One Difficult Part of Grief: Sitting with Anger

On May 3 , I will be facing the third anniversary of losing my daughter to brain cancer. About a week or so ago, I started feeling ALL of the things I feel this time of year — grief, sadness, longing, disbelieving. But fast forward to today. Today, at this very moment, I feel anger. I feel like If I was confronted by someone right now, that my 5’2′ nonviolent little self might take the person down. I feel like I could run a hundred miles, and the physicality of it still wouldn’t touch the fury. I’m not wallowing self-pity; I’m wallowing in anger that I cannot seem to work through.

My truest belief about grief is that it’s important for me to feel all of the emotions. My ability to feel things is, in my opinion, my super power. I feel comfortable naming a feeling, working through it, and then moving forward. Rinse. Repeat. Over and over until I feel better. Most days, I am rational about what I’m feeling. I understand that life is filled with challenges, and mine are no bigger than anyone else’s. But right now, I can’t get a grip on feeling furious at the world. I don’t like this feeling, but I also believe that anger is a part of the grief process. It’s normal, but it’s just not where I want to land.

Right now my anger is directed at trivial things at work, imperfect relationships, and my own mistakes and imperfections. Yet, I know that this anger stems from one thing — not the little irritations in my life, but my grief in losing my daughter at a much too young age. Fifteen year olds should not die before their parents, and fifteen year olds should not have to battle an aggressive cancer like glioblastoma.

Where does this leave me? I’m not sure. I generally try to be optimistic in the face of challenges. I try to be hopeful, even in times of despair. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to stop feeling mad. Tonight I went for a walk with a friend. I wrote. I read a book. In my mind, I screamed at the universe. The rage persists. The rage is just not me.

Is there an easy way to rid myself of anger?  I don’t think so.  I am confident that the only way through my anger is through it.  I have to ride it out, recognize what I’m dealing with,wrestle with it a bit, and know that tomorrow will be a better day.  But out of all of the emotions driven by grief, anger is the hardest for me to sit with.  The challenge for me is to not let this anger consume me — to continue to work to be a good wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend, teacher and human.  I believe Brene Brown when she says this:  “Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection.”   I have to find a way to let my anger lead me back to joy and gratitude. 

Big Feelings

As an educator  — a teacher of little people —  I see children every day dealing with big feelings and trying to figure out how to handle them.  We have picture books about this topic, and most schools these days have a school counselor who helps kids work through their emotions.  I find that as adults, we shy away from emotions.  Either we don’t talk about how we feel, or we try to avoid processing our feelings.  Emotions are hard.  They cause us pain and/or discomfort. 

In 2021, Brene Brown released her book titled Atlas of the Heart. The book goes into detail about a variety of emotions — positive emotions, negative emotions and emotions that are somewhere in between. Brene knows what many adults can’t acknowledge: We have big feelings too. Brene also believes that confronting our feelings leads to a richer, healthier life.

A while back I read the book A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, a book that evoked strong emotions in me and numerous other readers.  I have to say, I had a strong distaste for the book for maybe the first third of it.  I couldn’t stand the negativity of the man called Ove.  As the story progresses, I began to understand Ove’s story and why he was so unlikeable.  Ove was frozen in a state of deep grief.  Eventually, Ove becomes a friend — almost a grandpa type figure — to his new neighbors, and he ends up finding a way to live again. Ove had big feelings with no outlet for them.  What finally healed him was friendship and connection.

Naturally, when I saw the previews for the movie A Man Called Otto, I knew I needed to see it.  I took my husband to see it last weekend.   A Man Called Otto was a beautiful film, and I am already anticipating seeing it again.  But as I was sitting through it, crying in several parts, I got to thinking.  Why can’t grown-ups talk about feelings?  Why are we so uncomfortable sitting with and working through our big emotions?  Am I the only weirdo out there who talks about things like joy and grief and happiness?  

There is a part in the movie where Tom Hanks (Otto) was sitting at his wife’s grave talking to her. Tears were running down my cheeks. My husband looked over at me and mouthed, “What’s wrong?” We weren’t even thirty minutes into the show, and I was already crying. I would have been sobbing if there hadn’t been people around. This movie showed a man experiencing so many different feelings, grief in particular, without a way to process these feelings. I understand. And I think other viewers will understand this, too.

How do I explain my own big emotions during this scene,  throughout the film, and in life?  This movie made me think about grief — Otto’s and my own.  It made me think about love, life, friendship, work, acceptance and purpose.  However, it wasn’t just this film that got me thinking.  These ideas and emotions rattle around in my head all the time.  I am a person who feels things deeply.  I accept that now, and I even like that about myself.  In the last few years, I’ve learned to sit with these feelings.  I hold them in my hand and feel their shape and texture.  I talk about them and write about them.  I try to make people feel comfortable talking about them too.  

