A Lifetime of Lessons in Ten Years

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Dad and the baseball team. That’s him in the front row, far right.

We only shared space on the planet for ten years, but those few short years I had a dad made a tremendous impact on little me. After my dad passed away, I spent too much time focusing on how my father’s passing affected my life. I was preoccupied with what my life would be like, and who the other me would be if my dad had lived longer.

After a while I realized it was much more conducive to remember how his life shaped my life, as opposed to how his death impacted my life. It’s much more fun to think about all that was added to my life by having a wonderful dad for ten years, than to dwell on what was taken away when he died. It took me many years to get to that point, but at least I got there.

Which brings me to Father’s Day. How do I celebrate Dad’s life rather than mourn his loss, on special days when I can’t help but think about him? Of course, I think about my dad every day, but it’s still important for me to commemorate him now and then, in special ways on certain days like Father’s Day.

My dad loved baseball, and he loved the Atlanta Braves. One of his favorite past times before he passed away was “jogging,” as the “new exercise craze” was called back then.

So it seemed appropriate to commemorate him on Father’s Day weekend this year, as the 30th anniversary of his passing approaches in July, by participating in the Father’s Day 4-Miler Race at Turner Field! It was such a fun run!

We started outside the stadium, ran around some of Atlanta’s oldest in-town neighborhoods including Grant Park, and we ran by the Atlanta Zoo, which was a bit smelly for a run. We then looped around back to the stadium, where we ran in through the tunnel, entered Turner Field near first base and finished the race after running to home plate, with a (very small) crowd of spectators in the seats cheering us on.

I think my dad would have loved it. He loved the Braves before the Tomahawk Chop and Turner Field. He loved the Braves when they were in the generic, now non-existent Fulton County Stadium. I wish he could have been here to run it with me or watch me finish. Hopefully he could “see” me, somehow. I often feel like he’s with me, so perhaps he was yesterday too.

Shortly after the race yesterday morning, I drank a beer. It doesn’t matter what time of day I race, a ceremonial beer (or two) is consumed afterwards. There’s nothing like a cold one after a run, another life truth my dad taught me. He would let me have a sip of his beer when he’d get home from his run. Yes, I was a kid, but it was only a sip, don’t judge! And it’s one of my favorite memories of him.

“My father didn’t tell me how to live. He lived, and he let me watch him do it.”  – Clarence B. Kelland

More importantly, while my mom constantly informed me of my many flaws and limits, my dad always tried to help me see that I could do, or be, anything I wanted, as long as I put my mind to it, and worked hard at it.

How did he teach me this? He lived his life.

My Dad was the son of very poor Hungarian immigrants.   His parents, (my grandparents) were uneducated and didn’t even speak English. My dad grew up in a very poor neighborhood outside of Saint Louis, Granite City, Illinois, where his dad worked in the local steel mill, and meals often came from the backyard supply of chicken and vegetables. In spite of this, dad achieved the American Dream. Dad worked his way through school by joining the Army. He became an officer in the Army and member of the corps of engineers, graduated from college, became a civil engineer, a homeowner, and a father of four. He was a patented inventor, and business owner. All with little to no financial support from his parents. He did it on his own.

It makes me proud to have had him as my father. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but to his ten-year-old daughter, he certainly was.

More:

Father’s Day Thoughts: Who My Father Was

Who the Other Me Would Be

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Paper Goods

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When was the last time you wrote a love letter? Or any letter for that matter? How long has it been since you received a letter – on paper?  Not an email, or a text, or a card…not a thank you note, not an invitation or a postcard, but a real, paper-and-ink handwritten letter?

Letter writing is a rapidly dying art. Many schools no longer teach cursive handwriting.

Sure, typing a few sentences and clicking “Send” is much more efficient and convenient than tracking down a paper and pen, hand writing, hand-erasing, (or whiting-out, or scratching through), and signing. Then you have to fold the paper, find an envelope, stuff it, address it, stamp it, and go all the way to the end of your driveway (at best) or to the local post office to mail it. Why go through all that hassle when you can send your sentiments instantly without leaving your chair, or leaving a paper trail? 

