Dear Twenty-Something Self: Your Dreams Aren’t Going to Come True and I’m Good With That

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

I can’t go back to yesterday — because I was a different person then — Lewis Carroll

Look at you my lovely, once-upon-a-time self. 25. Newly married to your high school sweetheart, your story is just beginning. Everything is on schedule to begin your modern fairy tale. The outline has been predetermined — by you. Exhilarated, you await the fleshing out of the finer details, certain they will meet your expectations.

What you don’t realize, is the best-laid dreams of starry-eyed ingenues don’t always come true.

Life’s journey will take you through inconceivable storms. At times, you will feel stripped and shattered, certain you will never be whole again. But, I’m here to tell you — three decades later — you will weather the tempests. Your memoir will be illustrated with the colors of a sweeping saga. You will recover, replenish, and rebuild time and time again. You will forge a heart of restoration and hope.

You will be your own heroine.

Prologue

Our life’s quest was a typical middle-class narration: Vivacious college-educated woman marries a smart handsome man who adores her. They start out in a modest home, eventually settling down in an upscale neighborhood with their four children — two boys, two girls. Money never being a concern, it is her choice whether she spends her days at an office or volunteering, or perhaps, a little of both. Summers would be filled with pool parties and family vacations. All her children would be athletic, smart, and popular. Soon, they would meet their own mates, have successful careers, and provide grandchildren. The blissed-filled grandparents eventually ease into a comfortable retirement and enjoy the fruits of a fairy tale legacy.

If you haven’t guessed already, younger me, that is not how our story turns out. You might think I’m seeking to dampen your naïveté, but that is not the case. To do so would douse the sparks of our history. I’m here to highlight some of the events that will steer you to roads less traveled. Annotate some of your preconceptions. Not to have you switch course, for that would result in a different destination, but to provide you with the faith you’ll need to continue your path.

To become the woman of character you aspire to be.

Being a zebra will be limiting

In our twenties, everything was black and white — politics, faith, parenting. We were crafting our cornerstones and needed a firm foundation to build upon. They served us well — provided strong roots, made us feel secure — until they became confining. They distracted us from soothing shades of grey and the charms of nuance. I shudder when I realize how dogmatic we were, failing to recognize another’s sense of right and wrong could be just as valid.

There will come a time when society feeds like vultures on such assumptions. When those who may think differently from each other are regarded as enemies. It will grieve our soul, but we will be mindful to have practiced perspective — preserved our humanity.

We won’t be the perfect parent

Infertility issues will limit our offspring to two. Blessed with a couple of fine young lads, we will throw ourselves completely into their nurturing. Education, nutrition, sports, discipline, recreation, family time all mapped out to promote optimal growth. We oversaw with a loving, not overbearing, hand — providing just enough oversight to assist direction and encourage independence. It would be practically perfect — or so we thought.

It will take a while to acknowledge some mistakes — an unnecessarily heavy hand, a few minor (and major) misjudgments. But we will eventually comprehend we did the best we had with the resources available. It will bring us a sense of peace and a newfound insight into the caring nature of our own parents.

Our hero will die, but we will survive

The ultimate breach to the fairy tale contract, our hero dies midway through the story. The dissolving of the partnership is a long, drawn-out process. We were a team and when the hero began to falter, we picked up the slack. Our role expanded to include caretaker, nurse, and, finally, widowed head of household.

We will be proud of ourselves for enduring. For maintaining some moment of normalcy each day, even if only in a robotic function. It will take decades to fully process this forced single ownership of our sanity — cultivate our acceptance of personal sovereignty.

We will need to go to the well repeatedly

Fiercely independent, it will crush us to ask for help. After all, we are the primary caregiver, not the recipient. We will be prideful, convinced that no one else is equipped to provide quality assistance. Adding insult, this will not be a single occurrence. We will find ourselves in numerous states of injury, dipping in the well of kindness again and again until we are sure it will run dry.

Like the miracle at Cana, our community wine never depletes and we are inebriated with gratitude. We develop empathy — foster humility. We acquire debts we have no chance to repay and are awestruck by their joy in giving.

Villains will serve a purpose

We will encounter more than our expected share of villainy. After all, every fairy tale needs a counterbalance of dastardly deeds to keep us engaged. Some will be overt and others will be wolves in sheep’s clothing, but all will catch us off guard and cause us to briefly doubt our judgment.

Much to the scoundrels’ dismay, however, each conflict will bestow a gift. These endowments will cause us to develop skills or discover hidden kernels of truth within ourselves. We will garner discernment — be wiser when the next challenge arises.