The truth is, dealing with big emotions is not just something children experience.  Feeling, managing, and understanding our emotions is part of being human.  I don’t believe that we ever master the many emotions we encounter in this life, but I do believe it is healthier to understand — and maybe even work through — emotions that are both helpful and harmful.  Sometimes we do this internally and privately, and sometimes we do this with the help of friends or a therapist.  But I don’t believe we can just push our feelings down and expect to feel okay.

Back to our curmudgeonly loveable protagonist Otto.  Otto was a grouchy old man, but he was that way because he could not see a path through his grief.  He loved deeply, and the person he loved the most died.  What he discovered, though, was a way back.  Otto found a way to live again.  He rebuilt his life.  He found new ways to be useful.  His grief was not completely expelled, but by the end of the movie his grief was at least shared.  Otto evolved into a person who opened his heart to new and uncomfortable emotions, and he lived a richer life because of this.  

I want to be like Otto.  I want to evolve and grow and feel.  I want to face my emotions and be unafraid to just sit with them.  I want to create a rich, vibrant life despite grief, fear, uncertainty and other emotions that get in the way.  I believe wholeheartedly that this life is possible if I allow myself to feel and process both the good and the bad.

“We cannot selectively numb emotions.  When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”  

Brene Brown

This is Me: A Glimpse Inside my 50 Year Old Self

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This (literally) is me!

A few weeks ago, I celebrated a BIG  birthday.  As this day approached, I had been thinking about my life and what I’ve learned thus far.  I remember that I was scared to death of turning 30. Thirty sounded so old.  Turns out, 30 was no big deal. I’d relive my 30s any day.  My metabolism was still my friend, I had energy, my kids still snuggled with me.  My life was pretty much problem-free.  Then, my 40s rolled around.  I wasn’t too excited about turning forty, but my 40s have taught me some important lessons.  I’ve learned to love my body in thickness and in health.  I’ve also learned to love myself and accept my flaws.  I started to become a more authentic version of myself.  It seems that with age comes wisdom and a “don’t worry too much about what people think” mentality, which is a blessing.  

As my forties came to an end, I didn’t feel nervous or sad.  Instead I mostly just felt grateful.  Fifty sounds like a big number, but aside from the sound of it, I am happy to be a year older.  You see, I believe that growing old, even with its aches and pains, is a privilege.  I understand that my life is a gift, and I am actually looking forward to living and learning and growing as a person in my next decade of life.   

I decided that in honor of my  50th birthday, I should write down my fifty truths — my deepest, silliest and most honest beliefs. I want to put in writing my current perspective on the world and reflect how my outlook has changed over time.  So here is my list.  These fifty truths are in no particular order, but they are all ideals I hold dear.

  1. I believe in wearing bright and sparkly nail polish no matter my age. Bright toes make me happy.
  2. I believe in dancing in the kitchen. Dancing in the kitchen is always evidence of a good night.
  3. I believe in do-overs — for myself and for others.
  4. I believe in the power of a parent’s love. The older I get, the more I respect my parent’s love for me and the more I love my own children.
  5. I believe that public education is a critical component of our society. and that teachers are real life superheroes.
  6. I believe in community.
  7. I believe in a higher power, even if I don’t understand all of the details.
  8. I believe in the quote from Dead Poet’s Society where John Keating says “words and ideas really can change the world.”
  9. I believe that the Beatles are the greatest rock band ever.
  10. I believe that the Foo Fighters and U2 are a close 2nd and 3rd.
  11. I believe in adventure. I find myself, as I age, wanting to run towards the world.
  12. I believe in love. Enough said.
  13. I believe that sometimes — okay, most of the time — self care is more important than productivity. (My husband disagrees with me, but I stand behind this one.)
  14. I believe in sitting with people in their darkest hours just as they have sat with me.
  15. I believe that being a mom has been my best and hardest job.
  16. I believe in naps.
  17. I believe in connection. I’ve learned that I am good at connecting with people and building relationships.
  18. I believe that I am creative but not necessarily artistic.
  19. I believe my parents did the best they could with what they knew, and I have tried to do the same.
  20. I believe that my family of origin — my parents and my sister — are still my biggest fans.
  21. I believe that we all need a safe and happy place to land at the end of the day.
  22. I believe that part of being happy is recognizing the small joys in our lives.
  23. I believe that you can be a happy person even if you’ve experienced great loss.
  24. I believe in therapy. Therapy has helped me in a plethora of ways.
  25. I believe that, for me, writing serves as a kind of therapy.
  26. I believe in writing notes of gratitude to people that I love.
  27. I believe in silver linings, even if that makes me appear naive or overly optimistic.
  28. I believe that teachers make the world a more educated, more beautiful place.
  29. I believe in fun and mischief.
  30. I believe in girls’ trips.
  31. I believe that yoga can restore your health and your soul.
  32. I believe in hugging — friends, family, my students, sometimes even strangers.
  33. I believe in reaching out to people who are struggling.
  34. I believe that I experience God’s presence anytime I walk barefoot on a beach and look into the vast ocean.
  35. I believe in the power of a good coffee date/chat with a girlfriend.
  36. I believe that money spent on books, movies and music is never wasted.
  37. I believe in sleeping in.
  38. I believe that lifelong learning leads to a fulfilling life.
  39. I believe that a person is never too old to try something new.
  40. I believe that someday I will figure out my purpose on this Earth, but until then I will try a lot of different things.
  41. I believe in girl power. Thank you Sandy Hudson, Ally Baier, RBG, Michelle Obama, Cindy Lauper, Malala, and all my other female heroes.
  42. I believe in kindness.
  43. I believe that there is almost always a resolution to a problem.
  44. I believe that you never give up on your children.
  45. I believe that Brene Brown’s writing has changed my life for the better. (If you haven’t read her, start with The Gifts of Imperfection.)
  46. I believe in taking walks with friends.
  47. I believe in honesty — or at least attempting honesty. I no longer have the stomach for bullshitting people.
  48. I believe in peace.
  49. I believe that it is important to have things in life to look forward to.
  50. I believe that that life, even in its most difficult seasons, is a gift.

