Friday, May 23, 2014

MORE CONFESSIONS: Families Come in Many Shapes and Sizes

Our first photo session as a new family.

My kids developed a knack for making comments that alarmed me on a regular basis and could often stop any conversation midsentence.  Remember that old Bill Cosby show Kids Say the Darndest Things?  Well, those kids had nothing on my own who had many thoughts and questions when it came to their dad and his death - and had no problem sharing them at any given time.

Sarah, in the beginning, had no filter.  I'll never forget swimming with her at the local indoor pool, when she was a toddler and watching her play with another little girl.  I don't know what prompted this, but I suddenly heard the echo of Sarah's voice from across the water:  "Oh yeah?  Well, my daddy's dead. DEAD!"

And then I watched the other child quickly swim away from her.

While Sarah seemed to come up with these little comments for shock value, Michael just wanted
information.  His questions, while difficult for me to answer, were part of his process and as time went on, I began to practice age-appropriate honesty:  answering those questions as truthfully as I could at a level I thought he could understand.

"Mom?" he asked me when he was about four.  "What does 'extinct' mean?"

And I told him, "It means that something isn't around anymore.  Like the dinosaurs are extinct."

There was a silence as he pondered that one.  Then he asked, "So is Dad extinct?"

Pause.  "Yes.  I guess he is."

It was a question that really made sense when you think about it...especially to a four-year-old boy. But, of course, as he got older, the questions got harder.  And once we had had some space and time away from Brad's death, they were also more jarring when he asked them because I wasn't expecting them.

"Was there a lot of blood on the road when Daddy had his accident?" he asked me about three years into our new life.

""I said, trying to catch a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror so that I could see his face.  "Why do you ask?"  

"I was just wondering," he said, as if he had just asked what was for dinner.

For some reason these questions always seemed to arise when we were in the car.  It could have been that just being on the road reminded him that his dad was in an accident and that he still needed more information to complete the puzzle that had become the life we were living.  It could have been that there was something about the quiet rocking of the car that made him think deeply about things he was normally too busy to contemplate.  Or he could have just been testing my skills as a driver, wondering what it would take to throw me off enough to crash through the door of the coal Dairy Queen so that he could get a Blizzard.

With kids, it's always hard to pinpoint their motivation.


Five, three, and one when their father died (and now twelve, ten, and eight), my kids' memory of that time is a little sketchy.  But I did ask them a few gentle questions about that time in our lives, as well as some questions about their favorite things about our family now.  This was an eye-opening interview for me and I'm so grateful to my kids for their honesty.

This interview was a reminder to me that life does go on.

1.  What is your favorite Daddy Day memory?

Haley:  This wasn't even a good memory!  The one that I remember best was when we tried to see a movie and we were late and couldn't get in.  Then we tried to go bowling and we couldn't get a lane.  But with all of them, I just remember being together.
Michael:  My favorite Daddy Day memory was when we got balloons and they all popped but one.  We all got to let go of one balloon.
Sarah: My favorite Daddy Day memory is getting balloons and letting them go.

2.  When you went to Judi's House (group therapy for kids), what was your favorite thing to do?

Haley:  I didn't have a favorite thing.  I didn't like going.  I didn't like hearing other peoples' sad stories.  I didn't like getting treated like there was something wrong with me.  I can do anything a normal person can do.
Michael:  Probably to go to the room that had all the mats and foam things and stuffed animals.
Sarah:  Mom, I was only three when I went!  I don't remember.

3.  How do you help a friend who is sad?

Haley:  You don't have to say anything.  You just need to be there and listen to them.  No one wants to be alone.
Michael:  I try to be with them and talk to them more often.
Sarah:  I go and try to be friends so we can talk about their problems.

4.  What is your favorite thing to do as a family?

Haley:  Eat dinner together.  I love when we all sit around the table and say the things that made our day good and the things that were bad.  And everyone listens to each other.
Michael:  Go to amusement parks!
Sarah:  My favorite thing to do as a family is go see a movie.

5.  Do you have a favorite holiday tradition?

Haley:  I love when Pop and Nana come over on almost every holiday.  We are all together.
Michael:  When we always sit at the top of the stairs when mom goes and wakes up Pop and Nana.  Then we get to come down and see our presents.
Sarah:  My favorite holiday tradition is watching movies on Easter in our pajamas.

