Doing Grief… Together

Grief seeps into the cracks that already exist in a relationship and has equal capacity to break it wide open or to seal and strengthen it.

13976266899_748e50435e_oWe’ve all heard the hordes of experts tell us there is no “right” way to experience grief. It is not something at which you can “win” or “lose.” And when you are grieving on your own, as an individual, this truth might be a little easier to believe in. But, when you are grieving as a couple, this concept can feel more elusive. A couple who is grieving a shared loss or trauma, the death of a pet or a person close to them or even a shared child, will be very tempted to expect that their grief will look similar or march to the same timeline. But because grief tends to layer itself onto our old losses and onto our personal history, it will affect each of us differently and individual reactions can vary greatly. It can be quite challenging for a couple to seek out the commonalities and simply attempt to understand the other person’s journey, rather than focus on the differences, judge them or try to assign meaning to their behaviors.

If I could go back in time and say something to myself and my husband as we were launched on a grief journey together – something I wish we had heard from one of the therapists we met with – I think it would be this:

“As you navigate this loss together, seek UNDERSTANDING and seek CONNECTION. Do not waste precious energy comparing yourselves, looking for solutions or even relief.”

In the months following the death of our son, I very clearly remember thinking, “He never cries. He doesn’t seem sad enough. He just went right back to work. I can’t seem to get out of bed. What’s wrong with him? Or wrong with me?.” In the years since, sitting with the newly-bereaved in my office and in support groups, I’ve heard a thousand variations on this same circumstance. It is so tempting to make our own meaning of the behavior we see in others who are sharing in or witnessing our experience, but it is rarely helpful. Over and over again I see that when couples can maintain a position of curiosity about what grief looks like for the other person, they are more likely to maintain connection and avoid feeling isolated or wrong.  

18740589874_d93e10561d_oWhen I finally spoke up and asked my husband about his own ways of coping he explained to me, “Of course I am sad. I cry in my car, alone. When I’m with you, I feel like I should be pulled together so you don’t have to be. I’m tired of feeling helpless…what happened to us feels so far out of my control. Going to work makes me feel less helpless. It makes me feel like I am doing something productive, shielding you from having to go yourself… it lets me feel like I have some control over something again. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not also very, very sad.”

I was able to tell him that I was tired of feeling so lonely in our ocean of sadness and that while I greatly appreciated everything he was doing for us – things that seemed to demonstrate his obviously-miraculous abilities – I needed to see the falling-apart parts, too.  Maybe he could save a little bit of his grief to do with me at home instead of always protecting me from it?

We discovered that even though we were walking through our loss in very different ways, we could still find places to intersect and overlap and we could seek to understand each other’s journey as a way to stay connected and a little less lonely in the maelstrom.

30810876940_2d54a02360_oI listen to grieving hearts and give permission for these kinds of things all the time:

Go back to work. Or don’t get out of bed.

Talk to everyone all the time. Or refuse to answer your phone or door.

Cry and wail and rant like it will never stop. Or take deep breaths and seem stoically resigned.

Go ahead, be angry.

Yes, be peaceful.

Submerge yourself in your faith…it’s there for you.

Turn completely away from your faith…it won’t go anywhere.

Read every book and blog you can get your hands on.

Or read absolutely nothing because it is all too sad.

Find a support group.  Or find a therapist. Or talk to your dog.

Feel grateful for your family and friends.

Or feel smothered and misunderstood by your family and friends.

Believe that in six more weeks you’ll certainly be “better.”

Believe that forever is not long enough to ever be “better.”

When I sit with couples who are grieving, I try to help maintain a focus on how understood they each feel and on how to create opportunities for increased connection and communication. We try to steer away from the tempting distractions that sound like: “How long will this last?” “When will we be back to normal?” “How can I make him less sad?” “Why can’t she just do what I do?” (For the record, the very unpopular answers to those popular questions are: “As long as you need it to.” “That old normal probably doesn’t exist anymore. You’ll have to find a new one.” “You can’t.” and “She’s doing this the way she needs to and that’s OK.”)

It is true. There is no “right” or “wrong” way… there are as many paths through grief as people who must walk them. And when you are walking alongside someone else, chances are very good their path is going to look different.

9236863164_3ef11621f0_oHere are some of the ways I’ve encountered over the years that couples use to increase their understanding, connection and communication:

The Grief Check-In

When grief is acute and new, this is probably a daily occurrence. (John Gottman’s research, 2000, demonstrated that a regular check-in is a fundamental presence in the healthiest relationships. When a couple is grieving its importance is even greater.) Whatever the frequency of it, it is crucial for couples to make time to communicate about how they are feeling – not just in general, but today, right now. These check-ins often sound like:

“I had a pretty good morning, but then a song came on the radio that caught me off-guard – it was pretty rough after that.” or “I didn’t think I would be able to get up this morning, but I had an unexpected call from my sister and it really lifted my spirits. I even made it to the grocery store.”

And as grief becomes less acute:

“This week has been OK overall. I’m still having some trouble sleeping and I got angry over some really small things…but I think I’m mostly OK.” or “I’ve been feeling really sad again lately – her birthday is coming up and I’m anticipating how hard that is going to be.”

People often ask, “But won’t it feel weird or intrusive to ask “How are you?” when we already know they are obviously incredibly sad?” These check-ins are meant to go beyond the generic “how are you” and get to more sincere “how were you today, really?” or “what’s been good or hard about this particular week?” Couples often make the mistake of assuming that because we already know the other person is sad, we don’t need to keep asking and learning about it. Grief is incredibly dynamic and complex. People are usually shocked at how complicated and multi-layered it can be; there is probably always some new twist to notice or talk about. It has never been too long to check in and ask the question, “What does that loss feel like now?” even after it’s been years.

