What’s It Like for You?

As you may know, the retreat portion of A Widow’s Tale was developed with a grant from the National Storytelling Network.

I wanted to share this conversation that I had with NSN’s Circle of Excellence Award winner and widow, Gwenda Ledbetter.

Donna Marie: What was the hardest thing for you about becoming a widow for you Gwenda?

Gwenda: Admitting that I needed help and then asking for it. You feel so raw and so, well, it’s almost like being a kid again. Not knowing how to do things and needing somebody to hold your hand and lead you through it but you’re a mature woman and you’re not supposed to be like that.

Donna Marie: I think your reference to being like a child again is so interesting…it’s an interesting spot to be in, isn’t it?

Gwenda: Interesting…that’s a nice adjective (she laughs!).

Donna Marie: So you came to A Widow’s Tale retreat…did you find that helpful?

Gwenda: Yeah, it was helpful. It’s everyone being in the same place and having survived so to speak…it’s the company of the others.

Donna Marie: It’s really lovely to be with the other women. And you “get” each other — you understand.

GWENDA; There’s something strange when you’re talking about grief, sort of this dark curtain comes down. It’s like a dark room you don’t wanna go into, right? You know, I’m so tired of being the one that has to deal with everything.

Donna Marie: Say more about that. That part has been really big for me.

GWENDA: Well, you’re always on…. there’s nobody else. The kids want the best for you but – they’re not there, are they?

Dealing with everything and not knowing what you’re doing, it’s like a comic bit, like the old cartoons….Oh my God, what am I going to do about this? Who do I call? Of course it’s a pattern and now, now, I just do it automatically. I’ll just get somebody…

Donna Marie: If you had to tell other widows something about being a widow what would it be?

GWENDA: When you lose the person you’ve lived your life with, when I became a widow, I started on a new journey to finding out who Gwenda is now and I’m still on that one. It’s entirely new territory. Not completely new, what you’ve lived and who you are is there but it’s different now. You work on being your own best friend.

I couldn’t have said it better myself! Gwenda is right, your real work now is learning to be your own best friend. The Widow’s Recovery System is designed to help you become your own best friend.

It’s easy to get started.

  1. You set up a free phone call with me to talk about where you are in your widow’s journey and where you’d like to be. The whole program takes place in the privacy of your own home.
  2. You order the program online.
  3. You’ll receive the link to 7 Recovery Audio Recovery Courses that provide valuable insights. As you listen, you’ll learn about the different phases of grief and gain a deeper understanding about the challenges of your recovery and rebuilding process.
  4. Your Recovery Workbook has practical exercises to release grief and rebuild a compassionate relationship with YOURSELF step-by-step!
  5. Let me get your back. Every other week, we’ll talk by phone, just the two of us, about how things are going. This gives you the support you need to move forward!
  6. And, you’ll receive unlimited email support for the full seven weeks of the program.

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Memorial Day

Sarge was my Daddy’s last best friend. I never knew his “real” name, everyone just called him Sarge, which I guess pretty well tells you that he was a career military man. They were the two widowed roosters in a hen house called the assisted living center. They were handsome and ornery but as Sarge said, “We’re too old to do anything about it.” When they moved my Daddy to the nursing unit, he came twice a day, like clockwork, just to say hello. He was a faithful friend until the very end.

After Daddy died, I gave him the lift chair and he played with the remote for hours on end. He put it through its paces like the drill sergeant he was. “Attention!” he’d holler as he pushed the button to go up and then he’d push the button to go down and say “At ease.” It was really funny. He loved that chair.

Like Daddy, Sarge was a child of the great depression and like Daddy, he lost his mother before he turned 9. But unlike Daddy, his father sent him to live with a distant relative, to work on his farm in exchange for room and board. People did that back then—it was how folks survived.

The first Easter Sarge lived on the farm, he carefully lined his Easter basket with field grass, like his mother had taught him, and left it on the stairs for the Easter bunny to find it. But when he ran downstairs on Sunday morning, the basket had a big horse turd in it instead of candy and Sarge said, “That’s when I knew the Easter bunny wasn’t never coming again, Santa Claus neither.” What a cruel joke. What kind of man does that to a child?

Needless to say, he left that farm as soon as he could in the only way that gave him a safe way out: The US Army. Sarge was a hard worker accustomed to sacrifice. The Army needed men like him, men who understood hardship and death. He stayed at it, married a sweet woman from home, and rose to the rank of Sergeant.

