Oct. 28, 2017

When Butch and I started dating in November of 1969, he was not exactly what you would describe as “huggy-feely”.  In fact, coming from a family that did not touch one another much at all in those days, it took him awhile to enjoy spontaneous hugging.  His idea of holding hands was initially hooking little fingers as we walked.  The first time I attempted to give him a quick kiss when we parted in the hall at school, he was startled.  He adapted quickly.  A regular part of our ritual before school was to meet near his locker and snuggle as we waited for a particular instructor to walk by and ceremoniously drone, “unwrap people.”  It wasn’t morning without him. 

One of the advantages of his being stationed at Fort Hood, TX was its proximity to my very large family spread across Texas and Louisiana.  The first time we traveled with my cousin, Carolyn, to visit our Grandmama, we were greeted by all the aunts, uncles, and cousins who were in the vicinity.  I was sure that by the time the last of them gave him a big southern hug he was near the point at which he would blow up and fly around the room backwards.  He learned to welcome those hugs over the years, but I was never sure he was really comfortable.  

With me, however, he became down right huggy-feely.  We held hands wherever we went.  I was often doing homework in the car or working on a beading project. But whenever I was idle, we either held hands or I was in contact with him somehow.  On the nights when we were both home and went to bed together, we would lay facing each other to talk.  I greatly preferred petting him to the cat.  He would put his hand on my pillow and I would lay my cheek on his hand.  I often fell asleep like that, relaxed by the sensation of his warm hand on my cheek.  If he turned to his other side, I would spoon behind him, putting my hand in the pocket of his pajamas.  When facing in opposite directions, I would lay with my back against his, like a giant heating pad.  If I woke up in the night and could not go back to sleep, spooning was a sure bet for settling down and dozing off.  We watched TV in a double recliner where one of us always had a foot on the other person’s side for light contact.  When we ate in a restaurant we frequently held hands across the table as we talked and waited for our meal to be served.  He loved to sit in the backyard swing in the cool of the evening where I would have a hand on his leg as we unwound from our busy days and gently rocked away the weight of the world. 

He found all kinds of excuses for a hug or a nuzzle.  He would regularly come and find me during commercials, no matter what I doing.  He would say, “Is there anything I can nibble for you?”  This was followed by a short interruption of my project as he nibbled my neck just long enough to become a pest and then return to his television viewing.  If I passed him in a doorway, the hall, or a narrow part of the room, he would often say, “There is a toll here” and then give me a big hug.  When he came in from work, his dog would happily greet him.  He would give her a pat and say, “Mom first” and then give me a kiss and hug.  I could always count on that same greeting if he was home when I arrived.  If both of us were awake in the morning, we always exchanged a goodbye kiss.  

The day he died, I came home and retrieved the wrap-around body pillow he relegated to the closet because it “screwed up the snuggling.”  It was a decoy at best, but I continue to sleep with it now.  I could feel it there, all around me in my sleep.  In the first horrible moments of waking up in the bed alone it gave my body a moment to imagine him there before reality hit and took my breath away.  I avoided sitting in the double recliner, watching TV, and anything else that was a reminder that those precious touches were forever gone.  It’s even hard now to work on projects, anticipating his interruptions that will never actually come.  The sleep inducing comfort of his touch has been replaced by the sound of an audio book, droning away on his pillow. It took a long time to sit in the backyard swing without reaching out for the empty place beside me.  Despite the warnings not to move too soon after the death of a spouse, I was greatly relieved to move after 10 months to escape things like the empty doorways and unobstructed hallway where the absence of his “tolls” was like landmines everywhere. 

Becoming us without them will most definitely include grieving the loss of their touch. Far more than sex, it is affection that finds its way into the stories of loss after a death. Research indicates that meaningful touch is life sustaining from the cradle to the grave.  Witness Cuddle Connection, a growing nationwide chain that offers non-sexual cuddle sessions for the touch deprived. Or a research project that included a grandmotherly librarian whose line is always twice as long because she offers patrons a hug with each interaction.  Like many parts of them that were not truly appreciated until after they were gone, the absence of their touch will loom large on the horizon.  Those touches, snuggles and nuzzles can result in your body producing feel good neurochemicals that are relaxing and provide a sense of comfort and belonging.  In the absence of those touches, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other emotional and physical ailments abound.  Many who have remarried after the loss of a spouse say that what motivated them to seek a new partner had its roots in touch.  “I got tired of sleeping alone.”  “I just wanted someone to hold me in their arms again.”   “I missed being hugged.”  Those whose subsequent marriages have faltered often realize they sought that touch so desperately that they neglected to notice warning signs of incompatibility. 