19175539158_0f4c81beef_oShared Action

It is very common for bereaved people to want TO DO something. Grief can propel people into action, service, and any number of memorial activities. When a couple can come up with their own way to join together in an activity that expresses their grief or helps create meaning for their experience, their connection can be immensely improved. This is sometimes a challenging endeavor, naturally, not every activity will be appealing or feel right for everyone. Not every grief-related activity we participate in must be shared, of course, but it is helpful when a couple can find at least one or two that can be. Couples who do this will nearly always report much less loneliness (which, second only to sadness, is the most commonly-reported emotion in my experience in grief support groups.)

Over the years I’ve heard so many ideas for shared grief activities: family gatherings on birthdays/deathdays, ritual visits to cemeteries, baking their loved one’s favorite dessert or meal, doing charity work/volunteer service in their loved one’s honor, a trip to Africa to dig a water well, a backyard memorial garden that is added to each year, creation of a scholarship, artwork and photo memorials, activism campaigns and legislation, annual trips or dove/butterfly/balloon/lantern releases… there are Pinterest boards full of ideas for how to connect with partners as part of a grief journey. And a side benefit for couples who create a repetitive or annual ritual is that the loss conversation doesn’t feel like it has to come to an end. This is one of the healthiest integrations of grief: the idea that we don’t have to “move on” or decide when it is “over,” but rather that it will be an on-going part of a couple’s life together.

In my own family’s experience, the differences were clear: I was much more open with our loss and would talk to nearly anyone who made the mistake of asking one too many questions. My husband, on the other hand, discussed it with virtually no one outside of family and never felt compelled to attend a group meeting. My mother cried readily and talked to friends and made a scrapbook while my father silently dug a giant hole, alone, by hand, so he could plant a tree. However, when it comes to our son’s birthday, my family is united in a whole day spent doing acts of kindness in his honor. And now, thirteen years in, I feel incredibly connected every year on that day – a day that once held so much potential for disengaged isolation.  


And finally, another suggestion that helps couples stay connected while they grieve is attending to self-care and supporting that of your partner. Grief takes an astonishing physical toll on most. Commonly reported symptoms are headaches, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, muscles aches and shortness of breath. Whatever self-care routines might have been in place before the loss will most certainly be put to the test and, generally, people have to expand their coping abilities and include new tools. It is recommended to take a break from the work of grief and tend to your body and your soul and help your partner tend to theirs. Everyone must find what works best for them, and ideally, some of the self-care routines can also be shared: take a walk together, exercise, get as much sleep as possible, nourish yourselves with good food, spend time with loved ones, meditate, pray, have sex, take a trip or a long drive, get lost in your favorite music, take a technology break, go dancing, have a spa day, go see a show, do yoga, sit in the sunshine in a park, help someone else, spend time with your pet…and it is important to remember that when you feel like you can laugh again, do it. It’s OK. It’s good for you.  

I still remember the first time we really came up for air and did something that looked like self-care together. It was May in Seattle – and the sun was making a glorious reappearance. On a whim, we accepted an invitation to go out with another couple we hardly knew. It was such a relief to be around people who didn’t automatically think of us as the saddest people they knew. We ate at a new restaurant in the open air where the drinks had disclaimers. We saw a rowdy live band who drank Texas beer in a smoky dive. And we laughed. Real laughter. We believed, maybe for the first time, that we were going to survive this – together.

So, if John Green is right and “grief does not change you, (but rather) it reveals you” then as a grieving couple we don’t have to fear the immense damage that loss can bring. We can, in fact, find ways to use the opportunity to deepen our relationship, create new layers in our intimacy and allow the experience to strengthen our bonds. And we can do it together.


DIY Marriage Retreat

Anyone who tells you marriage “shouldn’t be a lot of work” is wrong. Period.

I’m not saying that marriage isn’t also glorious and fun and breath-taking and deeply meaningful… but, it is also always requiring work of the people who are in it. Always.


About 15 years ago my husband and I got a smidge more intentional about what some of that work looked like. This is what has (mostly) worked for us – it’s not for everyone, of course – but I’ve had multiple requests from friends and clients alike for an explanation of what exactly we do each year. So, here you go… a DIY marriage retreat!

(Oh, first, you should probably know, my husband and I are complete opposites. Totally. Like everything. Our personalities occupy the opposite ends of whatever spectrum you are talking about. Introvert/Extrovert. Scheduled/Spontaneous. Focus/Attention-Deficit Monster. Quiet intellectualizer/Out-loud, brainstorming collaborator. Prefers to sail, invisible, under the radar/Thrives on having center stage. I could go on and on… you get the idea. My point is that when it came time for us to come up with some kind of regular marriage summit, it felt like a tall order. If you and yours are more alike, this might be a little easier.)



In keeping with our personality differences, we have settled on a blend of structure and fluidity which usually looks like, first, finding some removed location for a weekend escape.

I’m not talking about requiring a long weekend in Maui here. (Though, that would be pretty great.) You don’t need to break the bank. We’ve stayed in a secluded, rustic cabin several times. A couple of occasions early on in our marriage, when we couldn’t seem to make the overnight part work out like we wanted, we took a drive and spent a whole day at a park or campground. We’ve talked through things in swanky hotel lobbies and at funky, fun patio bars and around expertly-built campfires. We’ve also holed up for weekends in luxurious suites and fabulous (borrowed) lake houses. Once we were in London. It doesn’t really matter as long as it feels different from your “regular life.” Away from chores and responsibilities. Away from all the things that might distract from just being present with each other.


(And since we have had kids, it is definitely a kid-free weekend. Another thing that is critical to maintaining the couple relationship over the parent relationship is periodic kid-free time. It’s hard, I know. Family isn’t always an option. Nannies can be expensive. Maybe trade-off with another family? Strategically schedule sleep-overs? Get creative… but, figure it out. It is important.) 