He travelled the world with the military and regaled the assisted living hens with stories of his exploits over supper. The two missionary women would try to one-up him but it never worked. He’d seen things—lots of things. “I’ve seen too many things a man shouldn’t have to see and I wish the good Lord would let me forget.” he told Daddy more than once. I guess, in a way, God answered his prayer. Sarge developed dementia and barely knew who he was for a few years before he died

As Memorial Day dawns, I salute men like Sarge. I salute all the men and women who have seen things no one should have to see so the rest of us don’t have to. They sacrificed themselves on a daily basis so we wouldn’t have to. Sarge, and his fellow soldiers, who lost their minds and limbs and lives serving our country and protecting our freedoms will always be honored in my home and heart. On this weekend when we acknowledge their service, may they know peace.

 

 

Struggling to Breathe

It started early one morning over a week ago. I heard a seal pup barking incessantly in the distance and then gradually realized it was me. My head was hot and my chest felt oddly tight, as if I couldn’t figure out how (or where) to catch my breath, so I just gave up and slept some more. Ten hours to be exact, before rising to drink a glass of water, calling the doctor for an appointment, and going back to bed for another ten.

At the doctor’s, I was unceremoniously asked to wear a facemask. (I guess the seal pup barking gave me away.) They swabbed me here and swabbed me there; I was negative for flu, strep, and my exit form said, “Extreme Cough – Possible Pneumonia.” An X-ray was ordered for the next day.

Oddly, I didn’t have to wait at the pharmacy for hours like usual. Thanks to my cough and face mask, people parted to let me through like I had the black plague. I received a duffel bag full of drugs marked “Acute! Waiting!”: Steroids (which made me feel like a crack addict in a superwoman suit), a strong antibiotic (bye-bye gut bacteria), an inhaler (I cried every time I used it!), and a codeine-laced cough syrup that calmed the worst of my bark but made me feel like a trailer-trash queen with too much mascara and a two-sizes-too-small sagging tube top. The X-Ray confirmed pneumonia.

Since I’ve never met a metaphor I didn’t like, I’ve spent the last 10 days (when I’ve been conscious) reflecting about other times I have struggled to breathe. (None of those were pretty either…)

Often, we struggle to breathe way before we want to label ourselves as “Acute!” or “Comatose!” Financial issues, illness, work difficulties, family arguments, relocating, and a host of other situations put an increasing pressure on our chest that just doesn’t want to go away. We feel weighted down and lethargic inside our own skin. The stronger the pressure, the less we want to talk about it. The stronger the pressure the more we want to try to sleep it off instead of slowing down. In fact, often we’re afraid to slow down because we’re afraid we’ll run out of breath altogether.

And yet. And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to just stop and check in with ourselves: “Hey, how’s the breathing thing going?”

As I discovered with my pneumonia, when your lungs are full of junk, there’s no space for oxygen. And when your life becomes a struggle, there’s no space for breath.

So if that’s you right now, just STOP. Right here. Right now. Take a quiet moment to feel the breath coming in your body and leaving your body. This breath is your life. You are not your financial issues, illness, work difficulties, family arguments, or upcoming decision.

You are a human being and you live from one breath to the next until you don’t. So honor this by closing your eyes and focusing on your breath. Watch it coming in and going out. You are a human being living from one breath to the next. That’s all and that’s enough. With each breath in, life fills your cells and with each breath out, that which no longer serves you leaves. FACT: that breath you just took was given to you by the mercy of God. Let that be enough.

 

Trusting the Unknown

I have trust issues. Many times in my early life what I trusted was happening was not what was really happening and this gave me “issues” with trust. I used to think that made me a rarity but now everywhere I turn, I see someone sporting a monster-truck-show issue that is so big mine seem small by comparison.

I finally sought professional help to work them out because they kept getting in the way of my life. And it really helped. (Some of my issues got worked out and others are still a “work in progress.”)

Part of the work was becoming friends with the unknown. My favorite dance partner, a need to control, was in the picture, too. My biggest problem was I KNEW what needed to be happening. I DID. And when it didn’t, boy did I get upset about it.

This left me feeling way too responsible for stuff and just plain worn out. For years, I was in my own daytime soap opera: Will _____ do the right thing and get their life together? Is _____fooling around on ____ and should I tell them? Did ______realize ______?

