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10 meaningful sympathy gift ideas for widows and families

Posted by | creativity, death, family life, grief, kids, Stories | 2 Comments

I am a gift giver. The challenge of finding just the right gift for someone brings me great delight. In the past few years, I’ve had many people ask me what kinds of gifts to give to a widow or family who has experienced loss. This is often the hardest kind of gift to find.

After my husband died, we received many practical and personal gifts that my girls and I still treasure. I remember our life group bought heart-shaped lockets for each of my daughters with their daddy’s picture inside. They gave them these sweet necklaces at his graveside service, and the girls felt so special.

I’ve compiled a list of gift ideas you might consider for a friend or family member after a death. Many of these can be ordered online or purchased in local stores, depending on what you have time for. Let me encourage you that taking time to write a short, personal note goes a long way. And let’s never underestimate the gift of presence. Sitting with someone who is grieving is a sacred and purposeful gift.

  1. Gift cards – I wanted to start here because it’s a very practical and helpful way to bless someone after loss. Gift cards are also easy to mail. I received gifts cards for grocery stores, local restaurants, car washes, coffee shops and bookstores. These came in handy when I was tired or wanted to do something special with my girls. Be creative. You might also purchase a gift card for a cleaning service, a massage or spa day, or a favorite clothing store.
  2. Coloring booksStudies have shown that coloring is very therapeutic when dealing with stress, grief and anxiety. One of my favorite new coloring books is Picturing Heaven, which includes 40 hope-filled devotions by Randy Alcorn with beautiful coloring pages. There are other adult coloring books with scripture to meditate on while you relax. I suggest including a box of fancy colored pencils to complete the gift.
  3. Shirt pillows – One friend took some of my husband’s favorite button-down shirts and made pillows for my girls. We call these their Daddy Pillows. The girls still sleep with these at night and take them on trips. If you’re crafty, you can sew these yourself using this tutorial or have them made through an Etsy shop like this one.
  4. Devotionals – My husband’s favorite devotional through the years was Streams in the Desert. We read this one many times throughout our marriage and it was especially meaningful in his final days of life. Each devotional compiled by L.B.E. Cowman urges readers to persevere with faith through the hard trials of life. I gifted copies of this devotional to everyone in my family and many close friends after my husband’s death. They even have devotional for kids that I went through with my daughters. Devotionals are meaningful gifts that can provide daily encouragement for the grieving.
  5. Memorial Christmas ornaments – One of my widow friends shared that one of the favorite gifts she received was a memorial ornament. There’s a whole variety of these Christmas ornaments. Some like this one include pictures while others offer a simple remembrance. Our first Christmas without my husband was hard. Ornaments are a good way to reach out to someone and help remember their loss during the holidays.
  6. Memory box with letters – My husband was a teacher and coach for many years. The kids and teachers from the school where he taught put together a collection of letters for our family. These letters included words of encouragement and stories of how Ericlee had influenced their lives. Those letters are timeless treasures because they remind us of my husband’s legacy.
  7. Remembrance candle – I’m part of a young widows group here in my city. Our leader gifted each one of us a special candle to light and remember our husbands. We light a candle at Christmas and on key anniversaries to be reminded of the light my husband brought to our family and community. Here’s a whimsical version I loved.
  8. Books about grief and hope – After my husband’s death, I was hungry to read encouraging words. I longed for answers to some of my questions about suffering and heaven. There are many books on the market that reach out to the grieving. My top 5 include: Why? by Anne Graham Lotz; A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser; Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller; Finding Faith in the Dark by Laurie Short; Heaven by Randy Alcorn
  9. Personalized jewelry – I recently heard about these pieces of jewelry that takes a person’s actual handwriting and makes it into a unique bracelet or necklace. I loved this idea, especially for remembering people like my grandma who always wrote beautiful cards to our family. Check out this example of personalized handwriting jewelry.
  10. Memberships – One of the most thoughtful gifts we received was a membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My daughters were 2, 5 and 8 when their dad died. All three of them love sea creatures. This gift gave us the opportunity to make new memories together. For someone who has children, you might consider a membership to a local zoo, trampoline place, ice skating rink, museum, etc. Adults might enjoy a pass to a ski resort, botanical garden or art class.

I hope this list will provide some specific ideas for gifts as well as spark your creativity in ways to bless someone after loss. What are some unique gifts you might suggest?

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“?

I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!

*The above article does include Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase through these links, the author does gain a small percentage at no additional cost the buyer, which will be used to help maintain this blog.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Italian Easter Bread: Anticipating the resurrection

Posted by | cooking, death, family life, kids, Recipes | No Comments

When I was a little girl, I used to love to go to my Grandma Sara’s house for Easter. When you walked in her kitchen anytime during Holy Week, you were greeted by the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread. Grandma would make a little braided loaf for each of us kids.

Yep, that’s right. A personal loaf for each of us. The best part was I didn’t have to share with my little brother.

I can still remember sinking my teeth into that sweet, billowy bread. It was one of the few times we were allowed dessert before dinner. Of course, Easter bread really wasn’t dessert, but it sure tasted like it when it was warmed and slathered with butter. (Excuse me, while I wipe away this drool.)

Making bread by hand requires patience through the process. There’s the mixing of the ingredients, the adding of the yeast, the proofing the yeast, the kneading, the rising and sometimes rising again, and finally the baking. Each step of the process is unique, depending on the kind of bread you are making.

I have been reflecting a lot on this verse in John 6:35 where Jesus talks about how He nourishes us:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus feeds us physically, spiritually and emotionally. I have been challenged in this season to really look to Him for provision in my life instead of striving and depending on my own efforts. Those always fall short.

Just a few years ago, I found my Italian grandma’s recipe for Easter bread. I decided to try to make it on my own. The loaf multiplied. It almost tripled in size during the rising process. I was reminded that Grandma didn’t make anything in small quantities.

My mom and I put our heads together and realized that this recipe was probably the one she used for the loaves for all the grandkids plus a few big loaves for Sunday supper. Grandma’s food always multiplied to feed many. I can imagine her in Heaven today kneading loaves of bread and mixing up Italian sauces for a host of friends and angels.

Italian Easter Bread Recipe

Ingredients:

-9 1/2 cups bread flour

-5 eggs, beaten

-1 tablespoon sea salt

-1 1/2 cup sugar

-1/2 cup butter, melted

-1 1/2 cups whole milk, warm

-1 teaspoon vanilla

-2 tablespoons + 3/4 teaspoon yeast

-3/4 cup water

Directions:

  1. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Transfer milk to a measuring cup; stir in 1 tablespoon sugar.
  3. Sprinkle yeast over milk and whisk to blend. Let sit until yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add eggs; whisk until smooth.
  5. Combine remaining sugar, flour, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  6. Add milk mixture and vanilla. With mixer running, add room-temperature butter. (Reserve some for brushing over the bread at the end.)
  7. Add 3/4 water as dough and begin mixing for 1 minute until dough comes together.
  8. Knead on medium-high speed until dough is silky, about 5 minutes.
  9. Brush a medium bowl with some melted butter; place dough in bowl. Brush top of dough with remaining melted butter; cover with plastic wrap.
  10. Let dough rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, 1–1 1/2 hours (or 2–2 1/2 hours if dough has been refrigerated).
  11. Divide into four balls of dough. Then divide each ball into three sections and roll gently into thin logs.
  12. Pinch three logs together at one end and braid. Tuck ends under loaf. Let rest for 30 min.
  13. Bake at 375 degrees for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown.

How “This Is Us” gives America permission to grieve

Posted by | brave, community, compassion, courage, death, family life, grief, identity, kids, relationships, Stories, struggle | No Comments

Do you watch the show "This Is Us"? Here's why I think that show is helping all of us navigate our grief narrative. // www.dorinagilmore.com

**Spoiler Alert: If you’re not caught up on your viewing of “This Is Us,” this article contains some references to scenes and details from Season Two. If that’s not going to kill you, read on. 😉

 

My friends will all tell you I am not a TV girl. I usually have a low tolerance for predictable series TV, a weak stomach for anything violent and a short attention span for sitcoms. I even hide my eyes during most of the commercials these days. If anything, we watch the food channels and the Olympics in our house.

Then I discovered “This Is Us.”

I saw a clip of the NBC network TV show on Facebook one day, and I was intrigued. I learned the show delved into some themes that touch my heart and life: grief, adoption, foster care, cancer, addiction, race and body image, to name a few. I got a two-week trial of Hulu and watched the entire first season in a few days.  I couldn’t stop.

Now I have a standing Tuesday night date on the big couch in our living room with my husband Shawn. We laugh, we cry and we find ourselves venturing into deep discussions. Part of the reason this show has captivated us (and perhaps the rest of the country) is the way they continue to navigate the grief narrative. “This Is Us” has given America permission to grieve.

Whether displayed in a gallery, illuminated on a stage or unpacked on a screen, art opens our hearts to feel deeply. We experience grief, joy, anger, frustration, wonder, sympathy and more when we engage in the stories of others. “This Is Us” artfully invites us into a tangled web of stories that resonate and make us feel like they are talking about us.

In her book Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle articulates this idea: “In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.”

I remember going to the movies just a few weeks after my husband’s death. A handful of my closest friends took me to see “One Hundred Foot Journey.” I bawled my eyes out.

It’s not a particularly sad movie, but I cried because I was reminded of my own broken love story. It stirred up memories for me of all the dates I had with my late husband to eat Indian food. I felt deeply the tensions between cultures and lifestyles. When the main character experienced loss, I found myself meditating on my own losses. The movie gave me unexpected space and permission to grieve.

“This is Us” is doing the same thing for many Americans today. Our people are dying of cancer. Children are being abused. Friends are parting ways. Spouses are navigating miscarriage. Women are struggling with eating disorders. Young people are facing increasing fear and anxiety because of the swirling chaos around them. Relationships are complicated and nuanced. We are all grieving something – whether it’s the literal loss of a father or the figurative loss of a dream. This show is helping us lean into these losses.

I can particularly relate to Rebecca (played by Mandy Moore), who is widowed and finds herself raising three children on her own. She later marries her late husband’s best friend. Her circumstances feel reminiscent of mine. My husband died from cancer in 2014, and I immediately found myself raising three young daughters as a solo parent. By God’s wild grace, I, too, married one of my husband’s best friends and began a new life with my girls. We are traversing a similar journey of trying to honor my late husband’s legacy and trying to create a new life with new dreams.