We love you, Dad.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


I didn't know much about the organ donation process, never once thinking that it would actually be something I would need to know about.  And something that I don't think most people realize is that what makes organ donation possible is the one thing that is hardest on the surviving family members:  the doctors have to keep that person alive and everything functioning in order to remove the organs.

Once the family has agreed to to the donation, the transplant team has to wait until the person is declared brain dead by a battery of doctors before they can proceed.  Once that declaration has been made, they are just waiting around for you to go so that they can get to work.  And it's up to you to decide when to leave.

In other words, there is no final moment when you hear some machine flatline and you feel  better about taking off and grabbing a latte on your way home.

So, you're in kind of a medical stalemate.  You don't want to leave your spouse because all of those beeps are telling you that he's still functioning.  But the doctors can't do what they need to do until you take off.  And, frankly, there's probably someone in that hospital who's waiting for a heart and thinking, "If that thing doesn't come within the hour, I'm sure as hell not tipping 20 percent."

"I can't leave.  We can't just leave him, can we?" I asked my mother-in-law tearfully.

"I don't want to go either," she said.  "He just looks like he's sleeping.  We can't go."

"I'll stay with him," I heard behind me.

I turned around and there was Cindy, my mom's best friend from college, who had just gotten off the plane from Houston to be with us.  A nurse who had answered dozens of calls from my mother throughout my childhood about what various rashes might be and what does it mean if I can't bend this or that.  Cindy had been outside the room, talking to the ICU nurses and getting updates on what was going on.

"I'll stay with him when you feel like you can go so that he won't be alone.  I'll stay through the whole procedure.  I won't leave him alone.  Just let me know when you're ready."


1.   In the hospital, you offered to stay with Brad through the organ donation process so that Catherine could feel like she wasn’t leaving him alone.  What was that moment like?

 My decision or offer to stay with Brad through the organ donation process was a spontaneous decision.  Watching Catherine deal with so many decisions and so much medical information was heart wrenching.  I felt I could help by being with Brad and giving her the option of leaving, but not leaving him alone.  I worried about intruding, but took the risk and offered.

2.   You have been a nurse for many years.  Do you feel like your training helped you to understand what was going on at the hospital (and prepared you for what needed to be done) or were you just trying to be there as a friend?
       I left Texas to be with the Mouton/Tidd families in Colorado as a friend who felt the need to go and do whatever I could.  When I arrived at the hospital, I put on my "nurse hat" and definitely felt that I could help interpret information. The Organ Alliance team was awesome and they were responsive to my presence and kept me informed as they prepared Brad for the organ retrieval procedures.  It was a privilege to be with him during this period. 

3.   You did so many things to help Catherine’s family prepare for the funeral.  Can you give any tips to someone who is trying to do the same for a friend?
      Funeral preparations are very stressful, especially when the death is unexpected and sudden.  When you offer your help to a friend, be willing to help with whatever they need.  Listen to them.  Take charge or assign someone to keep the house running.  There may be errands, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.  The ordinary needs of the family still have to be dealt with.  People start bringing food immediately and someone needs to keep a list of what and who brought it.  Receptions usually need to be planned.  Someone can field phone calls and answer the door.  Shield the friend from all you can and encourage them to rest whenever possible.  If your friend needs to cry, hold their hand.  If your friend needs to talk, listen.  And do not tell them you know how they feel.  Sometimes, just listening and being there is the best and and only thin you can do.

4.   How did you feel was the best way to support Catherine’s parents as they dealt with not only losing a son-in-law, but also as they tried to help Catherine and the kids navigate this new world?

      A friend's grief can never be your own.  Watching a close friend deal with such a traumatic loss puts you close to the emotions and gives you a glimpse of how hard it is.  Supporting my friends during this time was a matter of paying attention and trying to listen and being available.  We don't live close so the support was mainly long distance, by phone and mail.  It was hard to not check "be there."  But, you can "be there" in so many ways.  Be respectful of someone's space, but check on them.  Send a card and remember that humor is ok.  Catherine said once that she wished someone would make funny sympathy cards!  Some people might cringe, but it made me laugh.  Take your cues from the friend.  You can usually sense where they are that day and remember that every day is different.

