FEAR: Let’s Talk About Death

I can still feel Ian’s arms wrapped around me, grasping me tightly — almost desperately. The tears stream down both of our faces as the doctor’s news settles in. We hold each other as if we are holding on to this one moment in time — the only certainty we have left.

Ian’s terminal cancer diagnosis propels us into the world of the unknown — where tomorrow is never guaranteed and each milestone, each good-bye, each “I love you”, could be your last.

Death is imminent.

I fear for my husband’s life. Will he make it? Will he live to see Theo turn one?

I fear for my life. How will I survive without him? How will I raise a two young children by myself?

My mind wanders. I fear for my future without him.

Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into a year. Ian is still alive. It’s been 15 months since his cancer metastasized. He’s beat the odds, but his time is running short.



I can still see the hospice nurse’s heartbroken look as she makes eye contact with me. I know what’s coming and I can feel her proceeding with caution — fearing my reaction. She starts to cry as the words leave her mouth. I wrap my arms around her; lifelessly comforting her as the air is sucked out of my lungs.

Ian will pass tonight. Ian will die.

For a second the room feels like it’s spinning, but then a new sensation takes over.

It’s relief. It’s calm. It’s peaceful.

I no longer fear my husband’s death. I’m ready. I’m ready to surrender — to stop the suffering, the fighting, the uncertainty and guessing. It’s his time.

Ian passes away in the early hours the next morning.

Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into a year. I feel numb, disconnected, then angry, and sad. The fear returns — but in a whole new way.

I fear this new life without my husband.

I fear for my children’s life.

I fear for mine.

I fear that I’m not strong enough to do this by myself.

I fear for my heart — that if I open it up it will break again.

I fear that there is no going back — no return to “normal.”

I fear my own grief — it’s power to trap me or transform me.

I fear what other’s think about my grief — how I’m handling my loss.

I fear for my children’s grief — for their life without their father.

I fear that this is all too much.

I fear that I can’t survive.

I fear that I’m losing him.


I feared Ian’s death, and now that my worst fear became my reality — I find myself fearing my new normal without him. But what I’ve learned (and grief expert David Kessler puts so well) is that fear doesn’t prevent death. Fear only prevents us from living!

Luckily, Ian knew this secret all along because in the month’s leading up to his ultimate death, he chose life. Death was already certain for him — so why fear it? He chose life and made the most of it.

Same with my hospice nurse experience. Once she told me that Ian would die that night, all of the worrying, the waiting, the guessing, the speculation — the anxiety — was gone. It just was. Ian was going to die. So what could I do with the remaining time I had left with him?


Death is the ultimate change, the ultimate end. It is a change we think we can’t understand and an ending we think we can’t survive. But although the change happens whether we want it to or not, we can find freedom in accepting it., and in understanding it as a prelude to something else. – David Kessler


We fear death. We fear for the day that we will die. We fear for the day that our loved one’s will die. We fear for what our lives will be like in the aftermath of such a loss.

We fear death in an anticipatory sense — like in the case of Ian’s terminal illness — or even right now, as the whole world fears the potential risk of COVID-19.

We fear death both for its finiteness, but also for the unknown aftermath. What happens after someone dies? — for both the person dying, as well as their survivor.

Yet, much of our fear surrounding death is attributed to how we perceive it.


Fear is an emotional response induced by a real or perceived threat. – Psychology Today


Fear is valid — it’s a response — meaning, we don’t always consciously control it. Yet, what intrigues me about this definition is also the word “perceived”.

Yes, death is an ending. A painful ending. An ending to someone’s life. A life we don’t want to and can’t imagine living without. The threat is real — no one wants to say goodbye to someone they love, or feel the hurt of loss.

But the threat of death is merely a fact of life. Our perception of death is what makes us truly fear it.

Kessler explains that the way our society views and even talks about death — he lost the fight to cancer, heart failure, he left us to soon (ie. Like abandonment), she didn’t make it — adds an element of choice to the experience of loss. Like if he tried harder, we would still be here — he would have beat it!

Death is not a choice. In fact, death is a certainty! It’s not something that we can opt-out of or defeat. Death, just like birth, is another phase of life. Yet, society positions death as the ultimate enemy. Something to be feared, conquered and destroyed.