Do you watch the show "This Is Us"? Here's why I think that show is helping all of us navigate our grief narrative. // www.dorinagilmore.com

We watch Rebecca draw up great strength and courage after the death of her husband so she can help her three teenage children navigate their grief. At times, she pushes down her own needs and grief to tend to her family.

We see her son, Kevin (played by Justin Hartley), turn to alcohol and prescription drugs to cope with his father’s death. We witness his twin sister Kate (played by Chrissy Metz) struggling with food as she grows up. We learned in Season Two that this is partly a mask for her extreme guilt over the circumstances of her father’s death.

We also glimpse the grief of the adopted son Randall (played by Golden-Globe award-winning Sterling K. Brown). The legacy of his father (played by Milo Ventimiglia) is present with him as he matures and becomes a husband and father himself. Also in the show, Randall grapples with the cancer journey of his biological father (Ron Cephas Jones), who he is united with later in life. Randall faces a mid-life crisis that is very much informed by his grief over losing both father figures.

I appreciate that “This Is Us” presents grief in an emotionally authentic way. Viewers get a window into the ways many different characters navigate grief. Their loss affects them in different seasons of life in different ways. I remember my friend, who is a grief counselor, telling our young widows group that grief is like a ball of tangled yarn. It’s not a five-stage process that is linear. It’s not a race with a finish line; it’s a life-long journey with twists and turns and steep parts to the path.

She warned us that grief will affect our children differently in different seasons of life. As I listen to the stories of my friends who are widows and walk out my own journey, I know this to be true.

One thing that is missing from the “This Is Us” grief narrative is the element of faith. I know my own faith in a God who comforts has been the key to navigating grief and tragedy in my life. I find myself wondering what Rebecca’s narrative would look like if she turned to a faith that was more than just a faith in herself.

Do you watch the show "This Is Us"? Here's why I think that show is helping all of us navigate our grief narrative. // www.dorinagilmore.com

I’m grateful for shows like “This Is Us” helping give those who have endured loss permission to grieve. This show also helps normalize conversations around grief. We all could offer up more comfort and be more present with each other if we would just begin the conversation about grief.

As Kate says in Season 2, Episode 3, “There is a difference between wallowing and actually having a normal conversation about [grief]. There is. You know what? When I went to my weight loss camp and I saw a therapist and she asked me about dad’s death, and I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t talk about it. And you know what she told me? She told me that if I don’t learn to face my grief, that it would be like taking in a deep breath and holding that breath for the rest of my life.”

**Photos by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

 

Are you navigating a grief journey? I would love more opportunities to encourage you on a regular basis and share articles I write for friends who are grieving. Join my Glory Chasers tribe here.

This resource guide includes 5 tips for Grieving with Kids and suggestions of books, activities, movies and more to share with little ones to start conversations about grief.

*I have developed a FREE download for people navigating grief with kids. This includes tips and resources like book titles, movies and other creative projects that have proved useful with my own girls. Opt in here and I’ll slip it gently into your inbox!

**I offer coaching sessions for parents who are helping their kids navigate grief. Interested in some one-on-one help? Message me here.

{A blog series} All Things New: Letting Dreams Die, Cultivating New Ones

Posted by | death, family life, grief, hope, kids, Stories, struggle, transitions | 3 Comments

The following is part of a blog series called “All Things New: Learning to Flourish After Loss.” I am sharing this month about my journey learning to flourish after my husband’s death in 2014. Be sure to check out some of the other posts in the series, including a few by guest writers.

Whenever I ride in a car with my dad, he hooks up his trusty GPS. He doesn’t use his smartphone. He uses one of the old school GPS gadgets that talks to you. In that signature nasal voice, the GPS lady tells us where and when to turn. She directs us to stay in a specific lane on the freeway. Every once in a while, Dad will make a wrong turn or take a different route. The GPS lady promptly starts repeating, “Recalculating, recalculating, recalculating….” until she adjusts and finds a new route to send us on.

The beginning of the year is a time when we all naturally start to recalculate. We choose what to say no to and what to commit to in a new season. We adjust our compasses with new goals in mind. We establish new rhythms in our homes and our hearts.

After my husband died from cancer in 2014, I entered an intense season of recalculating. Suddenly, I found myself navigating a host of new responsibilities and searching for a new normal. My family had to adjust to a new existence without my husband, whose gregarious personality and encouraging voice was a strong presence in our community.

On a daily basis, I was suddenly in charge of tasks I had depended on my husband for, like taking out the trash, doing all the dishes, getting the oil changed on the cars, and locking up the doors at night. I had to manage all the finances, which required wading through piles of medical bills, pursuing insurance claims and setting up social security accounts. Each task felt hard and heavy.

Not only had I lost my soulmate and best friend, but I also was without my partner in parenting. As the solo parent, I had to attend the school parent conferences on my own, get the kids to all their extra-curricular activities and make the final decisions about discipline. I had to find rhythms for our bedtime routine with three daughters who desperately wanted my individual attention. I was one exhausted mama trying to navigate the grief journey for all of us.

Letting dreams die

However, the hardest work I had to face was not completing all these new tasks. The hardest work happened deep in my heart as I was forced to adjust my hopes and dreams. When a loss occurs in a person’s life, it requires recalculating. We must discover a new path and sometimes even find a new destination. In some cases, we have to let our dreams die to make space for new ones to grow.

I made the hard decision to step down from my role helping direct a non-profit my husband and I had started in Haiti. I was also the director of a social goods business that provided jobs for women making jewelry in Haiti. I stepped away from this calling so I could focus on my daughters and our grief.

I am grateful for the friends and leaders who stepped up to fill my husband and my roles. Although I felt sure I was making the right decision, the greatest loss was the close-knit relationships. I would not see my friends in Haiti as much. The volunteers and interns I trained here in the U.S. were no longer under my care. It was painful to say goodbye to the things I had built with my husband and the dreams we had cultivated together.

Ann Voskamp writes in her book The Broken Way: “There is no growth without change, no change without surrender, no surrender without wound – no abundance without breaking. Wounds are what break open the soul to plant the seeds of deeper growth.”

Although I was broken, I believed God could nourish my family and do a new thing in me as He promised in Isaiah 43:18-19. I just didn’t know exactly what it would look like.

Tuning my heart

When I was younger, I used to play piano. The piano is one of those instruments that needs to be tuned periodically. I remember watching (or rather listening) to a man tune our piano one time. He used a lever or “hammer” to turn the tuning pins inside the piano, which increases or decreases the tension of the strings.

A good piano tuning is two things: accurate (in tune) and stable (stays in tune).

After my husband’s death, I started to pray for God to tune my heart to the new plans He had for the girls and me. I surrendered to the Master Tuner and let Him lead me in an accurate direction. He was the only one who could provide stability for my heart without my husband.

In the darkness of grief, I reached out for God. Each morning I woke up before my children and poured over His Word on the big red couch in our front room. I felt like I needed these words to breathe. I prayed for God to give me strength and manna just for that day, to help me hear the new song He was composing just for me.

Some days I stumbled over the notes. Other days I started to hear a few measures of music, and I found myself humming a tune. This was the work He was doing to tune me on the inside. God grew courage and faith in me in that season of waiting and dependence.

Cultivating new dreams

From that red couch in our front room, I had a view of the Japanese maple tree in the front yard. I watched as the leaves turned into a slow waltz of reds, greens and golds. The leaves floated to the ground and frost covered the trunk. Some days fog swirled in. Then one surprising day tiny green shoots appeared on the branches. New leaves, new life emerged and covered the tree.

God began to reveal new dreams to me. After a process of grieving the decision to leave Haiti, God began to open my eyes and heart to Fresno and the Central San Joaquin Valley as my home. I started receiving invitations to share my story around the valley. I was invited to speak at a women’s retreat for another church in northern California.

I started a project writing my story as a Bible study in hopes of encouraging others. I began a picture book project for younger kids to help them journey through grief – something I hadn’t really found for my own girls.

God was cultivating in me a new sense of purpose. I found myself following dreams of publishing and speaking, buying a new house and traveling more. I watched my girls gain new confidence and courage at school. Our story began to feel less like a book with a tragic ending and more like a work-in-progress about overcoming. He was, indeed, making all things new.

In Revelation 21, there is a vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth that I often cling to when I’m dreaming about the future. It says this:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

I want to challenge you with two questions I have often asked myself:

Are you allowing God to help you recalibrate your heart after loss? Are you giving Him permission to tune your heart to new dreams?

No matter what tragedy you have endured, no matter the difficult path before you, He is in the process of making all things new.

**This post is part of a January series called “All Things New.” Check out the other stories in the series and my new Bible study, Flourishing Together:

All Things New: Learning to Flourish After Loss” – an introduction to the series by Dorina Lazo Gilmore, including why she chose “All Things New”

All Things New: My New Normal” – a guest post by Danell teNyenhuis about finding a new life with her daughters after her husband’s tragic death

All Things New: Life Beyond the Hospital Doors” – a guest post by Danielle Comer about life for a young widow after her husband died of cancer

Flourishing Together is a new 6-week Bible study just released on Amazon. If you are interested in delving deeper into this topic of how God grows beautiful things out of the ashes and dirt of our life, please check out the study:

**black and white version

*full-color version

*Featured photo by Caleb Whiting on Unsplash

Book Review: Daring to Hope

Posted by | behold, book reviews, brave, compassion, courage, death, grief, kids, serve, sharing faith, social justice, world travel | No Comments

I still remember reading Katie’s Davis’ first book Kisses From Katie. I was sitting under a mosquito net in the stifling heat of a Haiti summer. My husband and I were operating a non-profit at the time. We had three daughters chasing each other through the mission house and a host of Haitian children playing in the yard. Reading about Katie’s life raising a dozen adopted girls in Uganda and starting a non-profit as a single woman, gave me just the spoonful of brave I needed to wade through the hard stuff.

Her words were my lifeline, my inspiration, my challenge to keep on keeping on. That was four years ago. Almost a different lifetime ago for both Katie and me.

The other day a friend texted me. “You have to read Daring to Hope by Katie Davis. I can’t put it down, reminds me of you.”