5.   You’ve known Catherine’s parents since college.  Did your friendship change at all after Brad’s death?

      We are so lucky to have a couple friendship.  It is a special relationship between four people, not just the women.  Our friendship does go back to college and we have seen each other through the ups and downs that life brings.  When "life happens," I need to call Alice (Catherine's mother) and share.  She is a world class listener.  I think that our friendship only got stronger after Brad's death.  We try very hard to visit each other and AT&T has always helped us to "reach out and touch" each other.  Friendships require attention and care and I think we all know that and value what we have.

6.   Were there times when you felt helpless while trying to support Catherine’s parents?  How did you deal with that?

       It is certainly a helpless feeling, watching anyone you care about being overwhelmed with grief.  Grieving is a personal and lonely journey.  You have to realize that you can't fix it.  I probably talked to other friends about feeling helpless and I do remember reading some grief books that I have used throughout the years.  It is always good to review the basics.

Check in tomorrow for 
Families Come in Many Shapes and Sizes 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

MORE CONFESSIONS: Be Patient and Listen

I should have known that I didn't have any reason to worry about the small stuff because the women in my family have always been great communicators.  As soon as my family found out that Brad wasn't going to make it, they made one phone call and immediately my kids had someone watching them who loved them like her own family.

"Candice?  Brad's not going to make it.  We need you to come."

I've known Candice since I was around 8-years-old, but I've known of her since I was born.  Our mothers were both Chi Omegas at McNeese (a little college in Louisiana that, rumor has it, was originally built because the town wanted a new rodeo arena and building a college was the best way they could figure out how to fund it).  Carrying on that legacy of friendship my sister, Kristi and Candice had been Chi Omegas at Colorado State University together.  Being four years younger, I had always looked up to Candice as another older sister (and, when we were young, was the pesky younger sister she never had).  As we all entered adulthood, the difference in our ages ceased to matter and the three of us had a friendship that we knew could be counted on for anything.  

"I'm coming."


1.  You were one of the first people Catherine’s family called when Brad had his accident.  What did that moment feel like?

It felt so surreal, numbing. I would not wish that feeling on anyone. It’s perplexing how your body is capable of taking over in such a state of shock and enabling you to get on with the tasks at hand.

2.  Was it hard taking care of the kids, knowing that Brad wasn’t coming home? 

Absolutely, just playing with them and knowing what was going on at the hospital has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with. It was very hard to be upbeat and happy for kids and not let on that they would never see their Dad again.

3.  Since Brad’s death, another friend of yours has become a young widow.  Do you think the same things you did to help Catherine cope also helped your other friend?  Or do you feel like people’s needs are more individual?

I feel like every person has different needs and grieves in different ways. In both instances each person presented their emotions in very different styles and both have continued grieving in dissimilar behaviors.

4.  Did you ever feel like Catherine pushed you away as she tried to deal with Brad’s death?  Or did you have moments when you felt like your friendship was one-sided?  How did you deal with that?

I feel like I let Catherine know that I was there for her whenever she needed a friend. I never felt that she pushed me away. I know she was dealing with emotions that I could only imagine to begin to comprehend, and for many of those emotions she needed to deal with those on her own. At first it was quite difficult to deal with because I was struggling with my own emotions of loss.

5.   Has your friendship changed at all as a result of Brad’s death?

Of course it has, but I think it has only brought us closer as friends and as family units. When Brad first died it was very difficult for all of us to get together and know that he was never going to walk through the door with more beer, but as time let everyone heal it was comforting to reminisce and talk about old times and look toward the future.

6.  If you knew someone who was trying to help a friend deal with the loss of a spouse, what advice would you give them?

Be patient and listen. Let that person know you will be there when they are ready to talk, cry or even start dating someone new. 

Check out 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

MORE CONFESSIONS: My Mother's Double Whammy

Mom and Dad
     "You think we did the wrong thing!" she said.  "You think that we did something you didn't want us to do.  I can't do anything right with you!"
    "I can't to anything right with you, either!" I fired back.  "I can't say anything right to anyone!  I have to watch everything I say now.  Don't you understand?  I've lost the person I can be the most honest with!  He's gone and I have no one else.  He was the one I could fight with and still know that everything would be okay.  He was the one I could be completely honest with because he was the one who knew me...the real me!"