I am a slow learner sometimes. My husband’s death taught me a lot about trust. Everything was an unknown for a while there. To survive, I had to let go of trying to control things, I didn’t have the energy for that, which was a blessing in disguise. If no one was having a stroke or dying, it was all good. Death gave me quite the switch up in life perspective!

Since I took myself off the “Committee in Charge of Everything” my life is so much better. There’s a sweetness about trusting the unseen that I savor and an excitement about what God might stick in my life next that energizes me.

Is it time for you to go off the committee? The Widow’s Recovery System is a great way to get the personal support you need to recover and move forward!
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Will Spring Ever Come?

Thanks to the ongoing reality of climate change, most of us are wondering when spring is really coming this year. Friends in the Midwest and northeast have been shoveling late April snows off their walkways while those of us in the South go from 70 degree days to 40 degree days with ice, sleet, freezing nights, and lots of rain thrown in for good measure.

When you’ve had a hard winter, you long for spring and yet it’s often after hard winters that we wonder if spring will ever come.

Weather is often a metaphor for life. The hard winters of the heart leave us begging for spring, begging for light, begging for beauty. They leave us crying, in the words of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

An unrelenting truth of life is that there is always new life but we usually have to let something in us die to find it.

So as you await spring, look around inside your life. Is there something darkening your days that needs to die so you can live? Is it time for your heart to have a little spring cleaning while you await the warmth and sunlight of spring?

Ode to a Songbird

I hit a bird today. A tiny, sparrow-like mama bird with a pale yellow body flying across the road with a morsel in her mouth. Too late I saw her; too late saw the morsel in her mouth; too late saw her hit the glass and fall to her death on the shoulder of the two-lane country road.

It ripped my heart out to hit her. Red-shouldered hawks have circled our skies for days, gathering meat for their nests, but she’d survived them. She understood the hawks and had probably outmaneuvered them more than once this spring. She’d withstood other predators, too: Squirrels, crows, possums, and coons all enjoy a songbird’s egg. But nothing in her DNA had prepared her to meet a windshield. She never saw death coming.

The little mother was on one of those missions that only another mother can understand; racing through each day, exhausting herself to find food for her young. Her flight path was lo and laser-focused on the first maple in the meadow where generations of mountain songbirds reared their young before her. The meadow was theirs long before the road was ours.

My mind leapt to the nest, to the young who were now without a mother. As I well understand, the death of a parent is a family affair, and I lifted a prayer that they will survive without her. In high contrast to our thoughts of immortality (despite our continued 100% morbidity), wild things live day to day and understand that death is never very far away.

For weeks now the songbirds have greeted me in the morning and their full throated singing has filled my heart with joy. Their songs are such a lovely reminder that new life is rising from the dark cold of winter, that what was birthed in darkness will soon lift blooms above ground.

This sweet bird’s sudden death was another reminder to slow down and live my life more intentionally; to hold myself accountable for the precarious balance between humanity (the world’s most invasive and dangerous species) and the rest of nature. Just like the bird, we, too, face new threats to our survival: poisoned food and water, noxious air, global warming, the marriage of big food and big medicine. (Lord have mercy upon us.) We are all connected, truly we are. What kills the songbirds will surely kill us, too. Let us remember before it is too late that their songs, our songs, are too valuable to lose.

 

Life Is Precious

A friend had a stroke last week. Two, actually. Neither did much damage, thank God. But it was enough to put him in the hospital, then in rehab and scare the bejeebes out of his wife. A burp of AFib was allegedly the culprit but as I discovered years ago, it’s often hard to know.

It’s often the things we don’t know that kill us—or at least badly wound us: the slow-growing tumor, the creeping blood pressure, the speeding car we can’t see, the affair that destroys our marriage.

Life is fragile; we all know that. But if we know it’s fragile, why are we so rough with it? We piddle-play with time, always thinking there’s more. We treat our bodies with indifference until we hit a wall and end up in the hospital or the morgue.

And relationships. How rare is it to consciously honor those? Someone loves us and as soon as we know they’re not going anywhere, we disrespect them. Not by having an affair per se, but by toughening ourselves against the sweetness of it. We cling to our aloneness (calling it independence) and push against the beauty of the joining until the loved one feels shut out or shuts down and responds (in self-defense) with their own acts of otherness.