So there you have it, friends, a list that reveals who I am at 50.  I have grown from a shy kid who was afraid to speak out in class to a person who is fun, free, and maybe a little bit fierce.  Today I strive to be a person who runs toward life and feels gratitude on even the most challenging of days.

The Marriage of Grief and Depression

I recently developed a new mantra.  It goes like this:  It is not my job to make people comfortable.  I don’t mean that I’ll go out of my way to make friends and acquaintances ill at ease.  That’s not really who I am.  What I mean is that I am trying very hard to be honest about myself and my life.  If that makes people feel uncomfortable, then I need to let that roll off my back.  

With that in mind, I need to tell you that this blog post is not a happy one.  I’m purposely going for honesty.  Maybe someone out there needs to hear this and know they’re not alone.  Maybe there’s someone else who feels just like I do.  Today’s topic — grief and depression.  Unfortunately, this is a topic I know well. 

A few years back, I was diagnosed with depression.  This was before my daughter Ally’s illness, before I had experienced real loss. We were dealing with some behavioral issues with my son, which looking back, were insignificant compared to what we’d later face.  But still, I was struggling.  My therapist thought I had situational depression, and he suggested I talk to my doctor about this.  My doctor then put me on a low dose of Lexapro.  For several years, I stayed on this medication, and it worked.  It helped keep me level and able to cope with life.  

A few years later, life got really difficult.  My sweet, twelve year old daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer.  My family lived in limbo for the next 3.5 years, trying to stay afloat while also living in fear of what could/would happen next.  Those years were filled with joy, fear, hope, tears, love and a deep sadness.  I stayed on meds to keep going as grief was starting to creep in; I grieved a life of normalcy for my child, for my family, and for myself.  I had constant worry, a constant sense of ‘What will happen if…?’ 

In April of 2020 the if happened.  We discovered that treatments were no longer helping Ally.  On May 3, Glioblastoma took my daughter’s life.  And that’s where real depression kicked in.  Intertwined with this depression was grief, which has been a constant companion since then.  I’ve been trying to work through my grief, take the right steps to keep my depression at bay, and still be a functional human.  I’m on meds, and I recently adjusted them as I can feel that the holidays will be hard this year. I see a therapist.  I am doing life the best I can.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, I really thought I was doing okay.  But then depression swoops in, and I’m flat on my back again.

Now here’s the part I’m a little embarrassed to share.  I like to think of myself as a strong person.  I’ve had to be during my daughter’s illness and after her death.  I feel compelled to be strong at work and when I’m out in the world.  But the last few weeks when Rich and I sat in counseling together, working through our grief, I got called out by our counselor.  She said I was “awfully tearful.”  I was furious.  Of course I am tearful.  Counseling is hard.  Grief is hard.  Trying to piece your life back together after a devastating event is hard.  I thought I had been doing so well.  I get up in the morning and go to work.  I am trying to be a kind teacher, a reliable co-worker, a loving friend.  I exercise.  I read.  I stay busy with writing groups and yoga classes and happy hours with the girls.  And yet, I’m still depressed.  I had an epiphany:  I live in a haze of blah that I can’t fully pull myself out of.  And I’m so angry that I can’t outrun the grief and depression that hangs over me.  If a friend were to tell me about his or her depression, I’d tell my friend to get a good therapist and to consider medication.  Don’t give up.  Be gentle with yourself.  Practice self care.   Why can’t I be gentle with myself?  My therapist and my doctor both suggested I should give myself grace…which is hard.

In most of my blog posts, this is where I’d try to insert a positive reflection or maybe a bit of wisdom.  But this time I can’t because I don’t have any meaningful insights.  I don’t have a solution.  I’m still in the depths of trying to understand my loss and correctly treat my depression.  I will say this:  If you are hurting, if you feel low, if you are anxious about the holidays, you are not alone.  Do not be ashamed about asking for help.  Do not feel badly about needing therapy and medication to feel better.  And do not second-guess being honest about all of this.  Life is hard, my friends.  However, life is better when you love and grieve and share with and lean on your people.  As for me, I’m not giving up.  But dang, this journey of grief and depression is a long one.  Here’s to lighter days for all of us.