Snail Mail

Granted, email is quick and convenient, but try holding an email in your hands 60 years later, or 30 years after the author has passed away. You could hold a computer generated print-out of the message, but that’s not the same as holding an original document that was handwritten by a loved one. Real letters can be left behind, passed on, reviewed by future generations…. but most electronic mail will never be accessed again after their intended recipient is gone…And perhaps that won’t matter, in most cases, for most people.

As someone who has lost both parents, I am glad that good old-fashioned letters, sent via “snail mail”, were once a primary mode of communication. I’m even a little grateful that my mom was a borderline hoarder. When she passed away and we cleared out her house, we found that she saved virtually every piece of paper she ever received, apparently.

Thanks to those seemingly inconsequential circumstances, we have a personal account of my parents’ younger days together. Their letters are especially valuable since neither of my parents are alive to recount any memories or stories from their courtship and engagement. The 40-50 letters that my dad wrote to my mom while he was stationed in Germany before and after their wedding tell many stories about my parents that I may have never learned.

Not all the sentiments in my parents’ old letters are beautiful and romantic. In fact, certain parts of some of the letters are not easy to read. Several of my dad’s attempts at humor were cringe-worthy. Then again, humor in the 1950s was a bit less edgy (and much less funny) than today’s humor. And then, of course, there were the mushy, lovey-dovey parts of the letters… no one wants to read about their parents’ intense physical desires for one another!  But I suppose it’s comforting to know that my parents were so in love, because my Dad didn’t live long enough for me to witness that much for myself.

A Moment in Time – On Paper

While those old love letters from my dad to my mom are very special, there is one other piece of paper that is even more precious to me personally. It is another letter that my dad wrote to me while I was away at camp one summer, shortly before he passed away in 1982. I love to hold that paper in my hands and know that he held it once too, that he took the time and care to put his thoughts on it, just for me.

I analyze his handwriting, which had changed quite a bit over the years, compared to the love letters he had written, as a young soldier, to my mom, in his sweeping, smooth cursive script. By the time he wrote this note to me at camp, Dad’s lettering now had a distinctive structural, squared architecture. My dad, the engineer, inventor, and frequent drafter of blueprints, wrote to me with swift, cheery, evenly spaced and perfectly drawn block letters. All caps.

No email could ever bring me back to a point in time the way that letter does. The grain of the paper, the weight of it in my hands, the color of the ink, the letterhead from Dad’s company at the top of the page, his signature at the bottom… I have memorized every detail.

Whenever I hold that letter and read it again, even today, I can almost remember how it felt to be a kid again, carefree and not yet jaded by the death of my father, which would soon jolt me out of childhood.

Although it was written more than 30 years ago, that one simple little note can help me to remember what it felt like to have a father.

Regrets of the Dying Inspire Living

“The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, but writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume with what he vowed to make it.” – J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister

If you were on your death bed right now, looking back on your life, what would you regret most?

Ironically, one of the best ways to prioritize what matters most, and to discover the best way to live your life to the fullest, is to think about dying. We can learn a lot from dying, but by then of course, it’s too late…   

Do you think you won’t have any regrets later in life? Most people do regret something along the way. In fact, many people often have some of the same or similar regrets. In a recent article and book, a hospice care nurse composed a list of the top 5 regrets of the dying. The list is moving in several ways. 

Reading the list of “most common regrets”, and thinking about death, and how short and fragile life is, prompts me to reexamine my own life history, similarly to how I felt after my mom passed away and I found myself parentless. I’m forced to think about what I want to do differently moving forward. What really matters, at the end? How can we live our lives so we don’t have the same regrets when we’ve reached those final days? Even after reading, learning and knowing what the common regrets are among those who’ve gone before us, it can still be challenging to avoid regret. Striving to live a regret-free life challenges you to make tough decisions and then act upon them.

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”  – Bronnie Ware. Top 5 Regrets of the Dying

People think it’s easy, selfish, and simple to follow your dreams and desires in life, to go after what you want and what you know is best for you. But often, getting to where you know you’re supposed to be in life can be much more trying than it is to live complacently. It’s often much easier to go with the flow, and the status quo, to maintain appearances and live by the rules and order of how your life is “supposed” to go, according to….whom?

When reading about the regrets of the dying my thoughts also naturally turn to my mother’s final days… How did she feel as she reflected back upon her 73 years of life? Did she have a lot of regret? And if so, did she have some of these “most common” regrets as she lay in her hospice bed, laboring to take her final breaths?