       I don't know why all of that occurred to me in that moment.  In fact, I don't even remember thinking it before I said it.  But the second those words were out of my mouth, I crumpled back into my breakfast-room chair in a big lump.

       And then I said something that inflicted instant hurt on my mother.

      "It's time for you to move back to your own house. I need to be alone."

      She gave me one hard, weepy look and left the room.  I could hear the sounds of packing going on in the basement guest room as she threw all of her stuff together.  I watched as she walked up the stairs with her bags, walked down the hall, and walked right out the front door without saying a word to me.

      It's hard to realize this when you're in the heat of battle, but we tend to lash out at the people closest to us when life hands us something we can't handle.  To everyone on the outside, I looked like I was behaving normally and progressing with life because that's what I let them see.  I couldn't afford to show my emotional hand to just anyone because then I ran the risk of them saying, "That woman is crazy and I'm better off without her."
That fight over nothing important had allowed me to let go, get angry, and finally yell at someone, someone safe, because deep down I knew that I would never lose my mother.  I knew that her love would force her to come back and never abandon me.  And I think there was a part of her that felt the same way.  She was scared and confused and didn't know her place in my life anymore, just as I didn't know my place in my own life.  I was irritated  that she got mad over something so trivial when, in those weeks right after Brad's death, I felt like I had earned a pass on anyone getting upset with me.  It didn't occur to me that I might have been her someone safe.  That she was letting her emotions go because she knew that in the end we would be okay.


1.   What has been one of the hardest moments for you as a parent, watching your child (and grandchildren) as they have tried to deal with Brad’s death?

There have been many hard moments.  Seeing Catherine at the hospital while we were waiting for the end of that chapter of our lives;  knowing that she was suffering, even when she said that she was fine when I would call to check on her; early on, listening to Haley say that she did not know why her eyes kept watering; hearing how Michael was the first to enter discussions at the children's therapy sessions; and hearing Sarah talk to Brad in the clouds were all difficult.

2.   Was there a moment where you thought Catherine had turned a corner in her grief?

      Seeing Catherine with her boyfriend at the time, Mike, at the hospital when he had his surgery made me feel that she could not handle any tough situation that came up.  I know that Mimi's (her grandmother's) situation while she was in the nursing home and her father's knee surgeries were difficult for her.


3.   Where did you find comfort as you tried to help everyone else?

      Our friends who listened and supported us were a tremendous source of comfort.  We are so lucky to have them all.

4.   Was there a moment when you worried that your relationship with Catherine would change?  Do you think it did?

      Of course, the day that I left her house after the weeks I had spent with her after the funeral, was hard.  I truly was afraid that we would not see her anymore.


5.   Was there something that someone did for you (or something someone said) as you worked through your own grief over losing a son-in-law that helped you?

     I will say that watching the kids at play when they go to Buffalo Creek (where Brad is buried) gives me comfort.  It is as though we can take a breath and say that even though we have the granite marker (with the correct date!) that will always be there, we can still laugh and enjoy life.

6.   Was there anything that surprised you about the book when you read it for the first time?

     I can't say that I was surprised at anything.  I am just glad that Catherine has felt the support of our family.  I think that this is sadly rare.

     Check out MORE CONFESSIONS: Be Patient and Listen
 to get a new perspective on supporting a friend through loss! 

Monday, May 19, 2014

MORE CONFESSIONS: Sisters are Sometimes the Best Medicine

Catherine and Kristi
A few months after Brad died, I took on the task of finding the right headstone.  Now, this turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be because I had something very specific in mind for his peaceful spot on the side of the mountain.  I wanted something natural and beautiful.  Something that would look great in the mountains and would reflect his personality.

I settle on getting a boulder - not a stone, a boulder - which I knew would be a little pricy, but I wanted to do this right.  After all, how many husbands was I going to bury?

After a couple of weeks, I was surprisingly excited when they called and said that it had been completed and installed in its new home.  I mean, this was no small task.  Brad was buried on the side of a mountain, after all, and this was a huge rock the company had to lay a cement foundation so that it wouldn't eventually roll down the hill and then they had to hand-carry that sucker in.

