Not Instagram Approved

It’s a hot, sunny July day in 2011. I’m camping with my boyfriend and 7 of our friends somewhere by Cass Lake, MN. My friend Bri and I are sitting on a couple of tree stumps, chatting and waiting for the boys to finish putting up the tents. I’m drinking a Rockstar energy drink on an empty stomach and notice that my hands are shaking uncontrollably, and I’m suddenly VERY hungry. Not just the regular hungry, but the “if I don’t eat this instant I’m going to burn every fucking one of those tents down” hungry. I tell Bri this and say it is very strange, because I’ve never had hunger come on this quick before and also, I live off of coffee and energy drinks, so why is my body reacting as if this is it’s first exposure to caffeine?? She jokingly says maybe you’re pregnant, and we begin to giggle. Our eyes lock and I think wow bestie, you are hilarious over there you little jokester. Comedian. Funny Funny Girl. But wait. Could it. What. No. Nope. Hell to the nah. Our eyes stay awkwardly locked and our light hearted giggles turn to nervous laughter. A few days later I am sitting on the toilet handing my boyfriend a third pregnancy test as he stares down in disbelief at the first two. All three are positive, and we are indeed going to be parents.

Bri and I on that camping trip, many moons ago.

Eight months later our boy would enter the world, and 2.8 years after that we would have our daughter. By the time she is born I have mastered the art of claiming to be a “hot mess mom” because that is what’s trendy on Instagram, but I’m actually a very high strung, anxious mom. My identity is now 50% “Jesse’s wife” and 50% “Trey and Jaylie’s mom.” For awhile I substitute teach, but eventually my only means of “work” is a health and fitness MLM. I rarely leave my house and spend most of my days trying to make my life look appealing to my 900 Facebook friends. I’ve become the queen of homemade everything from teething biscuits to laundry detergent, and the more approval I get over this from strangers on the internet, the more I’m convinced this is what I need to do to prove to myself I’m a good mom. My husband struggles greatly with his mental health, but I still rely on him for ALL THE THINGS. What I consider as an inseparable team, a therapist would later label a “codependent marriage,” but what makes us happy is that we have the four of us, our plans for the future, our routines and favorite places, our Saturday morning pancakes and all the other little puzzle pieces that make up this life that is ours.

Life does not care about your perfect plan, and it certainly doesn’t give a shit about that death grip you have on controlling it. Life is unpredictable, wavering, and sometimes straight up cruel. I would learn this the hard way at 32 years old, on a rainy October day, when my husband walked out our back door, and ended his life.

In an instant I went from being a wife and mother of two, to a widowed, single mother of two. My entire world flipped upside down, and that carpet beneath my feet of everything I knew, completely ripped out from under me. Nothing from that moment on would be the same, and I was left to pick up the pieces of a life and three hearts that I didn’t shatter.

My wish came true with my new role as a single mother, I became the shit show I always wanted to be. Every rule of motherhood I had been following went completely out the window, and my only goal for the week now was survival. Take one day at a time, and as long as everyone is alive at the end of it, we’ve done well.

In the beginning I am terrified. On the inside I’m telling myself over and over I can’t do this on my own, and on the outside I am putting on a brave face and going through the motions of each day on autopilot. I no longer care what Instagram says about what makes a mom a good mom. I don’t have the energy to care. Every other meal is mac n cheese from a box. The only crafting going on is me handing each of them a pack of sidewalk chalk and hoping it keeps them occupied for more than 15 minutes. I put my youngest in daycare even though I don’t have a job, just to have a few days to breathe and scream and be sad by myself. I try to read the book “Girl Wash Your Face,” so as not to be the only female on the planet who hasn’t read it, but it all seems like horseshit to me so I put it down after Chapter 3. I know now that there are some things too big and too painful to be fixed by simply “washing my face” of it. I remember all of the times Jesse told me “the house can wait,” and I vow that I will never again put life and fun and people on hold in order to have a spot free house. I will not waste these precious minutes I’ve been given worrying about petty things. Every morning on my way to drop the tiny humans off at school and daycare, I play the song “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, and even though the cheesiness of it makes me want to puke, I tell them it’s our new morning mantra. It doesn’t matter if it feels like a lie, it’s my job to reassure them that we will be ok. Then after I drop them off, I drive around the countryside in Jesse’s pickup, sobbing, sipping coffee from my mug, and listening to every sad song I’ve ever downloaded.

