A Letter to My Four-Years-Ago Self: What I Want You to Know About What Lies Ahead

I wasn’t planning to post today, but I’ve had one of those days where I feel kind of blah and discouraged and tired. And when those feelings hit, one of two things usually happens: I nap, or I write.

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This is the last photo of me from “before,” blissfully unaware of what’s going to happen in just two days. Two days, four years ago. The anniversary of Dan’s death has come and gone. Every year, it’s a little bit different. This year, I just kept thinking of the days and weeks immediately after. After the funeral, after my mother went back home to Illinois, after I went back to work. When I was just trying to survive but had no idea how I could possibly be okay.

I saw an article online recently where young widows were asked what they’d want to tell themselves at the one-year mark. For me, it goes back further. I have some words for that one-week-after-he-died woman, and I hope they bring her some peace today.

Dear Allyson,

Right now I know you are drowning. You are lost. You cannot fathom what it will be like to live this life without him. You haven’t moved his shoes away from the front door where he left them. You keep thinking of things you need to tell him – important things and silly things and little things – all the things you’d only share with him. The truth, as you already know, is that you’re not going to be able to talk to him again. But you will, in time, be okay.

Last week at the visitation, several people told you that everything would be fine because “you’re young and you’ll find love again and can still be a mom.” You stood there in stunned disbelief. How could someone say that to you when a casket was just a few feet away from where you stood? Four years from now, you will indeed find love again, and it will be strong and powerful and real. Make no mistake, however – this does not mean everything will be fine. All of this is still going to hurt, and if anyone tries to make you feel bad about that, you can just tell them to take a walk. They have no idea what this journey is like. But you will, in time, be okay.

I know you’re going to have to take a pregnancy test tomorrow, and you don’t know what you want it to say. You’d been hoping for a child for SO long, but this wasn’t the way you imagined it. I know that the idea of being pregnant right now and being a single parent is terrifying. Take some deep breaths and trust God on this one. The test will be negative. Four years from now, you still won’t quite know how you feel about this. In all likelihood, you aren’t going to be a parent. I know that seems unfathomable, and you’ll even think about adopting as soon as a month or two from now. But there is a different path ahead for you, and when you get there, you’ll know it’s the right path to take. The loss of the child you never got to have with him is still going to hurt. But you will, in time, be okay.

You still cry every night and wonder if it’s going to stop. It’s going to take about six months, but you will finally have a night where you don’t cry. Once you realize that’s happened, you’ll cry again. Your tears heal. Let them fall. I know it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But you will, in time, be okay.

You wonder what Dan’s death means for your relationship with his family. His family is YOUR family, now and always. Please trust that. You are all grieving, and it’s impossibly hard for all of you right now. There are going to be some times during your grief in which you say things to each other that you don’t mean. In time, you’ll learn that everyone has been hurting, and that you’re stronger together than you are apart. Four years from now, you’ll be chatting with his sister constantly, and you’ll bicker with your father-in-law about Donald Trump. It will almost feel just like it was – perhaps even stronger, somehow. It’s going to be rough in the middle. But you will, in time, be okay.

In about a week, you’re going to find shotgun ammunition in his bedside table drawer. This is going to wreck you. You’ll be able to take the shotgun shells to the police station. You will never be okay with guns again. Four years later, this will still haunt you and this will still hurt. When there are mass shootings and political debates about firearms, it’s going to hurt and bring up many things you won’t want to deal with. Brace yourself, because the next four years are going to be filled with more of these tragedies than you can fathom – starting in just about three weeks in Aurora, Colorado. Do yourself a favor now and in the future. Just turn off the television and don’t engage on Facebook. You do have a valuable perspective. But trying to share it with people who have no interest in hearing it is going to hurt more than it’s going to help. I wish I could provide more comfort to you on this issue. So far, it hasn’t improved – and in many ways, it gets worse. You will start to heal from losing Dan. I don’t yet know if you’re going to heal from finding him. But I have to trust that somehow you will, in time, be okay.

Hold on tight, sweet girl. The road ahead is rough. It will make the other hard things you’ve dealt with in your life look like a walk in the park. You’ll clean up your house in Iowa, paint new rooms, and make it start to feel like a place you can feel at home in once again – only to turn around and decide you need to leave. Moving will be hard. You’ll move away from Iowa not yet knowing where you’re going to live. You’ll have to do a job interview on your wedding anniversary. You will spend those first few weeks in a new state alone wondering if you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. You haven’t. You will, in time, be okay.