Finding ways to fill our lives with healthy and sustaining touch will be one of the most important parts of our journey.  What we know we need can seem far outside our reach for a long time.  Becoming us without then will be far worse if it means us without loving touch.  A great blessing of doing addiction counseling at the Salvation Army is that it is a very “huggy-feely” culture where hugs are freely exchanged. Taking care of ourselves means reaching out for hugs from friends and family members when available, discovering that others enjoy them as much as we do. Widowed people act as baby holders in ICU at a local hospitals or volunteer at nursing homes where hugs are welcomed with open arms. 

The biggest obstacle will be that what we really want is the only thing we can never have while remaining open to the many blessings yet to come.

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Oct. 1, 2017

If you haven’t read Brene’ Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness, consider reading it soon. She is a researcher whose findings carried her unwillingly into the world of vulnerability and connection. This newest book is about her most recent research project where she discovered that having a sense of belonging is the most important thing for everyone. She is a great author and speaker so her books have always been helpful in the past. As a therapist, I was cheering as I read. As a trauma therapist attachment and belonging are the basis for everything I do. As a newly grieving widow, not so much. I think this idea of belonging is at the core of my grief.

Like Brene’ Brown, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. As a therapist, I completely understand why. When you have parents who are so broken that there is literally no one in there to attach to, your ability to attune to others and form strong alliances with others is non-existent. Sadly, the effects of this are apparent from the first day of school. The other kids seem to know some secret that you don’t. They understand the unspoken rules that enable social intelligence and the self confidence to take relational risks that pay off in strong, lasting friendships. I, despite being bright and physically attractive, always felt like an observer of this wonderful way of being a kid, but clueless as to how they got that way. I was more likely to adopt strays and fight for the underdog than to run with the popular kids. I was welcome among them, I just never quite knew how to relax and enjoy myself.

Then I met Butch. In his book, Mars and Venus on a Date, John Gray talks about finding your soul mate. He says that you can deeply love someone and yet have an intuitive understanding that they are just not the one. It eats away at the relationship. And when you find your soulmate, it feels like something you were born to do. No matter how bad things get, there is always this sense that you belong together. If you lose that, you will never be at peace with that loss. That must be why we chose to do three rounds of marriage counseling rather than give up on ourselves. I am sure our sons wish we had figured it out sooner so they could have had a stronger foundation to build from as they were watching us. What we taught them about relationship and connection in those early days was messy at best.

All of the bad times in the early days became hysterical stories to tell in the later years. When we did marriage classes at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, Butch loved to say, “We have been happily married for 25 years. And we will be celebrating our 35th anniversary in January.” It took them awhile to figure that one out. He would then tell them that we had experimented with all they ways you could wreck a marriage. He hoped we could give them some ideas to keep that from happening to them. I used to tell them that if they wanted the coolest, most romantic ideas ever, they should ask Butch for tips.

Right from the beginning, Butch made me feel like I finally belonged. He understood me much better than I will ever understand myself. They say that the greatest desire of all human beings is to be fully known and yet fully loved. We had that. He was always bigger than life to me. I thought he could fix anything I could break. I was surprised when he didn’t have answers to nearly everything. He was literally the wind beneath my wings, seeing far more of the good in me than I could ever see in myself. He chose to focus on what he loved about me rather than the annoying qualities I definitely have. For a few years, I spent a week at church camp as a counselor. I voluntarily signed up to live with 12 teenage girls for days and days. One year I packed up all my cool girl stuff, devotional materials, and art supplies and headed off, driving a friends van and six young people. We were about halfway there when I realized I completely forgot the fundamentals like a sleeping bag and pillow. I announced that we were stopping at WalMart to get what I needed when they all broke up into wild, hysterical laughter. They said that Butch packed everything I needed in the back of the van and swore them to secrecy. He said not to tell me unless I tried to stop and buy stuff. They couldn’t wait to tell all their friends!! He had been quietly watching my preparations and known I was as impractical and absent minded as ever. He knew I might just as likely have arrived at camp and unpacked all that without ever realizing I hadn’t packed it in the first place. He was quite proud of himself for having my back without nagging.

