The First of the Fours

Credit: Valene Valich

Credit: Valene Valich

Nine years ago (today) I married my best friend. It was the best day of my life.
Fast forward, and today marks my entry into the 4th year of events without Steve. Steve died the week before our 6th wedding anniversary.

Last week was the angel-versary of the day I lost Steve. It had been 3 years. It was hard. Certain days just do not get easier with time.

Flashbacks…nightmares…horrible memories. The gut-wrenching memories are paired with the memories of our last day together – and wow, was it ever a perfect last day. I went from an amazing high to the lowest low I’ve ever had.

Remembering the high points is both devastating and comforting at the same time. The flashbacks of finding Steve and the million minutes that passed after that make me sick, but they also give me courage. Once you lose your spouse you realize there is so little in this world that you cannot overcome – even when life is overwhelming. What used to be big challenges now appear as insignificant events. You come to appreciate just how important the “little” things are in life and how meaningless focusing on the negative parts of life truly is.

I usually try to leave anyone that reads my post with something that you can take away – something that may be actionable for you. The only insight I have to share with you today is how important it is to give your attention and focus to those that you love most in life. Unfortunately, life is short and your days are never guaranteed.

Today I have three simple requests:

  1. Go hug your loved ones and give them a few words of love and praise – watch how it brightens their day.
  2. Handwrite a heartfelt note and deliver it (mail works too).
  3. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while and give them your undivided attention.

Take note of the impact you can have on others through these simple actions. I’ve added a reminder to my calendar to write a handwritten note each Friday – the impact on me and those that have received my notes is indescribable.

I’m going to take this a step further and challenge you to do the three things listed above – today – then share your experiences with the rest of the Young Widow Living community through our Facebook page or in the comments below.

Happy September 1st – go out and share the love!

 

 

Widow + Divorcee = Love?

One awesome Facebook follower sent some questions about dating after being widowed. I couldn’t wait to answer!

Should she date? How can she really like someone new? He’s divorced, does that change anything? When is the right time to date?

My initial response – do what feels right! BUT…I’ve recently done a lot of reflection on this very convoluted topic. No, it isn’t as simple as my initial response.

Dating at any age is challenging – go no further than Facebook and your TV and you see all sorts of drama and self-help ideas.  Now, add the emotions of a widow or a divorcee into the mix and you have a melting pot of emotions.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from dating a divorcee for the past 2.5 years.

  1. Do what feels right! Ok, so this was back to my initial response, but seriously, if being with that person helps you smile after your loss, then do it.  You will encounter many people saying you are getting back into dating too fast, too slow, with the wrong person…all comments that are not needed and frankly, unwelcome.  YOU make your own choices.  If he/she doesn’t make you happy, then stop – simple.  You’ve been through worse than a break-up, you can handle this.
  1. So is there a “right time”? There is no magic formula and no magic answer to this question.  Do a self-check – where are you at with these questions?
    • Have you been able to get into a rhythm with your “new normal”? This doesn’t mean you are done grieving what was lost – this means feeling like you have at least a basic part of your life under control such as your finances.  Why would this be important? You want to get into a relationship because it is what you want not because you feel like you need something in your life.
    • How is your confidence? You don’t have to be confident in everything, but you need to have confidence about what you want and expect in a future relationship. Take the time to reflect on this so you don’t accept the first person that comes into your life (unless they are awesome!).
    • Are you strong enough to say “no”? Unfortunately there are bad people in the world that may try to take advantage of you. They may be nice, say all the right things, and then ask you for money (“It’s just a small loan, I’ll pay you back”).  Be wary – very wary of anyone that asks you to buy them anything or give them money.  You may feel like you are offering out of the goodness of your heart – don’t. The best manipulators are good, very good. Have boundaries in your head of what you are willing to do before you get into a relationship and stick to it!
  1. Getting serious – using the B and G words. Using the word “boyfriend” still feels ridiculous to me. I have a mental block. When my boyfriend and I decided to date exclusively (i.e. more than a strong friendship) we weren’t really ready – we knew this, accepted it, and decided to take it slow. We had feelings for each other – strong and real feelings – but we weren’t truly ready to use the language associated with dating.  I was introduced as a girlfriend for one of the first times just a couple of weeks ago.  I have to admit that it felt good (I was so over “friend”) even if it still seems weird.  Going from wife to girlfriend status was hard for me – it may be hard for you too.
  1. Getting serious – in public. Depending on where you live, going out in public with a new date may be awkward. Small towns are wonderful, but they are also cesspools when it comes to gossip. You may want to consider this as you decide how you want to date (not IF) – never let gossip keep you from being happy!
  1. Meeting the family. Yikes! In my situation both of our families were not ready to meet anyone “new”.  We introduced each other to our families before we ever even dated – probably a mistake in hindsight. We knew we liked being together. Talking gave us smiles that were missing from so much of our life. Being together meant a reminder that we could have fun with someone other than our missing spouse. We weren’t a third wheel together. Being together meant hope – even though we weren’t dating.  We knew this, but that doesn’t mean our family was ready.  I’d say test the waters first.  I had a lot of heartache over the reaction, and it hurt – even when I didn’t think I could hurt any more. Everything is good now – it just took some time!
  2. The in-laws. This could be a whole post in itself (and maybe will be someday). I have been blessed with amazing in-laws. They have supported me and my new relationship without wavering. If you have a good relationship with your in-laws I would be open with them about anyone you are seriously considering dating. The conversation is hard – but necessary. If they treat you with respect, then do the same to them and have the conversation. These conversations will help keep your relationship close.
  3. The Divorcee. There are “special” things that come when you decide to date a divorcee – just like there are “special” things that come with us as widows. The divorcee likely went through a lot of pain. They lost the person they thought they would spend their life with. Find out why the divorce happened and ask for honesty. Did they just grow apart? Was there infidelity? Did they do everything possible to take their vows seriously? The “whys” behind the divorce matter.What did the person learn from that experience? What would they do different? Where are they on their grief journey?

    You also need to be prepared to answer some of those same questions. Widows typically don’t have a marriage that was already headed for divorce (although some do), BUT almost all of us have some guilt about how we could have been better spouses. What did you learn? What do you want to do differently?