”Grief is so human, and it hits everyone at one point or another, at least, in their lives. If you love, you will grieve, and that’s just given.”  – Kay Redfield Jamison

Note:   If you are struggling with depression during the holidays or any time, you can call the Depression Hotline at 1-888-771-5166.  If you want to search for a therapist near you, go to the Psychology Today website at  Most importantly, if you feel suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. 

Happiness vs. Despair

heart-shaped black stone on green grass

I’ve declared this summer as The Summer of Crysta.  To be fair, I do this every summer.  But this summer, it seems extremely important to dedicate some time to myself.  I am a little over a year out from losing my beloved daughter  And this summer feels like a perfect opportunity for some self-care and healing.

One thing I’m doing this summer is taking a class.  I needed something to stimulate my brain (and move me over on the salary schedule at work).  The class I chose is both fascinating and inspirational.  This summer, I needed to move away from the sadness of the last few challenging years and find some forward motion.  This class has helped.  It’s got me pumped up and engaged for the first time in a long time.  I’m starting to think about my “what’s next.”

The title of the class is Social and Emotional Intelligence:  7 Who Dared.  We’re reading the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and we’re learning about seven amazing human beings — Malala, RBG, and John Lewis, to name a few.  During my study, I  heard John Lewis say this:  “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair.”  Man, this hit home.  I’ve been there for a while now.  We all have.  2020 was a tough year for the human race.  So this quote got me thinking…how do we move away from despair into happiness?

You see, I believe that happiness is, in part, a choice.  I think happiness is connected to gratitude and really digging into your life and being able to  appreciate the little things.  I thought I’d share some of the things that are making me happy and whote and grounded right now.  These things are allowing me respite from the deep despair the world has thrown at me and adding a little light to my life.  Here goes.   

  •  My relationship with my son.  Joel is turning 20 in July, and watching him grow into the man I knew was in there all along is a privilege.  Joel is witty, outgoing, kind-hearted, and engaging.  I love it when I can get him talking.  He has interesting insights on the world,  and I’m glad that he shares a little bit of his heart with his mom. 
  • My parents.  The older I get, the wiser my parents become.  I am reminded daily of how grateful I am to have parents who are living.  My parents have been a rock for me, and I’m truly grateful to have a safe place to land — even as an adult.
  • My work.  I’m glad to be a teacher and to have a work home I love.  My co-workers and my love for my students helped me through a really hard school year, and as I reflect on the year, I realize that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
  • Yoga.  Yoga has stretched me — literally and figuratively.  Yoga has helped me remember to breathe and to stay connected to the present.  It has given me a break from the constant ruminations in my head.  I am stronger, both inside and out, because of my practice.
  • Reading.  I am a lifelong lover of books.  Books entertain and inspire me.  However, my focus was lacking this past year.  But this summer, I have been able to engage in reading again — for more than just a few minutes at a time.  There’s nothing better than getting lost in a book, and I’ve done that this summer.
  • My tribe.  I have realized that I am a collector of sorts — a collector of people.  I have work friends, church friends, old friends, neighbors who are friends — you get the idea.  I find that I connect easily with people (I am a teacher, after all), and I’m blessed with a lot of amazing people in my life.  When I’m down or need to reach out, there is always someone to reach for.  
  • Writing.  I’m grateful to have an outlet for my emotions.  It feels good to let my insides pour out onto a page.  Writing, to me, is therapy.  It helps me make sense of my world.
  • My daughter. Most of my writing focuses on the deep loss I experienced when Ally died.  And even though I’m still working through the grief of losing her, my soul is fed by her existence.  I feel extremely fortunate to have had fifteen years with this beautiful, kind-hearted, one in a million girl.  I think I learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and for her life, I will be forever grateful.

So friends, I hope that you can take a minute away from whatever is hurting your heart right now and think about what is making you happy.  I don’t mean to minimize your pain; I am right there with you in the hurt.  But I do think that it is helpful to remember the other beautiful things in your life. Keep fighting through the despair you may feel, and look for the things in your life that make your heart sing. 

How to Help a Friend Through Grief

a woman rests her head on another person's shoulder

Yesterday, I left work early to attend a grief seminar.  Yes, I’ve become that super fun person who talks about grief, goes to grief events and then reflects.  But when you’re sitting in grief, it’s something that’s on your mind constantly.  And this seminar got me thinking.

I used to be awkward about grief.  (To be fair, I think we’re all awkward about grief — at least in the beginning.)  When a friend lost a parent or spouse, I didn’t know what to say.  I had the vague sense that saying SOMETHING was better than not acknowledging the loss.  But I’m pretty sure up until this last year, I didn’t know WHAT to say or even what to do.  I have some residual guilt about this — some situations that I didn’t come through in the way I would want to today.  

