man longing and looking through window

“You’ve changed.”

Have you heard this since your loss?

Maybe you have.

Maybe you haven’t.

But my guess is you’ve felt it.

You’ve may have felt it about yourself.

You’ve may have felt the eyes of others judging you with those thoughts: You’ve changed.

Here is my question: How could you not? How could you not change? Were you supposed to remain the same? Was a deep, profound and tragic loss not supposed to change you?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a meme about grief on Facebook that spoke to me. A line in it stated the following words: “an alteration of your being.” Think about those words.

An Alteration of Your Being.

That is raw. And that is true.

I haven’t just changed.

No, it’s more than that.

My very being has been altered.

We all have different stories. Some of us got to say goodbye. Some did not. Some of our loved ones passed peacefully. Some did not.

Regardless of how your loss took place, regardless of the exact details of your story, one thing is almost certainly true: You’ve changed.

I know I sure have.

I went from cloud nine to utter despair.

I went from a man reunited with his high school sweetheart, the only woman he’s ever loved, to a man desperate to try and save that same woman from the cancer taking over her body.

I went from truly happy for the first time in my life, to off-the-charts bitter — terrified that my everything was about to be taken away.

My wife. My stepdaughter. My everything.

There were so many horrific moments during those two and a half years in which she fought bravely against the disease that eventually took her life.

It got to the point where there were moments near the end in which I begged God, with tears from the gut and desperation from the soul, to put her out of her misery. To put me out of mine.

I had changed.


And then, I changed again.

Shortly before Michelle passed away, while she was in hospice, I had an awakening of sorts.

I realized how blessed I was to have had Michelle in my life for as long as I did. I realized how blessed I was to have my amazing stepdaughter in my life. I realized how blessed they both were to have me in their lives as well.

My bitterness began to fade.

I began to change for the better.

As I stand here today, nearing the one-year anniversary of the day my wife passed away in an unexpectedly beautiful, yet obviously tragic moment, I can say I have changed.

I have changed in dramatic ways. And I continue to change.

There are days when I am a better person. There are days when I am a worse person.

But one thing is for certain, I am surely not the same person.

My outlook on life. My goals. My desires. My heart. My soul.

None of it is quite the same.

I have changed. To my very core. I have changed.

Often for the better. Occasionally for the worse.

I have changed.

And I’m betting you have, too.

After a deep and profound loss, I am now convinced it is impossible to remain the same person you once were.

So the next time someone says, “You’ve changed,” whether it be as a compliment, a criticism or a general observation, tell them you know that.

Tell them you haven’t just changed though.

Tell them what you have truly experienced: an alteration of your being.

Tell them, that for better or for worse, you’ll never be the same.

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My mother has been dead for three and a half years, my stepmother has been dead for two years, and my maternal grandfather has been dead for eight months. At this point in my life, you might consider me a survivor of chronic loss.

While the ache of grief never really goes away, I’ve found the pain does lessen, and the fog does clear with time. That first year, however, after a loss can be the hardest, as you’re finding your “new normal” and learning your own strength in the process.

Below are five tips I’ve learned to help survive the first year of grief.

1. Learn to say “no.”

When you’re a Type A, go-getter like me, who is used to staying busy and constantly trying to keep things running smoothly, it can be very difficult to turn down commitments and create breathing room in your schedule. When you’re grieving, though, you must learn to set boundaries, or the exhaustion can eventually destroy your heart, mind and body.

2. Find your people.

You may quickly discover that grief can be isolating. You may lose relationships with friends who simply cannot relate to your situation. Make an effort to find others who have experienced loss and “get it.”

If you lack friends who understand, consider joining a support group through a nonprofit like GriefShare.

3. Use paper plates.

This one may sound silly, but a few days after my mom died, a friend showed up at my front door with a huge laundry basket full of food, gift cards, paper plates, cups and napkins compiled by our Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) steering team.

I had no idea how much I needed the items in that basket until a few days later, after the busyness of planning and attending the funeral services was over and the dust settled on my mother’s absence.