  4. The Divorcee, Part 2. Memories. Oh, the memories. As widows we are given a little more space to have memories. We can openly talk about how a certain song or place reminds us of our loved ones. We can share happy memories as we retrace steps we took with our spouse. We can and should do that. A divorcee also lost a relationship that was important to them and yet, they don’t have the same freedom to share their memories.  People look at them like they are crazy for remembering the good times.  It is much more awkward for them as society acts like divorcees just pick up and move on without a thought to what was – and that couldn’t be further from the truth (at least for those who truly committed with their vows).  This is a challenge. If you want to share your memories or what is on your mind as memories hit you, then encourage the person you are dating to do the same.  You both had good times and good memories with another person – be confident enough to recognize both of your pasts and encourage the conversation.  I’d rather hear the memory so we can move through it together – after all, you are there to support each other as you build a new life.
  5. New Love. Ok, so you decided this guy/gal is a keeper. Now what? This is a question I’ve been asking for the past 2.5 years! Seriously though, loving someone new is not easy! Falling in like then love – that is actually the easy part. Learning to love and be loved differently? Now that is hard.The “I like youa lot” phase: you do nice things for each other, send sweet texts, and try to spend as much time together as possible. This phase is awesome – enjoy it!

    The “Ok, so is there anything next?” phase: This one gets dicey. Based on your history the desired next steps may not be the same or come at the same time. I’ll honestly say that I misread this one in my relationship – I thought “we” were ready when in fact [honestly] neither of us were.

    With Steve, he knew exactly how he felt about me – fast – like within weeks of us starting to date. He knew he wanted to marry me and I never felt anything but that commitment from him. I’m a person that likes direction and goals, so understanding what you want and then going for it is my norm. I prefer forward progress toward something!

    I thought this whole process would be similar with anyone else (If I think you’re awesome and I believe I’m pretty awesome too…2+2=4, right?). However, just like the normal dating world, you may think one thing and the other person is not on the same path – maybe not even on the same map. This was the hardest part for me – I took this lack of any direction as a sort of rejection – I wasn’t good enough. In reality, that wasn’t the case, and that was never even implied. But, my mind got stuck there for a period of time – not fun. Back to point #2 and the confidence question – are you ready for something different?

    The growth phase. If you make it out of the “now what?” phase you will hit a place that is actually pretty awesome. It isn’t as spontaneous as the initial dating phase (bummer!) but that is because you have a rhythm.  You’ve figured out that you need to love your new person in a different way.  Read The 5 Love Languages if you have no clue what it means to love differently.  Better yet – both you and your partner read it and discuss what you need out of the relationship – then commit to doing it.  I’ve had to adapt to being loved differently, but also communicate what is important to me so he can adapt also.  He cannot love me the same way he loved his wife – we are different people with different needs. Flip it around and I’ve had to figure out how to love him differently too. Yes, we made it to that point and I’ll just say it is so much better than the “what’s next” phase.  Simply by committing to love each other differently we committed to something together.

    …Phase. My expertise ends at the growth phase.  TBD what happens next!

Whew!  That is quite the list.  To my Facebook friend that asked this question – thank you!  I love reflecting on my journey and appreciate the chance to do that on this topic.  I’d love to hear more questions!

For those that have already been on this journey, what else would you add?  What advice can you share with the widowed community?

 

The Dream Is Real.

My heart YWL_silhouetteis overflowing and it is coming out of my eyes.  At least that is what I think is happening to me as I write this.

The USPS delivered a letter which seems pretty simple but to me it means so much. The Young Widow Living Foundation is a thing. A real, tangible, thing. I’ve been dreaming about helping other widows through the darkness for over two years. Today, that dream is something real. The 501(c)3 approval came today and I am beyond excited.

What will this foundation do?

This foundation is intended to help widows stay out of poverty through education. This foundation is intended to make sure children who lost a parent don’t end up one of the statistics – statistics that say children from single parent households tend to score lower than their peers in school. This foundation is intended to bring families together for hands on activities such as STEM, character developing adventures, and the ability to connect with others going through the same challenges.

In short, the Young Widow Living Foundation is going to make a difference. Education can (and will) change the world – one person at a time.

The Back Story

Steve told me on many occasions that education was the only thing that would change the world. He had a passion for teaching, and honestly had a rare skill in doing so. He could teach you something without you realizing you were being taught. He was a tutor in college and later taught accounting and business courses when VCSU needed an extra professor. He did this at night – after his day job. These experiences ignited a passion for education and a drive to leave a legacy through helping others.

Starting the journey toward this goal included enrolling in an MBA program together. My goal was to advance my business knowledge. Steve wanted the degree so he would be eligible to be a professor. He died during the third quarter of our program. Steve was awarded his MBA posthumously. I earned mine a year and a half later. It was hard. It was even harder when I was grieving, raising two children, and trying to be successful in my job so I could provide for my little family.

When Steve died I knew almost immediately that I wanted to start a scholarship in his honor. Steve had been a member of the Valley City State University Foundation Board for many years. He was passionate about the school and scholarships. The Steve Welken Endowed Scholarship was announced at his prayer service and within the first 3 months we had raised over $10,000. Within 2 years we were over $30,000. This year will be our third year awarding scholarships in his name and it is an absolute honor to do so.

When I became a widow there was a lot of fear mixed in with grief. The fear revolved around raising my children alone and finances. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to provide enough for them. I worried about my ability to help them financially in college. Heck, I worried about the mortgage, taxes, and just about everything you can imagine. As a family our income was reduced over 50% in a day. To top it off, it seemed like all the articles about the deficits of children from one income families were coming out around the same time and it made me sick. We were now in that statistic – good or bad. I knew someday I wanted to come up with a way to help children that lost a parent through education. This dream blends Steve’s legacy of education with my experience as his widow.

The Young Widow Living Foundation is going to give hope to widows and widowers. We will build up the knowledge and capabilities of those left behind in honor of those that watch over us. .  

I hope you will consider joining this journey with me – either by helping connect new widows to the foundation or giving of your time, talent, and treasure.

There is so much more to come – stay tuned!

 

Life, Leadership, and Legacies

Life, leadership, and legacies – how have you changed the world?  Leadership Pic

Ten years ago was my first date with my husband Steve. It breaks my heart to hit another milestone without my best friend, the person that made my soul complete.

Steve consistently spent time trying to be the best possible person and leader in all areas of his life. I wanted to honor the years by highlighting ten ways Steve made a difference in my life and the lives of others through his leadership.

1. Know (and do) every job.

I met Steve on Saturday night and he informed me that he was going to help a crew in Gwinner, ND the next day. He was the CFO (chief financial officer) and he was going to help a crew pull wire. It was a Sunday and they were away from their family – he wanted to help get them home faster. Steve dug trenches, delivered supplies, ran pipe, and did inventories just to name a few. There wasn’t a job that Steve wouldn’t do.

2. How can I help you?

Our first “real” date occurred one week after we met. I was convinced that I did not want to be dating anyone and gave Steve a laundry list of reasons why he should not want to date me. His response? “How can I help you?”.  Within one week of this conversation he had put [significant] time into helping me. Fast forward two weeks he invested money in a lawyer to help with the rest.

