you out.

Trust me, choosing to react rather than respond will only magnify the burden of choices flowing your direction. And yes, its a choice. Anger is a choice. Many people employ it as a tool in relationships. I’ve found it to yield the poorest long term benefit. But that’s another discussion for another day.

Again, if anger is your go-to coping mechanism, you need to Take Time To Train. #4T. I’ll keep saying it, and don’t mind being stuck on the “Repeat Continuously” setting. Its a key component in living Fit, Faithful and Fulfilled. Anger will derail you. Choose to respond. That’s an action that’s fit for a widower.

A Bitter Pill

Perpetually pissed. That’s how bitterness strikes me. When grief first gripped me, right at the start of Kristi’s battle with cancer, I was seriously angry. I yelled on the phone and in person with numerous friends both brave and gracious enough to let me vent. I yelled often during Kristi’s fifteen month battle. Never in her presence, or the children either. Sometimes while running, often while driving. I raged at the helplessness I experienced. I ragged on the process and the treatment my precious wife had to endure. Our life was forever changed and that wasn’t fair. I was pissed.

I get mad quickly, heat flushing my cheeks. But neither do I hold on to anger; I let it go after it runs its course. I realized early on that I was going to have to keep flushing the anger through. Not to deny it or hide it, but let it out in a safe place so I could get back to supporting Kristi and our children. I found solace in long runs, swims and bikes. I could rage while alone if needed. More often I could simply channel the frustration of setbacks into my workout of the day, bleeding off the negative emotions and releasing positive energy that helped fuel me for the long road ahead.

With so many tasks requiring 100% of my time and focus, I knew I didn’t have the energy to remain angry all the time. Being bitter just takes too much effort. It steals what precious reserves of energy I have while robbing me of the emotional sense needed to connect with my children.

Bitterness is a choice. You don’t have to live there. Its not dishonoring to your wife to let go of the anger. And if anger is the only engine that drives your daily living, its going to be a lonely journey, much lonelier than it has to be. Try training. And try this short prayer:

“God, I’m always angry. Its killing my energy, emotions and relationships. I want to let it go, but don’t know how. Would you take this from me, please? Thanks.”

Peace to you my friends.

PS- Be encouraged, if you repeatedly let the anger go, I have found it stops returning after time. I don’t get angry anymore about my situation. I look for joy and a reason to smile each day.

Don’t Be Afraid

…to talk about your wife, especially if you have children. My youngest was barely seven when Kristi died. But he was only five when she was diagnosed with cancer. He can’t remember what he had for breakfast, let alone remember what his mom was like, especially before she got sick.

It breaks my heart that most of his memories of her are from fighting cancer. Every once in a while though he’ll come up with a memory from earlier. So I don’t try to stop the other three from talking about Kristi. They need to remember her as well.

I don’t try and force it either, I just let it come naturally. When one of them does something or says something or gives me a look that comes from Kristi, I let them know. Yes, of course it reminds me that she isn’t here any more. But dealing with loss is part of the landscape now. In fact I just posted about it a couple of weeks ago here.

Keep talking about your wife. Its important in the grieving and healing process. God knows. And you’ll find He provides the strength to do it.

New Year, New Choice

Never been big on resolutions. But in this new phase of life, you have to make some hard choices. The last eighteen months have been filled with choices I never thought I’d have to make. What’s for dinner? Do I let my daughter wear that outfit? Does it matter that my little boy’s socks don’t match? Paper or plastic?

More weighty though: How do I help my children remember their mother? Is it OK for them to see me laughing? Is it alright to be excited about something in life? I’m crying, should I let my friends see me? My children?

The new year is here and I remember this time last year. It was just six months since I’d lost Kristi. Those six months had been a blur. I knew that with the new year, the reality of surviving alone would envelope me. The thought, the reality was intimidating. The grief, the pain, the loneliness, the confusion was all waiting. But I knew I couldn’t hide from it. I had to go through it.

Instead of trying to dodge it, I made a choice to let life come and move forward through it. I made a choice to not hide. I made a choice to feel so that I could heal.

