The Best Thing About Summer Camp

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Today is my dad’s birthday. This letter he wrote, that I’ve saved since 1981, is one reason why I find it difficult to throw things away sometimes. Okay, all the time.  I worry about discarding some piece of my dad’s life, some memory of him, or of my mom, now that she’s gone too. Once an item gets tossed, the related memory goes with it. Or so I fear.

Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit – I really do throw (some) things away. If it stinks, or has the potential to stink, it gets tossed. Otherwise, I can probably find a reason to save it.

My dad wrote this letter when I was at singing camp – yes, I went to singing camp, thanks to my participation in a touring children’s choir, the Young Singers of Callanwolde.

Singing camp was just like other camps – bunk beds, grimy bathrooms, murky green swimming pool, bad food, and bugs – except that at singing camp, we had rehearsals about five times a day. We sang for our supper, and our breakfast, and our lunch too. Every. Single. Day…. for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably about a week.

Ultimately, the best thing about singing camp was this letter from my dad. He wrote it to me when I was nine, less than a year before he died. I’m sure when he wrote it, he never imagined that the simple camp note would be such an important memento to me. Thirty years later, his note helps me remember what it was like to have a Dad.

I’m really glad it didn’t get thrown away.

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The Last Day – Remembering the Rain

That’s my dad, looking dapper in his signature bow-tie, working the room at the wedding of a family friend in 1982.

The photo is, in many respects, unremarkable. Except that it was taken the day before he died.

The bride found the picture of our dad among her wedding photos, and so she very thoughtfully shared it with us recently.

I have studied the photo, over and over again, to see a glimpse of Dad’s last day of life. I search for some indication of his thoughts and feelings. Was he happy? He looked it. Certainly he had no idea it was his last full day of life, or that he would be gone within 24 hours of this photo. Did he feel any twinges or signs of the heart attack that would stop his heart the next day? Does he look like his arm or his chest hurt? I cannot tell. It doesn’t appear so.

One day he’s at a wedding, dancing and talking and celebrating with friends. The next day, he’s gone. Just like that.

It was pouring rain that day my dad died. My mom used to say it was “morose” to think about that day, that I needed to move on.

I’ve moved on. Still, so many years later, sometimes it actually helps to remember the rain and the pain of that day. The rain seemed almost apocalyptic. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it. The rain was pouring into our basement, as dad took his last breaths. My mom and sister were downstairs fighting the floodwaters. I was upstairs with a friend as we were supposed to be going to a Sunday play. Instead, I found my dad writhing on the floor, in cardiac arrest, struggling to breathe a few more gasps of life. I ran as fast as I could and I yelled down to the basement from the top of the stairs for my mom and my sister – “something’s wrong with Dad!”

Oddly enough, when I’m having a really bad day, or if I’m feeling lost, I remember that rain, and that day I watched my dad die. And no matter how bad my day today has been, or what is upsetting me, it suddenly pales in comparison to how I felt on that stormy Sunday in 1982. And I know that, because I survived that, I can get through just about anything.

One of the worst days of my life, now helps gives me the perspective to get through the storms, as an adult. That, along with my memories of my Dad, on better days, make me realize how fortunate I am to have had him even for a few years.

When I had a dad, life was all about ice cream, bike rides, barbie dolls, and fireflies. My greatest responsibilities were doing my homework, making my bed, and helping with the dishes. Because I was so young when I lost him, I become ten years old again, whenever I think of him. It was short, but it was a good time in my life, when I had a Dad.

Related:

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

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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