I went straight to Amazon and ordered it. I knew I needed her words again.

The book asks this critical question: How do you hold on to hope when you don’t get the ending you asked for?

This is a question I’ve asked myself dozens upon dozens of times in the last three years since my husband graduated to heaven. Katie is a hope writer like me. She is always chasing hope, always looking for God’s glory in unexpected places.

Although Daring to Hope could be considered a sequel to her first book, this book also stands alone. It’s a book about holding on to hope when you’re bone-weary and broken. Katie’s poignant storytelling and vulnerable sharing invites readers in. She grapples with the death of a friend, the sickness of many in her community, the suffering of her children. She walks a tightrope across life and death and still manages to embrace the extraordinary in the ordinary. She returns again and again to God’s Word and her purpose to give Him glory.

“Slowly, I was beginning to understand that it wasn’t my productivity that God desired; it was my heart,” writes Katie. “It wasn’t my ministry God loved; it was me. God was glorified, isglorified when we give Him our hearts, give Him ourselves, and faithfully do the thing right in front of us, no matter how small or trivial.”

That’s a big statement coming from a woman who experienced a lot of large things in her young life. She had a large family and directed a large ministry called Amazima. She led a large team of staff and volunteers to serve more than a thousand families.

This book reminded me that grief always gives way to the joy, that death always holds a promise of new life. I love the way Katie unfolds her love story, which again is a story brimming with hope.

Katie’s version of hope is never cheesy or far-fetched. It’s gritty, and sometimes a little bloody, and always redemptive. As she so beautifully sums up, her “scars whisper of His glory.”

**Thank you for reading today! If you’re interested in more of my book reviews, click HERE. I always share about books that touch me deeply and help me wade through grief to His glory.

Guest post: Grief and the Holidays: How to survive when you don’t feel like celebrating

Posted by | christmas, community, compassion, death, family life, grief, Guest blogger, kids, Stories, struggle, transitions | 2 Comments

The following is a guest post from my friend and grief counselor, Patty Behrens. Her insight and encouragement has carried me these last three years since my husband’s death. I love the way she reaches out to people navigating loss,  especially young widows. She facilitates a young widows group I have been a part of called Gals in Growth (GIG) that meets monthly in Fresno.

________________________________________________________________________________

“The ‘Merry’ in Christmas and the ‘Happy’ in New Year just doesn’t seem to fit this year.”

Those words were the first line of my very short Christmas letter to family and friends 5 months after my husband died suddenly on a family vacation. I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I wanted to push the fast forward button to skip over the holidays and wake up in January. That was not going to be possible with three children anxiously awaiting the upcoming festivities of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Can you relate?

Our family of five loved the holidays with all the festivities and traditions of picking out a Christmas tree at a local tree farm. We’d run through the mass of trees hiding and chasing each other on our search for the “perfect” tree. Of course, my hubby was the one to cut the tree, get it secured on the car and bring it into the house for decorating. How was it possible to get through that tradition, not to mention the multiple others?

There was decorating the tree with each of our bags of special ornaments while Christmas music played in the background or lighting an Advent candle with a special dessert each week, delivering gifts and food to a needy family, having my in-laws over Christmas Eve for traditional homemade German food and my husband reading the Christmas story while the kids played the various parts, and eating our special homemade raspberry almond coffee cake with a candle lit as we sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

It was impossible to replicate any of these traditions because “he” was a vital part of all of them all.

We did survive although we certainly did not thrive that first holiday season. I tried the best I could to make things good for my precious children. But, I had to do some things differently. My sensitive daughter wanted to hang on to every tradition as I simply explained, “This year I can’t.”

We let some of those traditions go and others we tweaked a bit to ease the pain. We invited close family friends over for Christmas Eve along with my in-laws for our traditional German meal. That evening we spent the night at my sister’s home despite protests from my daughter. I could not bare the pain of waking up that Christmas morning without him.

I wish I could say that was a smart move; however, it brought some pain of its own. It was too different as we stepped into their traditions, which were far from our own. Christmas dinner at my mom’s house brought more distress as both my dad (who had died a year earlier) along with my hubby were missing. There was no mention of either of them. It was the classic “elephant in the room” scenario.

Back at our house, we reclaimed the day as each child lit a candle in memory of their dad. We snuggled on the couch to watch home videos of him. The memories came bursting forth with laughter and joyous comments as the videos played. We survived our first Christmas.

Our second Christmas was much better as I intentionally made some changes. We chose as a family which traditions and activities were important while other ones were let go. We still invited a family over for Christmas Eve, which started a new tradition for us.

We decided to stay home for Christmas morning to do our thing. We brought the “elephant” out of the room as we played home videos at my mom’s house which opened the door to laughter and precious stories of our loved ones. They were remembered.

Through this grief journey, God has taught me numerous, valuable lessons and even gave me a ministry of helping other widows in ways I had struggled. Care Connections was birthed in April of 2002 and continues today. We have monthly work days where workers do home projects at widows’ homes, including putting up Christmas lights, decorations and trees if needed, along with other home needs throughout the year.

My favorite work day of the year is December as families, singles and people of all ages gather to deliver over 150 gifts to widows and their children letting them know we care and are thinking about them. It’s a tradition for my family. There are also home projects being completed with several of them being Christmas related.

The work days provide monthly opportunities to connect with other families. Through the years, my children had male role models who taught them how to do various home tasks and operate power tools, (Yes, my son learned how to operate a chain saw!) At Care Connections, we all learn to serve others in need.

This year, why not join us? If you live in Fresno/Clovis, I invite you to come with your children or by yourself to Care Connections on December 2 as we once again deliver gifts to widows for a few hours in the morning. We meet at the back of the Bridge Church parking lot at 3438 E. Ashlan Avenue in Fresno at 8:30 am where you can join a work crew or a team delivering gifts. We all return for a delicious lunch at noon where stories of the morning are shared. It may not make the holidays pain-free but it will be one of those activities you will remember as being “good” and lifting your mood for that day.

There’s no magical way to fast forward through the holidays or remove the pain, but there are ways to have “moments of joy” where the pain is eased and to help make the holidays a little bit better. Click here for a guide to Survive the Holidays. For more tips on surviving and thriving through the holidays, sign up here to receive weekly encouragement during this holiday season.

Patty Behrens is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Fresno, California with specialties in grief, trauma and anxiety with a passion for helping others through their life struggles. She is founder and director of the Care Connections grief ministry, http://www.careconnectionshelp.com. To contact Patty or receive her more tips for surviving the holidays, go to www.counselingfresno.org

Photo Credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

An Unexpected Feast: When Grief Meets Gratitude

Posted by | community, compassion, cooking, death, family life, flourishing, food stories, friendship, gifts, grief, kids, soup, Stories | No Comments

We dipped into hearty bowls of butternut squash soup garnished with sprigs of fresh parsley. We passed platters of golden roasted turkey, Nana’s green bean casserole, and homemade crescent rolls. My dear friend added a plate of her family’s special Salvadoran pupusas to the mix, while my famous pumpkin tiramisu chilled in the refrigerator for our grand finale.

What mattered that year was not what we were serving up on our plates but what we were serving up in our hearts. There was a deep gratitude that was almost palpable around the table after the grief journey we had endured as a family.

Just the year before, we had navigated our first holiday without my beloved husband. He was diagnosed with stage four cancer that May and soared to heaven in September, leaving our whole family and community reeling. I never imagined this would be my story. I didn’t ever believe the tasks of a widow-mama would be in my wheelhouse.

That first Thanksgiving we all had to recalibrate for we had lost our leader. I missed him helping me chop the celery for the soup. I missed his booming voice saying the blessing. I missed him entertaining the girls and laughing loud during dessert. His absence loomed large at the table. I had to dig deep to pull up the gratitude then. I had to train myself to name the small gifts – breath in my lungs, three brave daughters, sunsets chasing across the sky, and saving grace.

A year later, the landscape of my heart and our family had changed dramatically.

Just like the abundant food on our table, the blessings were abundant too. My fiancé sat to my right. He started the meal with a blessing-prayer, thanking God for our first meal as a family in the new home we just bought. My youngest girl with the golden hair, like her “Daddy with Jesus,” squeezed the hand of her daddy-to-be. She was bubbling with excitement for the wedding in January where she would be the flower girl.

My dear friend from El Salvador, her two sons, her husband, and his two sisters from India joined our table. They, too, had tasted grief that year as their dad had journeyed through cancer. These were friends who had become like family to us during crisis.

We shared tears and prayers. We drew close together in the gratitude.

After we had emptied the bottles of sparkling cider and most of us were pushing back from the table, there was a kind of hush…

To read the rest of this post, click here and join me at (in)courage.

5 Tips on How to Talk to Kids about Death

Posted by | death, family life, grief, kids, parenting, sharing faith, Stories, struggle | One Comment

I got a text from a friend of mine a few months ago. She explained that she was traveling to Texas to be with her grandkids whose other grandma had just died. She asked if I had any advice on how to talk to the kids. That got me thinking about some of the things I’ve learned these last three years as we have navigated my husband’s death from cancer and the deaths of several others in our community.

I want to first acknowledge that every grief journey is unique. It’s important to be attentive to individual needs and personalities. Everything I have learned has come through trial and error with my three daughters who were ages 2, 5 and 8 when their dad died. I sought counsel from friends who have navigated the journey before me and a trusted grief counselor.

Talking to kids about death can be difficult, but we shouldn’t avoid it. Death is a reality of our life. It’s not possible for me to shield my daughters from the daily dance with death and dying. I want to be the one helping them navigate their emotions and questions. I believe normalizing conversations about death has helped give my children permission to share their feelings and grieve in a healthy way.

Here are 5 tips to keep in mind as you navigate the sensitive topic of death with little ones:

  1. Be direct with your language.

It’s tempting to use vague language to explain that someone died, but this can be confusing for little ones. I have learned that being direct and loving is important. If you have experienced a miscarriage or the loss of grandparent, it’s good to say “The baby died” or “Grandma died” in a direct way. My girls had the unique opportunity to be with their daddy when he breathed his last breath. After he died, we all had to navigate how to speak about it to others. I urged them to simply say, “My dad died.” We tried to avoid saying “He passed away” or “We lost him.”