You have a choice to make. Do you hide from the pain and the loss or do you move through it? Let it come and then let it go? “Man up”, “Be Strong” and “Hang tough” all sound well and good. But if it means stuffing your emotions and letting them go unacknowledged and bottled up, then you’re heading for rough waters. Those emotions will out at some point.

Do you want to let them out when they’re fresh and new and running freely? Or do you relish waiting until they’re old, festered and full of pus?

Its a new year. You have a choice. You always have a chance to make a new one. Embrace life. The highs and lows. It’ll heal you faster.

Drill and Vise for dad tasks

Dad Stuff

Loved today! A full day of doing dad stuff. Got the tires rotated and oil changed on my daughter’s car. Then spent the afternoon assembling IKEA furniture for my boys’ room. Kristi never did these kind of tasks. There were exclusively my domain. It felt right. I wasn’t bumbling around, trying to figure stuff out (other than deciphering the IKEA pictographs…). I was in my element. Sweet!

As New Year’s comes and goes, I encourage you to find some time to do some stuff that’s in your domain. I know the stress that comes with all the other tasks you get to deal with now. Whether you’re good at them or not, they’re yours. So take some time to do your thing. Do Dad stuff!

PS I swam this morning too. 2000 yards. Was trying out my new swim paddles I got for Christmas.

Always Learning

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered in the last two and a half years of triathlon training, its this: You never know everything about your sport. Being a complete newbie to not only triathlon, but any sort of endurance sports training when I started, I asked a lot of questions and have done a lot of watching. You see some smart stuff and some practices I’m pretty sure I’ll never adopt.

Learning keeps me from growing stagnant in both sport and life. When you find yourself a widower, its mighty tempting to just pull everything close and quit moving forward in life. It feels like moving forward will bring further separation from your wife. She won’t be there to experience this new aspect of your life. Its weird. It hurts. Its scary. Its no wonder we shy away from forward momentum with all those negative connotations tied to it. But when we stop moving, we get stuck in an inward focused grief-spiral.

Training was an exception to the forward movement paralysis though. It seemed like an accessory to my life, not my main life, and it was an accessory I was OK with exploring. As I moved deeper into training for triathlon, I found I was learning and life was indeed moving forward and I was learning to be OK with it. Training moved me past the fear of new experiences without Kristi to share them. Training opened the door to a new life.

Sometimes Its the Little Things

that get you. You steel yourself against the expected onslaught of grief for major events: anniversary, birthdays, holidays. But for me, especially at the start, it was really simple things…like adding paper to the printer for the first time. Or changing the air filters in the house. I would find myself momentarily undone by everyday tasks and wonder, hmm, am I always going to be a basket case like this?

I think it was the fact that these little things marked the passage of time, marked time without Kristi. They were sign-posts I couldn’t avoid, from which there was no escape. Other times the tasks were ones that Kristi handled around the house. Now they fell to me. And in the doing, I was reminded of her absence and the void would reveal itself once more. That aching, empty void. That cold side of the bed.

But as those tasks repeated themselves, became my tasks and part of the new normal and the new me, the ache has lessened. The void isn’t as terrifying as it was at the start. Of course, just allowing myself to be ok with a new normal and new me was a battle too. You don’t want there to be a new normal. Or a new me. For a long while, you just want the old me back.

Dealing with Kristi’s cancer for fifteen months actually made the transition to widowerhood a little less traumatic in the sense that our old selves and relationship and identity disappeared the day we received Kristi’s diagnosis. We were fighting grief alongside cancer, right from the get go. So when I transitioned from care-giver to widower, grief wasn’t a new companion, just different and more intense.

Through it all, I trained. A blessed constant for me in a sea of change was Taking Time To Train. There’s that 4T principle. I wouldn’t have made the time though if I hadn’t been signed up for an event or a race. Once I was committed to a race, I found the time and motivation to train. And because endurance sports require some planning to make sure I was ready, I found myself setting and meeting goals in order to make it to race day. When life was spinning me around, and I was unable to muster the desire to move forward in my new life, I was still moving forward in my training. That was a slice of sanity. A small price for some peace and progress in my life.

If you find yourself put off kilter by the little things, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Let the grief come and then let it go. In the mean time, hit the road or the trail or the pool and train! At least three days per week, for a minimum of 45 minutes per training session. Trust me, it’ll help.