Kids! (Good Lord don’t get me started! Oops—too late.) We birth them; we feed them. We pay for health care, dental cleanings, sports teams, musical instruments, summer camps, clothes, and eventually a car only to have them turn sixteen and scoff and stomp against our wise words like they’re interacting with an idiot. Sure, you gain your IQ back bit by bit, year after year once they hit 21, but still, it hurts, doesn’t it? The day comes when they want to fly the nest (or you’re ready to kick them out of it) and it’s hard to remember the love. It’s awkward, or if it’s badly handled, terminal.

Maybe we should all wear a stamp with big red letters that says: FRAGILE! HANDLE WITH CARE. Maybe that would help us remember just how precious we are. How precious this time is. How precious every soul in our lives is (and I’m including pets here). If we remembered, maybe then we would be kind and careful.

There’s lots of angry separateness in our world today but my friend’s stroke cast a pebble in a pool its ripples reminded those of us close to him to make the most of our love and our time because this is not a dress rehearsal; this is our life.

The Lifting of Prayers

You never know how one action of yours will impact some one’s life. (I guess that’s a good reminder to be careful about what you put out into the world.) This is a little story about putting good stuff out there so fear not.

When I took my Christmas tree to the curb (Technically, my son did this but my mitochondria fuel his body so it’s basically like I did it.) I was aware that without it, the living room looked dark and depressing. When I let the dogs out to pee, I saw that the wind had broken a large branch off one of the dogwoods in the backyard and inspiration struck. I retrieved the branch and the tree stand, screwed the graceful branch into the stand, tossed a piece of leopard fabric over the stand, and strung white twinkle lights on it. It began its new life as just a winter pretty, something to bring a little joy to the long winter nights. But God had other plans.

The next day, during my meditation, a concern weighed heavily on my heart so I wrote a prayer out on a heart-shaped piece of paper to keep it in the front of my mind when inspiration struck (again). I cut some pieces of twine and more paper hearts and the prayer tree was born. As soon as I tied the first prayer to the tree, more prayers asked to join.

I wrote about it and people emailed their prayers in reply. Interestingly, the prayers were not for themselves, but rather for people dear to them. Neighbors and friends saw the tree at night and commented on it; thinking it was a Valentine’s Day tree (close, very close). When they discovered its holy purpose, they also asked to place prayers on the tree. I cut up more hearts and ribbon and kept them on the coffee table because I never knew when another prayer would arrive. I was blown away by the tree’s ability to inspire people to pray for each other. What a metaphor for human kindness and caring it became.

Each night, as the tree’s lights came on, I lifted up all the prayers on the tree in a time of silence. New ones appeared every day.: Babies needing more time in the womb (three of them). Please Lord! People with addictions. Marriages in trouble. Hear our prayer! Elderly who had taken serious falls and would now call a nursing unit home. Those struck by life-ending cancers or diseases. And there were joys, too! Thank you Lord! Prayers of gratitude for graduations, for families reunited, for soldiers returning home in one piece, for new relationships and jobs. The tree held them all.

Then spring came. The tree was so full of prayers its limbs touched the floor. When Holy Week loomed on the horizon, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to set the prayers and the tree free. To burn them as the ancients often did. So Saturday I removed the twinkle lights and we (Well, technically my son, but I’ve already covered that…) took the tree outside to the fire pit. The limbs were broken (We love symbolism at my house.) and placed into the pit. Even broken, they were beautiful.

And here’s the really cool thing: Almost all the prayers had been answered. A few were still in process. Some prayers had been answered in different ways than the requestor intended but were answered in a way that best benefited the receiver. In the way that God gives us not always what we want but what we need.

When dark came, my son lit the charger and dropped a few new prayer hearts into the center. Flames lifted to the sky. (The dogwood is one of the hardest trees in the woodland. It burns white hot and is almost smokeless.) Within minutes, it consumed itself to white ash. Completely.

In its place my again-humbled heart is shouting:
“Alleluia! Our God hears us! Alleluia!”

A new Widow’s Recovery Program begins soon. Email me if you’d like to talk about where you are in your journey and how it could benefit you. The call is free.

An Easter Message

Easter is coming. Surely you’ve noticed!

Grocery stores and pharmacies hawk marshmallow chicks, plastic eggs, and baskets woven by robots in China (Or kids under the age of twelve, one of the other.). Hallmark further holds this tension with crosses proclaiming “He is Risen!” parked next to cards with cats in bunny ears (Which is quite the trick, if you’ve ever been owned by a cat.). Easter frocks and polka-dotted bows adorn the department store circulars and proclaim the new American way: If you don’t go to church, you can still go to lunch!