So if a loved one dies we — death wins. We lose.

This perspective does a major disservice to anyone facing a terminal illness or for survivors of a loss.

For those facing death, it ignites fear. If shifts the focus to fighting a battle that cannot be won (in some cases, not all); instead of focusing on how to live more in the remaining time left. For survivors of loss, it sets us up for regrets and blame — for getting stuck in all the should haves, would haves, could haves; for finding a doctor, a person, or higher power to blame; or for asking “why me?” as we try to make sense of the loss when most of the time it’s senseless. It’s an uncontrollable outcome of life.

Once we accept that somethings just are, that there are no choices to make, no winners or losers, and that life will unfold in a meaningful way despite the meaningless nature of such tragedies — it takes away the element of fear.


Now, I think it’s important to point out that I never would have considered this perspective or written these words before Ian died. But, the experience of his death and the grief that has followed has taught me how to surrender. To let go of control. To stop fighting and accept the gifts and challenges that each day brings me. I’m still learning, but this mindset is honestly my survival mechanism for navigating life without him. (I even dedicate an entire module on Surrender in my new moveTHRU Grief course — it’s that powerful!)

So if you are facing a terminal diagnosis, supporting someone who is, or have lost someone and are wallowing in the darkest depths of grief asking yourself what just happened to my life? — please remember that your fear is valid!

My advice is to lean into your fear — FEEL IT! My safe place for experiencing emotions is through movement — yoga, hiking, or jumping on a spin bike.

Then once you’ve felt it, challenge it. Ask yourself:

  • What are you truly afraid of?
  • What is the threat?
  • Is the threat real or perceived? (It can be a combination of both!)
  • How much control do I have over this threat?
  • And most importantly, is this fear potentially limiting me from experiencing life fully?

Fear isn’t about avoiding death. It’s is about missing out on life.


Thank you to my late husband Ian who inspired me to live fearlessly even though there are days I’m scared shitless of my new life without him, and to his mom Leslie who sent me David Kessler’s book Finding Meaning – The Sixth Stage of Grief. It’s helping me make sense of the senseless.

Bereaved on my Child’s Birthday

We celebrated my daughter Isabelle’s fifth birthday last week. I thought I felt much better than I did last year — happy and excited for the festivities, as opposed to our first year without Ian when I wanted nothing to do with celebrations of any kind. In my conscious mind I felt joy and pride over my first-born turning five!

But coming off of my “party high” this week, I’ve felt all the pain just below the surface. And amidst the glee of the celebrations, I now realize that my body was telling me this all along. I felt sensations of irritability, tenseness and at times almost suffocation— yet I pushed these feelings aside to have a good time.

Izzy is part Ian. Her mere biology connects me to him. And while I expected to be and truly felt happy at my daughter’s birthday, how could I also not expect and feel the grief of Ian’s absence?

The truth that I continue to embrace is that we can feel BOTH.

It’s learning how to cope and make space for all of the emotions and feelings coming up at once, and figuring out how to allow people to support me when they do.

Izzy had a wonderful birthday this year! She missed daddy like she always does, but her focus was mainly on what party dress to wear, her sparkly tiara, all of her new toys, her Frozen Elsa cake, and the friends and family who surrounded all of us.

Just like last year, I wrote Izzy a letter so that she has the gift of this snapshot in time in her life. Read last year’s letter here.

And as much as these birthday letters are gifts intended for my children, they are also gifts for me. I feel more grounded, more grateful and more amazed at how much I can learn from these tiny human beings every time I write one.

If you choose to read my letter below, I hope you find a gift in it too!

September 18, 2020 (the year the world ended — I’ll explain to you later … )

Dear Izzy,

Happy Birthday! As of September 18, 2020 (not to be confused with December as you’ve been saying until recently) you are officially FIVE YEARS OLD! I could not be more proud and grateful to have such a kind, intelligent, independent, creative and FUN daughter.

Right now, your main interests are unicorns, Frozen, swimming, playing with your stuffed animals (especially your puppy who has a new name every day like “Watermelon-Lemon or Strawberry-Snowflake”), singing songs you’re learning in school, and coloring. You are an amazing artist! I love watching you color away, noting the beautiful hues of each unique crayon and smiling just enough to give way to the subtle dimple on your left cheek.