  1. Do something creative to help them share.

Kids may not know how to express their emotions at first. I have found that engaging my girls in something creative often helps open the door for them to share. Some grief counselors even use creative play with very little ones to help them process. My girls attended a support group through Hinds Hospice after their dad died. Some of their activities included art projects. Each girl decorated a picture frame and shared memories about their dad. It’s more natural to share while doing something together.

  1. Give them permission to cry.

Nothing has created a more powerful connection between my daughters and me than crying together. As parents our instinct is to want to hide our tears and hold it together in front of our kids. I believe it’s important to share tears with our kids when someone dies. They witness how important that person was to you. They also have permission to grieve freely. My daughters gained a sense of empathy in this process. They comforted me and each other when the grief was especially heavy. I’ve watched them do this with others now too. 

  1. Engage them in ways to honor the person who died.

Kids need to feel like they are part of the process. Each year I invite them to help me think of creative ways to honor their dad on anniversaries and holidays. For example, every year on his birthday they join me and we invite friends to do a special workout in their dad’s honor. Their dad loved running and fitness so this is a way we can honor him and his legacy. On the day of his Heaveniversary, we also do special things to remember him like taking a picnic to the cemetery and inviting friends over for a dinner party where we tell stories about him.

  1. Check in often.

Conversations about death and processing grief need to be ongoing. My daughters and I all have different things that trigger our sadness or instigate questions. I have learned it’s important to check in with each other often. We take opportunities to talk in the car on the way to school or even on family trips when we are away from our home environment. I try to schedule “date nights” with each of my girls one-on-one at least once a month so I have the space to listen and let them share.

Be encouraged, friend. You might feel inadequate to navigate these difficult conversations but just showing up is key. I always say a little prayer and ask God to give me ears to hear my children’s hearts and the right words to comfort them. This is our opportunity to share our faith with our kids in a deeper way. If we are willing to step into these hard conversations with our kids, however messy and awkward, we may crack open the door for God to bring healing for them and for us.

 

*I have developed a FREE download for people navigating grief with kids. This includes tips and resources like book titles, movies and other creative projects that have proved useful with my own girls. Opt in here and I’ll slip it gently into your inbox!

**I offer coaching sessions for parents who are helping their kids navigate grief. Interested in some one-on-one help? Message me here.

 

Celebrating a Heaveniversary: 10 ways to honor a loved one’s death

Posted by | courage, death, family life, grief, kids, running, Stories, struggle | 5 Comments

It surprises me every year at this time. We are finally settling into a school routine and a fall activity rhythm. I’ve hit my stride with my creative work and the groups I’m leading are kicking off. Then out of nowhere I start to get this slow ache deep in my soul.

Grief sneaks in.

And somehow my body and my soul know before my brain that this was the week. Three years ago, these were the final days when my husband was fighting for his life. My memory skids and careens and bumps over the memories. The call to hospice. The oxygen tank. The way my bedroom was turned into a hospital room. The desperate prayers whispered in the kitchen or the bathroom, in the darkest hours when none of us could sleep.

I prayed a prayer I never believed I could. I begged God to take him, to release him from his pain. I looked into his hazel eyes and told my beloved the girls and I would be ok.

And on September 9, 2014, my beloved husband soared to Heaven.

Such beautiful sweet redemption for him after an intense cancer battle. And unexpected relief for me. I did not have to watch him suffer anymore. I had confidence he was running the streets of gold with a new body in Heaven.

Three years later, my soul still knows. My body still remembers. This Saturday we will celebrate Ericlee’s 3-year Heaveniversary. The girls and I decided last year to name this sacred day his Heaveniversary. I was tired of the awkward phrases like the “day he died” or “death day.” I want this day to be an anniversary when we remember a husband, father, coach and friend, and his amazing legacy. Death was not the end of his story; Heaven is.

Are you longing to celebrate a loved one and their legacy? Do you have a Heaveniversary fast-approaching?

I polled some of my widow friends and asked them how they celebrate their husbands’ Heaveniversaries. The following is a list of creative ideas you might consider to honor your husband, your wife, your mother, your aunt, your friend or others on their Heaveniversary. For us, it has been about discovering meaningful ways to remember each year.

  1. Bring a picnic to the cemetery. It’s a tradition for many families from different cultures to visit the grave site of a loved one on their Heaveniversary. We put a twist on this last year by bringing a picnic. I brought pizza and sandwiches from my husband’s favorite spot. We spread a blanket over the grass. Grandma came to sit with us, and we shared stories about him and other family members who were buried at that cemetery.
  1. Release balloons into the sky and send prayers to Heaven. My friend said she took her three children to the cemetery and they released balloons into the sky in memory of Daddy. There’s something beautiful and sacred about letting go and watching these balloons fly to the heavens.
  1. Take a day to go to the lake or another place your loved one would spend a lot of time. Another friend said she took her daughters to a nearby lake, which was her husband’s favorite place to be. They brought lunch and relaxed together. Sometimes getting away on a trip can be the best way to celebrate.
  1. Visit a favorite restaurant and share memories around the table. We might be tempted to avoid special places during the year, but a Heaveniversary is a perfect day to return to a favorite restaurant or a place you shared your first date. Bring friends or family and share memories around the table.
  1. Look through some of your loved one’s treasures together. We have several boxes in our garage with my husband’s favorite childhood treasures, some of his clothes and cards people sent with special stories about him. A Heaveniversary is an opportune time to get these out and to share them.
  1. Peruse pictures and create an album together. The majority of our pictures are digital now, which means less time to select the best photos and assemble albums. When you take time to peruse pictures and put together a special album, you participate in meaningful remembrance of your loved one.
  1. Gather some friends to watch videos together. One of my daughters’ treasures is their dad’s old iPhone. They found all kinds of silly videos he made of them when they were little or workouts he used to do. Last year, we saved those videos to our laptop and hooked that up to our TV to watch them together. We loved the opportunity to hear his voice and laugh again.
  1. Do something active in honor of your loved one. My husband was an athlete and coach. He loved to get outdoors for a hike or run. One way to celebrate his legacy is to do something active in his honor. You might do this with friends or family. You might even sign up for a race and run in your husband’s honor. The training can be a time for grieving and remembering.
  1. Journal your memories. Sometimes I worry that the best memories of my husband will be forgotten. Carve out some time on this Heaveniversary to write down a few memories of your loved one. They don’t need to be perfect or polished. Writing them down helps you remember and record these memories for family in the future.
  1. Host a Heaveniversary dinner. We started this tradition last year and other widow friends have done the same. We invite some of our treasured friends to our house for a special meal. I intentionally invited some of my husband’s friends who we don’t see as much anymore. After dinner, we gathered in our living room to share stories about my husband. What I thought might be a somber day turned into a true celebration.

One thing I’ve learned these last three years is that I need to be intentional about carving out time and inviting my family into practices of remembrance. I can’t wait for others to stand up and offer their thoughts spontaneously. I need to find courage to lead.

Even three years later, my mind is often triggered by memories of my late husband. He appears in my dreams or I find myself saying something the way he used to say it. These make me pause. The grief never goes away but the path somehow grows easier. A big part of this journey has been taking time to lean in together as a family and remember the man he was, and to continue carrying his values into the future.

This Saturday, we will host another Heaveniversary party to remember my Ericlee. We will laugh, we will cry and we will celebrate.

 

**Interested in reading more about why it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve? Check out this post.

***I would love to send you my FREE guide on Navigating Grief with Kids full or ideas and resources. Opt in here.

 

Featured photo via VisualHunt

Transitions: Leaving space for the grief and the glory

Posted by | back to school, family life, kids, parenting, relationships, rest, schedule, Stories, transitions | No Comments

On Sunday evening, we rolled into town after a glorious day relaxing at the lake with family and friends. This was the grand finale to our 12 weeks of summer fun.

We packed these weeks with Track & Field camp, travel to San Diego and Haiti, sleepovers with Grandma, staying up late if we felt like it, days for lounging and days for chasing adventure in our own city with friends.

My oldest piped up in the back seat. “Mom, I don’t think I have any shorts to wear to school tomorrow.”

Mind you, I started sorting and gathering school clothes several weeks earlier. I tried not to shout. “What?!” I screamed.

“Remember, those ones you ordered don’t fit,” came her response. We both started to panic. “I think I need a shirt too,” said my middle daughter. We redirected the car toward the nearest Target for a late night shopping trip. In a more perfectly-planned world, I would have been putting my three lovelies to bed at that exact moment, but that’s not how we roll.

Let the transition back to school begin.

This time of year always necessitates transitions of many kinds. Whether it’s transitioning to the new school schedule, starting a new leadership position or stepping down from one, jumping into that new sports season or concluding our time with a group, change is inevitable.

The longer I live the more I’m realizing the time we spend transitioning from one thing to the next is not as rare as we would like it to be. We live in transition all the time.

We talk about making smooth transitions but what does that really mean?

We can grit our teeth and brace ourselves for the change or we can breathe through it.

I remember when I was birthing my middle daughter I had an amazing midwife. She taught me the art of breathing through the contractions. I still use that breathing technique today when I’m running or just calming my spirit in a stressful situation.

In the birthing process, the time we call “transition” is the most intense. Contractions generally come quickly one right after the other. The baby begins to descend into the mama’s pelvis ready to be pushed out into the world. It’s a time of pain dancing with anticipation.

Our human instinct is to clench our fists, tense our muscles (and our hearts) and reject transition as something foreign, an unwelcome time, that thing that surely will break us. What would happen if we leaned into the transition instead? What if we breathed through the contractions, the painful moments? What if we embraced all that a transition has to offer?

On Monday morning, I dropped off all three of my girls – now a sixth grader, third grader and kindergartener – at school together. There were throngs of parents taking pictures of their kids in front of the school. I noticed several of my mama friends who had a spring in their step and that unmistakable look in their eyes – freedom!

One friend met me at my car. We took a few minutes to catch up on the summer events. Our youngest girls are in the same morning kinder class now. We acknowledged that transitions like these are bittersweet. Although both of our girls are eager for a new school and fresh start, they both had tears the night before over some losses.

My baby girl was eager to spread her “ready confetti” – a special gift from her new teacher – under her pillow. She slipped into bed and then began weeping uncontrollably for her daddy in Heaven. Something triggered for her that he was not here to see her off on this big day.