Steve’s willingness to help others trumped everything else including time for himself and the money that he earned. He believed in saving and being conservative with money, but never at the expense of helping someone else. There are so many stories I could tell. Steve never made me feel alone with a problem. His response was always “how can I help you?” or “what can we do?”. He never asked me what I was going to do or implied that the problem was my own to solve. We won and lost as a team – from the very first date.

3. Success is measured by what you do with what you have

Steve believed in investing time, talent, and treasure into the things that mattered most to him. Steve bought things for friends just because he knew they needed it – like a dishwasher. He gave multiple 0% interest loans because he knew it could make a significant difference in the lives of others – and he was right. He taught me that being financially secure is important, but the impact you can give to others with the money you have is even more important. It can change lives. No matter what we had or didn’t have, Steve’s philosophy never wavered. He always did what he could to help others whether it was his time, his talent, or his treasure.

4. Being a team player is more important than winning

Softball was one of Steve’s passions in life. He loved to play. Even with this love of the game there were numerous times when I would go to watch him play and he would be sitting on the sidelines. When I asked him why, he would simply say that the other individuals would have been upset to sit on the sidelines even though Steve was often the better player.

Steve loved to play, but he loved to be part of the team more. He was most happy making other people happy even if that meant the team lost or less accolades for him. A leader like Steve gets as much satisfaction out of seeing others succeed as he would have felt achieving the end result himself.

5. Happiness sometimes means letting people go

Steve always wanted people around him happy, often at the sacrifice of his own happiness. He truly struggled when those he cared about were not happy. For example, one of his really good friends worked for him and struggled finding true happiness and satisfaction with the company. It ate at Steve – he felt like he was failing as a leader and as a fried. Steve tried everything he could think of to help this person be happy but you cannot make someone happy that doesn’t want to be happy. There was nothing left to do. His friend left the company and a few months later they were able to talk as friends again.

This was one of the most difficult things for me to watch Steve go through. In the end he was happy to see his friend find happiness and he was humble enough to look past all the pain this individual caused and re-kindle the friendship.

6. Education can change the world

Passion for education was something people recognized about Steve almost immediately. Steve truly believed that education could change the world. He put this belief into action by serving on the Valley City State University foundation board and the Century Club working tirelessly to raise scholarships for students and make the university a better place.

Before we met he taught accounting classes at VCSU when the needed a professor. He spent his evenings after work teaching and tutoring students. His career goals included retiring from his role as President/CEO and starting a second career as a professor teaching entrepreneurship, business ethics, and finance. We enrolled in MBA classes together so I could enhance my business knowledge and he could gain the degree required to teach consistently at the college level. I was excited to learn beside him.

Steve put his time, talent, and treasure into making this world a better place for the next generation. His legacy continues on through an endowed scholarship at VCSU – we are currently awarding four $500 scholarships each year!

7. Coaching: the most important job a leader has

Steve always felt a little awkward stating that he was the president of a company. In his heart he was the head coach. He believed his job as a leader was to develop a winning team and identify strong “skills” coaches to continuously bring the team to new levels of performance. Steve believed in the power of positive reinforcement and knew his team could overcome any challenges. He analyzed his competition, drew up accurate plays, and worked hard to engage everyone in the vision.

Steve enjoyed watching the team succeed together. He was a positive force that made you believe that you had all the capability in the world to succeed.

8. Seek the advice of others

Before I met Steve I believed that being “smart” meant being smart enough to solve problems on your own. What I observed with Steve was his consistency in seeking advice from those he respected and trusted. He utilized mentors, had a coach for a short period of time, and used trainers/facilitators to help him new strategies with his board.

Steve was my coach and mentor. We talked through our challenges from work most nights because we knew we could count on each other for support, advice, and feedback. We also loved to learn from one another and our conversations were fun and challenging. Steve was the smartest person I knew. He consistently made himself better by using his network, being humble enough to ask for advice, and smart enough to truly listen.

9. Lead with your mind…and your heart.

Servant leadership is about being a servant to those you lead and focusing on enriching the lives of others as you work together to achieve a common goal. Steve embodied this more than any other person I have met – and I’ve met some pretty great leaders. I don’t believe I am biased either – I’ve got two stories to share.

One of Steve’s employees was travelling almost an hour each direction to go to work. This person’s wife was pregnant and a job bid came open that was within 10 minutes of this individual’s home. It was a one person job and a location that wouldn’t make sense to bid in any other situation. However, Steve strongly believed in family and wanted his employee to be able to spend as much time with his new baby as possible. He bid the project, and intentionally bid it low to ensure he won. Steve was a leader that balanced profit with people.

My second example is from Steve’s wake. An individual approached me with tears in his eyes and said, “Steve saved my son’s life and made my family whole again.” Steve had hired this man’s son after he was released from prison with a felony on his record. This was not typical, but the family was local and Steve decided to give him a chance. Steve took it a step further and assigned this employee some jobs that would require travelling with Steve almost weekly for 2-4 hours in a truck. During these times Steve listened, coached, and helped this individual believe in himself again. When his Dad came up to me at the funeral he said that his son would have been back in jail if Steve hadn’t spent the time with him. Steve gave him more than a job, he gave him confidence to get his life together. Instead of being in jail his son was engaged to be married. That is the power of true servant leadership.

10. Priorities: Family, Friends, Community, Work

I once asked Steve how he wanted to be remembered and he said, “I want to be remembered as a good husband and father first, a good friend second, someone that contributed to the community third, and finally, someone that made a positive difference at work.” He was clear about the order, and lived a life that represented his priorities. There was never any doubt with Steve that family came first. He did more than his share of child care and was a very active parent. As a husband he was a great listener, believed in my dreams, and was totally committed to our family. Listening to people come up and talk about Steve during his prayer service and also the eulogies read by people during the funeral helped bring some closure to me. Steve was remembered exactly the way he had wanted – his priorities were more than just words. He left a legacy that will live on long after the day he died.

Steve was my mentor, my coach, and my best friend. I just happened to be lucky enough to be married to him.  This is a very short list of the things he taught me about life and I hope they can make a difference to you.

For those that knew Steve, what else would you add?

The Myth of Failure – An Open Letter to My Daughters

The Myth of Failure – An Open Letter to My Daughters

Failure is a negative word in our society and I simply don’t believe it should have that failuremuch power. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Failure means that you took a risk to try something new, something different. Failure gives you an opportunity to grow through challenges. I’ve heard a few adults talk about things they won’t do because they are afraid of failing themselves or others. That bothers me. Life is short – live it! 

As a Mom I have a powerful influence over my daughters and their perception of failure. I want to make sure my girls know what failure truly is, and what it is not. I want to make sure I am not the type of person that has children afraid to experience all life has to offer because they are afraid of failing themselves – or worse – me.