Our first Christmas as a family of 3.

Eventually, I get a part time job working for the Juvenile Courts which gives a little purpose to my week other than sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. I realize I actually like leaving my house to work and I love my job, and maybe Facebook was wrong and what fulfills you is sometimes working a regular job while your kids are in daycare, and every mother should just do whatever the fuck is best for her at the time. Little by little I develop an independence I didn’t think I was capable of. I apply for a home loan all on my own and buy a house right next door to one of my best friends. It’s a very impulsive and irresponsible move considering I am only working part time, this house is a “fixer upper,” and I’m not even sure where my hammer is. But teach a woman how to use a drill, and she’ll convince her sister they are fully capable of putting pieces of wood together to build a set of steps. Putting my own blood, sweat, and tears into this house to make it the Thomas Trio’s home is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s made me realize how much more capable we are than we give ourselves credit for. You might put 47 hinges on backwards or get shocked by electricity because I guess you aren’t supposed to grab on to the sides of an outlet and pull, but the PTSD from that tile backsplash, that was a way bigger bite than you could chew, will be worth it when it’s finished, and you can step back and say I FUCKIN DID THAT!

Adding grief into the mix of navigating this new life can be exhausting. Grief at times has made me selfish, quick tempered, and distant. This leads to a level of guilt and worry that keeps me up into the wee hours of the night. Each of my kids feels the loss of their dad in a different way, and I feel helpless in that I know this is something I can’t fix for them. My boy, who was 5 when his dad died, can still recall the life he had with him. There is both joy and sadness in those memories, and also a fear of losing someone else he cares about. My daughter, who was only 2 1/2, only really knows a life without a daddy. She begins to notice at daycare and then at school, that she is one of the only kids without one, and so she asks me if we can “find” her a dad…as if it is as simple as putting an ad in the paper, picking the best option and inserting him into our lives without there being any expectations on me with this man. They will both go through whatever it is they need to go through, and I am just here for it. I find myself at times jealous of the parents who’s biggest worries are grades or friend drama or how much playing time their kid is getting, and then I quickly pull back, because why the hell would I want anyone else to know how this feels. Our pains and burdens and hard truths are different for all of us, that’s the human experience, and mine is the only one I’m responsible for.

We have an amazing support system, and I’m very well aware I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay the people who have stepped in to give my kids the nurturing that kids need, when I didn’t have a drop of emotional energy left in me. They keep us busy and add so much joy and laughter to our days. I realize how much I need connection and enjoy the company of other humans who give me the space to be myself, and I look back at all those years I spent alone on the farm and realize how isolated and disconnected I actually was. I am sad for that girl who didn’t know what she was capable of, and who didn’t feel safe being herself.

I hate silver linings and make a barf face at the quote “Everything happens for a reason,” but when I look at the dynamics of our little trio now, it’s hard not to think it was all perfectly planned by something greater than us. One Sunday in church during the Children’s sermon, the minister asked the kids who they loved, and without missing a beat my son said his sister. They have grown so close. On J’s first day of preschool he was the one who said, “I’ll be worried about her today. I hope she does okay.” She was going to need a big brother who looked out for her, and he was going to need a little sister who made him laugh on his toughest days, and they both grew in to being just that. He keeps us running on time, while she’s a free spirit that reminds us not to take life too seriously. Their wit keeps my sarcasm in check, and humor has helped us survive. We have learned that life can be really good, even through the bad. It’s a duality that will probably always exist for us, but I think we’re better for it.

I will never go back to being the mom who follows all the rules. I serve them sugary cereal and toaster strudels for breakfast while simultaneously having a conversation about how fresh air and activity keep our brains and our bodies healthy. I suck at monitoring screen time, and I still hate doing crafts. We love ditching town for the weekend to find a hotel or take a roadtrip back to Minnesota. I picked up another position at work and am working way more hours, and they have learned to roll with the punches and nobody has died because of it.

The other day we sat at our kitchen table and played the “pass the phone” game from Tik Tok. It’s basically a game of quick witted insults, and my heart melted as I listened to them roast each other. There’s nothing a mother loves more than to see her offspring become just as dark humored as she is. I blinked and they became these not so little anymore people with real thoughts and ideas and personalities. There are so many things I want them to know.