Once you’ve settled on where and when, you want to spend a little time thinking about your agenda and important topics. This can obviously vary from year to year, but we do have some recurring topics that we try to revisit each time.


This is the general outline (in bold) of annual elements we use and we add in relevant issues as they come up. For instance, in the years in which I was pregnant we had a “baby prep” topic and in the years we were moving, we had big discussions related to finances and planning, etc. But the following things generally get thought about and talked over each year:

 1. Big-Picture Vision (5 years, 10 years, 20 years)

Five years from now: 2022, Ages: 50 & 49; Kids 16, 13

        Ten years from now: 2027, Ages: 55 & 54; Kids 21, 18

        Twenty years from now: 2037, Ages: 65 & 64; Kids 31, 28

This is a chance to sit back and dream a little… what do we wish for? When we imagine our future and what it would be like to feel content and fulfilled, what does that look like? What might our kids be doing? How will we spend our time? What will our careers look like? Where will we live? What will our hobbies be? What legacy are we building?  Drs. John and Julie Gottman have extensive research on the most important principles present in successful, long-term relationships and “shared vision & meaning” and “making life dreams come true” are critical parts of the puzzle. This piece of the conversation gives a chance to document that… to track the accomplishments, the changes in direction… to laugh at previous naïveté and, best of all, celebrate successes.


We have been doing this long enough now, I can look back and see what we predicted for 5 and 10 years into the future because we are there now. It is pretty cool to say, “Hey! We did that!” And also, “Oh my goodness, why on earth did we think that sounded like a good idea?!” This is where you make space to talk about things you might not have the space to talk about in the everyday grind of work, laundry, sports, kids, meetings, church, etc. If you don’t often sit back and dream about your family goals, career aspirations, bucket lists, or visions of the future, you might be surprised what you discover. Over the years, this portion of the retreat has contained silliness like: let’s sell everything and travel the world and homeschool… I really want to retire to a sailboat so our kids can never find us… maybe we should buy land and get off the grid before we retire… if Whitman travels the world instead of going to college, will we go with him? But it has also contained more surprising conversations like: I think I’m letting go of that dream because I feel like I’ve outgrown it… I feel really called to open our home to foster children, can we talk about that?… Please go back to school already… and also I’m going to shut down the non-profit and I feel awful about it…, etc.

As a therapist, I have heard way too many people say, “I just never thought about it, we never talked about it and now it’s too late.” This part of the conversation feels like my attempt at avoiding that, I think.

2. NOW Goals – what’s next?





Section 2 is about immediate goals in the coming 12 months. What needs to happen or change in the next 12 months? It is a chance to share personal goals and ask for support and also to collaborate on shared goals. I happen to be married to someone who does not really talk a lot about his job. I mean, I generally know what he does. I know one or two of the people with whom he works but, mostly, his work life is very separate from his home life. That’s how he likes it. So, I like having this time to get “caught up” on his big-picture career and he likes limiting how often he talks about work. 🙂

We also talk about immediate parent adjustments here – what’s working? What’s not? What are we worried about? What needs to change? How can we have more fun? Some really great moments and relief and ideas have come from this part of our annual conversation. For me, as the parent who is at home with the kids slightly more than he is, parenting often gets relegated to feeling like just “the grind” part. I can easily get bogged down in the homework/bedtime/mealtime/laundry routines and lose sight of the bigger picture. This piece always feels like my chance to really pull back and take in the immensity of what we are doing – raising humans – and regain a little perspective on what is most important.

We live in a big ol’ fun fixer-upper (that I dream of Chip and Jojo coming to finish for us!) and so there is always a list of things that need to be taken care of and budgeted for. This year we mapped out the back patio remodel and decided to redo all the siding and paint the exterior.  Last year we were dealing with some repairs, a new roof and new garage doors. You get the idea.

And lastly in the NOW Goals is the part that feels the most like “resolutions,” I think. This is the part where we decide to go paleo again…or go back to signing up for races…or keep doing what we are doing, but with less sugar. 😉 We also decide to leave and join churches, decide on LifeGroups and mission trips and how to incorporate family meditation time. It is ultimately an opportunity to reflect on the overall health of our wellness and spirituality, brainstorm and tend to the parts that need it…and share those things so we can have support.

Sometimes we let Sarge come with us! 🙂

     3. Money – Priorities and Plan

This might be the part of the retreat where you break out the cocktails, if you haven’t already. Early in our marriage we fought about finances a lot and subsequently got in a bad habit of not really talking about them very often in order to avoid the conflict. In our relationship, I’m the CFO and as long as everything is humming along, we usually opt not to talk about money. So, this is our chance to make adjustments, alter the budget, change investment choices, make saving goals for vacations or projects, etc. and get as much of it out of the way in one swoop as possible. We have some brief financial check-ins through the year, but the bulk of our discussions, the tedium of budget adjustments, tax decisions, and big picture changes happen here. (If you are one of the 27% of couples who do NOT argue about finances – maybe you get to skip this one altogether!)

     4. Relationship Stuff

That’s a very technical term there – “relationship stuff.” Again, my therapist experience informs this section as well. I continue to be surprised when people sit in my office and say, “I never knew she felt that way” or “I am totally blindsided by this.” Part of me gets it – with jobs and kids and crazy schedules it is easy to get disconnected and be so busy and distracted that you never make the time to talk about it… so: THIS is that time. A chance to ask “do we like each other these days?” “What’s really working? What’s not?” “How can it be better? More fun?” (The “more fun” questions are always his.)

Ideally, this section of the retreat is a chance to really connect and feel reaffirmed in the relationship…a way to take advantage of a slower pace and remember some of the things that brought you together in the first place. I know that most couples don’t always say all the things on their minds in the day-to-day interactions of everyday life…this is that opportunity. In past years we have used some of Gottman’s relationship tools for this (like this Love Map 20-Question game) and also had conversations about our Strengthsfinder results and Myers-Briggs. I know, dorky therapist fun…but, you have to keep learning about each other!