In May, I lost my sweet daughter Ally.  Prior to her death, she’d had a long battle with cancer.  During the three plus years of her illness, we had so much love and support.  And yet, even before my daughter died, our family was grieving — grieving the change in our family, the loss or normalcy, Ally’s loss of a typical adolescence.  I’d like to speak to how to help a friend who is grieving.  I know because this is what has helped me. 

  • Acknowledge the loss.  Don’t tiptoe around your friend’s loss.  It’s not a secret.  They are thinking about this loss 24/7.  It’s okay to express how very sorry you are.  And it’s okay if the only words you can utter are “I’m sorry.”  I’d also suggest if the words won’t come at all, a hug speaks volumes.  Your presence is more important than finding the exact, right words because there are no exact, right words.
  • Bring food.  Bringing food and buying gift cards to restaurants are tangible things you can do when you don’t have the right words.  These things tell a friend, “I love you.  I’m with you.  I want to help you.”  And during a time of grief, cooking is a burden.  Food always helps.
  • Send cards.  I can’t tell you how much cards brighten my day, and I’m still getting cards even now.  I have stacks of cards from friends.  I keep these because they are constant reminders that I am loved.  Ally was loved.  People are thinking about our family, even months after our loss.  
  • Check in with your friend.  Call. Text.  Go knock on your friend’s door and drag him or her out for a walk.  Make sure your friend knows he or she is not alone.
  • Talk about the person who died.  I know people who are uncomfortable talking to me about Ally.  This comes from a place of caring; they don’t want to make me sad.  But you know what? It is cathartic to talk about my daughter.  She was a beautiful person, and talking about that is a happy reminder of who she was.  

Now, let’s address some things to avoid. 

  • Don’t ask a person to talk about their “stage” of grief.  I call bullshit on the stages of grief anyway.  It’s not like grief is a neat little progression of emotions; grief comes in waves of thousands of little feelings hitting you all at once.  I’ve been angry.  I’ve been depressed.  I’ve even been joyful.  (Yes, I know that sounds weird — but joyful for Ally’s life, for friends, for the support we’ve been given.)  I’ve felt guilty and uninspired. But these feelings ping from one to another constantly.  Let your friend express how he or she is feeling instead of you trying to force a conversation about the stages of grief.  Try to listen and understand.  
  • Don’t share platitudes or meaningless religious philosophies.  “God has a plan.  She’s in a better place now.  Everything happens for a reason.”  These statements may be comforting to YOU.  You may believe these things to your core.  But these statements feel utterly ridiculous to a person who is grieving.  (Note:  I have had people I love and admire say these things.  I understand.  People don’t always know what to say.  So I’m not monumentally upset about this. I’m just saying that if you could avoid these platitudes, it would be a kindness to the griever.)
  • Don’t have a time frame in your head as to when your friend’s grief will magically be vanquished.  Grief is a lifelong friend. I’ve only been grieving my daughter for nine months, and I can tell you that I can’t imagine a time when grief won’t be sitting right on my shoulder.  I’m hoping my grief lessens, but I don’t think it goes away.  And I’m not sure I want it to leave me completely.  My grief is a symbol of my great love for Ally.  I don’t want my love for her to ever be extinguished.
  • Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you do handle a friend’s grief imperfectly.  We are all learning and growing.  I myself have huge regrets.  I know I could have showed up for friends better as they grieved.  I just didn’t know how.  I didn’t understand.  So when you know better, you do better.  And that is my goal moving forward — to be a better friend to fellow grievers.

I want to end by saying this:  A person who is grieving will need constant support and friendship. I’ve been blessed to have a tribe of people who’ve lifted me up and kept me going.  Recently, I was talking to a friend.  We were sitting in her car, getting ready to go into the gym to work out.  I started crying, thinking about and missing Ally.  She grabbed my hand, held it tightly, and said this:  “Crysta, there is no expiration date on how long I’ll listen to you talk about Ally.  We’ll be in a nursing home, and we’ll still be talking about your sweet girl.”  Friends, that’s what we all need in this crazy thing called life — people who will love us through hard times right up until the end. 

The Gift of Family Tradition

I was a bit of an ungrateful teenager.  I was annoyed by my parents, and I pushed back quite a bit throughout high school.  I thought my family of origin was over-the-top, not normal,  not like my friends’ families.  I’m sorry, Mom and Dad.  I was a stupid, naive, insecure kid.  And now I really appreciate our family’s uniqueness.  I was talking to my therapist recently, and a light bulb went off in my head:  I had (and have) pretty amazing parents.  My parents’ biggest offense — they wanted to spend time with me at a time when I just wanted to be free.  I grew up with love, safety, security, and meaningful family traditions.  I was lucky.  

I was thinking about all of this as I was disassembling my Christmas tree.  (Don’t ask when, friends.  This is the year of Covid.  I may have taken my tree down embarrassingly late.  No judgment, please.)  I was taking down the ornaments, one by one, and examining them.  Many of these are new to me this year.  I was gifted a lot of really special ornaments this year.  Lori gave me a Harry Potter-style wand ornament; Andrea gave me a Noel ornament in honor of Ally.  My family members made handmade ornaments to remember Ally, and my principal gave the whole staff a handmade ornament.  I was looking at these and thinking about the amazing people I have in my life.  Each of these ornaments are special and will hang on my tree for years to come.  Then I remembered how ornaments had always been special in my family.