Like how during those first days without their dad, they were the only reason I got out of bed in the morning.

That the reason I stepped in to the fire of hell that is healing was for them, because I’ll do whatever I can to keep them from being a part of the cycle.

How sorry I am for missing out on some of the most pivotal moments of their lives, because in my own grief I had become so numb and detached from the world around me.

And that I’m so incredibly proud of how brave they’ve been through it all.

No Silver Linings

I think I’ll call this one, a compilation of the many faces of grief. You are probably thinking that is weird, because they all look the same. And you’re right. I am weird. And also in each of these photos is me with the same dumb smile and no indication of whether I was going through a time period of being ok(ish) OR if I was actually dying inside.

I learned real quick after Jesse died that if I didn’t figure out how to convince people I was ok, I would never get rid of that little invisible black cloud that seemed to follow me everywhere. I hated walking into a room and feeling the energy shift to sadness. I hated that every time I went to the grocery store someone wanted to hug me. I didn’t want anyone walking on eggshells around me. So I became a MASTER at the “I’m fine” game.

I think I also believed I could outsmart grief…like I was above all that “5 stages, one day at a time” hocus pocus nonsense. I was going to be the very BEST at grief and “get over it” as quickly as possible. After all, everyone was constantly telling me how strong I was! I had this!!!

Nothing could have prepared me for what those next few years were going to bring. Grief has no timeline and also no chill. It will leave you alone for days or even weeks only to come crashing in again like the Kool Aid man on a hot sunny day. It has no manners and does not care whether you are alone in your bedroom or surrounded by people at your nephew’s wrestling tournament. It will show up wherever, whenever it wants to, relentlessly and unapologetically.

There were times when it all felt almost unbearable. I didn’t know that emotional pain could make my entire body physically hurt, and I wondered if I was ever going to get rid of that awful feeling deep in the pit of my stomach.

There were also periods when I was incapable of feeling anything at all. It’s like your body reaches a certain threshold and says that’s enough, and you become completely numb to every emotion. This might seem like a blessing, but for me it was probably the most dangerous stage of grief to be in. I felt almost inhuman, and when you’re so detached from the world around you, you begin to question why you’re even still here in the first place.

And weaving through and in between both of those were good days that sometimes turned into weeks and even months. It wasn’t all hell. There were genuine smiles and real belly laughs and some of the best days and memories of my life to date.

Now, 3.25 years (and LOTS of therapy) later, post loss looks more like:

Accepting things for what they are and that there are wounds I will likely be working on for a really long time.

Emailing my therapist to let her know I’ve self diagnosed my intimacy issues via Tik Tok videos, and her responding with..that’s a first, we shall see about that when we talk on Tuesday.

Asking my son to help me understand what was happening after getting a call from his teacher that he’d had an emotional day regarding his dad, and understanding exactly what he means when he responds, “I don’t know, I was feeling ALL the things today mom, happy, mad and sad.”

My daughter placing our family photo in her dollhouse and playing make believe that we still have a mom AND a dad, and reminding me on a weekly basis that she’d like a daddy again because all of her friends have one.

I’m at peace with Jesse’s death, and I don’t hate him for the hurt he’s caused me, but I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for the pain he put on their little hearts.

I sometimes have a hard time sharing the brutally honest things about surviving loss, because if you had told me in the beginning how long my healing would take, that even 3 years later there would still be things I’d be working through, I’d have said ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!!!!! That’s too long! So I hope this doesn’t make anyone new to this club feel discouraged.

Healing looks different for everyone, this is all just my own lived experience, and you can take what you need and leave the rest.

I can tell you that it is possible to allow happiness in again to exist alongside the sadness.

That laughter might feel like a sin right now, but those deep, pee your pants, tears rolling down your face belly laughs really are the best medicine.

That all of those things I thought I could tuck away in a dark corner of my brain, never to be heard from again, eventually presented themselves in BIG and UGLY ways.

That when I finally hit my lowest, I was lucky enough to have people in my life who weren’t afraid to say, “what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s time to get some fucking help.”

That healing is possible, but it can’t be found in another person or the bottom of a bottle or in another 3 a.m. Amazon purchase.

That in order to get to that place of healing, you’re gonna first have to hurt, A LOT, and you know this, so it can be really hard to force yourself to take that step.