Before I go, there are just a few logistical things I’d like to address:

  • Stop letting Gracie eat cheese with you when you’re sad. She’s already overweight, and it’s going to get worse. It’ll take four years for her to get back to a reasonable weight – in fact, she’ll get to a healthy Beagle weight for the first time ever. When she does, she’ll be more energetic than she has been in years – which is a great thing and an exhausting thing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Just hire Todd now to take care of the lawn. You’ll try. You’ll have to run down the street to get someone to help you start the motor. It will be ridiculously hard for you. You’ll hate it and cry a lot. Save yourself the trouble and let Todd take care of it. He’ll do a great job, and you’ll get to sit on the porch drinking lemonade. It’s a much better deal, I promise.
  • It’s okay if you want to indulge yourself right now. Some VIP seats to see Taylor Swift are going to come up for sale in a few months. Go ahead and splurge. It’ll be the best concert you’ve ever attended.
  • You do not have as much time as you think you do to pack boxes and load them into the POD for the moving truck. Start early or you’ll have to spend three nights in a row sleeping for just two hours, and you’ll be cleaning out a garage at 1 a.m. in tears because it’s still not over. Be thankful, though, for your next door neighbors. They’ve been there for you in 100 ways so far, and they will be there for you right up to the last minute. Those 17 trash bags on your driveway you have no idea what to do with? They’ve got it handled. But really, it would be much easier for you if you just got started on time.

My heart breaks for you right now, and tears run down my cheeks as I write these words. The pain you’re going through is unbearable and unfathomable. And to make it worse, for a while you’re going to try to keep it to yourself. I know that you don’t want people to have to know how bad it is. But they love you. They can handle it, because they know what you don’t know quite yet. That you will, in time, be okay.

Love yourself and trust your gut. It won’t let you down. After all, I’m living proof. Because even though it still hurts like hell and I weep right now as I write to you, I think that maybe, just maybe, I might be okay after all.

A Tale of Two Love Stories

So here we are. It’s about that time of year again, just a few days away from the four-year anniversary of my husband’s death. My “on this day” Facebook memories reveal a four-years-ago me who was celebrating a year in her first house, going on one of the best long weekend vacations of her life, and hoping to be a mom. She had NO idea what was coming.

Every year as I watch these memories pop up, I somehow want to go back and warn her. I don’t know if I want to tell her to soak it in while she can or to flee for the hills. But either way, something bad is coming. She just doesn’t know it yet.

This year, I’m more aware of it than ever. Spending the last several months working on the re-launch of Determined to Shine has been a somewhat strange process. It’s been exciting, finally getting the class ready and really pulling all these pieces together that I’ve dreamed about for several years now.

But it’s not lost on me that all of this great stuff is possible because something really horrible happened.

Many of you know this part of my story. Boy meets girl, they become best friends, and seven years later, they finally tie the knot. Then before you know it, there’s a puppy and a house and a picket fence and hopes for a baby on the way.

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Many of you know this part, too. That things didn’t go as planned. That things went horribly, horribly wrong. He pulled the trigger, and just like that I was a widow at 31. Then before I knew it, it was sleepless nights and PTSD and how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-through-this.

I once wrote that grief is a long, tricky spiraly thing. As the four-year anniversary of my husband’s death approaches, I know this to be more true than ever. The more time goes by, the more I understand and accept that in more ways than one, this cycle will continue for the rest of my life. It changes and moves and shifts – the only constant part of this grief is that in some way, it’s always there.

It’s been incredibly obvious to me that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t loved Dan – and if I hadn’t lost him. But he is no longer the only man in my story – and this is the part I haven’t yet told you.

It was October 25, 2013. I was getting ready for what I was convinced would be my last first date, at least for quite some time. Not because I was so sure about this new man. But because precisely the opposite was true. I’d gone on a few first dates since moving to Madison and trying out the online dating scene, and I was just tired. It wasn’t working for me. It was a big city, and I was lonely without the friends and family I’d be surrounded by in Iowa. But this dating thing was just not working out. A few dates were awful. A couple were just awkward. In one instance, it didn’t feel like a romance was brewing, but I made a friend. (Hey, Kevin!) But I was tired, and I was just done. I’d already committed to meet this one last guy, and I thought it would be rude to cancel. So I found myself walking into a restaurant that October 25.