I found myself physically and emotionally spent, with little energy or appetite, and cooking and cleaning were simply no longer on the priority list.

Paper plates ultimately became the best gift in that huge basket, because they gave me permission to give myself grace and skip doing dishes for a few weeks.

4. Make time for rest.

While self-care might seem like a luxury, I found it becomes absolutely vital when you’re grieving. (Check out this list of common grief symptoms if you don’t believe me. I had no idea why I felt sick all the time, until someone pointed out the physical effects of grief to me.)

Create a regular time slot in your weekly calendar for whatever you need, whether it’s grief counseling, yoga, prayer, meditation, massage, or even a pedicure. The more frequently you make time to quiet your mind, the better you can sleep, too.

5. Do something good.

I’ve experienced the greatest healing in my grief by channeling my pain into helping others.

Doing good in memory of my mother, Dixie, and sharing our story of strength and love through my blog and our new book for grieving preschoolers keeps her legacy alive and continues to help soothe my broken heart.

Find a way to connect with and serve others who’ve experienced a similar loss, and it just might set you free.

Image via Contributor.

Follow this journey on Love of Dixie.

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I will let my face leak whenever and where ever I need. I’m not hiding or running from my grief. I live my life pretty loud and proud, and my grief will be no different. Grief sucks, and if I have to hide it, it makes me feel ashamed of it. So I will grieve when I need to.

If you see my face leaking, then know I needed to cry in that moment. I’m not afraid of my tears. I’m scared to hold them in.

While in the grocery store picking out some oranges the other day, I swear I heard my girl behind me. I quickly turned around to see that it wasn’t her, and this moment brought me a flash of happiness and then a crash of devastation. It wasn’t her. I know she has been gone now for almost nine months and she will never be the voice behind me in the produce section, yet for those fleeting seconds, I heard her voice and hoped she was. In that moment I needed to let my face leak.

We are encouraged to share all the joyful things in our life. Why do we have to deal with grief alone? Grief is the form love takes when you lose someone so very special. Having this grief shows we loved so much and so great that the grief hurts this much.

I will no longer apologize for doing what I need to grieve because what I’m doing is not wrong. What I need may be different than what you need, but it is not wrong.

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Thinkstock photo by Yun Yulia

I vividly remember the day my life stopped. It runs through my head often. Moment by moment. The accelerated heart rate. The heat and sweat washing over me. The phone calls. The questions. The waiting. So much waiting. I think about the cost of rewriting history. I think about all the variables that could have shifted that day, but despite my overactive imagination, I can’t seem to bring him back.

The thing is, when you lose someone, no one tells you about the aftermath. About the war that is about to be waged. No one warns you about the chaos that can erupt in your life, in your family and cover over you. They may say “sorry” and “I can’t imagine” with tears in their eyes, but they don’t tell you this “bad” you are in might get worse before you come close to remembering how to feel again. Maybe that’s not the case for everyone, but that’s certainly what the road has been like for me.

I was 22 years old. Fresh out of college, a newlywed, working my first gig in my field post-graduation. I was still figuring out what life was all about, but I was also pretty certain I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted. We were strict budgeters with student loans, trying to make ends meet in Los Angeles. It felt like the whole world was right before us, just out of reach.

I was having an off day. Another bout with depression. Another moment I felt out of control in my own body. Unable to move forward. I didn’t know then how bad it was all about to get. I got the call in the afternoon, shopping for groceries for dinner with friends. My mom was on the way to the hospital. My brother had been airlifted. There was an accident. Everything was blurry. My brain, trying to process the words. There was hope mixed with fear in her voice. I tried to cling to the hope. The afternoon was full of panicked phone calls. Waiting. More waiting. And the evening gave us the answer we never dreamed of getting. He was gone. My little baby brother was gone.

It was the middle of winter in sunny southern California, and I never felt so cold. My husband and I caught a red-eye to Nashville. I clung the whole way to a stuffed animal my brother won me at a carnival a few years before. Desperately trying to find pieces of him. To keep him. To hold him again. Replaying our last phone conversation a few days before and our text conversation just that morning. It felt like I was walking through a nightmare. Going through the motions of life — alive, but walking dead.