When I was a kid, my Gram and Gramp decided that they wanted to give the grand kids a special Jan Hummel Christmas ornament each year. I loved those ornaments.  Although they were fragile and we had to be very careful with them, I loved adorning our family tree with the Hummel balls.  Each year, we’d make a special night of putting up the Christmas tree.  Mom and Dad liked for us to think of a memory from the year of each ornament.  For example, 1976 was the year that my sister was born.  1990 was the year I graduated.  We talked about the good things that had happened to our family.  Afterwards, my Dad — the world’s biggest kid at Christmas-time — liked us to turn off the lights in the room and lie down under the tree.  Together, we gazed up at our creation.  The ornaments.  The sparkly lights.  The memories.  My dad was probably tearing up, and my sister and I were probably anxious to get to the telephone and call our friends.  But for a brief moment, time stood still and our family was together — still, content, and connected.  My sister and I learned about love and gratitude from those nights of putting up our Christmas tree as a family.  We learned that we are people of connection; we are meant to be together in good years and in bad.  

Since I’ve had my own family, I’ve tried to make putting up the Christmas tree a special event as well.  But as you all know, when you create your own family unit, traditions morph into what makes sense for your own family.  In my own little family unit, we’d drink Coke out of bottles, listen to Christmas music and put up ornaments.  Rich would usually assembly the tree and leave most of the hanging of ornaments to the kids and me.  My kids loved Christmas.  Ally especially loved Christmas.  This year, the first year without Ally, was a tough one. And yet, I had hoped to make this Christmas meaningful, or at least bearable, if I could.  

I decided that the best way forward was to let Joel and Rich do what felt right in their hearts regarding the Christmas tree.  In fact, I waited a while to assemble it as I wasn’t sure I’d be in the right headspace to put up a tree after this horrible year.  But I talked to Joel, and we decided to do it — late, but better than not at all.  Joel agreed to help.  I wasn’t sure if he’d want to participate.  But he thought we should keep the tradition. 

Joel and I put together our artificial tree with a few laughs as we had some assembly mishaps.  We added lights.  And then we brought out the ornaments.  I bought us Cokes in bottles, which Joel and I enjoyed together, and then we talked as we took out each ornament and hung them.  There were the ornaments that the kids made.  Ornaments with pictures of Joel and Ally when they were younger.  There were our favorite ornaments – the ornaments my Dad decorated for the kids, the goofy KU ornament that we put up every year even though we’re KSU fans.  And then there’s THE ornament.  

THE ornament is the one Ally hated the most.  It’s the ornament with only three names — Rich, Crysta and Joel.  This was the first ornament we bought in 2001 when we became a family of three.  Ally HATED that ornament; she hated thinking of a time when she was not a part of our family.  Every year she was alive, we had words about this ornament, and we always ended up keeping the ornament but hiding it on the back of the tree.  There were years when Ally slyly threw the ornament away as she ranted about the injustice of having a time without her around.  Joel and I would retrieve it from the trash can and hide it on the back of the tree.   And yes, if you know my son Joel, you know that he teased her about this for years.  “Hey Ally, look at this ornament.  This is a good one!”  I can hear the whole thing go down now.  

But this year, when we got to this ornament, it brought us both tears and laughter.  We both agreed to hang the ornament on the back of the tree.  And in that way, Joel and I felt Ally’s lasting presence.  We talked.  We kept to tradition.  We remembered to be grateful for all of our beautiful and imperfect ornaments, our family memories, our sweet Ally.  

Though I miss Ally with all of my being, I am so glad we decided to put up our Christmas tree in her absence. The simple ritual of putting up the tree helped remind me that, even in my grief, I’ve been blessed with so much in my life.  I’m glad we were able to continue a family tradition — even during this difficult season.  Thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me the importance of family and tradition.  And thank you, Joel, for giving me some mother-son time when I needed it the most.  You’ll never know how special this small ritual was to me.

*Note:  I mention my daughter Ally a lot in my blogs.  She died in May 2020 of glioblastoma.  She was 15.  I will most likely write more about this when my mom heart feels the time is right.   I wanted you to have a little backstory to better understand my journey. 

My Word

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience.”

—Ingrid Bengis

Every January,  at least for the last several years, I like to choose one word to focus on for the year.  One year it was authenticity; one year it was resilience.  This year I decided upon discernment.  I really like that word.  To me, it means problem solving in a calm and unhurried manner.  It aligns with mindfulness and intention.  And I knew this year would be one where I would need to make some difficult and very intentional decisions.  2020 began and quickly threw the world for a loop; pretty early in the year, I realized that my word should change.  It had changed.  Thus, discernment morphed into connection.  