This reminded me that each new season brings a tinge of grief and a taste of glory. New seasons sometimes trigger memories of our losses but also are pregnant with hope for the future. We have to embrace both to step forward.

Perhaps the hardest transition of my life was the day after my husband’s funeral. Some of my friends took the girls and me to the ocean. I stood there with foamy waves crashing over my feet. I thought maybe I could stand there forever just letting the grief wash over me.

After a while I had a strange realization. He was no longer living but I had to keep on living. I had the rest of my life before me. I had these girls to raise in his legacy.

Most importantly, I had a choice – to live in the past or to step forward into the future trusting God to lead me. I had to embrace the transition. I had to give myself space to grieve, and I had to step forward in faith one day at a time.

The other day I was reading in the book of Haggai. Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in that book of the Bible but I found myself comforted by the words Joshua receives from God about rebuilding the temple. His words through prophecy in Haggai 2:4-9 are to “be strong” and “work.” The promise is God will “be with” Joshua and the people in the transition, in the rebuilding process.

Of course, it’s important to note that the new glory to come was not just a physical building but Jesus Christ himself, the embodiment of glory.

I am reminded that it’s ok to reminisce about the “glory days” but then we need to step courageously toward a new glory.

Friend, if you find yourself smack in the middle of a transition today, press in, be strong and work. The Lord is right there with you. And He’s right here with me.

 

**If you’re interested in reading more about what it means to be a Glory Chaser, check out this post and my new Glory Chasers bible study here.

Learning the language of goodbyes with kids

Posted by | community, death, family life, finishing well, friendship, grief, Haiti, kids, parenting, relationships, Stories, transitions, world travel | 4 Comments

The original version of this article was published on my ministry blog, Gilmores for His Glory, on August 8, 2012.

________________________________________________________________________________

We have said a lot of goodbyes in our lifetime. Sometimes it feels like too many for my heart to bear. This is one of the sacrifices of building a life in two different countries and befriending people from around the world.

I still remember our first full summer in Haiti. My girls were so little. There hearts were so fragile. We kissed and cried in the Fresno airport when we said goodbye to grandparents and dear friends. Then we began our long journey to our new home in Haiti.

That summer my girls bonded with new Haitian friends and many Americans too. The kids at the orphanage next to our mission house became like siblings to them. They spent long afternoons jumping rope, eating mangoes and playing soccer. Each week a new American team would come to serve, and each Saturday we would stand in the driveway and send them off with hugs.

After they would leave, the girls and I would retreat to the bedroom. My mama instinct was to hold it together, but it wasn’t always easy. More often I would gather my little birds in my arms and we would cry together. We would lean into the loss.

Some of our closest friends live in Germany, the Philippines, Haiti, Florida and Maryland. We have cousins in Spain, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington. We visit and this necessitates goodbyes.

I used to wonder if all these goodbyes were too hard for my babies’ hearts, too hard for my heart. I strategized about ways to shield them from the sadness, the longing, and the wondering when we would meet again.

And I found myself asking God some hard questions:

Why must we always say goodbye?

Why risk loving someone deeply when parting will be inevitable?

Since that first hard summer in Haiti, my girls and I have endured many goodbyes, including perhaps the ultimate goodbye. On September 9, 2014, we stood at the bed beside my beloved husband and kissed him goodbye before he graduated to Heaven. It’s a goodbye that still sears my heart, that still makes me ache to my very core.

In this deep longing, I have dug up my answer about goodbyes.

I could draw back. I could avoid goodbyes altogether. I could keep to myself, shelter my kids from friends and family relationships. I could numb out. I could stay put, never travel, never follow my dreams.

I could turn my back on my calling.

I could keep my relationships surface so it doesn’t hurt so badly when people go away.

I could.

But is that what I really want for my life? Is that the mission? Are those the values I want to teach my kids?

Eventually, I realized that the sweet sorrow of goodbye is meaningful. I know the deepest love because I’ve risked that pain. My girls are learning to love well. Our time with people now is quality. And that is a risk worth taking.

I know Moise and Nella and Angeline and Dartiquenov and Cindy and Carla and Marcy and Jeremy deeply because I’ve said yes to the goodbyes. My kids love Gary and Rose Katia and Amanda and Esther and Corban and Hannah and Giovanni and Sophie because we’ve embraced goodbyes.

I can relate to the emotion-filled words of Paul in his letter to Timothy: “I miss you a lot, especially when I remember that last tearful good-bye, and I look forward to a joy-packed reunion.” (‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭1:3-4‬ , The Message‬‬).

When life is full of goodbyes, life is so much richer.

Now we linger over our goodbyes. They are important to us. We’ve made them into see-you-soons and meet-you-theres.

We’ve promised texts and letters and blogs and photos and Facetime dates. And when we promise, we make that extra effort follow through.

My family has learned the language of goodbye. It’s a heart language. At the close of the summer, my heart is tired, but my heart is full.

We will keep traveling, and we will keep loving, and we will keep releasing our people gently into the Father’s arms for safe keeping.

Who have you said goodbye to this summer? How do you approach this sacred releasing of people? We would love to hear from you in the comments! 

Freedom Soup: Soup Joumou (Haitian Pumpkin Soup)

Posted by | cooking, food stories, kids, Recipes, serve, social justice, soup, world travel | No Comments

My family is flying out to Haiti this evening. We are so excited to see all our friends after two years. I decided to share with you today one of my favorite main dishes they make us in Haiti. It’s called Soup Joumou or Pumpkin Soup. It’s really more like a stew.

Soup Joumou (pronounced joo-moo) is a central part of New Year’s tradition in Haitian homes. The hearty dish commemorates January 1, 1804, the day Haiti was liberated from France. The soup was once served to French slave masters but the slaves who cooked it were forbidden to eat it. After they won their independence, Haitians prepared and ate the soup to celebrate their freedom. Haiti was the world’s first and only slave nation in history that won its own freedom.

In rural Haiti, where I have spent a lot of my time, the soup is prepared on a three-legged circular iron basket filled with charcoal where the pot sits directly on the coals. The most popular type of pumpkin used to make the soup is the kabocha, a squatty and often speckled green pumpkin that boasts orange flesh. Every Haitian has their own version of Soup Joumou, but it usually includes garlic, onions, plantains or sweet potatoes, cabbage, pasta or rice and the pureed pumpkin to thicken the broth. The soup simmers for several hours. Some kind of seasoned meat, often beef or goat, is added to the soup making it a savory one-dish feast.

Soup Joumou is often made in a large aluminum pot with plenty to share with family, friends and neighbors who gather to celebrate the New Year and Haiti’s hard-won freedom. I like to call it Freedom Soup!


Below are the instructions on how to make Soup Joumou. This recipe has been adapted with the help of my Haitian friend, Gerby Seriphin, to simplify it. This one-pot meal is great to serve for a large group or a party. You might get some crusty bread and butter to serve alongside it!


Ingredients:

Epis Seasoning:
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1/2 yellow bell pepper, coarsely chopped
6 scallions, coarsely chopped
6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves with tender stems
1/2 cup olive or canola oil
6 basil leaves

Soup:
1 cup distilled white vinegar, divided
2 pounds stew beef (preferably chuck) cut into 1″ cubes
1 lime
1 tablespoon sea salt
16 cups beef or vegetable broth, divided
1 medium calabaza or butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, cut into 1″ chunks
1 16-oz. can pumpkin puree
3 large russet potatoes, diced
3 carrots, sliced
1/2 small green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 leek, white and pale-green parts only, chopped
1 1/2 cups rigatoni, penne or other pasta
6 whole cloves
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more
1 parsley sprig
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, unsalted

Directions:
1. Combine all ingredients for the epis seasoning in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth like a paste.
2. Pour 1 cup vinegar into a large bowl. Swish stew beef in vinegar to rinse. Transfer beef to a colander and rinse with water.
3. Stir Epis Seasoning Base, juice from lime, and salt in another large bowl. Add beef, toss to coat, and let marinate at least 30 minutes.
4. Heat 6 cups broth in very large stock pot over medium heat. Add marinated beef, cover, and simmer until meat is beginning to soften, about 40 minutes.
5. Add squash to pot on top of beef, cover, and return to a simmer. Cook until squash is fork-tender, 20–25 minutes.
6. Add can of pumpkin to the broth.
7. Add potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onion, celery, leek, rigatoni, cloves, garlic powder, onion powder, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoons pepper, parsley, and remaining 10 cups broth. Simmer, uncovered, until pasta and vegetables are tender, 30–35 minutes.
8. Add oil, butter, and remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until beef is very tender, 15–20 minutes more.

Serves 15.

 

**Read more about why I’m returning to Haiti here. Do you have a special cultural dish you make in your family that holds a special story? Please share in a comment. I’d love to hear all about it!

Building community in the kitchen: The secret is in the sauce (and three recipes!)

Posted by | cooking, creativity, culture, end-of-school year, family life, food stories, kids, laughter, Main Dish, Recipes, Uncategorized | No Comments

Cooking has always been a place of creativity, community and comfort for me. I grew up in the kitchen stirring sauces with my mama, kneading dough with my Italian Nana, and rolling lumpia egg rolls with my Filipino grandma.

As an adult, I have gathered many friends and family members in my kitchen to cook together. When I was a young married girl, I hosted a Cooking Club in my home for almost eight years. It all started because one of my friends told me she didn’t know how to boil water. Another friend loved to cook and asked if we could swap recipes. I looked around me and realized there were a host of women longing to learn and get in the kitchen together.

Our Cooking Club was born. We would meet monthly. I would choose a theme and some core recipes. People would bring ingredients. The ladies would cook and the guys would clean. We tackled time-intensive projects like homemade gnocci and and rosemary focaccia bread. We discovered new ethnic cuisines like Ethiopian key wot and Hawaiian sweet potato casserole. We created Pumpkin Party soup using farmer’s market abundance.

Through the years, we all started having babies and the Cooking Club grew to well over 40 people coming each month. We finally took a break when my husband and I took an assignment working full-time for a non-profit organization in Haiti. I still look back on those gatherings with fond memories. Maybe one day we will revive Cooking Club when all our kiddos are in high school.

I believe there’s so much to learn when we gather together to get our hands messy, employ our creativity, and share stories around food.