Somehow we got through those initial days, and somewhere along the way my husband and I decided to pack up our lives and move to Nashville. A temporary trip that would, like grief, turn permanent. We had no idea what would come of our lives and we certainly didn’t imagine the laundry list of trials and tribulations that were about to erupt around us.

I have found that many times we see grief as isolated. We see it as a season of our lives. But after the dust settles, after the family and friends go back to their daily lives, after all the home-cooked meals are gone and the busyness of memorial services and will readings pass, that’s when it really hits you.

What I have found to be true in the case of a sudden, tragic, unexpected loss of any kind is the impact of grief on the lives of those involved can be catastrophic. For many years, I have cycled through the aftermath of loss and grief. I have put one foot in front of the other. I have defused bombs. I have rumbled through the aftershocks. I have sat in countless family meetings, engaged in countless conversations about healing and breaking. I have picked up pieces and I have fallen apart again and again. I have replaced one loss with another and another and another and have moved forward, time and again, one foot in front of the next.

What I have recently discovered is that I forgot to stop. I have been so busy these past 10 years surviving. Holding myself together. Taking care of the people I love. I forgot to see myself. I forgot to stop and take stock of where I was and where I was going. I just started walking down a road because I wasn’t ready to be still, and I kept walking and walking and walking and… here I am, 10 years later, emerging from the woods.

The time that lies between loss and awakening, I have come to know as the lost years. I didn’t know they existed until now, because it’s hard to see the lost years; it can be almost impossible to recognize them when you’re in them. And no one ever mentioned their existence. It’s funny, I actually thought I was living all those years. I thought I was making real decisions and choices. But what I see now is I was just buying time. I was buying myself time as I tried to find my way out of the jungle that had become my life.

So here I am, a little groggy. Plenty battered and bruised. I look in the mirror and instead of 32, I see that 22-year-old girl starting her life and making sense of the world around her. I can get down on myself for not knowing where I’m going. For not understanding my path and where my next step should be. I see other people my age well-established in a career, making a reasonable living in their seemingly well-adjusted lives. It would be so easy and has been so easy to put myself down. To bathe in my insecurities. To get angry at myself for losing myself in my grief, but that wouldn’t do me any good.

Instead, I’m going to take a moment and catch my breath. I’m going to continue to reflect on my lost years and learn from the pain and confusion and discord that can come from grief. And I’m going to help to educate others who have or are experiencing loss to be prepared for the lost years and help them to find a way out, in their own time.

If you have lost someone and you are grieving, cut yourself some slack. You don’t have to be everything to everyone. Yes, you will probably lose time. How much? There is no telling. For me, it was almost 10 years. Almost 10 years before I felt myself take a breath. Before I really understood what was going on. Before I felt like I was looking back at something as a painful memory instead of living inside the nightmare. For you, maybe the time will be less, maybe more. Still, all you can do is live with grace as you heal your brokenness and know that, despite your efforts, a piece of you will always be gone. A hole, a void. Still, life is fluid. It keeps moving even when we have stopped. So in a way, we keep moving, too, even if we don’t realize it.

I urge you to keep moving, even if you don’t know where you are going. I urge you to put one foot in front of the next. But in doing so, I remind you that when you start to emerge from your lost years, you might not understand where you are or if you are living the life you want. That’s OK, because it is your life, which means you can change it. You can guide it. Your grief may take the reins from you for a time, but they are yours to reclaim in due time. Don’t be afraid to take back what is yours when you are ready.

Until then, stay strong, be still and cling to gratitude.

Image via Anthony Scarlati.

A version of this post originally appeared on CRLWrites.

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Sure, I could have eaten 25 donuts. That may have given me some sort of temporary satisfaction, until I got violently ill and then had to throw all of my clothes out for a size or two bigger, but no, that is not what I did.

I did not eat 25 donuts. I did, however, use 25 donuts to help me on a rough day.

I did use 25 donuts to turn my sadness into hope, into a purpose, and yes, even into a smile.