Becoming us without them consists of a very long and ominous to-do list. Anyone who has lost someone they loved and lived with can list all the painful parts. There is nothing we can add to that list that those ahead of us on the path have not already survived. When the fog of the first year lifts, we are shocked to find ourselves in a foreign land. Every relationship is changed. We don’t belong with the couples or other families the way we did. We are extra. We are a threat. We make them feel guilty for having what we have lost. In the beginning we don’t belong with the singles who have been at this single life for a while. They often have long-standing relationships that intensify our sense of being on the outside looking in. People who love us make a genuine effort to show us how much they care and to fill what parts of that hole they can. But they belong to each other and we are guests. Living alone wears you out. We must always return to that place that no longer feels like home. The one thing on the list that seems as if it can never be checked off or crossed out is to find the sense of belonging that we had when they were alive. Again it is our grieving mentors who assure us that it can be done. Like that pearl of great value that was created to soothe the irritation of a grain of sand, a life worth living slowly emerges from the what feels like cold and lifeless ashes. The pain of the loss becomes the foundation upon which we build something valuable that we can’t even imagine in the beginning.

It isn’t that I am not whole without him. I love my work, am arrogantly confident in my ability as a therapist and feel grateful every day for who I have become as a person and as a healer. Losing Butch has vastly increased my capacity as a Therapist. The thing I miss is looking into his eyes and seeing not only his love for me, but his knowing me to my core. The most painful part of losing him, is knowing that I will never look into another pair of eyes and see that again.

Christmas Tacos

Sep. 24, 2017

Butch was always thinking of ways to provide service to others. He was not someone you would ever find standing behind a podium speaking to a crowd. But he was always someone you would find in the background, doing the huge things that mattered the most.

When he was in the army, we lived in Texas for a couple of years. He regularly brought home one of his single platoon mates for dinner. As they came in the door, I would hear them ask, “Are you sure its OK that you didn’t call to check before you invited me?” Since I learned to cook for my family of seven, it took me a long time to pare that down to dinner for two. Butch knew there would always be plenty for three in those early days. When his best friend’s wife needed to go home to Michigan, the friend and his six-month-old son stayed with us for a couple of months.

His very elderly aunt lived in a terrible neighborhood and was nearly crippled with arthritis. He visited her regularly without telling anyone about it. When one of the young men who roomed with us was not able to pay his rent regularly, Butch sent him to do yard work for his aunt. Every year when he got his Thanksgiving turkey from work he went to the store and purchased the rest of the makings for a turkey dinner and took it all to his aunt so she could have Thanksgiving dinner with her young grandchildren. He never bragged about that. He just quietly did it year after year.

He always introduced himself to our new neighbors at the first opportunity and let them know he was happy to help them out if he could. He kept an eye out for the elderly next-door neighbor, checking on her whenever something seemed suspicious in the area. At our first home, Butch once came home from work late at night and saw that three guys were about to jump the young man next door. While Butch was sure the troubled boy probably brought it on himself, three against one just didn’t work for him. He strolled over and announced that they were welcome to fight him one at a time, but not three at once. Given that Butch was 6’4” and unloaded 80,000 lbs. of freight every day, the aggressors decided not to fight that decree. One by one, they took turns with the neighbor. He easily defeated the first one and gave the second one a run for his money. But fatigue and drunkenness took their toll and the third one got in a few good licks before Butch announced that the neighbor had learned his lesson and they should go home. As it turned out, he had, indeed, brought it on himself. Another time Butch marched past eight Sheriffs with guns drawn attempting to get the same neighbor to come out of the house after his crazy girlfriend called 911 and told them the neighbor had a gun and their two-year-old in the house and would not let her out. The baby was actually at his other grandparent’s and she was at our house on the phone. She just knew what to say when she called 911 to get the most attention. The Sheriffs ordered Butch to stop but he ignored them, knowing the neighbor was an idiot, but not dangerous. He banged on the door, told the neighbor he was ruining Butch’s TV viewing with all the noise, and ordered him to come outside before Butch used the spare key they kept at our house (for when they locked themselves out) and dragged him out himself. The neighbor obediently marched outside and was taken away in handcuffs. Butch suggested that they take the crazy girlfriend away as well since she created all the drama in the first place. No one on the block was especially disappointed when they all moved away.