My Beautiful Girls,

I hope you read this letter when you are feeling scared, unsure of yourself, unsure of your next steps, or when you just feel like a failure.  I want you to read it – a lot. I hope that as you read this you gain the strength and the courage to take chances in life.  Don’t ever let the fear of failure hold you back.  So many people go through life scared of failure – and they miss out on the greatest parts of being alive.

First, I have to admit something…I have failed.  Many times. I will fail again.  Does this make me a failure?  No!  There are times that I feel like a failure in life, and you will too.  However, I hope in those moments you remember what I say in the rest of this letter.

There are really two different ways to fail at life. 

  1. You fail to try because you are afraid to fail.
  2. You fail because you tried

Girls, if you fail to try because you are afraid to fail, then I have failed you as a parent.

You will fail in life.  No one is perfect.  So what does it really mean to fail?

Failure is…

  • Quitting when you are not the best. Never quit just because something is difficult. Choose to end certain activities because you have found something you are more passionate about.  Prioritizing your life is important – you cannot do it all.  Never quit in frustration – you will get through it, and you will discover some amazing things about yourself at the end of that tunnel.
  • Being scared to love with your entire heart. I am very guilty of this.  Your father gave me the greatest gift I have ever been given – the gift of unconditional love.  He loved me from the beginning of our relationship until the end.  Without question, without doubt.  He loved me at my best, worst, and everywhere in between.  Never settle for less, and never give less.  Yes, you will get hurt by doing this.  It is scary. But loving with anything less than your best-self will only short change you.  Take the risk.
  • Not communicating. When you don’t communicate you don’t give others the chance to help.    I don’t mean whining, complaining, or anger.  I mean the simple act of telling someone how you are feeling, what you would like to change, and what support you need to be successful.  This is another one I am not good at, but I’ve gotten better through writing.  You will find that I write down my biggest challenges and that is OK.  Everyone needs a little help or support sometime.  Find a way that works for you.
  • Pretending to be someone you are not. You do not need to be anyone other than yourself – you are beautiful.  Don’t copy anyone – you can never be a better version of another person.  You were put here on Earth for a reason, never forget that.
  • Lack of kindness. There are mean people in this world.  They are failing themselves, their friends, family, and anyone that has to be around them.  Being mean or negative is VERY easy.  Never take the easy road and always be true to yourself.  Be compassionate toward others and you will find success in all you do.
  • Being scared to fail me. If you take anything away from this, please understand that you will never fail me. Your failure is my failure and I am here to help you through it. I may be disappointed in your decisions, but I also know that you have to make some mistakes to learn. My disappointment will be short-lived and we will look for solutions together. I am your number one fan. I will always love you. Be true to yourself, your morals, and your values.  Don’t ever limit your life because you are afraid to fail me.

Failure is NOT…

Failure is not…Doing your best and not achieving your dream.  This is the old “shoot for the moon and land among the stars” analogy. Dreams change.  Mine have changed so many times in my life it is dizzying.  However, I have always worked towards a dream until I decided that my dreams had changed.  You will live, you will learn, and you will find new passions.  Never be afraid to dream a new dream.  Sometimes you have the choice, sometimes you will be thrust into a new reality that requires you to change your dreams even when you don’t want to.

Failure is not…Final. When (not if) you fail realize that your failure can impact you for any amount of time that you let it.  Don’t let failure stick with you for a long period of time.  Pick yourself up, own up to what happened, and do what you can to correct it.  Then, commit to doing better the next time – there will be a next time!

Failure is not…A reflection of your value as a person. We all fail. You are not defined by your successes or your failures. You are defined by your character, your integrity, and the “how” of your life – not the “what”.  You will be remembered for how you handled the failure not the failure itself.

Failure is not…Defined by anyone other than you. What you see as a failure may be seen as a breakthrough opportunity to another individual.  Be hard enough on yourself so you commit to learning from the event or decision, but don’t be too hard on yourself. How you handle the tough times is a much better judge of character than how you handle the good times.

My greatest failures in life revolve around my fear of being me. I wasn’t true to my character, my values, or who I truly am as a person.  In many cases, I was afraid to fail others and that fear led me to fail myself.

I want you to know you don’t have to be perfect or have all the answers – I will be here for you as you learn, grow, succeed, and fail.  As your mom I will try to protect you even when I can’t, and I will be there to pick you up when you fall.

Finally, when I think about failure I wonder if the things I feel like I fail at today will be relevant at the end of my days. Almost always that answer is NO! Life is the big picture. Be true to you, and you will not fail in life. When I am gone, I hope you can say that I was a good mother that supported you and helped you achieve your dreams – whatever they may be.  I hope people say that I worked hard, but I balanced my life and prioritized my family first. I hope people remember me for the positive impact I had on their life, which means I made a difference to people. If people can say these things about me – then girls, I did not fail in life.

R & K, you make my life worth living and I am blessed to be your mom. We are a team – we will win and lose together many times, but there is no one else on Earth I’d rather have on my team.

I love you,

Mom

Remembering My Anniversary – Year 3

Today is the celebration of the best day of my life.  Eight years ago I was lucky enoughopost_ceremony0038_DSC_0063f to marry the best person I had ever met.  Today is my 8 year wedding anniversary, only it isn’t. Today is my third wedding anniversary without my husband. Writing this seems
unreal. How is this the start of the third everything? I love Steve more today than I ever have. Every day I appreciate him more. Every day he makes me a better mom, a better friend, a better person. How could this be my third anniversary alone?

Last week was Steve’s second angel-versary, and it seems surreal that it has been that long. I don’t know where the time has gone, and I honestly have no idea how I have made it without him. I feel like I have aged 20 years, but with that age comes some great reflections on life. Steve loved to teach and learn, so I thought I would share a few things I’ve learned on my journey.  I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about what it means to not only survive, but to thrive.

