surviving grief: a letter to myself + tips for you

13 years ago today (04 August 2005), we became the newest members of the gold star family.

Gold Star Flag
gold stars are hung on a flag to notify others that a loved one killed while serving in the war

I’d learned with my fifth graders about the blue and gold stars in a long and extensive unit on World War II never (and I mean n-e-v-e-r) thinking that I’d be the owner of either.

But when my first husband, SSgt. Chad Jerome Simon, deployed with the rest of the Marine Corps Battalion into Iraq, I had to start wrapping my head around the fact that someone could not return with their unit.

05 June 2004
deployed on our only son’s golden birthday | 05 June 2004

At the time, I was quite certain I would need to steel myself to be the wife that would support and encourage the other women who might find themselves grieving or waiting for news about their loved one, but it turned out that it was me (and four other families) on the same day – 08 November 2004.

I got a call that Chad had been severely injured and they were keeping him there in Iraq because they were not certain he’d be able to make the flights back to the states. After a few weeks and several thousand pleas + prayers, he did. It gave me so much hope that it would be a long recovery but a full one.

My faith was strengthened – I did and still do believe in miracles – and had anticipated that his body would be healed and he would be ours again.

After 9 months of expensive rehabilitation attempts, three states and six facilities (hospitals, nursing homes and finally hospice), we had to accept that the brain injuries he sustained would not be healed, that he would not recover, so we removed life support and he passed away.

IMG_8462
in memory of the fallen 2/24 Marines | Madison, Wisconsin

The whole thing was so harrowing that sometimes when I choose to share the parts of the story that are mine to share, I can hardly believe it happened to us and that we’re where we are today. In the thirteen years since his death and burial, I have learned a lot about people, parenting, love and especially grief. That last one let me tell you, we (as a collective “we” – society, culture, us, people in general and each of us in particular) are just not great at this one; which simply compounds the loss.

People’s response to our loss + grief, slows us down, creates setbacks that deeply wound already open cuts and bruises. The well-meaning trip into unrealized areas of needed growth unwittingly creating new peaks and valleys to muck through. It shifts your identity if not rooted in the One bigger than your circumstances and pain. It makes you sick.

Grief is a powerful solidifier and upender of relationships.

If I could go back to my 33yo self and help her understand and navigate her journey through grief, I’d tell her this:

Dear 33yo Regina,

You’re a bit of hot mess right now. Your every three-day shower routine and feeding your child the same meals is j-u-s-t keeping him out of Child Protective Services and your friends from moving in to make sure you’re not losing your mind.

God sees you. He understands your pain.

You can not imagine living life. In fact, you’ve thought of who would care for your sweet son if you stopped living. You’ve cried and wept. Your body is empty. You feel guilty if you laugh or if something tastes good. You want people around but only if they’re super quiet and only talk about a few things.

You are not remembering that clothes are often worn to be matched – in some sort of style, with some sort of plan; that both pair of earrings are to be worn together on the same day.

Leaving the house terrifies you but you do it because they say that “time heals all wounds”. So you do routine things and you try to be normal, try to hear, try to see, to learn. Everything feels surreal. Your laugh sounds like someone else’s, you don’t trust or know the woman walking crawling through this.

You’re so very grateful for that boy of yours.

And you should be. Were it not for his disposition, his attitude, his hopeful spirit, his fight to live fully at 6yo, you would have given up on yourself.

It will not be easy. The rest of your 30s are straight up going to be filled with even more pain than you could have imagined because you will be so raw; open to the belief that the worst pain was behind you. You’ll trust some of the wrong people and you will hurt others in an effort to protect yourself.

There was no handbook. The Bible was equally comforting and frustrating at times because it didn’t set you up to step quickly through the things you had to face, the things you were going to walk through. It will take time. Lots of time. And you will find purpose and walk in hope. You’ll even find a way to help and encourage others.

You’re going to be okay sweet one. Better than okay.

Trust.

If you’re reading this and have recently been widowed or know some one who has, here are some things I would like to share with you/them – things I’d wished someone had shared with me, things I wished I’d done sooner or better. Gently offer this blog post to them to read on their own, please don’t force it on them or “teach” them what they need to do – they must do the work at their pace, these are just some thoughts from a woman who’s been in it and sometimes even still get pricked by the life-long sting of grief.

GET YOURSELF + YOUR CHILDREN (if any) INTO THERAPY

People in your church mean well, they really do.

Even if they’ve suffered a similar loss, they will not have the ability to help you work through this well. Do the groups, the counselors, the professionals, the camps, the getaways – get professional help.

Grief – especially when so public – is traumatic. You need people who do not personally share your loss to help shine light on your next steps.

If you go to someone who gives you the trite stuff, quit them, forget them but find someone else. There are wonderful therapists out there – make this time a priority.

REFRAIN FROM MAKING ANY MAJOR DECISIONS FOR ONE YEAR

In my case, it probably should have been three years, but I would not recommend moving (unless you’re on a base and have to move or if you experienced severe trauma in your home and you feel like you can’t survive), a remodel project of any kind, any financial investments, starting a new job or even cutting or dying your hair

My emotions were so raw in addition to being sleep deprived that I was not a sound decision maker. In shock most of the time, I could only be sure my child had a bowl of cereal (sugar cereal, the bad for you kind), got dressed (much easier to dress boys for school when they want to wear the same undies everyday) and stood at the bus stop with the other families (mostly to show them that I was functioning so they’d not swing by unexpectedly no thank you, I’m busy grieving by moving my furniture around over here).