For the “Keepin’ It Real” file: This section has also shut down our retreat on more than one occasion. One of those bumpy years we literally spent this whole agenda item figuring out how to get a divorce. (We didn’t.) But I say that to simply warn: Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be years that are just harder than others and that’s OK. If this section feels overwhelming or devastating… use that as your indication it might be time to get some help. We’ve been in therapy twice in our 26 years together… so, get support if you need it.  

     5. Action Items

This section is totally just for me.  I like to make lists. Lots of lists. I just needed a place in the agenda to make a list. So here’s where I gather up all the great things we just decided to do… and put them in a big, beautiful list. (And I might print it out once we get home and tape it to the bathroom mirror. Maybe.)


 6. Bucket Fillers

Any heavy lifting should be done by this time, so refresh your drinks and make way for more light and fun. There may have been some tough conversations on this day. Or not. You might really need this good note to finish on. Or not. Regardless, what we know from research is that it is important to maintain a healthy positivity ratio in our primary relationships. One way to work on that ratio is to use “bucket-fillers” made famous in several books in the 2000s. What might you take for granted and not compliment often enough? Now’s your chance to speak up and fix that. What thing do you appreciate or always notice about your partner but never say anything about? From the silly to the serious, the importance of this part of the retreat can’t be understated. I still remember, word for word, some of the things we’ve said due to this prompt. Even now, as I think about them, I know there was a time early in our relationship when I couldn’t have dreamed we’d ever get so busy or disconnected that we wouldn’t say those things to one another anymore – but it happens. We’ve detailed for one another what makes the other the absolute best parent for our kids…talked through the things we are most proud of about each other… recalled favorite gifts or special occasions… shared gratitude for extended family and in-laws… complimented cooking and handyman abilities, among other kinds of skills 😉 … and praised some of the day-in-day-out-grind endurance that often gets overlooked. And a million other little things that somehow feel much bigger when it’s just the two of you, sitting around a fire, basking in an intentional positivity celebration.

And then toast yourselves for making your relationship a priority and giving it the attention it deserves! I promise, you won’t regret it.   (And don’t forget to save your notes so you can look back and celebrate success, feel proud of growth and laugh at yourselves, too.) 

Here’s some additional resources for those of you who are going to try it for yourselves:


*final disclaimer…. if your relationship is in serious distress – maybe there is already talk of separating or worse, or there is no talk at all – I do NOT recommend trying a structured DIY retreat as a solution. These retreats are meant to be preventative and growth-focused, rather than a crisis-response. If your relationship really needs support – get it. Find a facilitated retreat or a therapist or a support group… no need to DIY. Ask for help. 

I Will Not Be a Heli-Mom…

Today, my fifth grader played a part in the school-wide, every-morning announcements. Via video, he was piped into every classroom and presented as a visual example of “What NOT To Do.” Or rather “What Not To Wear.” (And no, Stacy and Clinton were not in the building.) That’s right… in front of the whole school, they showed what he was wearing and then said, “Kids, DON’T do this.” Awesome.

The high was in the low 40s today…and we’re in Texas, so people think that’s cold. And my nearly 11-year-old went to school today in this:


This was taken immediately after school (he’s on the floor)… he’s in a t-shirt made of that tech material that everything seems to be made of now and basketball shorts. Paper thin, athletic shorts. It is exactly what he wears in August, so help me. He had a sweatshirt hoodie in his back pack, but I doubt he ever pulled it out or put it on.

Because of the temperatures today, there was a weather advisory in place at the school (cue laughter from all my northern friends/readers) and he wasn’t allowed to go to recess because he was wearing shorts. Not allowed outside at all, actually.

Now, before you go and assume I’m upset about any of this – the public display of his inadequate clothing and the restriction from recess – or that I’m writing this post to rant about the school – I’m not. I’m not upset. I love his school, so that’s not what this is about.

I’m writing this post because today I was reminded about how hard it is sometimes to NOT be a helicopter parent. I have vowed again and again to not be Heli-Mom. And, when you work really hard at NOT being the helicopter mom, it means sometimes YOUR kid will be set forth for all to see as the example of what NOT to do.

Here’s what actually happened in our house this morning:

He came downstairs for breakfast in those clothes.

I said, “The high today is only going to be in the low 40s…and it’s pretty windy.”

He said, “OK.”

I said, “I got an email from your teacher about the weather advisory…if it’s too cold and you are without a jacket, you might not get to go to recess.”

He said, “OK.”

He looked at me. I could tell he was weighing whether this was going to turn into a “thing” or not. I was also trying to decide that.

He said, “Mom, I’m never cold. I hate wearing pants. I’ll be fine. I have a hoodie in my backpack. It’s not like our classrooms are outside.”

I looked at him while I was talking to myself in my head. “Let him make his own choices. This is how they learn to take responsibility for themselves and how to make better decisions.” “Are you kidding? Your husband just put on a coat and a hat to walk the dog for 5 minutes and they were both nearly blown into the pool by the gusts of wind…and you are about to let your child go off to school in the same amount of material as some of your nightgowns??” “Yes. It is his choice. He knows the potential consequences. And no one will suffer them except for him.” “No. Order him to march upstairs and change his clothes right now – be the mother.” “No. Choose your battles. You can’t actually control him anyway… don’t pretend that you can.”

What I said out loud was, “OK. I’m not sure that you aren’t going to regret it, but I’m not going to fight with you over pants. Just know that if you wind up sick because of this, you can count on me to be less than sympathetic.” He smirked and said, “I’ll be fine.”

I felt the brisk air gush into the garage as they opened the door to leave. I thought to myself, “Mercy, that kid is gonna be cold today. He is out of his mind and just as stubborn as I am.”