Thus, it was no surprise when Butch came home and told me that a couple of the people he worked with were orphaned for Christmas and he wanted to invite them for dinner. My family lived out of town, his family celebrated on a different day, and our boys preferred to be with the families of that year’s main squeeze. We had Christmas morning and brunch with them and they were off. Butch’s plan was that we should both invite any Christmas orphans we ran across to join us for dinner. Over the course of many years delivering to stores and businesses, he heard people talk about how hard Christmas was after a major loss or change. Whether caused by death, divorce, a move, or an empty nest, he thought it would be good if people could do something totally new that first year so it wasn’t so hard. That would make it easier to build new traditions in the future. So that became our tradition. We provided a build-your-own taco salad bar and yummy desserts, none of which conformed to the typical Christmas dinner pattern. He named the night, “Christmas Tacos.” We played Trivia Pursuit using cards entitled, “Christmas Around the World.” The questions could be as easy as “What did Frosty the Snowman wear on his head?” Or, they could be as obscure as, “What is the most commonly served side dish for Christmas dinner in Norway?” People laughed like crazy and forgot, if only for a while, that they were Christmas orphans. Each year the group was different, always very diverse. While there were a few regulars, most of the guests enjoyed that transition year and moved on to build new Christmas traditions just as Butch imagined they would. Eventually we, too, moved on and Christmas Tacos faded into history.

We spent the next few years serving together at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings after our sons left home. We would arrive early to help set up, serve the men and sometimes their families who were orphaned at the facility as part of their initial 30 day blackout, or because there was no one inviting them for Christmas, or because they had no home and no money to celebrate on their own. Then we would help clean up. It was very humbling. We returned home tired and grateful and spent a quiet evening together.

It never occurred to us that one day, one of us would inevitably be one of those Christmas orphans ourselves. But there I was. I had not demonstrated great skill at preparing for these major milestones after Butch died, so my family stepped in to be sure that I was not alone. My brother and his lovely family planned a trip to San Diego the week before Christmas and invited me to join them. They spent Christmas Eve with me at my home and we celebrated Christmas morning together. My son and his family joined us for brunch for the hand off, making sure I spent Christmas evening with them. I continue to wonder how people survive the loss of a loved one without the amazing support from friends and family that I have experienced.

Becoming us without them means treading gingerly through the major milestones of life on our own. Every date on the calendar that is special in any way shines light on the tear in the fabric that was once our lives with them. We are adrift. We are like a small boat in an ocean of sadness, with a torn sail and no rudder. There is no familiar script from which we read our lines in this new life. It is all improvisation. Complicating this process is the fact that we don’t want to do any of this. We want our lives back. Our grieving peers tell us it can take a lifetime to stop hoping this is all a bad dream, that we will wake up, and they will be right there, just where they belong. We are uninspired in our efforts to fill those gaps with new things we wouldn’t need if they weren’t gone. Yet we have no choice but to write a new story, with new traditions. Because they are gone, and nothing can change that, ever. Only we can decide if that story will be written in isolation, intensifying what is already excruciating pain. The alternative is to ask for help from anyone and everyone we can. It is foolish to believe that anything can take away the pain. But the suffering of isolation is an option. It is true that life goes on and our support people have their own lives to live. Our couple friendships change or end (if we represent a threat somehow or make them feel guilty). But if we are mobile, there are options. Whether we spend time with our own family, ask others to include us with their families, or find community resources, there are options. We can fight our way out of the quicksand only by putting one foot in front of the other and heading in a new direction, no matter how hopeless it feels as we begin.

I reawakened Christmas Tacos this year to celebrate my first birthday without him and my new home. I invited everyone I knew. And lots of them came!! We didn’t play Trivia Pursuit, but there was lots of laughter. And, just as Butch imagined, it was a little easier to forget that I am an orphan.