This school year I had the opportunity to teach a series of cooking classes for my daughter’s fifth grade class. My daughters attend Kepler Neighborhood School, a local charter that focuses on project-based learning. I started by sharing the children’s book I wrote. Cora Cooks Pancit tells the story of a girl named Cora who is the youngest in her family. She ventures into the kitchen one day with her mama and learns to make a Filipino signature dish called pancit. In the process of cooking together, Cora learns about some family history and history of the Filipinos in California. The book concludes with the recipe for pancit.

When I visit classrooms to share my book, I often teach the kids to make pancit. They help me wash and chop the vegetables and add the noodles to the pan. I am always surprised at the number of kids who taste the dish at the end even though it’s full of vegetables and new flavors for them. I think they feel ownership because they were involved in the process of creating the pancit.

I taught five cooking classes for my daughter’s fifth grade class this school year. One of my favorite classes was teaching the kids the secret in the sauce. I have three go-to sauces in my Italian cooking repertoire. These sauces celebrate my Southern Italian roots and my own creativity.

I invited the kids to re-create two of the sauces – pesto and a sausage ragu. We talked about tips on combining ingredients. For example, a little sugar is added to tomato-based sauces to reduce the acidic.

Then I set the kids free to create their own recipes. I told them the ingredients in each sauce but I didn’t tell them the quantities or the process of making it. They had to be creative, think critically, measure, taste test and write their own recipes. Their teacher and I also made this into a math lesson so the students were practicing multiplying fractions.

 

I loved seeing the teamwork that happened naturally as the kids created their recipes. Some wanted to get their hands dirty and add ingredients. Others engaged their senses smelling the spices and tasting the sauces. A few dove right into the math problem, writing down the recipes. I thought back to my cooking club and how over the years each of those friends discovered their tastes and their gifts in the kitchen.

Each of these sauces are pretty simple to make. They do not require a lot of time or a long list of ingredients. They do require attention and love. The kids gained some practical skills in cooking but they also learned to engage their creativity in community.

I hope this summer you will take some time to gather some friends or your own children in the kitchen. You might choose a favorite family recipe or try one of these sauce recipes. If you want to get adventurous, you can cover up the quantities of each ingredient and let your kids explore and combine on their own. You might take advantage of this time together in the kitchen to tell stories about your grandpa or great-aunt who made a special recipe.

**I’d love to hear how it goes. Please come back and COMMENT below about your experiences. Did you find any creative uses for these sauces? Which was your favorite?

 

 

Pesto Sauce

Ingredients:

2 cups fresh basil leaves

2 cloves garlic

½ cup walnuts or pine nuts

½ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup parmesan cheese

 

Directions:

  1. Combine all ingredients in blender or food processor except cheese. Pulse or process until sauce has a course spreadable, texture.
  2. Stir in cheese at the end.
  3. A few options:

-Brush on pesto sauce top of chicken and grill or bake the chicken (30 minutes at 350 degrees).

-Mix in with cooked, hot pasta of your choice and serve.

-Spread pesto sauce on top of toast or pita bread for an appetizer.

 

 

 Italian Sausage Ragu Sauce

-2 tablespoons olive oil

-1 onion, chopped

-1 (28-ounce can) crushed tomatoes

-1 (15-ounce can) can tomato sauce

-1 tablespoon dried oregano

-1 tablespoon fennel seed

-1 tablespoon basil

-1 tsp salt

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-1 teaspoon organic sugar

-1/2 cup parmesan cheese

-1 package uncooked Italian sausage (I love Trader Joe’s sweet Italian sausage.)

 

Directions:

  1. Heat saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil.
  2. Meanwhile, chop 1 onion.
  3. If sausage is inside casings, squeeze out into a bowl. When oil is heated, add sausage to the oil. Use a potato smasher or a fork to break it up.
  4. Once the sausage is lightly browned, add onion and cook until clear/translucent.
  5. Add the spices: oregano, fennel seed, basil, salt, sugar.
  6. Chop two cloves garlic or mince in garlic press.
  7. Add sugar, parmesan cheese and mix together.
  8. Pour in cans of marinara sauce and tomato sauce. Simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. (Meanwhile, prep your favorite pasta/noodles.)
  9. Add to cooked pasta and garnish with more parmesan cheese.

 

 

Alfredo Sauce

 -1 cup of butter

-1 cup heavy cream

-1/2 cup parmesan cheese

-1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or light sprinkle)

-1/4 teaspoon dried basil

 

Directions:

  1. Combine butter and cream in a skillet or shallow frying pan.
  2. Heat to medium and let slowly simmer. Turn down heat once bubbles start. As bubbles form, sauce will thicken. Whisk frequently and be patient.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare your pasta as desired.
  4. Add salt and basil to sauce.
  5. Stir in parmesan cheese.
  6. Pour over pasta and serve.

 

**Join my Glorygram list and get first dibs on all my new recipes, recommendations and books.

A conversation about “Grieving Together” on the Kindred Mom podcast

Posted by | behold, community, compassion, death, family life, flourishing, grief, hope, kids, relationships, Stories, struggle, Uncategorized, writing | No Comments

 

My new friend Emily Allen interviewed me a few weeks ago for her Kindred Mom podcast. I’m excited to announce the podcast just went live. I hope you will tune in to hear our conversation. I’m chatting with Emily about navigating grief with my kids after their dad died in 2014. She asked some really sensitive and insightful questions. In the podcast, you will learn more about my story, some tangible ways our community came alongside us in our grief, and the backstory behind my children’s picture book, Cora Cooks Pancit.

This podcast conversation was inspired by an essay I originally wrote for the Kindred Mom blog called “Grieving Together.” I hope this will encourage mamas and others who might be navigating grief with littles. It can be hard and exhausting work. Believe me, I know. That’s why I’m passionate about sharing on this topic to walk with others.

In the podcast, I mention a free resource I developed sharing tips on how to navigate grief with kids. The resource includes encouragement for parents, practical ideas on how to honor a loved one after death, and a list of books and movies I’ve used with my girls to stimulate conversation on our grief journey.

Listen to the podcast here or paste this link into your browser:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/kindred-mom-podcast/id1236598848?mt=2&i=1000385429230

Last month I did a series on “Navigating Grief When Life Moves Forward.” In case you missed it, I encourage you to check out some of the articles or share with a friend who is grieving:

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma color the journey

When You are the Caregiver – an article about navigating grief and feelings of guilt when you have a front-row seat to a loved one’s decline

When You Have to Say Goodbye to the Place Your Heart Calls Home – a guest post exploring the idea of “good grief” we experience when we are uprooted from a place or home we love

When You’ve Experienced Pregnancy Loss – a guest post sharing a first-hand experience with miscarriage and stillbirth.

Navigating Grief When Someone You Love Dies Suddenly – a guest post sharing about the sudden death of her mother.

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“?

I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!

It takes a village: Letter to all the mamas who have journeyed with me

Posted by | community, death, family life, flourishing, friendship, grief, hope, kids, laughter, Personal Stories, Stories, Uncategorized | No Comments

Dear Mama Friends,

I think you know who you are. You are the ones who have walked with me over the last decade on this wild journey called mothering. You are my people, my kindred spirits, my mother blessings.

You are the ones who called me to encourage me when the breastfeeding was hard and the baby was losing weight. You are the ones who brought me hot meals and chocolate when I was adjusting to the new normal. You are the ones who ventured out on field trips and play dates to the zoo, the museum, and the park.

You are the mamas at Borders bookstore that day when our oldest kiddos were just babes. We were such a beautiful, motley crew of mamas from many cultures and many parts of the city, trying to find our footing on this mother journey. We were nursing and laughing through our insecurities and learning from each other. We were so thirsty for friendship and someone to say, “Yes, me too.”

And that was only the beginning.

You are the one who stood in the kitchen with me and tried out new recipes when our littles were racing through the house. You and I strolled through the farmer’s market and discovered fresh vegetables to offer up to our families in creative ways.

You are the ones who came every week to work out in my backyard and met me in the chaos. We sweated, we laughed, we prayed. You provided accountability and encouragement when I needed it most.

You are the grandma who takes her shopping and teaches her to love the stories of the Bible just like her daddy in Heaven did.

You are the Nana who helps my little girl learn to read, who piques her interest in poetry and science experiments. You are the one who invites her into the kitchen to measure and pour and lick sticky fingers.

You are the new grandma who takes special care to buy the perfect gifts, who praises their energy, and speaks life with words of encouragement. You have welcomed me into the fold so quickly and made me a daughter.

You are the friend who taught me to embrace the unique personalities of all three of my girls, to nurture their talents and weather the challenges they face.

You showed me what it looked like to advocate for your boy when he had special needs. You spoke up for all of us – for your child and mine. You walked the line with grace.

For this, I am grateful.

When I met you years before when we were single girls with a heart for traveling the world, I never imagined what our mother journey would look like. You celebrated with me through pregnancies and baby showers even when your own arms were empty.

We cried together when Mother’s Day was hard for you, when the questions came and the days grew long. And I was there when you arrived home on that airplane from halfway across the world with your baby boy, and when you got that call came from the hospital that another baby boy was born. I love these boys like my own girls now because that’s what mothering together looks like.

I still get choked up when I think about the long summer days three years ago when you rushed in to help me mother when my husband was battling cancer.

You are the mothers who came to fold my laundry on the big red couch, to wash our endless dirty dishes, and pick lice out of my daughters’ hair. You are the mothers who rubbed my shoulders and read me the Psalms to strengthen me so I could go back in that room to care for my dying husband.

You are the mamas who helped pick up my kids from school and read them books before bed. You are the mamas who passed your own kids off to tired husbands so you could be with my family in our time of crisis.

You are the ones who grocery shopped, delivered meals and gave gift cards months after he was gone. You are the widow-mamas who sat with me on Sunday afternoons and cried with me about how hard it was to move forward without our teammates.

You are the one who came every week for tacos and dance parties when I needed a friend. You were that voice, that reminder that God’s grace would cover me even as I learned to solo parent.

I have not forgotten. I will not forget the way you gifted us your presence.

You are the ones who invited me to your table to pray, weep and dream about a new future. You are the ones who urged me to keep writing and preaching my story even when it felt hard.

You lifted me with that late-night text when I was weary. You told me on our early-morning runs that I better keep following my passion, my convictions to the finish line. You stood long hours with me at the track and on the soccer field cheering our big kids through disappointment and victory.