If my mother’s stormy moods throughout the years were any indication, my guess is that she definitely had regrets, though she never would have admitted them, even as she prepared to leave this world.

I have some ideas as what Mom’s regrets may have been, but it’s just speculation, because again, she would never have admitted to having any regrets.

Mom’s first marriage, to my father, was a long and happy marriage, for the most part I think, but ended too soon when he died suddenly at age 52. Her second marriage was nearly as long as the first, but was an unhappy marriage, and probably didn’t end soon enough.

But from what I can surmise, based on how Mom acted after Dad died, things she said, plus a few things my older siblings have told me about my mom and dad’s relationship, my guess would be that she felt she had taken him for granted. Maybe she didn’t feel she had expressed her love and gratitude to him enough, which is why it was so painful for her that he died so suddenly, before she had a chance to show him and tell him a few last times before he was gone forever.

I don’t agree with my mom’s philosophy on grieving. She always said that the reason people cry when a person dies is not so much because they miss the person… she said that people cry for selfish reasons, because they had regrets, guilt, or unfinished business with the deceased. So she said as she shed thousands of tears over the death of my father. So that’s how I know she definitely felt regret over some aspect of her marriage to my dad, but I’m not sure what the regret was based upon specifically.

My mom remarried a year and a half after my dad passed away. Many friends and people in the community whispered that it was too soon. Perhaps it was. She devoted 20 years of her life to someone with whom she was not happy. Did she regret staying with her second husband all those years?  I’m not sure she would have been happy with anyone else after my father, so I don’t blame my stepfather for her unhappiness. Besides, my mom chose to marry him, and she could have made a different choice. But, after remarrying an old friend rather hastily, she was committed. She would tell you it was a matter of principle, of religious doctrine, and commitment, as her Catholic faith doesn’t recognize divorce. But I can’t help but wonder if it was a matter of fear – a fear of change, a fear of failure, and a fear of judgment by others.

So she pressed on. Did she regret remarrying so soon? Is she glad she invested those 20 years, for whatever her reasons? I’d have asked her this question myself, if I thought she’d have given me an honest answer.

My mother’s situation is one example of how living one’s life to avoid regret, may have proven more difficult than easy. Change is difficult, and choosing not to marry my step-father would have required her to live on her own for the first time in her 50+ year life. So she went with what she thought was the safe choice, I’m sure. Then, once she was married, making a decision and taking action to correct or change her situation would have been much more difficult and challenging than she might have been able to handle, especially after surviving my Dad’s death, widowhood, and all the change and sorrow that goes along with losing a spouse suddenly and relatively young. 

Do my mom’s regrets even matter anymore at this point in time? She has been gone since 2004. I suppose her regrets matter to me for the same reason the nurse’s list of the Top 5 Regrets is of interest to readers – because hopefully we can learn from the mistakes and successes of those who have gone before us, especially those with whom we share life experience and genetic code..

What regrets do you fear most? What regrets are you taking action to avoid? What would you add to the list? And what advice would you give to others to try to live their lives free of regret?

I already have regrets, that cannot be undone. In the summer of 2004 I should have asked my mom about her regrets in life. Even if she would have chosen not to share them with me candidly, at least I could be at peace with the fact that I attempted to learn about them, and to take them to heart for guidance in my own future.

How do you die without feeling regret? Hopefully the way my dad did it was not the only way to do so – he died instantly, so, he had no time to feel regret whatsoever.

Don’t let sudden death be the only way you can die without feeling regret. Start living your life, for you and only for yourself, today.

You’re pretending this isn’t your life. You think it’s going to happen some other time. When you’re dead you’ll realize you were alive now.  – Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest

 

9 Tips to Help Someone Grieving During the Holidays

Do you know a friend or family member who is currently grieving the loss of a loved one as the holiday season approaches? Grieving is never easy, but it can be especially challenging around the holidays. 

Often, friends and family members of those affected by a loss are unsure how to act or what to say to support their grieving loved one during the holidays. You want to help, but how?

For most people, the holiday season is a special time of year marked by celebrations and gatherings with family and friends. For those struggling with the death of a loved one, the holidays may be a difficult time full of painful reminders that emphasize their sense of loss.