You are a special girl Izzy! Not only are you strong from eating so much broccoli, but you’re brave and courageous. We agree that it’s scary to try new things like playing soccer, but you take risks! I noticed this on your first day of Kindergarten when you said good-bye to me with no tears or fuss, and walked strait to the line outside your classroom. You seemed so grown up patiently waiting all by yourself, not knowing any other students or teachers. I was the one crying! And I’m all grown up!

You are also very inquisitive. Just like daddy, you listen with genuine concern, you pick up on subtle details and ask great questions! Remember Izzy — there is no such thing as too many questions (and if I tell you to stop asking it’s just because I’m exhausted). But seriously — keep asking! Keep discovering the WHY — more importantly keep discovering YOUR why.

Tutu calls you a “can-do” kid! And she’s absolutely right. You are game for just about anything and are always anticipating our next adventure — from outrunning rattlesnakes on hikes in the foothills, splashing in the river rapids, visiting the zoo or dinosaur bones at the museum, or simply playing at our favorite park — you know how to be spontaneous and fun.

Sometimes when we are out, we see other families with two parents, or things that remind you of daddy and you have questions. When we were at Chipotle (one of your favorite restaurants) you saw a man standing in Broncos gear and started to tell him about how daddy died. He didn’t respond back and you asked me why. I answered by telling you that people don’t like to talk about death because it makes them sad and uncomfortable. You seemed confused. So I stooped down and looked at you square in the eyes and said:

It’s ok to talk about daddy.

It’s ok to talk about death.

This is your story and I hope that you own it and live it no matter what.

A few days later when we were at the park, you told a little girl your story. You told her that you didn’t have a daddy. She asked you why?

You looked at me with your big brown eyes almost seeking permission to answer her. I nodded; and the two of you proceeded to have an open, honest, raw conversation about cancer and death — topics most “grown-ups” won’t touch.


Izzy, we are not an ordinary Ohana. We are EXTRAordinary! You, me and Theo are a team and we have people like Jamma and Jampa, our babysitter Hailey, mom’s best friend Taylor who’s part of our “crew”, and tons of aunties and uncles from all over the world (even Australia and Canada) who love and support us.

You still ask me when we are going to get a new daddy and if our new daddy will die. These are tough questions — neither of which I can answer with certainty. So I do my best to explain that most people live until they are very old, but that sometimes we aren’t that lucky. Sometimes people get sick, they have accidents, they die much earlier than we would like them to, and there is nothing that you or me can do about it but be grateful for the time that we have here together. .

This is a hard fact to learn and accept — and you see me cry and lose my temper trying to do so. But you are learning that it’s ok to be sad and angry when we are hurt. You’re learning that in order to feel better, it’s ok to take some alone time, to simply “be”, or do something that feeds your soul — like coloring, listening to music, or playing with your stuffed animals and dolls. For me, this is working out!

There are nights where you still ask me to light a candle for daddy, so we strike a match and sit down on the floor beside your window and look out into the starry night sky. We both make wishes involving daddy, but sometimes you wish for things like being able to fly through clouds and see the rainbows like the unicorns! I tell you that daddy is definitely smiling at your request.

And therein lies the lesson that you teach me daily my sweet Isabelle. It’s that among all of the tears, the shouting into pillows and the longing for our daddy to be here with us, that we can still seek rainbows and unicorns. We can still find magic in whatever devastation life throws our way.

Thank you for helping me believe and see the magic, Izzy.

I love you to the moon, the stars, up to daddy, and back!

Ugga Mugga

– Mom

Back-to-School Tips for Widowed Moms

The first day of school looked different for us and likely the rest of the world this year. Izzy sat beside me tuning into virtual classrooms all morning long. I guided her along while Theo and our babysitter played outside, and tried my best to tackle my never ending to-do list during “snack time” and “recess”.

It was messy. It was hard. It was far from what I would have envisioned her first day of Kindergarten to look like. But we made it work.

Izzy finished her first day of virtual learning saying, “mommy, I love school!”

And while her words warmed my heart, the narrative that played out in my mind was more like, “I can’t do this!”


As a widow, any ounce of freedom from my children requires someone else stepping in. My husband, their father — the person who assumed half of the household, parenting, and financial responsibilities — is no longer around.