Aug. 22, 2017

After spending many years wondering why someone as smart as Butch did so poorly in school, testing at Kaiser determined that he had dyslexia. Using a tricky laser machine, he discovered that his eyes would go to the middle of the word and read to the right, then go back to the middle of the word and read to the left. No wonder he hated reading so much. That was a very freeing discovery for him, redefining him not as someone who was not smart, but as someone who just didn’t see what the rest of us see when reading. With some exercises and tons of practice, he greatly improved. More importantly, he was more likely to try new things knowing he could stop hiding his poor reading ability as a sign he was terminally flawed.

Butch told lots of stories about school when he was young. If you have ever raised a child with a learning disability, you know they are not likely to be up for student of the year. Like many others, it was clear that Butch substituted class clown for class scholar. It is likely that he would have been diagnosed with ADHD if anyone had bothered to check.

He reported being suspended from either kindergarten or first grade for punching a neighbor. He was riding his bike home from school and opted to cut through her yard. Having been told not to do that, she was waiting for him that day. Believing she was going to take his bike away from him when she tried to grab him, he apparently punched her and made a run for it. In addition to the trouble he got in at school when she reported him, he had to face worse music at home.

He said that he got good grades through the third grade. In the fourth grade, when the reading load really started to pile up, his grades began to drop. It was then that he began using comic relief to mask his fear that he would be found out as being barely able to read. Having thoroughly annoyed his teacher one day, the teacher apparently lost it. He came up behind Butch and began twisting Butch’s collar, cutting off the air supply. His classmates described with glowing admiration how, just before passing out on his desk, Butch “clocked” the teacher. This gained him the admiration of his classmates and successfully diverted anyone from worrying about his grades.

In Junior High, he and some other boys cut in line in the cafeteria. The principal, saw them and decided to make an example of them. He stood them up on stage and made them eat standing up, holding their trays. Not seeming even remotely contrite at that point, he then required them each to take a turn reading aloud while the other students ate their lunches. Butch said that he got at the end of the line, desperately hoping lunch would end or the world would end before it was his turn. As his turn approached, he felt nauseous waiting for the impending humiliation as the entire school discovered that he read horribly. Much to his surprise, as he fumbled over the words, his classmates decided he was doing it on purpose to mock the principal and applauded his defiance. He escaped!!

By the time I met him as a freshman in High School, he had been relegated to that group of students you might describe as just above the thugs, but very unlikely to succeed. His low opinion of himself prevented him from launching out on adventures that would take him out of his bubble of shame. With his complicated home life, he would never have had kids over to play or hang out unless they, too, had messy families and would think nothing of his.

I, on the other hand, ran on the fringe of the group that included the cheerleaders and football players. But I always felt like I was masquerading as a popular kid and waited every day to be discovered and voted off the island. When I was younger, I, too, found teacher torture to be a wonderful outlet for my angst. When the principal or one of my teachers would call to discuss my evil adventures, my mother would ask them what grade I was getting in the class where I was having the problem. They would say, “Well she is getting an A, but..” At that point, she would tell them that if my grade got to a C to call her back. Classroom management was their problem. She would then hang up. As my mother’s drinking got worse, my friends rarely came to my house to avoid repeats of some humiliating and scary incidents they witnessed over the years.

When we were seniors and dating, I received the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Award for my school simply by getting 98 percentile on a written test. Raising my brothers and sisters and covering for my alcoholic mother, I knew lots about “housekeeping” and taking advanced placement English enabled me to max out the essay question on the test even though I really didn’t understand the terms I was writing about. Like Butch always said, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, you can always baffle them with b******t.” When we arrived in the home economics classroom to pick up my award it was hard to tell if the teacher was more repulsed by the fact that a student who never took one home economics class from her won the award or that I was accompanied by a young man who had tormented her every day in her Bachelor Living class the year before.

That was what made us kindred souls—the feeling of being misfit toys. They called us the Odd Couple, seeming to be such polar opposites. But we were kindred souls. He was amazed that I saw past the learning issues to the person he really was. I was amazed that he saw past the craziness and loved me anyway.

We went on to support one another in reaching for the stars when neither of us even looked up at the starts before we met. When he decided to try college, I read his textbooks onto audio tape (dark ages) so he could listen to them in the truck as he drove. He actually got a better grade in economics than I did, because he liked it and I thought it was terminally boring. I shuttled equipment for his jock stuff, supporting him in any way I could. His faith and encouragement kept me going in school when I lost heart and wanted to give up. We even figured out how to combine those two as I did my homework in parking lots before, during, and after his practices and events and he brought his bicycle or kayak as he kept me company on work or school related travels.