Fast forward eight hours and he’s getting off the bus, dumping his backpack, taking his shoes off and heading for the kitchen to devour everything he finds…and he’s saying, “Hey mom, I was on the morning announcements today to show kids what not to wear to school. It was pretty funny. And, you were right, I didn’t get to go to recess.”

Wait. What?

My personal struggle to let him walk out of the house half-dressed this morning was broadcast as “textbook failure” into every single classroom for over 800 people to see? I had considered briefly this morning what his teacher would think when he showed up like that – especially after her email specifically addressing the issue. I wondered, will she think that I don’t read her emails? Will she think that I just don’t care? Well, hopefully all the other reasonable stuff will outweigh this, I thought.

I hadn’t considered full-on publicity.

Now I was trying to quiet all the voices in my head that were panicking about what this will mean…about what all the teachers must think…what the other moms must think…what they are now saying: “Poor kid, his mother must not lay eyes on him before he leaves the house in the morning.” “Poor kid, maybe he doesn’t have any good winter clothes.” “Poor kid, what kind of negligent mom would let him come to school dressed in what might as well be his underwear?!”

And I did quiet them. Those voices were put to rest. Partly because my personality is such that I am usually unconcerned with what others think, so it doesn’t feel natural to worry about it. But also because I know that fretting about the favorite past time of the mommy war participants – shaming and judging other moms – is not helpful to my mission to avoid the Heli-Mom status. It was a significant reminder of one of the biggest reasons that letting our kids fail is so hard – the fear of judgment and condemnation from other parents. That pressure to parent in a certain way, to parent how other people might be doing it just to avoid the criticism can really get in the way of doing what might ultimately be best for our kids.

What is at stake is much more important than being judged by other parents who usually don’t know any more about what they are doing than the rest of us. What is at stake is raising kids who will readily take responsibility for their own actions…kids who make decisions based on the natural consequences, the real consequences – not based on just staying out of trouble with mom or dad. Because someday very soon, I’m not going to be around when every potentially big decision is being made and the fear of my punishment won’t even exist for all the stuff I’m not going to find out about. I definitely don’t want his decision-making skills to be limited to “what mom will say or do if…”

Sure… today it was just pants. Not a big deal in the large scheme of things. He was allowed to make a questionable choice over something that was small – the risk of consequence was negligible. That’s the point – that’s how I hope he learns – small failures and corrections when the stakes are low. Because in a few short years it won’t be pants. We’ll blink and he’ll be standing in a parking lot somewhere expected to get into a car with friends and the driver will have had too much to drink. In that moment, I don’t want him in the habit of making choices that are motivated solely by trying to stay out of trouble with me. I don’t want his responses to have been learned and practiced only in an environment where I have controlled every single thing, because that’s not real life. I want him to make the right choice because he understands very deeply and clearly that whatever the consequences will be, they will be his, and I will have little or nothing to do with them, nor can I protect him. I want him to know how to make decisions because he’s practiced it and failed and corrected and, along the way, he’s learned that not only do I trust him, but also how to trust himself.

So, yes, I’ll take today’s non-heli-mom “failure” a thousand times if it will get me to that end. (But tomorrow, the kid is wearing some damned pants.)  😉

A Dozen Years

My oldest son would have been 12 this year, 2016. In fact, it happened way back in February. It’s been 9 months since our annual Act of Kindness Memorial for his birthday and I’m just now putting them all together in one place. (Here’s 2013, 2014 & 2015 in case you are so inclined.)

I’ve thought about this many times over the past 9 months… “why haven’t I done that yet?”, “What if I don’t get around to it before his next birthday comes?”, “Do I really need to do it? I mean, it’s all captured on Facebook anyway…” I’ve had this little conversation with myself off and on over the past nearly-a-year and finally, here I am. Doing one little part of the small amount of mothering that is still left to me when it comes to my oldest.

Here’s what I think I know: mothering my dead child can be very similar to what mothering my living children feels like sometimes.

The rare days I push snooze too many times and they have to eat in the cafeteria because I simply didn’t feel like rushing to help them make their lunches. Somedays I just close the doors to their rooms because I don’t have the energy to lord over them long enough to get it cleaned up. Some weeks I pretend reading logs don’t exist…and feel pretty certain the only reading happening is Calvin & Hobbes. And sometimes they play video games before they do homework and chores because I simply want 30 more minutes to sit in my comfy chair and stare at Instagram or finish a book or listen to a podcast before the after-school grind begins.

And some years, apparently, it takes me 9 months to sit down and pull together the photos and acts of kindness from one of my very favorite family traditions… our WWS RAOK Day.

So here they are, from February, all TWELVE:

RAOK #1 – Ron and I had a vocabulary contest on and donated over 2500 grains of rice to those in need around the globe. It’s super easy – check it out.


RAOK #2 – The boys helped out at Crescent Bend Nature Park with the bird blinds, which are 100% volunteer-supported. They cleaned out the baths and put out water and filled feeders… happy birds!


Then we headed to McAllister Park for RAOK #3 to share a little love with our four-legged friends:


RAOK #4 – Next up was the creation of a dozen blessing bags to have on hand for the many intersections in town where people are asking for handouts. The boys and I often talk about the individuals who hold the little cardboard signs and they decided that having practical things to hand out would be nice.


For RAOK #5 we donated eight brand new duffle bags to a local charity that supports foster children. Did you know that when nearly 95% of children are pulled from their homes by a case worker, they gather their few belongings into a trash bag? Some children move from home to home over several years with only a trash bag to hold their most precious items – stuffed animals, family photos and toys. Too sad. A local group aims to fill every case worker’s car with something more dignified than a trash bag and we support that for sure!