Hospice and palliative care medical professionals, who are experienced at helping people deal with grief and loss, offer some suggestions:

  1. Be supportive of the way the person chooses to handle the holidays. Everyone grieves and mourns in different ways. Some people may wish to follow traditions; others may choose to avoid customs of the past and do something new. It’s okay to do things differently.
  2. Offer to help the person with decorating or holiday baking. Both tasks can be overwhelming for someone who is grieving.
  3. Offer to help with holiday shopping. If you are headed to the grocery store or the mall, give your loved one a call to see if he or she needs anything. Share catalogs or online shopping sites that may be helpful.
  4. Invite the person to join you or your family during the holidays. You might invite them to join you for a religious service or at a holiday meal where they are a guest. Again, keep in mind that some people may not feel festive enough to attend a party or holiday gathering. If the person doesn’t accept your invitation, don’t take it personally!
  5. Ask the person if he or she is interested in volunteering with you during the holidays. Doing something for someone else, such as helping at a soup kitchen or working with children, may help your loved one feel better about the holidays.
  6. Donate a gift or money in memory of the person’s loved one. Remind the person that his or her loved one is not forgotten.
  7. Never tell someone that he or she should be “over it.”  Instead, give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.
  8. Be willing to listen.  Active listening from friends and family is an important step to helping some cope with grief and heal.
  9. Remind the person you are thinking of him or her and the loved one who died. Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch. Today, social media enables you to maintain contact even more easily.

In general, the best way to help those who are grieving during the holidays is to let them know you care and that their loved one is not forgotten. 

Many people are not aware that their community hospice is a valuable resource that can help people who are struggling with grief and loss.

More information about grief or hospice is available from National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO)’s Caring Connections, caringinfo.org/grief.

More:

Holiday Survival Guide: Marry an Orphan

“Marry an orphan: You’ll never have to spend boring holidays with the in-laws.”George Carlin

Was George Carlin right about the holidays? You’d have to ask my husband I guess, as he is the one married to an orphan… of sorts. As the eighth parent-less holiday season approaches for me, I can’t help but think about my departed parental unit and how different this time of year would be if one or both of them were still around to share it… especially my Dad, because he loved Christmas, and because it’s been so long since I’ve been able to share a holiday season with him. (about 29 years).

While many people look forward to this time of year as a time to have fun with family, this time of year can be especially difficult for those who are missing one or both parents. For us, ’tis the season…for potential depression, sadness, and feelings of isolation, especially if it’s a more recent loss, but even if it’s been a while.

Whether it’s your first holiday season after losing a parent, or your 31st holiday season without your parent, the holidays can almost always stir up powerful emotions and memories. 

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Even after eight years without parents, it still hurts a little every year when the holidays arrive. But over the past few years, some fun traditions have developed to help offset the loss and minimize the huge empty space in the family. 

This is my 29th holiday season without my Dad. I can remember dreading many years of holidays after he passed away. When he was alive, the holidays always included a lot of singing, laughter, toasts, gifts, food, family, games, and fun. It was the idyllic holiday season with the family, that I wished could last all year. 

After Dad was gone, there was not much joy around the holidays. Instead, there was crying, yelling, and anxiety, as my mom tried to cope with the now not-so-festive season as a widow. Dealing with the loss of my dad, Mom’s depression, and a step-family, in addition to missing my dad, made the holidays a very stressful and troubling time of year. Therefore, for years after dad died, I dreaded the holidays, and couldn’t wait for that part of the year to pass.

On one hand, I consider myself very fortunate that I had those early fun holiday years with both parents. I know there are many people who never have any fun holiday times to enjoy. However, it also hurts to think of all those years after Dad died, that I spent just wishing the holidays away.

Those holiday blahs and blues lasted many years for me. I don’t think I enjoyed the holidays for a good ten or more years after my dad passed away. In fact, sometimes, I still instinctively get that feeling as the holidays approach – that pang of dread that tries to force its way into my subconscious around this time of year, as Thanksgiving nears.

But now, thankfully, after years of getting through many parent-less holiday seasons, the sad feelings don’t last long, if they show up at all. The feeling of dread isn’t nearly as pervasive as it once was, now that we have new traditions and other fun things to anticipate and plan each year. It became sort of a habit to dread the holidays, so it took a while to learn not to.