Meanwhile, as you read this, resurrection sermons are being prepared all over the world. Sold-out houses of worship expect an uplifting message and trust me, they won’t be disappointed. Easter is the Black Friday cash cow of Christianity.

Resurrection is something I actually understand.

And what I know is this: beauty is born in the darkness. Always.

Christ didn’t spring from the cross. He left his grave. Beauty is born in the darkness.

I remember the Easter when I was five and we hunted boiled eggs in the snow. I knew what I was looking for because I’d carefully dyed them the day before, dipping them in and out of dark, vinegary water while standing on a stool. My sister tottered around and filled her basket with crocus, which sort of looked like purple eggs, so of course I had to give her half of mine.

Or there was the year my mother was out of commission from a radical mastectomy and the rest of us went to the elegant Greenbrier Hotel for lunch. The manager was in Rotary with my Dad and after lunch he gave me a solid chocolate bunny as big as I was. It took me most of the year to eat it. To this day, I compare all chocolate to it. (Which makes me very hard to please come Valentine’s Day.)

Then early in my own motherhood, there was the year I spent way too much money on a pale linen Easter suit for our toddler son, only to have him break his foot on Palm Sunday with a cast iron stand he somehow managed to lift but could not hold onto. While I was paying the bill, he selected bright green tape for his cast. It was absolutely hideous against the delicate linen. Macabre even. So he ended up hunting eggs in a pair of old plaid shorts and a green T-shirt. Everyone but me thought it was cute.

As a widow, I understand just how dark life can get when you have to adjust to a new way of being. Which is what death is… and what widowhood is.

We have all of us, all of us, been resurrected from something. The more I share my story, the more I know this to be true. But each time you choose to heal and gently leave your hurt behind, beauty is born in the darkness.

Happy Easter from all of us at the Widow’s Recovery System.

STOP SIGNS

Some things make you feel like you took one step forward and then two steps back. But other things bring your life to a full halt. They’re the four-way stop signs of life and, guess what, you don’t have the right of way.

It feels so weird, right? . It’s like no one sees you’re stopped. The other drivers pause to look both ways and then blow on by like you aren’t even there. They are still living life at full-on go, petal-to-the-metal baby!

But you can’t deny that you’re at a STOP sign. The reasons vary: loss of a job, a serious health issue or accident, an intimate betrayal, or someone close to you dies. And suddenly you are suspended in mid-air and, worse yet, there’s no net set up to catch you.

Shock is the natural reaction to a full-on stop. You’re bound to say one version or the other of “What the hell just happened?!” Your mind replays the inconvenient truth again and again – as if more thinking can make sense of the unthinkable.

When you’re stuck at a STOP sign, it feels like it’s never happened to any one before, when in reality, full STOPS are the truest of human realities. It’s just that, until the STOP sign appears, you feel invincible. It’s the American Way! You buy into the super-hero fantasy of invincibility which, it should be noted, sells lots of movie tickets, Spanxs, and spandex. But when you deny your softness and vulnerability,  you deny your own humanity and cut yourself off from self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the most important part of waiting at a STOP sign.  Let’s say your car was totaled in an accident. Would you leap out and yell at it? Could you bully it into action? Would screaming, “Get it together! Stop whining. Get your front end up off that pavement and just get on with it!” be helpful? Could the car get up and put itself back together because you yelled at it? It’s laughable, right? And yet…

When the inevitable happens and a STOP sign rises up in front of you, are you tempted to bully yourself into “doing something?” Do you push yourself to action when there’s probably not an “action” you can take that will change anything?

The only solution to STOP signs is kindness. The kind of loving kindness you would offer to a lost puppy or a toddler with a boo-boo happens to be good for you, too. And the irony is that when you are kind to yourself, what really does need to happen usually does.

This is going to sound crazy, but the next time you hit a STOP sign, maybe you could just stop. Maybe you could be patient and wait and be as kind to yourself as you know how. A STOP sign is a highly personal experiences that arrives unannounced and uninvited. STOP signs don’t seek your opinion. They don’t ask if you want one or if now is a good time. It just doesn’t’ work that way.

So when the STOP signs of life appear, maybe you could try something different. Maybe you could take a deep breath and say something nice to yourself like, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”  That might really help because the only thing you can really control at a STOP sign is how you react to it.

If you are at a pivotal moment in your widowhood (you’ll know it if you are) and are ready to forward, then you are ready for the Widow’s Recovery System and the personal support and resources it offers. Your first sacred support call is free. Learn more.