You are the mamas who visited me in the hospital, who sat with me watching the sun set over ocean waves, who stood with me by the grave, who clinked glasses at our wedding and celebrated a new marriage.

Mothering should not be a solo journey. It should be a community dance. A place where we band together and hold each other’s hands and laugh long and lift each other up. We might have to stop once in a while to wipe a snotty nose or take that one to the bathroom, but we are in this mothering thing together.

I am thankful for the all the women in my life who have joined me for this glorious dance. And I am especially grateful for you.

 

**Would you like some encouragement for your weary soul? Sign up for my weekly Glorygram where I share personal stories, recommendations and recipes just for mamas!

Farewell, old friend: When forty is the new thirty

Posted by | behold, brave, community, courage, creativity, death, family life, finishing well, flourishing, friendship, gifts, grief, hope, individuality, inspirational, kids, laughter, One Word, parenting, passion, relationships, rest, Stories, transitions | 4 Comments

 

This week I said goodbye to a good friend. She’s the friend who has walked with me through some of my greatest joys – the birth of two of my baby girls, finding my sweet spot in ministry, and learning a new language. She’s gone with me to book signings and baby showers. We have laughed until our bellies ached and sang together at the top of our lungs.

She’s also that friend who journeyed with me through the darkest days. She was there when he lost his job and Christmas was just around the corner. She was there when we were just scraping by, trying to raise a family. She was there when we received his cancer diagnosis. She stood with me by the graveside and sat by me when I wept and wailed my “whys” and “how comes” to God and the stars.

She’s been a faithful friend. She’s taught me how to love my body and stand firm in my convictions. She’s helped me to feel confident standing on a stage and mothering my three unique children. She’s the one who taught me how to let go of pretense and perfection.

Farewell, Thirties. Oh, how I will miss you.

I have a new friend now. I don’t like to replace people but it’s kind of turning out that way. Last Saturday we toasted my new friend with a full house and music spilling into our yard on Backer Avenue. We served up Indian food and delectable desserts. And my new friend swept into my life with a new haircut and a promise of new adventures to come.

Some people have jokingly called her my “mid-life friend.” I know better. I know she could be gone tomorrow.

She told me we have a blank canvas before us and handed me a paint brush. I pulled a new painter’s palette and basket of paints from that gift bag she brought. I don’t know how she knew I needed this. It’s like she read my journal or eavesdropped on my early-morning, whispered prayers.

“It’s time,” she said.

“Time for what?” I quizzed.

But I knew. I knew she was saying it’s time to remake myself.

It’s time to embrace all my old friend taught me and let go of the mistakes we made together. It’s time to stop worrying about pleasing people and start sharing this gorgeous glory story God has given me.

It’s time to move forward.

It’s time to give myself permission to rediscover, to explore, to celebrate, to rest and to remake me.

My new friend said I can run marathons, travel to new lands, jump into a new career, discover new adventures with my girls, dance wild and free with my new husband, and every once in a while linger over the memories of another life, another decade.

Hello, Forties. It’s so very good to meet you.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” ~Revelation 21:5

 

 

Would you like to read more about what I learned in my thirties decade?

Check out these blogs: 

Learning to flourish through the seasons

Personal Sabbath: How training for a marathon taught me to rest

Navigating Grief: When you have experienced pregnancy loss

Posted by | death, family life, grief, Guest blogger, hope, kids, parenting, Personal Stories, Stories, struggle, transitions | One Comment

 

By Sharon McKeeman

The wound remains.

Time has passed, is passing still, and I hold our long, awaited baby. The pain of the full-term stillbirth and two miscarriages has dulled, but three of my seven children are not with me. The pieces will never be put back together here on earth.

And now, as I hold this newborn bundle growing into a healthy, wiggling child my arms remember the shape of what I have lost. Grief has become tangible, abstract mourning swallowed up by tiny breaths upon my neck, grasping fingers and curling toes.

This is a time of joy—I relish it. But when I stare at her button nose and deep blue eyes, I also see the son I held unbreathing. Her eight pounds curled in my arms remind me of his nine, and I cry behind closed doors because I can’t bring back my child.

How do I tell of this? When everyone hugs and rejoices, how do I say that this precious little life is one more unexpected turn on my journey with grief? It is hard to navigate life as well as death, joy as well as sorrow.

The wound will always remain.

There is no new child that will replace the ones I have lost. There is no wholeness aside from Christ in this life. The only healing is in the One who blesses the brokenhearted, but even His scars remain. My mind presses into His nail torn hands and feels His tears upon my cheek. I take one step and then the next, breathing gratitude for every minute here and every loved one held. Still, I hold space for the precious little ones I cannot reach. I have no choice; the journey is a long one. The grief will not fall fully silent until we meet again.

This is my secret—how holding a new life brings healing, but also triggers memories and longing. I do not tell all the rejoicing onlookers, for fear they will think me ungrateful. Maybe they would understand. One thing I know, the grandmother with five of her own and more grandbabies on the way still drops tears like rain when she tells me of the two she lost.

We are spirit souls.

Holding, loving, ever reaching out.

And when a piece is cut away, the wound stays with us—a blessing, a message—a sign of just how deep our capacity to love, and how real the one we wait for is.

 

Sharon McKeeman is a homeschooling mama to three sons and a daughter here on earth, and three precious children in heaven. She is a Midwestern girl at heart who now lives with her family on the sunny beaches of Southern California. She is an author, educator, speaker, and photographer who shares more of her story as @sharonmckeeman on Instagram and at www.sharonmckeeman.com where you will find her blog, Writing in the Dust, as well as her newsletter, Mourning into Joy, which is filled with encouragement and resources for navigating pregnancy loss with hope.

 

Don’t miss the other articles in this “Navigating Grief as Life Moves Forward” series. Feel free to SHARE with a friend who might need these words of encouragement.

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids 

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma color the journey

When You are the Caregiver – an article about navigating grief and feelings of guilt when you have a front-row seat to a loved one’s decline

When You Have to Say Goodbye to the Place Your Heart Calls Home – a guest post exploring the idea of “good grief” we experience when we are uprooted from a place or home we love

 

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“? I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!

Navigating Grief: When you have to say goodbye to the place your heart feels home

Posted by | community, culture, grief, Guest blogger, kids, outreach, Personal Stories, relationships, serve, Stories, struggle, transitions | 3 Comments

By Melissa Ens

“Good grief, Charlie Brown.” I’ve sighed a lot these last few years and wondered what kind of grief, exactly, is the good kind? True, there is godly sorrow that leads to repentance, (2 Cor. 7:10) but what I’ve needed is sorrow that would lead to healing.

In December 2011, my husband, our 3 children and I moved to Peru, where we expected to live for the next decade. Less than two and a half years later, however, we moved back to Fresno, brokenhearted after saying goodbye to our friends, our dreams, and the best golden retriever in the world.

In California and in Peru, seasons come and go. Yet even years later, memories mixed with grief can surface. I still sometimes hesitate to feel and release the sadness they stir up for fear that releasing will somehow mean forgetting.

And that’s what I really don’t want.

I don’t want to forget the wonder I felt in the warmth of our first southern hemisphere’s holiday season. The wonder of arriving in a new country with dreams of a new life there. Our kids’ first Peruvian church service. The ladies spontaneously taking Mikaela and me to see Juanita’s amazing nativity display with hundreds of animals and figurines. (How I miss those mujeres!)

I want to remember Pastor George picking us up near midnight on Christmas Eve, driving us through the plaza to see the decorations on the way to his home to share Christmas with his family. (We still laugh about Timothy falling asleep in the car and then sleeping on the couch through the whole gathering. He was sure after that he’d never been to Pastor George’s house!)

I remember the oddness of seeing Christmas decorations – snowmen, Santas and wrapping paper – on display right next to swimsuits and beach towels for the summer vacation that was just beginning. We got our kids a pool for Christmas the next year and our dog barked in circles around them as they splashed the January afternoons away with our Peruvian pastor’s kids.

Maybe you’ve seen Panetón here. (It’s a sweet cake with candied fruit pieces that Peruvians can’t celebrate holidays without.) Walking through the supermercados there, I was stunned by the endcaps stocked and shelves sky high with boxes and boxes (and hundreds more boxes) of Panetón. Christmas “chocolatadas” for the neighborhood kid ministries meant gallons of hot chocolate made over a wood fire in a huge pot in the back of Anny’s house. (And more panetón.)

And the music… It’s the music I miss the most. I fell in love with Peruvian Christmas music at that first Christmas Eve service. There was even more music in the malls and markets, in restaurants, and the town plazas all decorated for Christmas with trees, trees and more (artificial, but huge and fancy) Christmas trees.

Melissa and her friend, Claudia, pose together in Peru where they met.

 

In 2013, suspecting it might be our last December there, I bought a couple recordings of the traditional Christmas music piped everywhere during the holidays. Two years later I was back in Fresno with those CD’s in my hands.

I had yet to listen to them.

I held them that morning in 2015 and read the titles of the songs wondering what kind of flood of grief would come crashing on the shore of my heart when I heard them. (The year before, I couldn’t even stand the idea.) Now would it bring a tsunami of tears that would wash me away? Or would I just laugh at how awful some of the music was?

I recalled the Christmas program at church our last December in Peru. The kids performed and I had recorded Toby’s class on my phone. As I held the CD’s, I was terrified realizing I didn’t know where that phone was, or if the photos and videos were backed up anywhere. No matter that if I played that song Toby would run away to hide from the grief it stirred up. He couldn’t handle it yet, but I needed to find it so I could hold it in my hands and listen to it again and not run away.

I think now that’s what good grief is. It’s whatever grief we don’t run away from but are willing to run to Jesus with. It’s grief we allow Jesus to carry us through. It’s grief we allow to rain down or well up and felt for what it means – that something or someone we love is no longer with us in the way they used to be.

Good grief recognizes the good that was and accepts the sadness in holding it as just a memory now.

 Dreams, hopes, and even places we held dear in our hearts become part of us. When we lose them or have to let them go, it hurts and we need space to grieve. In our case, leaving Peru meant we all grieved the loss of friendships, the surrender of dreams, and saying goodbye to a place, people (and even a dog) we truly loved.

I finally understand good grief.