In March, I began to get outside and walk with friends.  I did this for sanity, health, an excuse to leave my house, human contact.  Connection.  And for a while during this crazy, global pandemic, I had a pretty good walking streak going.  65 days without pause.  65 days of tying my shoes, meeting my friends in the cul de sac, and hitting the side trail where we could space and be together.   During this time, I was experiencing a personal trauma.  I was losing my sweet daughter to cancer.  So this walking, this connection with a small group of neighbors and friends, carried me through a difficult time.  

Since the pandemic began, I’ve experimented with different ways to connect to friends and family.  Zoom.  FaceTime.  Google Meet.  You all know the drill.  Though it’s not the same as in person contact, the purpose is the same — connection.  It is good to talk to loved ones, hear their voices, see their facial expressions.  I’ve zoomed with high school girl friends, my family, book clubs, church moms and more.  These virtual sessions have sustained me.  For me, being with people, even virtually,  fills me up and keeps me going.  

This year, I have also been lucky enough to get to connect at work.  I teach at a Pre-K – 4th grade elementary school, and we are in person with kids.  Yes, there have been adaptations.  I’m masked.  The students are masked.  We distance.  We check temps upon arriving at school.  But folks, I am IN PERSON with kids doing what I do!  (I teach library and computer.)  I get to work with my teacher-friends and teach and laugh and learn and be with people.  And though teaching during this pandemic is both physically and emotionally challenging, I’m just so grateful to be connected to my students, their families and my co-workers.  My connection at work is a gift.

Aside from being a teacher, I’m an outgoing human – an extrovert.  I like and need people.  This global pandemic helps remind me of the importance of connecting with people.  My husband and I have hosted many small, outdoor gatherings, even when the temperature outside dropped, just to be around our friends.  We’ve watched movies on our patio, huddled by fire pits, hit up some restaurants that feature outdoor eating areas just  to be with our people.  Again, connection.

In so many ways, this pandemic has affected us all.  We’ve all struggled, and we’ve all learned a  wealth of lessons.  Like the rest of the world, I’m ready to go back to “normal.”  And yet, I hope we don’t forget the lessons of 2020.  I hope we remember to get outside, as Covid has forced us to do.  I hope we remember how much we missed hugs and to disperse these freely once we can safely do so.  I hope we  remember that we humans are built for connection, companionship, contact.  And I hope we continue to reach out to the people around us.  

Meanwhile, as we embark upon a new year, I encourage you all to think about 2021.  What will the year bring?  What will we learn?  And what will our new word be?  What is the one word that will capture our intentions for a new, hopefully better, year?  I look forward to finding that just-right word.  

December 2nd Can Suck It OR Days to Remember: You Pick the Title

Dear readers, this is practically a Choose Your Own Adventure post because (lucky you) YOU get to choose the title, maybe even the main theme.  Should this be called December 2nd can Suck It?  Or do you prefer to read a post titled Days to Remember?  Maybe it depends upon the day you’ve had today or how tired you are.  Or maybe it depends upon your inclination for pessimism vs. positivity.  Maybe it depends on how you look at unforgettable dates.  Either way, you get to pick.  What is my blog today really about?  What’s the appropriate moniker?

I’m writing this because a Facebook memory popped up today.  Here’s what the memory said:  Dec. 1, 2016:  Feeling worried.  

I remember that time in my life.  I was worried.  More than worried, to be honest.  You see, four years ago on this very day, my daughter Ally was scheduled to have an MRI the next day (December 2nd) as a precautionary measure.  We had seen the pediatrician earlier in the week about her recurring headaches, and our doctor ordered an MRI. I assumed everything would be all right, but still…I worried because that’s what moms do.  

Flash back to today.  After reading this post, I got to thinking about the weird days that we can’t help but remember.  Days that stick with us even though time has passed. Some of these days are good.  Some are heartbreaking.  And yet we can’t get these dates out of our heads.

Here are the days I remember:

July 3: My grandpa died.  I was not prepared to find my parents and my sister  returning home to tell me that Gramp’s heart had stopped.  

August 1: My grandma died.  Gram lived with my family for many years, and this was a hard blow.

December 23: Rich got down on a knee and asked me to marry him.  That was one of the best nights I can recall, even though I’ve now forgotten the proposal itself.

December 2: We found out that my daughter had a “mass” on her brain and we should immediately head to Children’s Mercy Hospital.  We quickly packed a bag as surgery was imminent for Ally.

July 1: Joel was born AND Rich’s dad died.  Same day.  Same year.  The universe never ceases to teach about joy mixed with sadness.

June 28: I delivered my sweet baby girl.  I remember feeling so happy to be a mother of two.

July 10: This is the day CMH told me Ally’s cancer was terminal.  I was alone at the hospital with Ally.  Rich was traveling.  One of the three worst nights of my life.

April 3: This is the day we knew for sure Ally would not get better.  Up until then, I was so sure we’d find a way to beat this thing.