Quite often, while driving into one of the entrances of our neighborhood, Whitman will comment on the trash and scold imaginary people for being litterbugs… so for RAOK #6 the boys cleaned it up!  (Don’t let Lincoln’s face fool you – they were happy to do it – he was irritated with Whitman’s lack of focus. As always.)


Our local burger joint has an awesome outdoor play area that is usually full of kids…and never full of enough footballs and basketballs. So we left a bunch behind when we had lunch… RAOK #7


RAOK #8 – Here we are shipping off all my old cell phones to a domestic violence advocacy organization – because for women trapped in a dangerous situation, a phone can make all the difference. (


For RAOK #9 we distributed gift cards all over the place all day… lots of little surprises left on car windshields and in car doors all over town. The boys loved this one!


Lincoln wanted to be in charge of RAOK #10 this year, because he just turned 10. And he spent his own newly-acquired money to buy stuffed animals to donate to the emergency room “for kids that have to come in here and are probably scared and need something to help them feel better.” His sweet heart makes mine swell.


First it was birds and then it’s the bees!! We threw a ton of these seed bombs all over the neighborhood – which the boys thought was awesome, of course. We hope we added some flower love out there for our bee friends on RAOK #11.


And finally, #12, was a crazy, ridiculous tip for our delightful waitress at Cured. Best of all, it was split by my sweet cousin and her husband who were so happy to get to participate in our WWS RAOK Day!


As regular readers know, this day is one of my very favorites. It seems to get sweeter and more fun every year even as the emotion and energy of the day continue to evolve. I’m still not completely sure what my reluctance/resistance was about to not put the final bow on this one for so long… maybe I was dragging my feet because 2017 means the dreaded teens begin and I was trying to put it off! 😉  Or maybe this year was simply one that felt weary. Twelve years is a long time to carry so much missing. As his brothers get older, it is easier to imagine what he might have been like and the relationships they might have had. I still look at moms with three boys and feel jealous – even after all this time.

One thing I do know is that I felt compelled to finally do it because a lifelong friend of mine had to bury her son yesterday. And today she drove for hours to his college campus to clean out his room and bring all of his belongings home. And for the last week, since I heard the news, I’ve just been trying not to throw up. I’m going to write another post entirely on that experience, but suffice it to say that I’ve thought a lot this week about the road that is ahead of her. The years she has still in front of her in which she will have to figure out how to keep mothering him when he is no longer on the planet with her. My heart is broken for her and it also knows that rituals and integration are key to surviving all of it. And so I could not neglect this any longer – this ritual of mine, this integration of my son’s death into my family’s life – it serves a purpose greater than most will ever understand and, after a week like this one, it deserved my attention.

So, at long last, my dear boy,

Happy birthday!  …I’m sorry your letter is nine months late. My world continues to have a space in it that was meant for you. Your space contains all kinds of things at any given moment – wonder, longing, joy, connection, grief, laughter, and more. It is a space that is known and seen by many and because of that it is dynamic and connects me to all those who would have loved you. Mostly, though, it remains the space where you are best remembered. It’s my most important job as your mom – to simply remember. To remember the absolute perfection of you when you came silently into this world. Your dark, curly hair – such a surprise. My grandfather’s miniature nose right there on your precious little face. An intensity about you, visible even in your death, that has lent itself to my imaginings over your personality all these years. The unmistakable infant smell that lingered on your tiny blanket much longer than I expected it to, but not nearly long enough. I remember. I will always remember. Here’s to the first dozen years of remembering…

All my love, for all time,


The kind of JOY that needs more GRATITUDE

Here we are. At the end of summer once again. The boys left this morning in the barely-there light with fresh planners and lunches made by a mom who isn’t tired of packing lunches yet…in the air was that familiar energy that is part excitement, part nervousness and a smidge of resolve necessary because no one really wanted to be awake yet.

Just one short week ago we were closing out the vacation with a last breath of carefreeness – our traditional end-of-summer camp out. It was still fairly hot, of course…no rain meant crunchy grass…and the breeze didn’t come up until almost midnight.

Blacky Lawless

But the deer still hung out with us – curious about the tent and watchful of the dog.

End of summer camp out

We swam and built a fire…roasted hot dogs and s’mores…watched for shooting stars and told stories until we fell asleep, laughing, with the dog piled among us. That night – the whole summer, really – was full of moments, whole days even, that my husband and I refer to as “foreboding joy.” You know the ones: if you were watching a movie, it’s the picture-perfect moment when you think, “Oh, wait, the aliens must be about to land and turn everyone to ash” or “Yep, someone is definitely about to die.” In real life, it’s those moments when your heart just might burst because of so many wonderful, too-good-to-be-true things. It’s joy, but there’s an edge to it.


Our summer was full of bliss and blessings and dear friends and family and fantastic trips…plenty to be content and ecstatic about. But, for me, the summer also had too many dark days and tears and anxiety and insecurity and flat-out melancholy. It seemed quite confusing. How is that so? How do those opposing forces live so snugly side-by-side?

Because: Joy is such a scary thing.

One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, tells us over and over in her work that joy is terrifying because we believe if we lean in to it too much, it will be that much more painful when it goes away.


Dress-rehearsing tragedy, she says, as a way to protect ourselves. But then we don’t fully experience the good parts either.

This morning, in a quiet house, the breakfast dishes and mess put away, the dog sulking at the front window – there is no tent in the yard, the pool toys are put away and the routines are back in place – I was thinking about the summer and my perplexing moods and what else to do about them. I was feeling relieved about how September always seems like another January to me: a fresh start, a clean slate, new teachers and a year of possibility outstretched in front of us… I was working to convince myself that certainly this shift of routine would finally help escort the melancholy along and out of my life for now.  And then I thought of Brené because of her new book and how often my husband and I talked about foreboding joy in the past few months – and it occurred to me that more routine was probably not all that I needed, but perhaps also more gratitude – more active, mindful gratitude.

in the pool

It’s possible that my summer doldrums were partly my way of balancing out so much goodness, so much love and so much happiness…not intentionally, of course, but our physiology has its sneaky ways, you know. Sounds a little crazy, maybe… but as long as I’m also flirting with depression, then when the joy gets annihilated, it’s not quite such a shock, right? A way to feel just a little less vulnerable when there is so much to lose. As I sat watching some birds playing in the bird bath outside the front window, I thought, “Well, here it is, yet another layer of the grief journey. With every loss and heartache and tragedy that is experienced, the more challenging it is to hold on to the idea that joy can exist and truly sustain…because we know too much. We know how quickly it can vanish.”