I often feel like half of a person left with double the work!

Whether it’s sneaking away to run errands; finding one hour to pay bills, fill out paperwork, manage various household items; to focus on getting moveTHRU up and running; to exercise; to just sit in silence for a few hours — I need someone else to watch the kids! So, I rely on family and friends to step in, or I hire help.

But sometimes it feels like I’m gone a lot, and when this happens the mom guilt hits me hard.

  • Is getting in a workout in really necessary?
  • Is making time for myself to work, heal, go on a hike, read, and just be alone too much to ask when my kids need me too?
  • Am I being selfish?
  • I mean, I lost my husband, but they lost their dad. They don’t have anyone else! I am literally their world!

The thoughts continue to circulate, feeding my anxiety and leaving me paralyzed, powerless, and then just really sad.


When school finished yesterday, I literally sat at my desk frozen — the apprehension of the this uncertain, new reality taking over me. School was going to be my kids safe haven. School felt NORMAL. It was a place I could leave my kids — free of mom-guilt — where they could run around, play and learn, like NORMAL children with living fathers do. To have this one constant — another shred of normalcy taken away from us — just plain sucks.

But it is what it is. So, what is a young widow and single-parent of two young children to do ?


After some tears, an aggressive workout, and lots of venting, I’m realizing that navigating the school-year is going to be a lot like navigating my new normal after losing Ian — it’s going to require a lot of SURRENDER and GRACE.

Now, I know I’m not the only widow or single-parent struggling to balance it all, so let’s break this down.

SURRENDER

I talked about surrender in my last post on dating as a widow — but, to recap — it’s the idea of letting go of preconceived ideas about how our life “should” be and instead, allowing each day to unfold. In terms of school, it’s recognizing that even though I have both kids enrolled in “in-person” learning, there will be times that they have to be at home (with me) learning from their computer — for reasons that are beyond my control (ie. a global pandemic!)

Surrender helps us define what is within our control — and more importantly — what is not. There are certain events in life that we cannot change. They are what they are. And once we accept this fact, we are able to see what we can control to move forward.

School might stay open, but it will likely close at some point. Either way, it’s out of my control! So I’m trying to shift my focus to what I can control:

  • My childcare needs
  • My teaching schedule
  • My work load
  • My “free” time for friends, significant others and myself
  • My mindset, expectations and how I prioritize my time

This is where grace comes into play.

GRACE

Giving grace is being kind enough to ourselves to recognize that we can’t do it all. I repeat – WE CAN’T DO IT ALL! (I’m still repeating this because I struggle with this concept! )

It’s acknowledging that we are going through a lot (whether you’ve lost someone or not because we are all struggling with something) AND giving ourselves permission to go through it in whatever way works for us. This means letting go of judgments, of expectations, of the “shoulds” in order to get it all done.

For me, this meant realizing that I can’t pull-off a pre-launch for my moveTHRU course next week; I can’t teach more spin and barre classes outside of school hours; and that I can’t talk one-on-one to every person who reaches out to me on social media for advice. It’s not that I don’t want to — it’s just not possible given the constraints of my reality.

Yet on the flip side, I also realize that if I don’t give myself the time I need to fill my cup — to do work that fulfills my purpose; to lead killer spin classes the set my soul on fire; to exercise in order to move through my emotions and feelings; and to find peace to heal — then I become angry, bitter and resentful about my world, and even worse…my kids.

There is just one of me.

There are two of them.

We both have needs and desires that must be met.

These are facts. I cannot change this.

So I’m waving my flag in surrender and giving myself grace to focus on managing the variables that are within my control, in hopes to create the best cased scenario for everyone.

I want DO it all and BE all, but I’m letting go — little by little — to create enough space to just think about all of these moving pieces and figure out which ones to prioritize, to let go of, and to pursue.

And so the journey continues…


For anyone reading this who is in a similar situation, I SEE YOU. I FEEL YOU. This is really effing hard! But you are doing great!

Trust that whatever you are doing, whatever you are feeling is just right for YOU. There is no right or wrong way to do this! (I’ll take my own advice here too).

And if you have any suggestions on how to mange it all without losing your mind, drop them in the comments below!

xx,

Emily