May 3: Ally died.  And the universe again wanted to teach me about joy mixed with pain.   We lost our beautiful, kind, happy, beloved daughter.  But at the same time, her suffering ended.  She was “read into heaven” by her two best friends, and she died listening to Harry Potter, her favorite book series.

See what I mean about dates?  They get me every time.  These dates sneak up on me and remind me of the most deeply meaningful moments in my life.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve been hit in the gut.  And sometimes I laugh as I cry.  Sometimes I brace myself for the pain that resurfaces no matter how much time has passed.  I understand at my core that life is a mixed bag filled with happy times and great losses.  Still, I will forever wish to shout to the void, “Suck It, December 2nd!”  It’s a day that I wish I could undo, omit, recant.  I can’t, and I know it I can’t.  Going forward, December 2nd will always represent a shift in my life.  I am no longer the version of myself I was before Ally’s diagnosis.  I am sadder, I am wiser, and I am trying to be kinder.  I am more aware of the value of each and every day, ordinary or extraordinary, happy or sad.

Letting Go

Last August, I handed my first born over to the U.S. Army.  Joel had just graduated high school, and he decided that he’d like to join the U.S. Army Reserves to serve his country and to help pay for college.  I went with him to talk to the recruitment officer, and Sargeant Jackson sold us both on the plan.  But still, on the day he was to head off to basic training followed by AIT, I broke down  I cried through our entire going away breakfast and finally, I regained my composure as we left him at the recruitment office.  Why was I sad?  Well, if you’re a mama, you probably understand ALL of my worries.  But one thing that struck me was this:  This isn’t what I planned for my life.  I never imagined my baby boy training to defend our country, learning to use high-powered weapons, enduring  drill sergeants yelling at him and actually liking it. 

Upon returning from his Army training in January, Joel spent a semester at a community college near home as he planned to transfer to KSU. This August, we delivered Joel to Manhattan, Kansas with much joy.  Joel has always wanted to go to K-State; he’s basically bled purple since he was in the womb.   This was always the plan — Joel would attend KSU.  So we happily moved him into a musty old dorm room, as his father and I believe that everyone should live in the dorm at least once.  And yet a day later, Joel, new to a KSU fraternity, moved to the frat house when a spot suddenly opened up.  This was definitely not the picture I had in my mind when I was snuggling my newborn son in the middle of the night after a feeding.  My son — in the Army and in a fraternity?  This wasn’t what I planned.

The thing is, I get caught up with pictures in my mind.  These pictures — visions of what my kids should be like, how a family should operate, what parenthood should look like — trip me up.  Instead of enjoying what I do have, these visions sometimes make me crazy.  But the past nineteen years of motherhood has taught me to let go of my preconceived ideas or even societal expectations.  There are many ways to be a good mom.  There are many ways to have a happy family.  There are many ways to grow a son into an amazing man.  For Joel, his way to manhood has been paved by the Army and by his new fraternity.

Before he left for basic training, Joel had a pretty typical 18-year-old cockiness.  Don’t get me wrong — I loved his quick wit and his confidence.  But hiding out behind this confidence was youth and inexperience.  When Joel returned from the Army, the changes were shocking.  Joel came back with real confidence. He had skills. He could shoot military weapons  with accuracy.  He successfully passed PT tests, putting his high school cross country skills to good use.  Joel learned to drive a Humvee and trained in the military police.  He came back with a love of fitness, believing that exercise is an important component to a healthy life.  Basically, Joel returned more of a man and less of a boy.  He came back disciplined and focused.  And though I worry daily about him being deployed, I am glad that he became an Army Reservist.  I think that joining the Army helped Joel understand how to reach his full potential, and I’m not sure this would have happened as quickly if he’d gone to college right after high school.

Another thing that has pushed Joel toward manhood is being a part of a fraternity.  To be fair, Joel’s dad and I were GDI’s (gosh darn independents).  We were not Greek.  I have always had preconceived notions about fraternities, I must admit.  And yes, some of my notions are true.  But a few weeks ago, Rich and I drove to Manhattan for a Covid-safe, outdoor Family Day.  When we got there, Joel was selling beads to raise money for the fraternity.  He was absolutely in his element, socializing and chatting people up.  (Yeah, he’s an extrovert, like his mom.)  I could tell that he enjoyed living in the house with the other guys.  The fraternity has daily study hours, so Joel’s grades are in check.  He has some great friends.  He seemed really happy and healthy and focused.  During our visit, there was a short fraternity ceremony; after hearing about the accomplishments within the fraternity, I realized that I had been wrong about fraternities — or at least this one.  I could see how this experience (even with the typical frat-boy shenanigans) could be beneficial for Joel.  

These past nineteen years of motherhood have taught me so much.  I’ve finally learned to ignore the pictures in my head of what a “proper” child (or family) should look like.  I’ve tried to let my children grow into who they were meant to be.  I can’t force my path on Joel.  I have to let his life be his own, and I have to trust his choices.  There are many ways to grow into manhood, and so far, Joel’s on the right track.  He is happy, healthy, and figuring things out.  That’s all this mama could ask for.