Fire pit

Gratitude is such hard work sometimes. Not the nicey-words-kind-of-gratitude. Not the make-a-list-of-things-kind-of-gratitude. No, I mean the take-a-deep-breath-and-don’t-let-your-brain-go-to-the-scary-place-kind-of gratitude. The stay-right-in-this-very-moment-and-lean-in-as-far-as-you-can kind of gratitude. I mean the kind of gratitude that is terrifying if you let yourself think about it for too long, but you go ahead and breathe it in anyway and soak it up and dunk yourself in the joy over and over again. That kind of gratitude takes practice. Probably lots of it. I’m pretty sure I need to work on exactly what that looks like.


So, I am going to embrace the renewed routine of the school year and I hope it helps. And Dr. Brown’s new book – I’ll be reading that as soon as I can get my hands on it.

But I’m also going to focus more energy on a deeper quality of gratitude; a more active, mindful and sustainable kind.

Basically, I am going to work harder to be more like my dog – because, clearly, he has already figured this out.


As a mom, I’m 11.

I’m going to officially declare February as the most complicated month of my life. Is that a thing? The most complicated month?

Remember this February in 2011? Whew.

But even when they are “regular” they are full of love and sad and brimming tears and bittersweetness. And this year, well, it was no different.

I spent the first half of the month in London. (Poor me, I know!) It was a fantastic trip – a touch of work, but mostly play – and I felt incredibly grateful for such a luxurious experience. But, as any mom knows, over 10 days away from home and away from your kids has its consequences and requires serious catch-up…even if they were under the super-awesome care of one of the world’s greatest grandmothers. (Thanks Mom!) So, five days after returning from Europe, we had a brand new 9-year-old in the house…cue hosting family parties and birthday breakfasts and herding a gang of kids all over a bowling alley for an afternoon.

Then, with less than a week to go before this year’s WWS RAOK Day, I got the flu. Again. (I suppose Type A had so much fun, Type B wanted to have a go… argh.) I tell you about all of this chaos because this year was a great reminder for me that, while parenting my oldest has never looked exactly like parenting my other two children, I’m most definitely still his mom.

Because, really, what else besides motherhood would make a woman with stubborn jet-lag, post-birthday-party exhaustion, certain-death-by-cough and a low-grade fever** even get out of bed, much less run around town inflicting kindness on people??!! And that, my dear friends, is how Year Eleven would begin…

Here they are, all in one place… Eleven for WWS RAOK Day:

First, my sweet, talented, awesome-teacher, sister-in-law had her whole wonderful class make these adorable little compliment cards…and almost everywhere I went all day I left them on windshields and public bathroom mirrors and stuck them in little hidden spots for just the right person to find. (And if you want some, but don’t want to be crafty, I got the idea from Erin Condren and hers are also gorgeous.)

 **Relax! I’m kidding about the fever part…it had been gone for a whole 12 hours before I exposed myself to the public…
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It was a grey, dreary day and I couldn’t resist these stunning flowers which I promptly delivered to my sons’ teachers, just because.


I also stopped in at the library near our house and anonymously paid off some people’s library fines… I was so grateful that the sweet woman at the counter had particular people in mind who really needed the boost. I love it when that happens!


Some more compliments along the way…

The next two RAOKs were in support of two great causes – Kiva, which does microloans across the globe and Free The which provides jobs to sex industry survivors in developing countries. I’ve done two other loans through Kiva and it is so powerful to see the incredible progress made possible by such relatively small amounts of money!! Check it out.


And if you have any drawers that are full of these (not cats!) you might consider sending off the ones you don’t ever wear to support Free The Girls. Because, seriously, slavery? How is this still a thing?? We should all be doing whatever we can to bring an end to such tragic nonsense.

For Number Six, it was more flowers to combat the dreary day. I placed fresh flowers on my grandparents’ graves and also about a dozen of their neighbors… including the graves of a 3, 4 and 6-year old. (heavy sigh) I have a thing for cemeteries, always have. Does anyone else share that odd attraction? They are so peaceful and full of interesting tales…


Number Seven was four free rounds of bowling for the next crew of people to head into the Bowlero… free bowling – on a rainy Friday – who wouldn’t love that?


Some more love for the parking lot….

Number Eight happened as I was leaving the parking lot of the bowling alley. It was raining and super, duper cold and, as a general rule, we Texans are fairly unprepared for both cold and wet. I saw this woman standing at the bus stop with the tiniest, brokenest umbrella ever to exist…and she was holding it sideways to try to make the wind blow it back down into position so she was totally getting wet anyway. I slammed on my brakes and jumped out and handed her the Green Giant which has lived all alone in my car for forever. I’m sure the Green Giant was happy to finally be of use!!


Then we took the boys to get haircuts and we pre-paid for the next family who was coming in for haircuts, too. It turned out to be the next morning and I got the sweetest email from the mom of the little boy who was treated to the free trim. I love thinking about the ripple effect that happens when others let the gratitude and goodness flow out of them into the world around them – it’s one of my favorite parts of the day!

Well, also this munchkin with his newly trimmed hair! Those faint little freckles slay me.