Holidays without parents aren’t all bad – in fact, as the opening quote from George Carlin accurately suggests, there is a certain level of freedom at holiday time without parents. Just ask my husband, who, as the husband of an ‘orphan’ now has the “luxury” of holidays without inlaws, according to Carlin.

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Holiday Survival Tips

For me, the key to managing the holidays and being able to enjoy them again began with creating some new traditions, at least some of which also have some connection or foundation from old traditions we carried out with our parents when they were alive.  

 In doing so, our departed parents are remembered, and commemorated, which alows us to feel our parents’ presence in some way. However, we also have new traditions, so that we are not too focused on the past or what is no more. “New traditions” might seem like an oxymoron, but you have to start somewhere, and there is a first time for everything, even a tradition. Many people create new traditions centering around their children. However, for those of us who don’t have kids, creating new traditions can be more challenging.

If you are grieving the more recent loss of a parent, holiday gatherings can be a great diversion, but if you’re not in the right frame of mind to be sociable, then holiday parties can be more of a challenge than enjoyment. It may be tempting to pour out your heart and soul, to share some of your pain, and turn to others for help, support, and encouragement. However, many people are not prepared for such heavy emotions and discussions at holiday gatherings.

If you know someone who has recently lost a parent or loved one, it is helpful to invite them out to parties for the holiday season, but don’t take it personally if the person doesn’t take you up on the offer.

Avoid Being Debbie Downer or Depressing Dan. Know How to Deal with Those Who Are.

The last thing you need if you are experiencing the holidays after a loss is to be around people who are negative influences. Therefore, if you are invited to a holiday gathering where you may be surrounded by people who are difficult to be around on a good day, you may want to choose your holiday social events with care. You also may want to be aware of your emotional state going into an event, and be careful not to be the one who is bringing negative baggage to a party. Bringing everyone else down with you won’t do anything positive for your mental state.

A new book outlines some great tips for both dealing with “Debbie Downers”, and how to avoid becoming a Debbie Downer or Depressing Dan yourself. These tips may be helpful to everyone, even people who haven’t necessarily lost a parent, because they are great ideas for handling other difficult personalities at holiday parties. Below is an excerpt:

Whether you’re the smiley face among frowners, or a bit of a Depressing Dan yourself, there are tricks you can use to keep the table talk from getting lethal, says Paula Renaye, a professional life coach and author of The Hardline Self Help Handbook, (www.hardlineselfhelp.com).

“You can take control simply by thinking about what you choose to say – or not say,” Renaye says. “If you hear yourself criticizing, judging or complaining, you’re part of the problem. Happy, self-respecting people don’t find it necessary to dump on others to make themselves feel good.

“If someone else is the problem, simply don’t give them the ammunition they need,” she says. Instead try these tactics: 

  • Do not say anything negative. Period. And no one-downing! One-downing is the opposite of one-upping. It’s the art of coming up with something worse when someone else talks about their problem. No matter what negative thing anyone says, or how much you agree with it or don’t, resist the urge to respond with a negative. Instead ….
  • Dodge, distract and detour. Turn things around with a question — a positive one. If you need to, make a “happy list” of questions before you go, so you’ll have some at the ready. And remember, there’s no law that says you have to answer a question just because someone asked it. With negative people, it’s best if you …
  • Do not talk about yourself. The only reason negative people care about what you’re up to is because they want something to ridicule, brag or gossip about to make themselves look or feel good. Don’t go there. Whether you just filed bankruptcy or won a Nobel Prize, keep it to yourself. No good can come of it. None. And why do you need to chatter like a chipmunk about yourself anyway? Might want to think on that one, too. Better to find some praise for someone else than to expect someone to praise you.
  • Do not share your woes. Even if you’re in a tough place and could really use a shoulder to cry on, don’t start laying your woes on a Negative Nell. Even in a weak moment, when you’ve had a terrible day, talking about it with a negative person is a bad idea. You might get a microsecond of sympathy, but that’s only so they can launch into telling you how much worse they have it. So, no talking about yourself unless you want to be the talk of the party, the family and the town.
  • Do your homework and become like Teflon. Think of the times people said things that made you feel bad or made you feel the need to defend or explain yourself. If you want to avoid going down that trail again, start hacking away at the jungle of your own emotions. Get over needing anyone’s approval or blessing. If you are still waiting for negative relatives to validate you, you’re in for a long wait. Don’t set yourself up to be miserable. Get over it and go prepared.