Becoming us without them means finding the will to keep moving forward without them. When the gut wrenching pain of their absence subsides, we can begin to hear their voice again, encouraging us to do the hard things just like they did before. The terror of not being able to go on without them is lessened at first by allowing people who care about us and cared about them to help us. In time, we realize we are surviving without them, whether we want to or not. But does enjoying our new-found resilience mean losing some part of them? The good news is, we begin to notice that we absorbed them into our cells in many ways. We find that when we hit a roadblock we can ask ourselves, “What would they do right now?” And much to our surprise, answers come into our heads. We must have been paying attention!! Frequently, we either know what to do, or know who to ask. And let us not forget YouTube videos!! But the bad news is, the more we appreciate all the ways they made life better, the more we miss them. The more we hear their voice or remember their support, the more we wish they were here. Becoming us without them is a balancing act. In one hand ,we hold the pain of the loss. In the other, we hold the good parts of the life we had together. There is no way to block the pain without also blocking the sweetness of their presence in our lives. The only way back into the light of their love is through the darkness of the mourning. Our grieving companions help us accept this wavering as a normal part of the life we now live and comfort us when the darkness descends. One day at a time, the parts of them that we carry with us and the parts we are creating on our own, merge into a version of us that we can live with, in spite of the pain. The glimmer of that something new appears like the sunrise, grey and indistinct, but promising that a new day is dawning, even for us.


Aug. 1, 2017

Our youngest son turned 40 today. How did that go by so quickly?

Our first son was born on August 20, 1973. He was born just weeks before Butch completed his service in the Army. Butch had to go away for training the last six weeks before I was due, so the members of his unit, who I fed and sheltered for two years, created a schedule so that I had a phone number to call 24/7 if I went into labor. On the day of the company picnic, no one wanted to stay home to babysit me so I was required to attend in Butch’s absence to ensure that someone was keeping track of me. August in Texas, nearly at my due date, spending an afternoon in the heat. Now there’s an adventure. To say that we were poorly prepared for parenthood would be one of the world’s greatest understatements.

Everything I know now about how to be a wife, a mother, a friend, and, well, a human, I learned from a book or a therapist. My father, an only child, was born in 1927 and lived through the great depression. His father died suddenly when he was only 8 years old. A long series of very difficult experiences left him believing that the only thing you could trust in this world was money. My mother, a very unhappy person, would contribute greatly to that belief over the years. While I was the oldest of five, practically raised my youngest brother, and babysat for years, I was far too wounded be left in charge of children who I did not give back after a few hours. On the job training reigned supreme in our house. I actually held my son the first time and apologized to him for his being stuck with me for his mother. I then began what I was sure would be my journey toward failing as a mother. My children are very lucky that my life was generously sprinkled with mentors and good therapists or it could have gone much worse.

Butch was the youngest of four and the only boy. I have seen pictures of Butch and his father as an infant and young boy and it was clear that he loved Butch very much. Both of his parents came from very troubled families. They worked long and hard to provide for their children but there are books written about dysfunctional families whose chapters could easily be about theirs. He was an extremely hands-off dad. She was an extremely complicated mom. Yet they taught them to be respectful and hard-working and graced them all with that combination of humor and sarcasm that only we of the wounded family can appreciate. He came to parenthood with a very strong desire to be a better parent to his boys that his father had been to him. Like the rest of us, he learned that was much more easily said than done. He did all the good stuff he knew to do, and worked hard not to be like his parents had been. No one ever had a dad who loved them more or was more committed to figuring out how to be a good dad.

Butch was completely amazed by our first son. He would bring Army buddies home to see him nearly every day. He would stand over the bassinet and loudly say, “We have to be quiet or he will wake up and we will have to hold him.” He knew way more about nurturing than I did. My mother did not nurture. She endured. When our son screamed through his baths, it was Butch who would patiently get us through it. When he wasn’t sleeping, it was Butch who knew about bundling him. Butch talked to the baby as he was getting dressed and eating his breakfast. He played on the floor with him every night. When he had to leave us in Minnesota to take a good job back in California, he sent our six month old son a letter telling him how much he loved and missed him and to take good care of mom, enclosing a five dollar bill so he could take me out for a coke. Butch took a week off the week before our second son was due to have dad time with the first before the new baby invaded his world. They rode horses, fished, and hung out.