  1. Attitude really is everything. I have good days and bad days, but the difference now is that I know just how much control I have in my life. I do not get to choose what happens to me, but only I have the power to choose how I respond. How I respond is a reflection of who I am as a person – good or bad.
  2. Grief doesn’t stop. I thought the second year would be easier than the first. I was wrong. There are different challenges, but that doesn’t make it easier. I haven’t made it through a week without some song or memory causing tears while I drive. There are times I wish for my best friend, the person who just knew what to do without words. There is not another person on this Earth that can fill that spot. And I grieve the loss of those feelings, the memories that won’t be made, and the loss of someone who so positively impacted my life.
  3. Life doesn’t stop either. All of us only get a certain number of days on Earth and no one can tell us when our time will be up. Every moment I spend with a poor attitude or focusing on what I lost versus what I have is time that I don’t get back. That is time that I am not giving my best self to the people that I still have in my life. I still grieve, yet I am thankful for the wonderful gift that Steve was to me in life. There are things I miss about the past, but I also have a pretty great present. It is much different than I ever imagined, but different doesn’t mean bad.
  4. Dreams change. Steve and I had dreams together, and they all ended the day he died. All of my future plans were gone. I am a “type A” personality, and I no longer had a goal. I no longer had a direction. For me to move forward I had to identify new dreams. I needed to be brave enough to dream again because I always want my daughters to dream. The new dreams I created have already changed, and that hasn’t always been easy. To me it has felt like a loss all over again, but at the same time it has made me realize that I need to spend more time focusing on the present while still seeing a dream on the horizon. I don’t need to know all the answers or understand how it all works – even though I desperately want to.
  1. I am stronger than I give myself credit for. People comment on how “strong” I am. I don’t always believe them. They don’t see me hiding out in a garage because I can’t stop crying and I don’t want anyone (especially my kids) to see it. They don’t see the mom that feels like a failure because I don’t meet my own expectations of mom-perfectionism. They don’t see the inner struggle that I have just to function some days. I’m really good at putting on a “strong” face to the world. However, when I really stop to think, I realize just how much I have handled. My kids are happy, healthy, and safe. They know they can talk about their Daddy at any time and it is a safe and positive conversation. I am capable of providing everything my children need and a lot of what they want (good or bad!). I have a career that I enjoy. I volunteer when I can, and am looking forward to helping other widows in the future. I am 2 weeks away from finishing the MBA program that Steve and I started together. I have started another relationship and chose to love again.

There is an inner voice in all of us, and what it says is powerful. Make sure that voice builds you up, not puts you down – you are stronger than you give yourself credit for!

  1. Leave a legacy, everyday. We don’t know when our life will end. Someday it will end. If your life ended today, would people remember you the way you would want to be remembered? What would they say about you? Steve left a legacy at the age of 39. Someone once told me that Steve’s legacy was more impactful than most people that live to be 100. Two people came up and told me at his funeral that Steve’s friendship and life coaching literally saved their life. Steve and I had talked once about how we would want to be remembered, and it is so humbling to realize that he was remembered exactly the way he had hoped – a man dedicated to his family and friends first, community second, and his career third.

What legacy do you want to leave?

Starting the third year of events without Steve is daunting. I wonder what life would be like if he had not died. If I really stop to think about that I can honestly say that I would still have my old dreams. I would have a different career, and I would still be living in my house in a town that was familiar. Steve and I would have worked through more challenges as a couple, and would have come out even stronger each time.

When I pause that thought and think about the present I realize that because I lost Steve I became a better person, a better parent. I love Steve even more now because I appreciate how much positive impact he has had on my life. I cannot overestimate how many times I have struggled and just focused my thoughts around what Steve would say or do in certain situations. I can hear my angel talking to me when I just take the time to listen. His words can still bring me back to reality. Powerful. I love more openly because I don’t want to live with regret. I am more compassionate.

I would give almost anything to be celebrating my 8 year wedding anniversary with my husband, but I can only do that in spirit. I am truly blessed to have had such an amazing person in my life. Every day I know I have a choice in how I handle my day. I try to wake up thankful for the gifts I do have in my life.  I have someone who kisses me good morning
, I have two girls that make my heart swell with love, and I have the best family and friends a person could ask for.

Today I will celebrate the life I had with a man who truly loved me unconditionally.  I will celebrate the memories we made and the person I am because of the love we had.

Live, laugh, love, and leave your legacy.

My Easter Journey – An Evolution in Faith

Easter is all about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his death, and his resurrection.  It seems like I’ve heard the story hundreds of times. I know I am supposed to feel thankful. Supposed to. There are those words again. When you are grieving it seems like you do everything the opposite of what you are “supposed to” do. Easter was no exception for me.

Last year was my first Easter without Steve. Yes, I put on a brave face. Yes, I did the Easter egg hunts, Easter bunny visits, and most importantly, we attended church. I’m being honest here…I wasn’t happy. I was mad. I was angry. Most of all, I was jealous. Yes, jealous. Why couldn’t Steve rise from the dead? Why couldn’t I have him back? He was truly an angel on this Earth – a person that lived his life for others. Why did he have to die when so many other people get to live?

I tried to listen to the words of the Easter story. What I heard was a different story than previous years. Loss and grief change everything – even stories you have heard hundreds of times. As the tears started to flow in church I knew I couldn’t take any more. I did what I have done so many times – block out my surroundings, retreat into myself, and do everything possible to change my thoughts to avoid a complete breakdown in public. What people see on the outside looks “normal”. Those that truly look can probably see the complete lack of emotion in my eyes or the struggle to contain the tears. This was my Easter last year.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities this past year to reflect on Jesus rising from the dead. I feel like I have come full circle. The Easter story has come to mind numerous times throughout this year. It bothered me to be jealous of Jesus – how could I have that in my heart??  I’ve taken the time to reflect.

This year, I am thankful. A small piece of me is still jealous at the thought of resurrection – but Jesus didn’t just rise and return to Earth. No. He returned and then ascended into Heaven so we may all have eternal life. Without Easter, there would be no heaven for Steve. He couldn’t watch over us – and I know he does. I still get signs that he is there and I will tell you I am a much better person because of it. The decisions I make align with the life we had, the lessons he taught me, and the type of person he was. Steve truly lived his life. He is with us every single day.

I believe in Heaven. I believe I will see Steve again. And, I am thankful for the events in the Easter story. I’m thankful our Lord gave his son so we may all have everlasting life.

1 Corinthians 15:14-20 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised... Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…reference

The holidays are never easy for people who live with loss. I was surprised at my feelings last year – and I am also equally surprised at how my thinking has come full circle. I’m surprised how much I thought about it – without prompting, without picking up a bible, and without focusing on making a change within myself. This was clearly something that existed in my heart – and when I allowed myself to listen to my heart, I already knew the truth. When I attend Easter service this weekend I will be attending with thanks, love, and gratefulness in my heart.

I hope sharing this story helps someone else feel just a little more “normal” – no matter where you fall on the emotional spectrum during this time.

What is the most challenging holiday for you?

Writing Chapter 2: My First Year of Dating as a Widow

8254344229_cc4e945c10I have surpassed the one year anniversary of stepping into a new relationship – chapter two if you will.

Stepping forward into a chapter 2 is scary, regardless of why or how your chapter one ended. Here are five things I learned along my journey.

1. You Will Never Be Ready

There is no “right” time. There is no magic timeline that exists.

If I had not met Jon, I still wouldn’t be ready for a chapter two. It isn’t about the time that’s passed – it’s about the people that come into your life. You are paralyzing yourself if you over-analyze your “readiness.” Be with people that make you happy – that is what life is truly about.