Good grief trusts that even as specifics of memories fade, it really is the love that remains. I might not remember everyone’s names, but I will forever carry love for them in my heart. Good grief trusts that carrying love and being carried by Love will be enough.

I knew someday we’d look back and marvel at the fact that we really lived in Peru. I knew it would eventually feel a bit like a dream, but the sadness helps me know it was real. The ache helps me know we really did live there, and we really did love there. I am thankful for that.

Immanuel is still with us. In many ways, healing has come. Grief (and sadly, memories) will continue to fade. But love will always remain.

 

Melissa Ens loves Jesus, singing, words, learning, laughing, watching sunsets with her hubby of 21 years and playing games with her kids. She thinks praying with a pen and journal or talking with friends are the best forms of therapy ever. She used to blog at Musing Melissa, but these days is working on finishing and sharing her story. She’s excited about visiting loved ones in Peru this summer.

 

 

Don’t miss the other articles in this “Navigating Grief as Life Moves Forward” series. Feel free to SHARE with a friend who might need these words of encouragement.

The Garden – an introduction to the series

Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children

Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey

 When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids 

Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma arise

Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“? I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope. Let’s connect!

Grieving Together

Posted by | death, family life, grief, kids, rest, self-care, Stories, struggle, transitions, Uncategorized | No Comments

 

Just in the nick of time, I dropped off my older two daughters at elementary school before they were tardy, and then continued on to my youngest daughter’s preschool. Green, yellow…slow red. Green, yellow…slow red. I followed the rhythm of the stop lights as my 5-year-old sang at the top of her lungs in the backseat. I smiled as I listened to another one of her off-tune, made-up songs.

Then I leaned in to hear some of her lyrics: “My daddy is in heaven. His leg was hurt. We need to pray for him. He’s with God,” she chirped. “I miss my dadddddddy.”

“What are you singing about, baby?” I asked her, trying to be nonchalant. It had been several months since she mentioned her daddy, who died from cancer two and a half years earlier. We pulled into the preschool parking lot. I reminded myself not to panic but to let her process.

“I’m singing about my daddy in Heaven,” she informed me.

“You know, he has a new body in Heaven now,” I said gently. “He doesn’t have that big tumor on his leg anymore.” Her face lit up with a smile, “Really?! I can’t wait to see him again.”

These conversations have become normal life for us now. Never in a million years did I imagine I would be helping my children navigate the death of their father at such a young age. If you would have asked me a half dozen years ago, I would have told you that skill just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Then again, isn’t mothering about rising daily to learn new skills and praying regularly for God to cover our shortcomings?

Every day without my husband I am reminded of two things: every grief journey is unique and God intends to use our story for His glory.

My 5-year-old used to cry at night for her daddy. She just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t coming back. Now she soothes herself with made-up songs and imaginative play. My now 8-year-old tends to mourn her dad in meltdowns and tantrums. I’ll find her in a heap on the floor after I’ve asked her to clean her room or something’s gone wrong at school. I’ll think she’s crying about one thing, and then she tells me, “I just miss my daddy.”

My oldest, now 10 years old, likes to take care of everyone else. I will rarely see her cry but she does tell me when she’s sad. She decorates her room with pictures of her dad. She loves watching old videos of him. This is what grieving and remembering looks like for her.

Dealing with grief in motherhood is tricky. I have my own journey and soul to tend to, and then I have to navigate the emotions of my unique daughters. This can be overwhelming at times.

I have learned it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve. It’s important for us as mothers to cry with our children. When my husband first died, I found great encouragement in the story of Lazarus’ death.

John 11:33 gives flesh to this story: Mary was grieving the loss of her brother, and “when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews, who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled…Jesus wept.”

I love the way Jesus enters in. He doesn’t try to shut them down or offer a quick one-liner to make Mary feel better. This gives me permission to grieve and cry with my kids. I can show them tears are normal and welcome on our grief journey.

I have also learned to embrace the questions. Kids will naturally ask a lot of questions. My girls watched their dad’s health decline very quickly as the cancer spread throughout his body. He was an athlete and a coach, who was very involved in their lives. They felt the contrast. They saw how he suffered.

They had lots of questions about daddy’s cancer. I let my kids know I didn’t have all the answers but took them on a treasure hunt through the Bible to find what it said about our questions. We read books on Heaven together. We imagined what Daddy might be doing in Heaven today. We prayed and asked God about our questions.

Although I was hesitant at first to venture out without my husband, my daughters and I planned some road trips after his death. We made new memories. This time away from our home was crucial. We needed space to recover from the trauma of his sickness.

That first year, I also needed some time away from my kids and my mama duties to grieve. I am grateful for dear friends who took me on trips to the ocean, while grandparents watched my kids. I journaled; I ran next to the crashing waves; I prayed and cried. I know that time was important for my own healing.

Our human instinct is to avoid the pain and memories. I’ve discovered when I try to avoid the memories, they sneak up on me anyway. Now I lean into the anniversaries, the holidays, the memories with my kids.

We celebrate the day my husband graduated to Heaven in unique ways. We call it his Heaveniversary. This past year, we took a picnic to the cemetery with my mother-in-law and told stories. That evening we invited a group of his best friends to dinner. I asked everyone to share something about his character. My girls even participated. We shed some tears, but there was also laughter in remembering his quirks and endearing qualities.

As moms, we don’t experience the hard life stuff in isolation. How we grieve is interwoven with our family life and affects our littles. To me, this is what flourishing in motherhood looks like: it’s learning to take life’s trials and redeem them for God’s glory and for our family’s good. The way I see it, we can try to shelter our children from death or we can model how to grieve with hope.

 

{For the original publication of this article, click over here to Kindred Mom. I am so honored to be a featured writer on their site.}

 

**I created a special resource for navigating grief with kids. Get your copy here.

**If you would like to read more about my grief journey, check out these articles.

 

Holiday Mint Trifle: Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Posted by | christmas, cooking, family life, food stories, friendship, gifts, kids, Recipes | No Comments

 

Through the years there are some recipes that have become tradition in our home. I have so many memories of baking and cooking with my Italian Mama Maria and Grandma Sara. We would make Italian pizzelle cookies that looked like powdered-sugar-dusted snowflakes. We would wrap them by the dozens and share them with teachers and friends.

Our whole family would gather to make an Italian Christmas pastry called pita piatta. My grandpa John and my dad used to get their muscles into rolling out the dough until it was paper thin. Before long, the house filled with that mmm-I-can-taste-it smell of sugar, cinnamon, nuts and dough. Through the years, my brother and my family have continued some of these traditions and started some of our own. We have added kids and variations to some of the original family recipes.

One year I happened upon a photograph in the newspaper for a beautiful Chocolate Trifle dessert. My all-time fave dessert has always been Italian tiramisu, which I consider the original trifle. People usually dip the ladyfinger cookies in coffee and a dash of rum, brandy or Kahlua for the traditional dessert that literally means “pick-me-up.” I was always searching for a kid-friendly version that could still wow the crowd with decadent layers of cream, chocolate and whipped mascarpone cheese. I decided to try that Chocolate Trifle recipe I found in the newspaper and the rest is history.

I added some of my own variations to that original, including Trader Joe’s Mint Joe-Joe cookies only stocked during the holidays. I actually run over there at the start of December and buy a healthy stash of these amped-up Oreos just so they can last the season (or longer than the season in my freezer.) Can’t get Mint Joe-Joe’s? No worries. Just add a 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract to the whipped cream and you can still enjoy that mint-meets-chocolate marriage.

Through the years, the Chocolate Mint Trifle became our “Happy Birthday Jesus cake.” We make it for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at our house. We put candles in it and all the cousins since “Happy Birthday” to Jesus before we serve it. Now my kids can make this on their own for company and birthday parties.

This year I’ve been teaching cooking classes for my fifth grade daughter’s class. For their class party, I taught them to make this decadent dessert. Everyone had a job – pounding the Joe-Joe cookies into crumbs, whipping the heavy cream, mixing the pudding, layering the ladyfinger cookies, etc. We practiced reading recipes and multiplying ingredients for bigger portions. I also challenged the kids to be creative and think of variations they might make to this dessert. I had added mint, but what would they add? Some of their ideas are shared below.

I hope this season you will take time to gather some of your people in the kitchen and make something yummy together. Sure, it’s messy but this is how some of the fondest holiday memories are made.

Merry Christmas!

macie-layers-ladyfingers

Maycie helps layer ladyfingers on our Holiday Mint Trifle.

 

Ingredients:
-1 pint organic whipping cream
-1 tablespoon raw organic sugar or honey
-2 packages instant chocolate pudding mix (I love the Whole Foods version.)
-4 cups milk, divided
-1 package cream cheese (or 8-ounce container mascarpone)
-2 boxes ladyfingers cookies (Trader Joe’s sells a soft version but you can get these at other Italian specialty stores and grocery stores as well.)
-1 box Mint Joe-Joe’s cookies (or other chocolate sandwich cookies like Oreos)

1. Pour whipping cream into mixing bowl and beat until soft peaks form. Blend in sugar/honey while the cream is beating. Set aside.
2. Place the 2 packages of chocolate pudding and 3 cups of milk in the mixing bowl and blend until pudding thickens. Add cream cheese and blend in. Set aside.
3. Place chocolate cookies in a large ziplock bag and use a mallet to crush. (You could also use a food processor but you want to make sure the cookies stay coarse, not emulsified.) Set aside.
4. Begin assembly of trifle. In the bottom of your trifle bowl, arrange a layer of ladyfinger cookies. Drizzle with 1/4 cup of remaining milk. Spread about 1/4 of the pudding mixture on top of the ladyfingers. Spread about 1/4 of the whipped cream over the pudding. Top with 1/4 of the crushed chocolate cookies.
5. Repeat these layers three more times and finish with the crushed chocolate cookies. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes approximately 15 servings.

class-making-trifle

Fun Variations:
-Make this a Garden Party Dessert. Add gummy worms to the layers. Cut out paper flowers and glue them to popsicle sticks to insert in the top.
-Add sliced berries as an extra layer for a Berry-Chocolate Trifle.
-Drizzle caramel sauce on top or add caramel pudding in place of the chocolate pudding.

Do you have a favorite trifle story? When and where do you serve it? Is there another favorite holiday dessert that always makes your family’s menu? Share in the comments!