So, when I heard it was finished, I immediately packed the kids up and drove them up to the cemetery.  I stood there in misty silence, admiring my handiwork, which really was a thing of beauty.  In fact, I was so proud of how it turned out that I took pictures to send to my in-laws in Pennsylvania.

Then it hit me.

His birthday was wrong.

I immediately called Kristi in hysterical panic and told her what I had done.

At which point she started laughing so hard she couldn't speak.

This, you can imagine, did not help at all. It's like laughing at someone when they tell you they're pregnant again, on accident, for the fourth time and they just found out that it's going to be twins.  The story may be cute and funny later, but at the time...not so much.

"Oh, Catherine," she said, trying to catch her breath.  "You can't tell me you don't think this is funny.  You can't tell me that Brad wouldn't think this is funny."

Eventually the headstone got fixed, thanks to a couple of men with a grinder and the ability to re-etch the number.  I came to the conclusion that if they had the ability to fix it, surely I wasn't the only widow in the world who had made this mistake. And I learned two very valuable lessons that day:

1.  You can try all you want to be the perfect widow, but all it takes is one typo on a tombstone to blow your cover.

2.  There is no such thing as the perfect widow.


1.   At the beginning of the book, when Catherine talks about being at the hospital with Brad after his accident, she said that the second night she was there she wanted you to stay with her.  How did you feel about that?  Were you nervous?
I was probably flattered that she asked me to stay with her above all the others that would have been there.  I don't remember being nervous about being together that night.  After the previous night not knowing what Brad's prognosis was and then the previous day waiting for Brad's family to arrive and tell them the horrible news, almost nothing could make me nervous.  I remember feeling exhausted and very sad.  

I also remember going to Wal-Mart in Colorado Springs to buy underwear (me) and contact lens solution (Cath) and thinking how weird it was that all these people were walking around in the store having a normal day while our family was experiencing this huge tragedy.  Ever since then, sometimes I'll be a the grocery store and think, "Someone in here may be having the worst day of their life right now."

2.   What were things that you felt helped Catherine after Brad’s death?

Hopefully knowing that her family and friends were there to support her in whatever way we could (emotional, financial) and that her kids would be taken care of one way or another by Catherine's network of people.  Also, it seemed that when she found that group of young widows to hang out with it really helped her feel less alone.

3.   What were things that helped you deal with losing a brother-in-law?  

Hmmmm, I rarely analyze my process with losing Brad.  Maybe I never really did properly and that's why I sometimes, 7 years later, find myself tearing up thinking about him.  Could be time for some therapy for me!

4.   You are not only Catherine’s sister, you are also her financial planner.  Was there anything about this experience that made you change how you helped people plan for the future?  
There are lots of things that I learned from helping Catherine:

  • Always ask if there might be a Worker's Comp Widow/s/Child benefit available.
  • The widow must open all mail immediately or arrange for someone other than the widow to do so.  We missed a window to roll Brad's 401(k) to his IRA and had to do some extra tax work to fix that mistake.
  • Some widows do two things right away:  Remodel some part of their house, and buy a sporty new car.  As a planner, you have to make room in the budget for these things, but also try to put appropriate limits out there so the life insurance money doesn't all go in a flash.
  • Try to keep widows from making huge life changes within the first year of their loss.  For example, major job change, moving to a new house or new state, getting re-married.  These are almost always things that are expensive and regretted later when everyone is thinking clearly.

5.   Be honest.  Did her retail therapy phase worry you at all?  

Yes.  It always does with widows I work with.  Once the money is gone, it's gone.  Planners rely on any insurance to be there to support living expenses and help pay for college and retirement in case the widow can't replace the income of the deceased spouse.  Many people (not just widows) go for the short term high of buying something when they feel bad.  However, the long term effects of no savings will make you feel REALLY bad in the long term.

6.   How does Brad’s death affect you now?  Are there moments that make you think of him?  

I think of Brad often and his death still makes me very sad.  It affected our family in so many ways.  He was so much fun to be around.  For me, personally, whenever I need advice on something that needs fixing, I miss Brad!  It's especially sad that my husband lost his best friend.

Check out tomorrow's post  
MORE CONFESSIONS:  The Double Whammy.