2. Be Confident

Confidence is hard to come by when the world as you know it disappears. You will never feel like you have enough confidence. The key is to have a clear understanding of what you do and do not want in your future life.

What I wanted was to be happy, to live in the moment, appreciate the people that add joy to my life, and be a good role model for my children. I didn’t know exactly what action I would have to take to get there, but those are the four things I wanted to focus on for the rest of my life.

When you are starting a second chapter, there will be people that actively support you, and unfortunately, there will be people that do not. Be confident in who you are. Understand why this person is important enough to invite into your life.

For me it was relatively simple – he made me smile and he gave me the gift of his time when I needed a friend. Cling to that knowledge when people doubt you.

3. People Will Surprise You

The surprise could be very good – there are some wonderful, kind, caring, and compassionate people in this world. The surprise could also be negative, because there are also people that are judgmental and those that believe widows “should” be doing/not doing certain things on a timeline.

You will be surprised where people fall on the spectrum. Just remember that their response is a reflection of them, not you. Refer to #2 – and have confidence in yourself!

4. Get to Know Your Chapter Two

Take the time to get to know him/her as a person. They are not your chapter one. There are many things I miss about Steve, but there are also many different things I love about Jon. There are new traits to appreciate, and it is okay to miss what you don’t have – just don’t let missing that something take away from the great things you do have.

No two people are the same, and no one is perfect. What is important is your ability to appreciate and enjoy your chapter two for all the positive things they add to your life. They will never take anything away from your chapter one – that chapter was written, and the words cannot change – for better or for worse.

5. Be Open to New Conversations

As I said above, a chapter two relationship is very different from a chapter one. People don’t go through life expecting to ever have the chapter two experience – you go through life hoping to find “the one” to spend your entire life with. When that doesn’t happen you are left trying to figure out how to piece together a life that you never imagined.

There may be kids, exes, extra in-laws, and grief to work through. There are new “meet the parents” moments and families are dynamic to say the least! Your chapter two may be going through their own loss or life transition, and you will need to support them just as they should be supporting you. You will wade through conversations that you never imagined, but having those conversations is the key to developing a strong long term relationship.

In Conclusion

Transitioning from chapter one to chapter two has been a journey of personal development for me. Developing confidence in my ability to survive without Steve, and being a strong role model for our children has not come without challenges and a lot of self-doubt.

This past year has had a lot of ups, downs, and major life changes. There were many tears, but also so many moments of happiness. Life is never easy, but I have learned that adversity makes a person appreciate life just a little more.

This year has made me into the person I am today – happy, confident, and optimistic about the future. I guess that can happen twice ;)!

If you have a chapter two, what else would you add to this list?

Photo Credit: Chiew Pang via Compfight cc

Homecoming

SunsetWho says you can’t go home? I recently wrote about my decision to move from North Dakota to Iowa. Well, this past week was our first trip back “home” to North Dakota. I struggled. A lot. Even admitting that sucks, but my goal with this blog was to be transparent and help people understand that you are never alone in your journey – whatever your journey is.

I am a person that mentally prepares for challenges. I envision the situation, walk through how I expect it to go in my mind, and then generate an action plan based on that information. This technique has helped me excel in high pressure sports situations, handle tough situations at work, and it has helped me immensely on my grief journey. This technique typically allows me to work through my emotions alone, where I can let my guard down and just let the pain hit me. When people have commented on my “strength”, I feel like a fake because they don’t see all the private struggles and pain that it takes to get to what you see in public. As much as I try to prepare, there have been many situations that I just didn’t expect, situations that I didn’t plan for. In those moments there is no stopping the emotions that hit me. This week just seemed to be full of those moments.

My journey to North Dakota actually started from my parents’ house where we had stopped for the weekend. I wasn’t even 2 miles down the road before the tears started flowing. I was able to control my thoughts occasionally throughout the trip, but reality is that they tears flowed for most of the 5 hour journey. I can’t even tell you why or what I was thinking about specifically. Just when I thought I finally was done with the tears I started down the hill to the town of Valley City, and somehow my body found even more tears. I can’t drive anywhere in that town without thinking of Steve. This is both a comfort and a piercing pain for me, and has been since his death. I am so proud of everything he helped build, and I treasure our memories, but wow, it is hard. After dropping the girls off at their grandparents’ house I went back “home” for the night.

Going Home

Pulling in the driveway at my house was weird. I realized I couldn’t pull into my garage like I always did because the person that is renting my house had his vehicle in there. That difference immediately hit me as I had to decide where to park my vehicle in my own driveway. As I walked into the house for the first time the first thing I noticed was the change in decor. It was my house, but it was different.  There was a deer head on my wall. There were family pictures that weren’t mine placed around the house. It was more than I could comprehend as I was simply emotionally exhausted. I quickly walked to my room – my sanctuary – and was surrounded by a room that was exactly the way I left it. This was my home and yet, it was so empty. I did the only thing I could do – crawl into a cold, empty bed, and pray for sleep.

The next morning was Monday, and I was ecstatic to go back to the factory where I had spent the past 7 years. I couldn’t wait to see some of my favorite people. Putting on jeans and my work boots was a simple thing, but also a special treat after having to don a “corporate” wardrobe in my new home. My workday was great – probably the best Monday I have ever had. I joined the girls for pizza at their favorite pizza joint for supper along with my in-laws. It was fun to catch up and see all the kids play together again. Shortly after it was time for me to head back to my house, alone again. I made it home in time for the sunset, and wow, what a beautiful sunset it was.  I sat on the tailgate for a couple minutes to watch it, and honestly, to just breathe and enjoy the beauty of the land and the sky.

My Moments

The week spent back in Valley City was filled with a roller coaster of emotions. I truly enjoyed spending time with one of my best friends over margaritas. I spent a lot of time each night talking to my friend that is living at my house – having someone to talk to in the house felt good. I spent time in Steve’s shop – packing mainly. I couldn’t help but feel sad that he never got the chance to experience this dream he had, but I also felt a sense of accomplishment at having finished what he started. As I walked between the house and the barn I basked in the calm. The wind wasn’t blowing (a rare treat) and the stillness in the evenings just calmed my soul. I felt like I could breathe. I felt comfort from the familiar surroundings. I stood at the door in my kitchen in the mornings and looked out to see the sun start to rise. In these moments I could see the beauty in the world while looking out on dreams that were lost.