That happiness isn’t always a choice. Sometimes we can’t just flip the “feelings” switch or chant a bunch of things we’re grateful for in order to feel better. Some things are too big to be fixed with silver linings.

And most importantly, that I thank my past self every single day for not giving up.

Whether you’re 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months or 3 years into this, I just want you to know I’m rooting for you. I know this is hard, but I’m so happy you’re still here.

Dear Amanda, How Do I Help My Newly Widowed Friend?

It’s been awhile since I’ve been active here. I wanted my next blog post to be centered on something other than grief and loss, because there is so much more to me and my life than the very worst thing that has ever happened to me. But in the past couple months I’ve had three different people reach out to me asking what they can do for their recently widowed friends, and all of these thoughts have been floating around in my head, so I figured I might as well put them together into something that might be able to help someone else.

I also know how important it is to have a good support system. I have a solid group of friends who have had my back and a family who has done everything they can to help me adjust to my new normal. Life took away my person, but it strengthened old relationships as well as gave me new meaningful ones, and I wouldn’t have made it through the past year and a half without all of them..and for that I am so grateful.

My heart breaks a little each time I get a call or message telling me someone new has been added to this club that no one wants to be a part of. It’s such an awful feeling knowing the pain that someone else is about to endure, and the harsh reality of it all is that this isn’t something that can be fixed or undone. I also can only offer advice based on my own experience, which in retrospect isn’t much, because there are as many ways to grieve as there are people living in this world. But hopefully, if anything, by giving you my perspective I can help you to put yourself in their shoes, even just a little bit, and offer yourself from a place of grace instead of judgement.

So..

First and foremost, understand that grief is like a fingerprint, completely unique to the person navigating it. There is no timeline for it, no way around it, and no right or wrong way to do it. It is also incredibly unpredictable and way more complicated than you could ever even begin to imagine. You assume that the big “firsts” like holidays and anniversaries are going to suck for them, and you’re probably right, but sometimes it’s the little things, like having half the amount of laundry to do and twice the amount of leftovers that will have them bursting into tears in the middle of the day. This is why right off the bat I’m going to tell you to let go of any assumptions or expectations you have on how these first few months or even years are going to go. Maybe they had a picture perfect marriage and are filled mainly with sadness, or maybe their marriage was hard and toxic and they have been hit with a great deal of anger and confusion. There will be good days and bad days and in between days and all of this is OK because their one and only job is to survive each day ahead.

Our society is super uncomfortable with discomfort, and we tend to prefer sad stories that end with some huge triumph vs sad stories that are just…well..sad. I am no exception to this. In fact I used to genuinely believe that any bad day could be fixed with the perfect inspirational quote. Your boss is being a jerk? “Everything happens for a reason.” Car took a shit? “God has a plan.” Oh your Husband just died? “Believe you can and your halfway there!” This is why right after Jesse passed I was determined to stay strong and keep my emotions in check. Those closest to me would tell me it was ok to cry and to feel whatever I needed to feel, but I thought no way, not me. Don’t you remember who I am?? I am Amanda, queen of positivity and professional inspirational quote sharer. I will somehow grab these lemons that are full on beating me in the face from every direction, turn them into lemonade, and become the very BEST at grief. After all, I’m already fine! I feel nothing!

Which was not completely false. I did indeed feel nothing. But I was not at all fine. Good God was I not. Which leads me to my next topic..

It’s probably going to be weeks or even months from now, after everyone else has backed off and gone back to their normal everyday lives, because your friend has convinced them they are fine, that they will need you the most.

When we experience trauma, our minds and our bodies have this way of enabling us to numb and detach ourselves from the world around us. It’s like our brains just instinctively know we are not ready for the intense emotions that follow a significant loss. This was me for about the first 4-5 months after Jesse’s suicide, and while everyone around me viewed it as “strength,” I felt almost inhuman, like my house could literally be burning down around me and I would just sit in the middle of it thinking to myself “oh cool, this is what we’re doing today.”

And even worse than that was the fact that this detachment did not discriminate, and often times it would even include the most important humans in my life…my kids. It’s painful to even think back on it, and there will be some who read this and think I’m a terrible person, but the hard things that no one wants to talk about seem to have become my forte, and honestly the parent who needs to hear that they’re not alone in this is more important to me than the opinion of the person who has no idea what any of this is like.