Growing up, I always hated the day after Christmas. All the fun and excitement was over, and the huge letdown always caused a hangover-type effect for me. As an adult, I now have a different reason to dislike December 26.

There were many times during my wife Michelle’s cancer battle when I had to rush her to the emergency room for one reason or another. On December 26, 2015, I had to rush her there again, only this time she would never return home.

We would spend five heart-wrenching days at the hospital and then 23 more at hospice before Michelle passed away in a moment of unexpected peace and beauty on January 22, 2016, after her heroic two-and-a-half year battle with a rare and aggressive cancer.

Michelle’s friend Vicki sent a text to me the morning after Christmas asking if she could stop over to see us. I happily said yes, as the two of us were in bed and fairly depressed as Michelle was quickly getting worse, and we always looked forward to company — especially on days like that. Very quickly after Vicki stopped by, Michelle took a turn for the worse. I quickly packed a bag for us as Vicki stayed with Michelle, rubbing her back, and once finished, we both walked Michelle to the car very slowly and then headed to the ER of the hospital where all of Michelle’s main doctors were located.

I decided to message close family to let them know what was going on, as Michelle looked worse than I had ever seen her before and I didn’t know if she would make it through the night. Many family members came to the ER, and after a few bags of fluid Michelle “came to.” When she did, she was typical Michelle. Funny and dorky, shockingly upbeat and trying to reassure all of us, as though we were the sick ones. Her strength, as usual, was awe-inspiring.

For the next two hours or so, family members would take turns rotating in and out of the ER to spend time with Michelle, and she would proceed to harass each and every one of them. You see, Vicki had brought donuts when she came to the house to visit, and she made sure to slip them into the backseat of our car before I pulled out of the driveway and headed to the hospital.

“John, the donuts, did you bring the donuts?” Michelle asked after regaining her senses.

“Yeah, they are in the car,” I responded. I was in shock that she was asking me about donuts after what we had just been through for the last few hours.

Can you guess what happened next?

Yes, you got it. My tiny, yet feisty wife sent me out into that cold and snowy January day to walk what seemed to be about a mile away, where I ended up parking the car, to get the donuts. Once I reentered the building with donuts in hand, it began. Michelle would proceed to harass, and I do mean harass, each and every family member who came into her

“If you want to make me happy, you’ll eat a donut,” she would proclaim, over and over again until people finally started stuffing their faces with the sugary goodness just to appease her. Even some nurses got in on the action.

As I sit here today realizing that this day marks the anniversary of the final day my wife was ever physically in our home, I painfully acknowledge that the next five weeks are going to be tough. Memory after memory, anniversary after anniversary, of what can only be described as a painful, tragic and horrific last month on this Earth.

Undoubtedly, the grief will hit me. I’ll have my good days, and I’ll have my bad days. I’ll have moments of despair — and moments when I think of happier times and smile.

On December 26, 2016, I had a choice. I could have stayed in bed, caving to the bottomless pit that was in my stomach as I awoke.

But no. Instead, I honored my wife.

Can you guess how?

Via the donut.

I woke up, I pushed through the pain and sadness, and I honored her in a unique but rewarding way. Sipping on my morning coffee, I put pen to paper and wrote a thank-you letter to the hospice staff and included one of my favorite pictures of Michelle and my stepdaughter on it. I also wrote a small donation check out to the amazing facility that did so much for my wife, our entire family and (especially) myself.

And then I headed out.

I drove 35 minutes to the donut shop and picked up two dozen, plus one. Then I drove 45 minutes to the hospice center.

It’s funny, I have a deep connection with the hospice. It was the last place I ever spoke to Michelle, kissed her, held her, saw her alive. The place where I read the eulogy to her the morning of the day she passed away. The place I would tell my stepdaughter that Mommy was now in heaven as we cried together and held on tight.

I walked into hospice, donuts, thank-you letter and donation check in hand, and asked the receptionist if I could head to the back.