My Message

I went to the accident site and cried in the ditch like I haven’t cried in a long time. I let myself go in a way that I can only do in private. After 20 minutes or so I could start to hear the coyotes howling and the realization of how cold I was set in. I decided to get back into my truck with the heat on, but had no plans to leave. When I turned my truck on, the gas light came on. I knew I had between 1/4 and 1/2 of a tank of fuel. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I thought maybe it was the angle of the truck, so I backed up onto the flat road. The light stayed on. It dawned on me that this may be Steve’s way of getting me to leave this location – a place where the depths of my grief were overwhelming me. I shut the truck off and restarted it – the gas light was still on. I slowly drove back to my house (I didn’t want to run out of gas!). The gas light stayed on. I parked in my driveway, not yet ready to go into the house. I still needed time to pull myself back together. The gas light stayed on. I shut the truck off and turned it back on again. The gas light stayed on. I decided it was a lost cause and figured I had better get myself together quickly before I froze and get into the house. I dried the tears, took a few deep breaths, and walked in the door. The next morning I started up my truck – and saw that I had between 1/4 and 1/2 tank – and I smiled. Steve hated to see me upset in any way. He would frantically try to fix whatever was bothering me. So, Steve, thanks for getting me out of that ditch. Thanks for getting me home safely, and thank you for not letting me linger in the worst part of my reality.

There are times when I need to remember that Steve is always with me. He sends me signs occasionally, and those signs give me comfort, strength, and guidance.

My Takeaways

1. “Home” is about the people more than it is a place. My house never felt like home after Steve died. Going “home” for the first time without Steve made me realize that the house is empty without the love that once existed.

2. You can go back to places that you love, but they will always change and never be what you remembered. Seeing my house after being away for 3 months made me realize how much I missed the memories. There are things I love about the house, but when I look out the windows, I see memories. That is what I really miss. I miss the memories – the moments of the past that will never happen again.

3. I will never have a “forever” home – and I am OK with that. Steve wanted a home for a lifetime and that is what we were hoping to make with some changes to our place. I wanted a home with him for a lifetime, although I was more willing to explore the world a little and come back to our home in Valley City. For Steve, Valley City was home. For me, Steve was home. Every person is different. We had figured out a plan that worked for us. Without Steve, my plan changed. I changed. I know Iowa will not be my forever home, and my version of making a “home” here isn’t about finding the “perfect” place. It is about making perfect memories with my children.

4. There is no amount of time that passes that will ever ease the pain completely. There will always be days that are harder than others. This trip completely exhausted me emotionally. Even when I returned to Iowa I just couldn’t really feel anything  and that is not healthy either. I have to learn how to manage future trips better emotionally.

5. All of this was worth it.

Valley City will always be a home to me. The girls and I took some time to visit the cemetery. Seeing my name on the headstone continues to ground me in the fact that my life really ended the day Steve died, and restarted when I chose to live. A part of me will come back to that place when my time on Earth is done – and that gives me peace as I continue to live the days that I have.

Going “home” was far from easy, but it was good.

10 Life Lessons I learned in Peru

Machu PicchuWe took a bucket list trip to celebrate my chapter 2’s 40th birthday – a milestone that my husband, Steve, did not get to experience. I expected to see some Inkan ruins and learn a little about the Inka culture. What actually happened was an experience in life lessons weaved throughout the history and culture of Peru.

Most people will not have the chance to visit Peru in their lifetime, so I wanted to share the top 10 things I learned about life on this trip.

1. Explore the world around you.

I love to travel. Love it. Peru was never a place I thought I would go, but I am so glad I did! Machu Picchu exists today (as well as most of the world) because people were not afraid to step away from their comfort zone. They were willing to not only take the road less travelled, they created the road. By doing this, they created a history worth remembering.

Create the opportunity to learn about the journey of others – seek it out – you will be surprised what you can learn.

2. Walk

When was the last time you walked somewhere new in your town? We walked an unbelievable amount and by walking we discovered delicious places to eat, neat souvenirs, participated in the local market, and saw incredible Inkan ruins. In Peru, everyone walks – children as young as two can walk longer distances than many American adults. Peruvian adults with children carry them on their backs using a blanket tied around them. People young and old carry items from the market or field to their homes – heavy stuff! The human body is amazing. I am thankful to have a choice whether to walk or not, and just how much I am willing to carry at a time. I’m committed to walking and exploring my new hometown as a family this summer.

3. Find God in your heart

One of the most profound messages I heard from our tour guide was said in passing. In Peru, the Spaniards came and destroyed many Inka structures in an attempt to bring Christianity (Catholicism) to the people. Many Peruvians today practice both Inka traditions and catholic traditions (including our guides). When asked about the blending of cultures, our guide stated, “when you find God in your heart, it does not matter how you worship him. When you truly find God, you will have peace and love in your heart and you will live your beliefs.” The Inka Gods are different than the Christian Gods, but they do not compete in the hearts of Peruvians.

I am a Christian that has struggled to find a church “home” and this perspective was a great reminder that it is much more important to live your life as a reflection of your beliefs than it is to focus on what you need to do to fit a certain mold.

Many people question God when they lose a loved one – believe me, I did! What I quickly realized was that in order to see Steve again I had to believe. If I didn’t believe in Him, then there was no chance of seeing Steve again. I also continue to receive signs that he is around me – these signs have solidified my faith that Steve is always with me. He continues to give me strength and guidance on how to live my life post-loss.

4. Give thanks for the good in your life

The Inka culture uses Shamans (healers) to help them give thanks for what they have in their life. The culture recognizes that everyone has challenges and struggles in life, but there are also many opportunities to give thanks. When a new house or building is constructed, the construction company must have a Shaman blessing with the family or owners before it can be used. If a family purchases a car, they should also have a Shaman blessing for their good fortune. The Inka culture requires a form of meditation (taking the time to reflect) when blessings occur in your life. This could be a house, a child, a job, a new animal or any number of things.

We were able to participate in a Shaman healing ceremony during our trip. The blessing includes gifts to the Gods (these are very small items, but tokens that represent significant beliefs in their culture), but the most profound thing was the 3 coca leaves that each individual receives from the Shaman. There is a leaf that represents a prayer or blessing for oneself, a leaf that requires a prayer or blessing for someone you love, and a leaf that represents a prayer for the pacha mama (mother Earth – this could be something as simple as rain for the crops, clean water, or could be as complex as peace in the world). You breathe life into these prayers by giving a breath over each leaf as they are given back to the Shaman.

Take the time to give thanks for the blessings in your life. When I was at the depths of my grief, the one thing that could bring me out of my black hole was finding something to be thankful for. This takes practice, but practice becomes habit. I plan to focus on developing this more with my daughters. I already ask them “what was your favorite part of today?”, but I have added, “What is one thing you are thankful for today?”. This has led to some adorable dinner discussions!

5. Add Value

In Peru, the expectation is that every person provides value. They have an unemployment rate around 28%, and yet I only had one person ask me for money. One. When was the last time you walked around a US city and only saw one person begging? We have millions of people that plan their lives around government assistance in the US – it is not the same in Peru. Peruvians expect that even those with nothing will add value. These individuals can sell small trinkets and Peruvians will pay more than necessary to help the family. People shine shoes for 1 sol (about $0.32), they wash windows, they knit, they clean. The point is that they must sell or provide some value to the person that is spending the money. Anything less is considered laziness and is seen as disgraceful in their society – they will not contribute to that behavior.