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TJ was handsome. He was sweet. He was adorably nervous. I’d soon find out that I was his first date back on the scene after his own marriage ended.

“Oh my gosh,” I said. “Are you okay? The first date back is terrifying.”

He laughed. “Thank you. You’re right. It is.”

Just two days later, TJ met me for lunch downtown. He showed up and told me he had a gift for me, and he promptly presented me with a bag of cheddar cheese curds.

A message to my friend after lunch: “He showed up with cheese. I’m pretty sure I’m going to marry him.”

A year would go by before we’d spend more than two days apart. (But don’t get any funny ideas about that marriage thing – we’re quite happy just as we are.)

I often hear from people that falling in love again somehow negates the past or means that I should no longer be grieving. Or that it means I didn’t really love my husband in the first place. Or that I couldn’t really love TJ. Somehow, there is still an idea floating around out there that a person should only love one person in a lifetime.

These comments slice like knives. I met my husband during my first week of college. We were best friends for nearly four years before we started dating, near the end of my senior year at the University of Iowa. When he died, we were approaching six years of marriage and ten years together. I had, quite literally, spent pretty much my entire adult life loving this man. How could that possibly mean nothing?

A few years before he died, Dan and I were talking about what would happen if one of us died young.

“I’d never love again,” I instantly replied.

He paused. “For your sake, I really hope that’s not true.”

And it wasn’t.

Falling in love again doesn’t mean I don’t grieve, and it doesn’t mean that I’m not still hurting. I miss my best friend. I miss the life we shared, and I miss the promise of a future and children that never got to be realized. Falling in love again does not change this. It does not make the trauma any less severe. It does not make the pain of the past go away.

But I do not live in my past. I live in today – and falling in love again has made my today pretty great.

Loving TJ has given me so much. It’s allowed me to understand that losing a great love does not mean I cannot experience great love again. To understand that endings do not mean that no new beginnings are possible. To understand that after great darkness, there can be light again.

TJ and I have shared game nights and 5Ks in tutus and Disney World and dancing in the street. He brings out the best in me, keeps me grounded when I’m anxious, and loves it when my inner child comes out to play – preferably with Legos.

His kind heart and genuine concern for every person he meets bring me joy I hadn’t known in a very long time.

I have learned that love is not a zero-sum game. To give it to one does not take it away from another. I spent ten years in love with Dan. His place in my heart remains, and always will.

TJ’s presence in my life has not made Dan’s grow smaller. It has simply made my heart grow larger. As humans, we have a somewhat infinite capacity to love. When a mother has a second child, she loves the child as much as the first, and she does not love the first any less.

This is the life I’m living today. Together, TJ and I are building a new chapter of our lives. We love each other fully and completely. We live for today, because we know that today is the only one we are guaranteed.

Obviously, I certainly would never wish anyone an early or traumatic end to a marriage. But there is something somewhat magical about having been loved – and getting to love – two different men so deeply in this one short lifetime.

As the anniversary of the worst day of my life approaches, I know that my heart has grown larger. That I have experienced love and compassion and joy beyond what I knew was possible. I am strong. I am loved. I am grateful. And I remain, as ever, determined to shine.

Kraftin’ Kimmie Showcase & Class Sneak Peek

I’m excited to be participating in today’s Release Day Blog Hop for Kraftin’ Kimmie Stamps this month. This project features the new stamp set Floatin’ Fiona, released yesterday.

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This stamp set takes me to my happy place – I love the beach, the ocean, and sitting by the lake. There is nothing that calms me quite like the water.

In addition to showcasing this fabulous new stamp set, this project is also a sneak peek into Be Your Own Inspiration, our upcoming online class.

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sideviewThis project comes together super quickly and has a lot of flexible options – use it as an art journal, a scrapbook, or a combination of both.

In class, you’ll find step-by-step video instructions for creating this project, as well as tons of ideas on how to turn it into a meaningful book as you explore what matters most to you.

 

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Head on over to Kraftin’ Kimmie Stamps to pick up this awesome stamp set!

And be sure to check out our class page to learn more about Be Your Own Inspiration and sign up to win a free spot in class.

Enjoy and happy crafting! 🙂