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Not My Mother’s 40th Birthday: Embracing the “F” Word.

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.” ~Victor Hugo

It’s official! I have arrived, in the ‘old age of youth’ . . .

This quote was a bit depressing at first read, but I guess I will instead choose to focus on the fact that the description of my age also includes the word “youth”.

What will my forties bring for me? I am not certain, but one thing I do know: this is not my mother’s fortieth birthday.

I didn’t even know my parents when they were forty. My dad was about 42 when I was born, and my mom was 40. But I still know that my big 4-0 is very different from my mom’s, about 40 years ago.

In 1971, at age forty, my mom had a newborn (me), a nine year old (my sister), a 15-year old (my other sister), and a 17-year-old son on his way to college. Both of her parents were still alive. Also, at that time, my mom was also just ten years shy of becoming a widow.

I think about that a lot this week. As I turn the corner into my 40s, (notice I didn’t say anything about going over a hill!) I do so with so many blessings in my life – husband, friends, family, and fulfilling work I love.

However, I cannot ignore one big thing that is missing. And I honestly don’t know how to feel about it. In addition to not having any parents on this milestone…

I’m 40, and I’m childless.

That wasn’t really the plan all along. After my husband and I got married in 2000, we often talked about having kids “a bit later” or “in a few years.”

Then, after about three years of being married, around 2003, we started “trying”. Or at least, we stopped trying NOT to have kids, if you will. Then, after my mom got sick, those plans got put on hold, not really consciously or deliberately, but in the midst of my grief and depression, the priority just fell away.

So that was, and is, the reality. And honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing for me, that I haven’t procreated. 

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

The week before my ‘big’ birthday, as if I hadn’t already been struggling with the issue of childlessness in the face of 40, I was intensely grilled regarding my parental status, or lack thereof, by a complete stranger. 

Within 30 seconds of being introduced to a visitor at the office (a friend of a coworker apparently, who rattles off a few life facts as he makes the brief introduction), I am drilled by my new acquaintance with the dreaded questions:

“So, you’ve been married ELEVEN years?”.She says this with a smile, as if she’s pleasantly interested; perhaps she’s going to comment on, or commend us for, the longevity of our marriage, as many often do, just exchanging pleasantries. But no, I had misread her devious smile for a friendly one.

“And, you don’t have any kids? Really? Why not?” she asked, with very real condescension, and feigning concern, “You don’t like kids? You just don’t want them . . . ever?  I mean, WHY?”

Wow. Nice to meet you too, oh fabulous mother of three who is here chatting up my married coworker for no legitimate reason… perhaps we should talk about that? But no, that’s why the questions were all fired at me, to make sure I didn’t have time to wonder about this attractive wife and mom, sitting cozily in my coworker’s office, in full flirt mode, in the middle of the day.

So here I am, in the middle of my workday, with an unknown vamp and a male coworker, confronted with the most personal, sensitive, and uncomfortable line of questioning I could possibly endure anyhwere, much less at work. I should have politely told her to (other F word) off. But instead, in my overly tolerant and accomodating way, I stood there, explaining to a complete stranger, why I don’t have kids: 

“That’s so sweet of you to ask. I used to have three children, but they all died tragically in a house fire two years ago. It was very painful; thank you so much for your concern.”

………

Of course, I didn’t really say that. But I wish I had had the intestinal fortitude to say it. Maybe it would help her realize how inappropriate she sounds. 

What I did say in reply to her was rambling and apologetic. As if somehow I’ve failed this unknown person by not reproducing, I nervously explained how I haven’t really tried NOT to have kids, but it just hasn’t happened… that I do like kids, and am open to them, but don’t feel compelled to go have some manufactured or purchased, although I may at some point in the future.

Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are. -Author Unknown

Apparently, within minutes of meeting me, this woman felt very strongly, it was very important to her, that I want, and bear, children. Perhaps it validates her decisions to have three kids in four years, I am not sure.