While we were getting haircuts, Ron was out buying a bunch of coats. (I’m serious, it’s cold here y’all!!) We headed down to the Salvation Army shelter and asked the volunteers to please give them to the people who need them most. (Even the really nice jacket that Ron tried to keep!) 😉


And our final RAOK for the day (by this time I was nearly feeling human again!) was for our very kind waiter at dinner…for his special attention and patience with our two little tortilla faces, we left a 100+% tip. And that’s all eleven, folks!!


At the end of it all, I’ll be honest, I felt pretty lucky to have pulled it off at all. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Grateful. Full. Loved. Supported. Ready to collapse. Bittersweet. You know, like a mom. This year had a different flavor to it, for sure, but I think it’s all part of this journey – continually figuring out how to evolve within the on-going transformation that grief brings. There is no end, no closure…there’s just trying to keep up with how it changes you and how those changes keep showing up.

I will never really be able to explain to you how much it means to have all of you – friends, family and even strangers – joining in the day with us. So many here and on Facebook wrote to me about their anticipation of the day, their own acts of kindness in Wheeler’s name, and their joy at watching the day unfold… it is beyond description, really, what this day has become for me. But I’m so grateful to have so many who share in it with me and the day is filled with many happy tears.

WWSAnd now, to my sweet Wheeler, happy birthday again!

It seems that each year this experience with you changes and grows and, in that small way, it is so much like raising your brothers – they won’t stop changing or growing either. You know, eleven years ago I wrote a letter to you for the memorial service and even in the fog of my shock and grief, it turns out I was able to articulate some things that have held up pretty well. Remember this?

“…you are teaching us so much without even being here – I’m humbled to think of how much we would have gained if only you could have hung around for a while – I know you would have shown us what life is really all about. I’m so sad that we are missing that.

I’m claiming this prayer for all of us – from Isaiah 61:

God will proclaim this to be the year of His favor over you…to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…they shall be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.

Thank you for being part of God’s plan for our lives – for making us stronger, like the “oaks of righteousness,” and helping to mold us into the people God hopes for us to become. You will always mark a huge turning point in our lives – one that I hope I can look back on someday with appreciation and understanding – someday when I’m not quite so sad anymore.

Please know how much you are loved and missed by all of us. I think of you constantly and expect that I always will. Your father and I can’t wait to see you again someday and when we do, I hope you will be proud of us.

Until then, all my love –

Your Mom”

How about that? I can definitely testify to the beauty and gladness and praise that have grown out of our mourning and despair. These birthdays with you are so much about the display of His splendor in our lives…and I had no idea what that would really mean when I wrote that over a decade ago. Thank you for continuing to teach me and for continuing to let me see your legacy at work in the world. I can’t imagine being any prouder of you and your sweet little life than I am today. But, hey, I know it’s motherhood, so it’s gonna keep changin’, right?

All my love for all time –


Advent Calendar Make-Over

A few years ago I distinctly remember feeling DONE with the advent calendar. I was at a loss for what to put in the little boxes – seriously, there’s enough candy everywhere already – and how many teeny, tiny gifts even exist that won’t just wind up in the trash? The boys were only so excited about endless stickers and temporary tattoos. Not to mention that I forgot about it as many nights as I remembered…and there’s nothing quite like scampering about at 6:21am when you hear the kids stirring awake and remember that the little box is empty – again. I vowed to free myself from the advent calendar ridiculousness.

Advent Calendar

Also, the older I get, the more allergic I feel to anything that even smells like entitlement or sheer, unadulterated consumerism… so that certainly helped progress the transformation. Over the past few years we’ve transitioned to a month of family activities, gift giving and acts of kindness in place of the candy and toys… disclaimer: I’m not a total Scrooge, so there are some Skittles and Starbursts thrown in the mix!  😉

The boys and I posted (almost) daily on FBTwitter and IG (#adventwiththesooses) but, I had several requests for the whole list in one place, so this is for YOU!

1. Gather up all the Christmas books for a month of nightly holiday stories.

2. Make and send Christmas cards for service men and women deployed away from home.

3. Send stuffed animals and blankets to the boys’ school for their student council drive “Barrett’s Bears.” (They collected over 700 items to give to the Children’s Hospital!!)

4. Do something nice for someone at your school today. (And I made cookies for them when they got home and we talked about who and what and how it went.)

5. First round of holiday goodies going to school for principal and nurse and counselor.

6. A New Year’s package for our sponsored child.

7. Go through clothes and donate to the Children’s Shelter and Goodwill.

8. Second round of holiday goodies to the school for the front office staff.

9. Write love letters to selected family members.

10. Leave a gift for the mail carrier.

11. Do something nice for your brother. (Yes, they hated this one!!) 🙂

12. Take a gift for the bus driver.

13. Love notes and goodies for the nanny.

14. Go through toys and donate to the Children’s Shelter and Goodwill. (Also filed under:  🙂

15. Goodies for the garbage men and recycling guys.

16. More love notes to other family members.

17. Third round of gifts to the boys’ school for specials teachers.

18. Go see Christmas lights with grandparents…have hot cocoa and s’mores!

19. Take gifts to your teachers.

20. Build a fire tonight to go with your Christmas stories.

21. Donate to Wheatens In Need…or current favorite charity.

22. Candy cane bomb a parking lot.

23. Leave popcorn at a RedBox for renters.

24. Put out treats for the birds. (no photos after this because the flu came to visit our house just in time for Christmas!!) 😦

25. Huge chocolate candy coins to have with Christmas breakfast.

And that’s how I finally survived an advent calendar!

For other ideas and inspiration for your own advent makeovers, you can look here and here and here. There was also lots of talk this year about transforming the infamous Elf on the Shelf into a Kindness Elf… same concept and Pinterest is full, full, full of more ideas including these cute printables.

I hope this post finds you healthy and grateful and looking forward to a brand new year! Merry Christmas!