This is one trend I wish America would learn. Life isn’t about handouts. It isn’t about what is fair. Life is what you make it. Everyone has setbacks, challenges, and losses. Some hide it more than others, but we all have struggles. What we do with our time on Earth is what matters. Focus on what you can do in this life to add value to your family and your community. This may be in the form of time, talent, or treasure, but please, please, add value! You are here to make a difference, you are here for a reason – don’t waste it!

6. Help your neighbors and friends.

In Peru, if a person needs help (like a new roof on their house) they will bring bread and some beer (the amount is based on the size of the request) to their friends and family to ask for help with the project. By accepting the bread, the individual commits to providing assistance. Neighbors, friends, and families work together in the fields, in markets, and in their homes.

These practices made me realize that I need to put more effort in to developing these relationships in my new town and be willing to help and be helped when needed.

When Steve died a group of our co-workers (both Grotberg Electric and John Deere) came out to my house to help me finish our barn, repair the horse arena, and help me winterize my house. Their presence meant so much to me as it reminded me of how much Steve was loved by so many, and it lifted a burden off of my shoulders.

Jon and I are planning to pursue opportunities to devote time to local charities along with our children in the Quad Cities. We want to teach them to contribute to the community by being good examples ourselves. Stay tuned – there may be some posts about these adventures!

7. Teach children to contribute

I was amazed at the children of Peru. They are beautiful souls that work hard alongside their parents and relatives. Our guides explained that everyone is expected to contribute (see #5) and it is the parent’s duty to teach children how to work, farm, sell, and buy items. If a parent raises a child that does not contribute, the child is deemed lazy, and the parents are to blame.

We saw children with alpacas on leashes (running around town laughing!) or carrying lambs to allow tourists to take pictures with them for money. We saw 2 and 3 year olds working with their families all day at the markets (and they were very well behaved). We met a 9 and an 11 year old that cleaned the graves at the cemetery for money for their families. I was able to give the children in the cemetary bread as a gift for their families and it was truly humbling to think that bread means so much to them.

Children, especially those from the poorer families, must contribute to the overall success of the family. This in turn teaches the children how to work and survive in the real world. At 5 they know how to safely cross streets alone. They can find their way home. They learn the value of money.

My take away from this is that my children are capable of much more than I ask of them. I need to teach them to contribute to the family more and give them a sense of pride in doing so. They are not too young at ages 4 and 6 – I just need to give up the idea of perfection, and be thankful for the contribution.

8. Honor life with celebrations and remember those that impacted your life

We visited a cemetery to understand the Inka traditions surrounding the loss of loved ones. On the outside of a cemetery was a mural with a celebration. Our guide stated, “Of course we are sad when a loved one dies, but it is our duty to celebrate their life and be happy that they have gone to be with the Gods. We owe it to them to continue to live our life.”

The trip to the cemetery in Peru was hard for me. I missed Steve. At 29, I saw my own headstone – the place that someday will be one of my final resting places.  I worked my way through the grief and sadness the best I could in that moment. I was reminded that my love for Steve is reflected in the way I live my life, how I raise our daughters, and how I remember him every single day. He is with me no matter where in the world I am, and he is always in my heart. I visit Steve in a different way, but just like Peruvians, I take the time to remember and that is the important part.

9. Have fun!

We happened to be in Cusco, Peru for the final day of Carnival. And, wow, what an experience! There are parades and music, dancing, laughter, and fun. Carnival involves people spraying each other with squirt guns, throwing buckets of water on people, covering each other in silly string, and even some shaving cream. There are drive by squirtings…I have never seen so many people having so much fun – adults, children, tourists, and locals. I will say as a tourist *most* of the locals did not try to “get” us. However, it didn’t take long on our walk to get covered in shaving cream, have a water balloon popped by my head and all over me, and get squirted with a water gun. And I laughed, giggled, and just took it all in. What a pleasure to be a part of an event where people genuinely have fun together no matter who you are! It was a great sense of community and it was so humbling to see the people of all societal levels enjoy the camaraderie of each other. Carnival was one of my favorite memories on this trip.

10. Do the unexpected for others.

This trip was humbling in many ways. Our tour guides did so many little things that made a huge difference in our experience, but there are two specific stories I would like to share.

We opted to have a traditional Peruvian supper at the home of a local Peruvian family one night. During the dinner, the question was asked about why we made the trip, and we replied that we came to celebrate a birthday. Raul (one of the tour guides) immediately leaned over to me and asked how to spell Jon’s name. He wrote it down, finished his food quickly, and got up from the table. This was not unusual as he was translating for the host family and us due to the language barrier. Between the main course and the end of dessert, he was able to find a cake, get it personalized, get candles, and communicate with the host family what was going on. How he found one at 8:30pm I will never know! The host family sang the Peruvian version of happy birthday and we sang happy birthday in English immediately afterward. Once the candles were blown out, Raul informed Jon that he had to bite the cake – like bite into the side of it before it could be cut! When he went to do that, Raul pushed his face into the side of the cake – and it was all caught on film. Jon got him back by kissing his cheek with his cake covered face. It was a celebration to remember and my absolute favorite memory of this trip!

The second story was when we left at the airport. Raul pulled us aside and said he wanted to give the two of us a gift. He gave us each a necklace with the cross of life. He stated that he could feel that our hearts had been through a lot of pain (we did not share any part of either of our pasts with people on this trip), and stated that surviving that type of pain makes the heart stronger. He said that he could feel the love that we had for each other, and that a love like ours was a blessing that should be treasured. He gave us the cross of life to remember that when one part of life ends, another begins, and we have an opportunity to still live a great life.

What amazing and profound words from someone that has only known us for a few days – someone that had no clue what either of us has gone through.

There are times in life when you feel blessed, humbled, and thankful for the angels that walk this Earth. I believe Raul was sent to make a difference in our life, and give us a message focused on the strength and power that we have together. There are people that still don’t understand our journey, but that is OK. It isn’t their journey it is ours.

My take-away from this is to look for opportunities to go out of my way for others. I also need to step out of my comfort zone more often and encourage others to live life to the fullest. The day I returned, I recieved an email from a widow looking for someone to talk to. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Peru was a beautiful country – I can’t even begin to describe it in words and the pictures do not do it justice. The country is safe, and the people are very nice. Our experience on a very quick 4 day trip was excellent, and I learned an incredible amount about the Inka culture, Peruvian people, and most importantly, I learned more about life.

What are some lessons you have learned through traveling? What is the best place you have ever been, and why?