It was during this season that I really needed the people who loved my kids like their own to step up, and they DID. They showed them those nurturing emotions that kids need, when I didn’t have a drop of any kind of emotion left in me, and for that I can never repay them. Your friend might need this too, but chances are they won’t even realize what’s happening until after the fog starts to lift, so if you’re ever questioning whether or not you should show their kids a little more love..the answer is always yes.

And then when this fog does start to lift like I just mentioned, buckle up because you might be in for a hell of a ride. My first grief counselor actually told me when I was about 6 months out, Amanda grief will make you crazy so you need to be careful about the choices you’re making. I was honestly offended because I didn’t sign up for insults, but she was right, I was crazy at times. I don’t want you to become anyone’s emotional punching bag, but I do hope you can offer grace when grace is needed, even if it’s from afar. When we’re hurting we pretty much become professionals at hurting others. So don’t take anything personally and trust that somewhere under that half sad, half angry, lonely, bitter, ugly crying, snot dripping, hasn’t showered in days demon, is your friend. This is when they are going to need you the most.

Something else they are probably going to really need, is someone who is ok with talking about their spouse’s life AND maybe even their death. I always laugh when someone says something that makes me think aloud of Jesse, and they respond with “sorry for bringing it up.” Piece of advice # whatever we are on…you cannot “bring it up,” because they haven’t forgotten. Even in moments of genuine fun and happiness, somewhere in the back of their mind sits their person. Happiness can exist alongside of sadness because one does not negate the other, and this duality will eventually become their new reality as they learn how to give themselves permission to live again. I know in your eyes this might seem like such a tragedy that we will spend the rest of our lives this way, but in our world this is a bittersweet thing. Grief is the ultimate price we pay for deeply loving another human being, and the permanent scar that we will always carry on our hearts is proof that what we had was real and significant and it mattered. And honestly once you learn to accept this, it becomes a little easier to stand back up when life brings you to your knees. So don’t be afraid to bring them up and speak their name. We don’t want them to be forgotten.

Speaking of duality, can we just talk about the #1 thing that everyone wants to ask but is too afraid to ask…When is it ok for your widowed friend to start dating?? I feel like I could actually cover this part with one simple statement—This area of their life is NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS, but what fun would it be if we didn’t address how awkward and straight up terrifying it is to unexpectedly find yourself single and a part of the ridiculous world of dating.

I will never forget the first time I entered a bar and realized I was technically “available.” I was completely taken aback by the first male who approached me..didn’t he know I was married?!!! Oh wait. I’m not. Holy hell. How did I get here? Two months ago my Friday nights were spent on the couch next to the person I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I never in a million years thought I’d ever be “single” again EVER, and now here I am in this bar making awkward eye contact with a stranger. And I kind of like it, but also my brain has decided this would be a good time to be reminded of every insecurity I’ve ever had, and honestly are you sure this isn’t adultery BECAUSE IT FEELS LIKE IT. Do I even try to flirt? I don’t know how to flirt! How much eye contact is too much eye contact? Are we still doing the playful punching thing in our thirties?? WHAT DO I DO WITH MY HANDS?!

It is all so weird and uncomfortable and believe me when I say, you do not have to convince them to feel guilt and shame when they start to navigate this uncharted territory. They will do plenty of that all on their own. I also completely get where the hesitation on accepting this comes from, I really do! We are constantly questioning our worth, and often when someone finds new love after loss it is viewed as a replacement. This causes some to wonder well jeepers am I as irreplaceable as I thought?? The answer is absolutely YES, we all are. Because it’s not a replacement and it IS possible to miss what you had while still loving what you have.

Whether someone waits a few months or a few years has nothing to do with the value they place on their past. They might be looking to simply feel the touch of someone’s hand again or yes, they might actually be seeking a new love. Either way, it takes a lot of fucking guts to open up your heart again knowing that you’re also opening up to the possibility of experiencing that same unbearable pain once more. So instead of judging or putting in your two cents, get the bottle of wine ready for the first time they need to spill the beans about the cute guy at the bar that made them realize they are still actually capable of feeling something other than heartache.

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Choosing life after death has closed a chapter is the hardest thing your friend will ever have to do. The way that they view life and the world around them will never be the same. The days ahead are going to be extremely painful. But I promise, it does get better, and you simply being there through it all is going to be enough.