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. 

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.

30 Things

black flat screen computer monitor

Today is November 30, the last day of a month that many people spend reflecting on the blessings in their lives.  For me, November was the 6th month of living life without my daughter.  So in ways, November has been hard for me.  And yet I’ve found that my own great loss — the loss of my favorite girl on the planet — makes my gratitude feel bigger and more profound.  It’s a kind of gratitude that starts in my heart and pulsates outward.  It’s a gratitude meant to be shared.  So here goes.

I’m creating a list for you, and I’m calling this list 30 Things.  It’s basically a list of 30 things that kept me going during this difficult year.  It’s meant to be a love letter to life, a love letter to my tribe, and a way to show you how I experience both joy and grief.  In fact, I think now that grief and joy are intertwined.  You can’t have one without the other.  And maybe that’s the beautiful oxymoron of our life on this planet.  

30 Things…in no particular order (except for maybe #1 and 2).

  1.  I’m thankful for Ally.  We had the kind of mother-daughter relationship that I had always hoped for.  We didn’t get to have the longevity that I wished for, but still, I have the most wonderful memories of time I spent with Ally.  Ally was smart, kind, funny, and uniquely herself.  I am thankful every day for getting to be Ally’s mom, even on the hard days when we fought her cancer together.  Even though I wish daily that her cancer journey had ended differently, I would not trade my fifteen years with her for anything.
  2. I’m grateful for becoming a mother, for having two children raised in the same way, but with completely different temperaments.  Joel keeps me on my toes.  He banters with me and makes me laugh.  And sometimes makes me want to pull out my hair.  Ally supported my crazy whims and was so proud that I was a teacher and her mom.  She loved me unconditionally, and that itself is a gift.  I wasn’t sure when I was younger if I wanted to be a mother or if I’d be a good one.  I’m sure glad I took the plunge.  I am softer (and yeah, sometimes a little crazier) because of my children.
  3. I am thankful for my parents.  They were my first and best supporters.  When I wanted a pink playhouse, my dad made me one.  When I wanted a one-of-a-kind prom gown, my mom sewed me one.  When I was first teaching and crying every night because I thought I sucked, my mom was the first to come over, sit with me on the couch or drag me out for a Sonic drink.  And now, although they don’t always have the words, they still show up for me when I’m having my saddest days.
  4. I’m thankful for my sister.  I cannot tell you how much Jaime has supported me through life and through this year.  When I was in high school, I went to Girls State one summer.  I was literally just gone for a week — barely enough time to even miss me.  During this time, my sister wrote to me and included the lyrics to “Wind Beneath  my Wings.”  Even then, my crazy little sister had my back.  Friends, this same pesky, blonde-haired sibling of mine who I tormented back in the day has stuck with me in the best and worst of times — through the R.C. years (personal joke), through weddings and college and having babies.  When I knew Ally’s time was nearing an end, the hospice nurse told me to call someone to be with me.  I called my sister.  Sisters always come.  They always know.  And my sister — well, if you know her, you know there’s pretty much nothing that she can’t accomplish.  
  5. I’m thankful for the power of music.  After Ally died, I started playing the piano again.  Being in my piano teacher’s house, relearning the notes, playing songs with meaning — these things all bring me a little peace.  And when I want to escape or recall my past, I go to my favorite bands for inspiration and solace.
  6. I’m thankful for my job.  For the past few years, I’ve had to miss a lot of work so I could care for Ally.  I was glad to do it, and I will always be grateful for this time.  While I was home, my work family helped my substitute in many ways and also encouraged me to put family first.  They encouraged me, brought meals, and showered Ally with gifts.  After Ally died, I was able to return full-time to my job as a librarian/computer teacher.  Even though I’m teaching in a global pandemic, the work I do fills me up.  It’s hard.  There are tough teaching days.  But I love what I teach, who I teach, and who I teach with.  I have been with many of these kiddos since they were in preschool, and I have worked with many of my co-workers going on 15 years in May.  I know that I am lucky to have a job I love.
  7. I am grateful for Nancy, Ally’s hospice nurse.  She helped our family through the toughest of times, and she shared with me WHY she became a pediatric hospice nurse.  I admire this woman to the moon and back and couldn’t have gotten through April and May without her. 