As I got to the back, I saw my favorite nurse. I was so excited to see her. She seemed super excited to see me, too — although I think a majority of that excitement may have been over the donuts I handed to her. We talked about Michelle. We talked about my stepdaughter. And we talked about me.

I smiled throughout.

For me, there is a comfort to that building, to that staff — to it all.

From the moment I put that pen to paper to write that thank-you letter until the moment I left the building after delivering two dozen donuts, I had hope. A sense of purpose. “Hope and purpose? How did you have hope and purpose? You just delivered some donuts?” You might be thinking this. It wasn’t just about a couple of boxes of donuts.

You see, when Michelle was dying, she would often say to me, “I don’t want everyone to forget me, John.”

I would assure her I wouldn’t let that happen.

Whether it is through my blog, my Facebook page, my upcoming book, or a couple of boxes of donuts, nobody is going to forget Michelle.

Not on my watch.

There is too much awesomeness in her memory to not talk about her, remember her and honor her. She deserves that.

More importantly though, I feel my stepdaughter needs that. I have many goals in my life.

My number one goal is to try and ensure, to the best of my ability, that she turns out to be a happy and healthy person.

My second goal is to ensure she always remembers her mommy. And always knows how much she loved her.

Now, I’m putting the computer down. I told you I bought 25 donuts. I only gave 24 away.

I’m going to go stuff my face with one right now.

A glazed buttermilk.

As Michelle would say, “They are the bomb.”

Yes, she still used the phrase “the bomb.”

Apparently my wife never left the year 1999.

Image via Contributor.

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Letting go after a parent has died can bring about feelings of heartbreak, relief, sadness, guilt… In my experience, all of these emotions can come and go, with some stronger than others. But it’s what grieving has been like for me.

Throughout the year after my mom’s passing, I went through the “typical” stages of grief — not in order, and not always to the extent everyone thinks they should occur. Grieving doesn’t end or start at a specific time, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Everyone grieves differently; what might help you might not help your friend, brother, aunt, coworker, etc. I had people tell me, “It’s time to move on,” “It’s been weeks already,” but my grieving wasn’t a stereotypical process. I was angry when my dad died, and I was devastated when my mother died. It doesn’t mean I cared about them any less, and no one can put themselves in my place and tell me otherwise. This goes for everyone — no one can dictate your grieving process. That is entirely how you process it, and how you choose to show or not show it.

Letting go after my mother died isn’t something that even crossed my mind until a year after she died. I constantly thought: Would she approve of this? Am I living up to her expectations? Does she think I should do this too? Being in that constant mindset didn’t allow me to let go, to process, to understand that everything I was feeling was OK. I would do things differently or not do them at all, fearful of disappointing someone who would never be able to tell me her thoughts. This constant gray area of “Am I living my life right?” can happen when you lose a parent — at least it did for me.

The last thing I said to her was, “I love you, I’ll see you tomorrow.” But was that even enough?

The last thing she left in my car was her cane. It’s remained in my car for the past year since her death, despite badgering from my friends to get rid of it, and that I don’t need to anymore. I couldn’t part with it because it was a little bit of hope making me feel like she would be back. I finally realized I’m starting to let go when I looked down at her cane wedged between the passenger seat and the seatbelt, just as she left it, and decided I don’t need this in my car anymore. I don’t have to carry this around with me anymore. I don’t need to carry this grief with me any longer. I deserve to move on, and that doesn’t make me love her any less. Letting go is scary but necessary for me. It can feel like you’re giving up on hope that person will come back (which they obviously can’t), that you’re forgetting the role they played in your everyday life. It can feel like you want to be your own person and live your life again, but you feel guilty moving on. It can feel like your memories will become meaningless, and you’re storing them way in the back of your mind. But I know my loved one wants me to move on. My loved one wants me to be happy.

“Time heals all wounds” can be an overused phrase, and it annoyed me constantly whenever someone would say it to me. What if you don’t have time to wait? What do you do when it hurts so bad right now? Even though I absolutely hated the saying, in my experience it has been true. But it can be hard to fully understand — eventually time has gone on, and for me healing can begin.

Image via Thinkstock

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