After my driveling, nonsense reply, I look at her pleadingly as I trail off, trying to read her expression for some sort of signal that I can stop talking – have I satisfied her curiosity? Can she, Ms. What’s-her-name, with her skinny jeans and smug, fruitful, triple-child-bearing uterus, accept that answer about my fertility, or lack thereof? 

I could tell I had said enough, because she was about to speak, indicating that she was done listening, and I could stop explaining. Phew. That’s over.

Wrong again.

With a final, swift kick while I was down, she opened her mouth to wield her sharp tongue once more, taking one final stab, this time aimed squarely at my husband’s virility. I won’t even justify her comment by repeating it here, it was so distasteful. But suffice it to say, the basic message was that someone younger, and perhaps in athletic form, could have had more success at impregnating me.

With that, I politely excused myself from my lovely new acquaintance and my coworker. I left his office and slinked back to the safety of my own, where, after at least 15 minutes of deep breathing, rehashing, and cooling down, I was once again able to gather my thoughts and get back to work. Quite frankly, I’ve gotten used to having my own fertility, motives, health, and decisions questioned… it was the added attack on that of my husband’s that really caught me off guard.

Is the issue of my childlessness on my mind as I turn 40? Yes. Is it weighing heavily on me? Maybe. Do I know what I’m going to do about it? Not a clue. 

———-

“If you really wanted kids, you’d do something about it.” 

Another favorite declaration of the baby-boosters, the above statement, or some variation of it, is often proclaimed in a stern tone of reprimand, as if to say: what the heck have you been doing all these years without kids? Have you no life? No sense? Get busy dammit!

Yes, I’m forty! 

Yes, I’ve been married 11 years.

And NO I don’t have any kids.

And NO I’ve not been to a fertility clinic. 

What really seems to confuse people even more, is that, as much as it seems to appear that I absolutely do not want kids, I cannot say with 100% certaintly that I absolutely do NOT want a child either.

Being officially undecided and uncommitted one way or the other, is even more perplexing to people (not that it’s their job to understand my personal, intimate decisions, but they seem to need to) than flat out declaring I do NOT want kids under any circumstances. Especially now, “at my age”, my lack of conviction against having a child seems to make people very uncomfortable.

My own confusion bewilders me, so why wouldn’t others be confused by my stance, or lack of one?  It’s my life, it’s my family, and it’s my situation and my body, so other people aren’t necessarily entitled to explanations or clarifications, even though many people enjoy asking for them, or demanding them, apparently.

Maybe I should start asking other people more questions:

Her: I have two kids.

Me: Really? You have two kids? How nice. Why?

Her: Excuse me?

Me: Well, I’m about to tell you I have no kids, and I’m sure you’ll ask me why, so I’m asking the same, just wondering why you have two kids…go ahead, I’m listening!

Maybe I will try some new tactics in handling future interrogations, and report back, as to how they go over with nosy strangers… I’m sure it won’t be long, before I’m questioned again… until then, I’m Left Behind, and Living Life, with no parents, no kids…and looking forward to my forties! 

Old age is fifteen years older than I am  ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

A [wo]man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams  ~John Barrymore

Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many  ~Unknown

 

How to Help a Child Who has Lost a Parent

Mementos_crop

A family friend, “M”, just 41 years old, passed away suddenly last week. He left behind two kids, ages 6 and 7 years old.

For much of the morning after hearing about it, all I could think about was the fact that two more kids had lost a parent that day, and what pain they are experiencing, and will continue to feel for a long while.

At such young ages, the kids left behind probably can’t really comprehend what has happened. A few years from now, it might even seem as if they’re almost completely recovered and moved on emotionally. 

But some of the toughest times for dealing with the loss may come years later, when, as a child who has lost a parent, you do start to understand what you lost. It may take decades to fully process the loss. They’ll always have that aching hole in their heart that I’ve talked about before, that all of us have after having lost a parent during childhood.

The good news is, kids are resilient in general, and with a strong support system, M.’s kids could turn out to be even stronger people because of this experience. However, it won’t be easy for them, and they’ll need a lot of help. If you know a child who has lost a parent, there are several ways you can help, depending on how well you know the child and parents, and how much time you have to spare. Even if you have just a few minutes, or a few hours, there are ways you can make a significant impact on the life of a child who is grieving the loss of a parent.