FIND A HEALTHY WAY TO ESCAPE A LITTLE EACH DAY

I don’t mean run from the pain. In another post, I’ll write about the importance of going INTO the pain to heal, but for now, I think it’s important that you – in your raw, traumatized state – take some time and give yourself permission to do anything (legal, moral, beneficial) you want everyday.

It need not have any educational value, it does not have to help you grieve or parent or succeed or move on in any way. It may not be mainstream, popular or recommended by your usual crew; in fact – expand your options.

Watch movies that aren’t main stream. In doing this you may discover gems like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. You’ll also discover that your sense of humor is a little dark and that you enjoy stories where people go through hard things in life rather than the mainstream, Hallmark Channel stuff that loops shows about first world miscommunication problems rather than digging into real loss and pain.

Plan getaways. Travel alone, with your child, with gal pals. Go for a walk.

Cook + eat new food. Your baby may love spaghetti but 5 nights a week (with the other two nights being cereal) but consider a different flavor pasta sauce, a healthier box of cereal and add a vegetable or fruit. Take small steps to do new things.

DEVELOP YOUR OWN CATCH PHRASE TO RESPOND TO PEOPLE

People will have all kinds of advice for you. And let’s face it – your face may need some help (mine did does). You don’t have to hide how you feel and in many cases that will be your saving grace. But consider adopting a simple phrase that you can say that will cover over all the stuff.

A phrase to cover over the dating advice from the Orkin Man, to cover over the head tilt-teeth suck combo when people find out you’re the war widow in their community, over the comments about how quickly you should be grieving and over those who tell you how offended they are that you are no longer behaving the way you did pre-husband was blown up by a bomb in war while serving the country and protecting their freedoms…

Hence, why a phrase is helpful.

If you don’t choose, practice and use your catch phrase you will hurt people from your own hurt. Some of your closest folks will respond with patience, grace + salve to help you heal your soul, but most will light that salt on fire and mash-it right up in your most raw spaces.

Get a phrase. Pray about it. Run it by a couple of trusted gal pals. Practice it in the mirror and use it on everyone. Only one piece of advice – do “NOT” use the words, “I’m sorry” in whichever phrase you choose.

BEWARE OF GETTING REMOVED FROM THE CLUB

You may find that you’re invited less to things that you and your spouse used to do. Beware. Your friend group may be terrified that what you have – grief gurl, you’re just grieving, yep – it’s messy, but it’s just grief – is contagious and they will not invite you to all the things you were used to doing.

Even sitting with you at church. Your kids may not play together as often. Your standing things may no longer include a seat for you. They think they’re doing you a favor so try not to be too hurt, but beware and be sure that your friend group is beyond only your married friends. Also realize, your hurt may cause you to pull away. You may be – unintentionally – withdrawing and returning your membership card when they haven’t asked for it.

Find folks that are in different seasons of life and embrace any encouragement you can receive and look for ways to bless them too.

GO BACK TO WORK

When you think of going back to work, go back into your school, into your classroom and start over. Face those who think they know how you should be grieving and those who think that you should have returned sooner. Don’t take that district job and have to learn something new.

You can hardly remember to put both earrings in your ear lobes everyday, let alone learn a new program or system. Go back to doing what you were doing before. At least for a little while. New doesn’t make the pain subside.

Besides, your brain is so foggy anyway, while the new role may be something you would normally do really well, it’s likely not the best time to be unable to perform and learn and achieve when you’re expending so much energy on basic function.

Even though it would have been difficult to hear your last name called without the man who gave it to you (Mrs. Simon! Mrs. Simon! – call out all the third graders, their parents and staff members). Even though being a single, working mother had never been a part of your plan.

DATE YOURSELF WELL BEFORE DATING SOMEONE ELSE

I know it’s hard to be alone.

Sleeping in that big bed alone. Living in that house that you moved into hoping he’d return home to it. Moving around in the space you are accepting he’s not coming back to.

Rather than rushing into companionship with even the seemingly most wonderful man on the planet, perfect for you and your son – don’t do it. Not yet.

Be friendly – with the things you say to yourself.

Be kind – to yourself. Find out what you really like or don’t like.

Be healthy – in the way you think about yourself, life and what you think you deserve, what you dream + hope for and then wait. When you think you’re ready, wait another year longer.

Be frugal and responsible with your finances. Get an accountability partner, set some long-term goals and think about your child going off to college (even if he’s only 6yo right now).

Believe a whole part of you can walk out of this and take steps toward making that happen.

FORGIVE

This one is one you’re still going to be working on years from now sweet lady.

You were hurt. Badly. And often.

People were well-meaning, but you felt abandoned. People were well-intentioned but you felt controlled. People were giving but with strings attached. People gave advice but had never been through anything like what you are walking through.

It’ll leave you confused, overwhelmed, frustrated. And deeply hurt.

You will feel alone. Betrayed. Pissed.

You will need to go to God continually. To be honest in prayer and petition Him about the things coming out of people’s mouths and sometimes, your response to it. You will not handle everything beautifully, nor will you make people happy.

There are countless numbers of people who look at how you’ll navigate life after this loss who will not be in your life after 13 years. I know that devastates you, but it’s going to happen.

Forgive yourself now. You’re going to need to give yourself to be free to grieve the best way you know how and then forgive others for their response to you when you do.

___

Time in and of itself does not heal all wounds, but God will do some amazing things through, for and around you in the waiting. There will be growth, living like you never experienced before and hope that overflows.

You are going to be okay!

Better than okay. Trust.

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