  8. I’m thankful for my in-laws.  They love me like their own, and I’m blessed with many bonus siblings.  But I’m thankful most of all for their gift to me — Rich. The past few years haven’t been easy for our family. It is hard on a marriage to watch your child suffer and know that you can’t fix it. But Rich has been a shoulder for me to cry on, a source of laughter, and a friend. When I returned to work this fall, he took to cooking nearly every night as I was wiped when I got home. He encourages me to write and exercise and spend time with friends. He’s a good man and father and husband.
  9. I’m thankful for the wonderful escape that books provide.  Books offer me knowledge and distraction, a soft place to go to when I’m struggling.
  10. I’m grateful for my friends and neighbors in my cul-de-sac.  We have a pretty great crew of folks here, and we enjoy hanging out.  And how else would I get sugar for a recipe when I’m too lazy to run to the store?
  11. I’m grateful for my “oldest and dearest” friends from high school and college.  K, I know you hate this wording, but it always makes me smile.  And of course, by “oldest” I am speaking in terms of longevity.
  12. I’m thankful for the cards that still pop up in my mail.  Thank you for never letting me feel alone.
  13. I’m thankful for my bonus daughters, who check on me regularly and take me out for coffee.  Ally would be proud of the kindness you show me.  My door is always open to the two of you.
  14. I’m grateful for yoga.  Right now this is an activity that gets me out of my head and lets me feel good and strong and whole.
  15. I’m grateful for the many friends who have walked with me — in life, through our cancer journey, through my grief.  I love you all.
  16. I’m thankful for the Foo Fighters…because, you know, I love them!  Listening to Dave, an authentic lover of music, does make my heart happy!
  17. I’m thankful for finding the Saki Lounge this year, a little place in Olathe that makes the best, prettiest plates of sushi around.  And I’m thankful for a special lunch there with Laurie, Liv and Ally!
  18. I’m grateful for Joel’s success in the military and at KSU.  I’m happy every day to see that he’s found his own tribe and he’s growing into the man he’s meant to be. 
  19. I’m thankful for my hair stylist.  She’s outspoken and smart and fun to talk to, plus she takes fun risks with my hair.  It’s like therapy/coffee with an old friend every time I go see her.
  20. I’m thankful for writing, which allows a place for my thoughts, joys and heartaches to land.
  21. I’m thankful for my “book club” — a wonderfully eclectic group of women who’ve kept me sane the last few months.  We’ve read books, tackled short stories, drank some wine, played trivia, and Zoomed just because we wanted to talk.  I’m glad we formed this group!  
  22. I’m thankful for my church home, St. Andrew.  This has been our home since Ally was a baby, and there is no place more peaceful than its grounds or its sanctuary.  I truly love the building and the people.
  23. I’m thankful for New Girl and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Gilmore Girls.  These shows represent comfort and escape, and the women in these shows are my quirky, TV wannabes.  Lorelai, you know we would be besties if you were real!
  24. I’m thankful for my extended family who have checked on us, donated to causes Ally loved, and supported us through our cancer journey and our loss.  I’m not sure if I’ve told you enough, but Joel and Rich and I love you all and appreciate all that you’ve done.
  25. I am grateful for all things girl-power and Wonder Woman because they remind me of my sweet girl.
  26. I am thankful for the times I’ve had with Joel this year — riding in his car, joking around, watching a show.  He has become protective of me, and whenever I get sad, he immediately comes and hugs me or squeezes my hand.  I love my boy.  
  27. I’m thankful for mornings when Joel is asleep.  He can’t see me sneak into his room and look at him.  He’s 19 — practically a man.  But when he sleeps, I still see the three year old boy who loved to read in the closet and snuggle with his mom.
  28. I’m thankful for Bentwood Elementary School, California Trail Middle School, and Olathe East High School — places that have supported my kids and enriched their lives.  We have built lasting relationships with some of the most amazing teachers and administrators.  These schools will forever be a bright spot in my kids’ upbringing. 
  29. I’m grateful for Dr. Max, our first oncologist.  To be honest, I hated her at first.  You would too if she told you that your beloved child had aggressive brain cancer.  But she took great care of my girl and still checks in on my family.  I will never forget what she’s done for our family.
  30. Finally, I am thankful for all of YOU.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are part of my tribe or you know someone in my tribe or you’re morphing into my tribe.  Thank you for the million little things you’ve done to support us and show us love.  Texts.  Calls.  Cards.  Hugs.  Meals.  Walks.  Cries.  Laughs.  Everything.  

“Joy and grief are never far apart. In the same street the shutters of one hosue are closed, while the curtains of the next are brushed by shadow of the dance. A wedding party returns from church, and a funeral winds to its door. The smiles and sadness of life are the tragi-comedy of Shakespeare. Gladness and sighs brighten the dim the mirror he beholds.”

-Robert Aris Willmott