 

Making Memories Last:

Compared to what most people know about their parents, kids who lose a parent at a young age will remember very little about their deceased parent. They will know a relatively small amount about who their dad was as a person.

It’s often taken for granted that these memories will last – that, as friends and family of the parent who has passed, you’ll all be around to continue to discuss and share memories, but that is not always the case. Memories start to fade, people get busy and go about their lives, drift in and out of one’s life, etc.

But the child who has been left behind cannot so easily move on. As a young person who has lost a parent, the times when you need comfort or miss your parent the most may not be the times when there are people around to talk to or help. It’s often when you’re alone, late at night, when everyone else is asleep, when the loss of your parent hurts the most. It is at these lonely moments of weakness when the child needs to have something or someone to turn to, to look at, touch, read, or listen to, to feel closer to his or her parent who is no longer there.

So, if you know a child who has recently lost a parent, one simple thing you can do to help, is to put some mementos together for the surviving kids. I cannot even begin to tell you what even the smallest, seemingly insignificant memory of their mom or dad might mean to these kids years from now.

Mementos could include photos, or any notes, voicemails, emails, or gifts you got from the parent who passed away. If you can give them to the child to save, (or to the surviving spouse, if the kids are too young now) along with a note about what the memento means to you, it is something the kids will probably keep and cherish forever.

If you don’t have a memento, it’s just as effective, maybe even more so, if you have a memory or anecdote you can write down, or a story you can tell, and record, for the kids to keep and listen to or read in years to come. 

What would a child want to know about their parent? A few ideas, based on some of the things I used to wonder about my dad, years later, after he was gone:

  • What did he used to say about me? What did he like about me? How did he feel about me? How was I special to him?
  • What did you like most about my dad? What do you remember most about him? How was he special to you?
  • What was my dad like to other people? How did he impact the lives of others?
  • What were my dad’s strengths and weaknesses? 
  • What did my dad think I’d be like when I grew up?  What did he want for me?
  • How did my dad feel about my mom? What was their relationship like?
  • What traits do you think I share with my dad?
  • What was my dad like as a child or young adult?  

 

“Circle of Dads”:

 After the news of M.’s death spread through the community, I saw a lot of friends sharing memories and photos of him on facebook, which was a very nice way to memorialize him. It made me wish that such technology had existed 30 years ago when my dad passed away.

But will M.’s kids ever see these posts? Who knows if facebook will even be around, say, five or ten years from now, when these kids might want to remember their dad one day?

I recently read an article about a dad who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and before he passed away, he contacted several men, including friends and family, and asked them to look after his kids when he was gone. I thought it was a really touching idea. While of course no one can replace their dad, at least his kids would have someone to help carry on their dad’s memory, and be a father-figure in their lives.

But when someone dies suddenly, like my dad, or like M., there is no time to form a circle.

So maybe the survivors could form such a circle after the fact.

M. had lots of siblings, so his brothers will certainly be important figures in the lives of M.’s two surviving children. And he seems to have a close-knit group of friends, many of whom were the same friends from elementary and high school, so they have a long history of friendship, and many memories, of M. What the “Circle of Dads” would do is take turns doing dad-stuff with the kids, and act as a support system for them in their dad’s absence:

Take the daughter to her Daddy-Daughter dance.

Cheer the son on at his Little League games.

Applaud the daughter at her dance recital, or piano recital, or at whatever activities she pursues.

The circle of dads can also share memories about the missing dad, and do a lot of the things he may have done with his kids. And hopefully it can continue for years, not just the months following the loss. That is key, because, again, some of the toughest years come much later.

What are your thoughts? What would you add to the list of ways to help a child who has lost a parent? Your input is welcomed. I hope this information can be helpful to others who find themselves facing this difficult situation. If it helps just one person do one thing, save one memory or attend one function for a young person who has lost a parent, it was worth writing!

If you do not personally know a child who has lost a parent, you can still help a child or children by donating your time or money to an organization that supports children who have lost one or both parents. Such organizations include the Children of 9/11 Foundation, and Kate’s Club, which provides support, companionship, and activities for kids who have lost a parent.

Related:

Photo: Mementos of my father… a monogrammed pocket watch, (we shared the same monogram), his wedding ring, and his Rotary pin, on an oak desk my dad built in the 1960s.