When our second son was born my mother came to help after my C-Section. That was like asking one of Santa’s reindeer to help the elves wrap presents. Step-father number four had a heart attack after she was there two days. With great relief, we sent her on her way back to Minnesota. Butch stepped up. Unlike our first son, this one loved and was amused by everything. He laughed at the tongue depressor at his first checkup. When he cut his hand barely more than age two, he repeatedly asked, “What doing?” as they stitched his hand and complained, “Move. Can’t see.” Rather than being afraid and upset when he was bound into the contraption for a chest X-ray, he wiggled his fingers delightedly and waved at me behind the window. Being best buds with his dad, he once got tired of waiting for dad to come home from work and announced that he was taking his three-year-old little self for a walk to find his daddy. I followed close behind to see how far he would get before he got scared or lost his way. Neither happened. He was well on his way when Butch passed us on the street and stopped to pick us up.

Those were rocky times in our marriage. Having had no modeling from his dad for how to be a husband, as our problems increased and the cute little babies were replaced my strong willed young men who stretched us well outside our comfort zone, it was touch and go. That “making up answers” parenting style is hard on everyone. It was only with three rounds of marriage counseling, two rounds of family counseling, and the grace of God that we got through. Fortunately, no animals or humans were harmed during these experiments. When our youngest son was in his 20’s, we were helping a team of people provide growth groups at a local church. The team decided it would be cool to have a panel of “strong willed” children who had survived to adulthood talk about what it was like to be the kid in that drama. You always hear from the parents of those kids, but rarely the little devils themselves. No one knew that one of the panel members was our son. The panel of young people was talking about what it was like from their perspective to live in messy families, go through family counseling, and come out at the other end with a family that enjoyed one another. Our son casually said, “You know what was cool about having an asshole for a father? I could always make him mad to distract him from what we were supposed to be talking about. That wasn’t all bad. I liked the new version of my dad much better, but I missed being able to distract him when the discussion wasn’t going my way.” Butch just laughed along with everyone else. After it was over and our son came to say goodbye, people were stunned to realize that he was our son and that neither of us had reacted as he very honestly described what it was like for him to have parents for whom every day was on the job training. When another man came over and asked Butch how he could be so OK with that, Butch calmly told him, “We aren’t those people anymore.”

Butch was really looking forward to being a grandfather because he was sure he could do a much better job with the girls than he did with his sons. He was already showing what a cool grandfather he would be when he died. But our granddaughters were only 15 and 5 months old so he never got a chance to enjoy them. They would have had him eating out of their hands!

Becoming us without them means relating to everyone in our world in a whole new way. The birthday cards don’t say, “Love mom and dad” anymore. We don’t get to sit on the porch and watch the grandchildren laugh and play together like we dreamed for so long. There isn’t one social setting in which we functioned as “us” in the past that does not become “us without them” now. Every friendship is changed. Every holiday requires modified traditions. People around us don’t know how to be. They can feel awkward enjoying what they still have when we have lost so much. Conversations are fraught with black holes where it was once uncomplicated. We love to hear stories about our loved ones. They worry their stories will make us say—and they may. There is no manual for learning to ask for and receive support without becoming a burden or avoiding things that we can and should do on our own. We are launched into doing new things that make us stronger and more resilient. But we’d much rather have them healthy and alive than be resilient. We learn to enjoy our life again and look forward to the future. But there is always that little voice that reminds us we would rather hit the rewind button and have them back. This is the hardest part. The logical side of our brain gets better and better at accepting that they are gone and nothing will ever undo that. Would we, if we could, demand that they leave the peaceful place they now enjoy to come back to this crazy world only to die again later? But the emotional side of our brain resists. The selfish part doesn’t care. We want the pain to stop. The surest route to the end of the pain is if they just come back. Who needs to be a new person if we can just get our old lives back? That crazy-making loop can go on and on.

Only the passing of time, chipping away at the pain, supported by our loved ones and grieving mentors pushes us forward. In the meantime, thank God for how-to videos on Youtube!