Our children will write their own stories

Regrettably, we were somewhat judgmental of others’ styles of parenting. If they didn’t align with ours, we surmised these offspring would be spoiled or — gasp! — unproductive members of society. Gradually, we began to appreciate the true nature of a child — of a human — will come to be no matter the influence. They will bloom in their own time and be beautiful.

As much as we tried, we could not prevent our sons from suffering, enduring hardship, or making mistakes and living with the consequences. We could only strive to provide a safe haven and a strong moral compass to chart their own paths. Like us, they have prevailed and grown sturdy, strong. Watching them navigate their courses will be our greatest accomplishment.

Epilogue

Picking up the pieces will be a never-ending process. Initially, our defenses will want to cover our wounds, camouflage our scars. But those shrouds are too difficult to maintain and we will never able to fully rest within our story if we continue to try.

And so, we will come to embrace our imperfections — honor our unique broken history. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, we will highlight our fractures with gold, delighting in our resilience. Our modern fairy tale may have an unforeseen conclusion, but it will end happily ever after all the same.

 

The Worst Gets Better: A 30th Anniversary Love Letter to My Dead Husband

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May 5, 1990

It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.

 

So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.

 

Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.

 

Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.

 

No more talk of darkness
Forget these wide-eyed fears*

Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering   – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.

 

I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on  – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.

 

When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense  –  and my realtor  –  told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.

 

You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to  –  that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden  –  our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.

 

It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth  –  a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford  –  until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us  –  to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.

 

Promise me that all you say is true*

As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.

 

It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.

 

All I want is freedom
A world with no more night*

Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.

 

Happy Anniversary!

Loving you always, 

Lisa

 


 

 

*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990

Searching for Love After a Thirty-Year Hiatus

My reluctant plunge into online dating in my 50s

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I met my husband at 16. We were married when I was 25.  I was widowed three days before my 44th birthday.

Our two sons were in their early teens when we lost their father. He had been ill for quite some time, but the way he eventually passed away was sudden and traumatic. PTSD complicated our grief. I threw myself into tending to my boys, work and volunteering. Once they graduated, I created a this blog to finally process the sadness I had suppressed for years. My mind was too preoccupied and my spirit too full of heartache to allow time for dating.

And so, I waited nearly a decade to reenter the dating world.  If you do the math, this seemed to be a pattern with me.  What can I say? I needed to be REALLY sure before I truly committed.

Single and out of date

My husband was my first kiss, my first love, my first everything.  My friend used to tease me that I had the dating skills of an adolescent: awkward, unsure and pretty much clueless. I had no playbook – no references to what I liked or disliked in a relationship. Flirtation was a skill that had dissipated long ago. Now in my fifties, I was about to enter foreign territory without comprehending the language or rules of the domain.

Back in high school, my biggest concerns were whether my side ponytail was attractively askew and the horror of my butt cheeks protruding beneath my Dolfin shorts.  I could never have fathomed that a bodacious bootie would be considered alluring in the 21st century. I only wish a muffin top wasn’t an unwelcome collaborator in my middle-aged physique.

Looking for a Match made in OKCupid & other digital heavens

I had been pondering dating for a couple years before I resolved to be proactive.  It was my hope that someone in my circle of friends would introduce me to a “nice guy” they knew. He would be properly vetted as engaging, financially secure and safe. There was one enormous snag in this scenario: Most of my friends were married. I was the only unattached mare in the posse. No stallions for miles.

And so, I reluctantly thrust myself into the realm of online dating. I honed my relationship seeking resume (aka profile) to the best of my novice ability. Dating Objectives, Activities & Interests and Bio were all crafted with a touch of wit and hidden desperation. Previous Experience was glaringly absent. I appraised pictures of myself until I found the few that I hoped portrayed subtle sexiness while concealing my double chin.  Filled with apprehension, I shuddered as I posted it.

The responses began flooding in almost immediately. This is not to say I’m any more eye-catching than the previous gal to swipe across their screen – far from it. But if you’re female, new on the dating auction block and assumedly breathing, you’re a hot commodity.

Never in my wildest imagination could I have ever envisioned the types of characters soon parading through my account. There was an inordinate amount of men donning bizarre hairstyles including mullets and a Flock of Seagulls triple mohawk. I’d somewhat expected the gentlemen who obviously were lying about their age, but many were clearly decrepit. One even used a photo of himself in a hospital bed as his profile pic. Another chap sported a neck brace and still another proudly presented only his elbow scab. WTF? Did was he seeking someone to kiss his boo boo?

Call me sheltered, but I had never been propositioned to join a threesome, let alone on a daily basis. The erotic mischief requested included a “submissive guy seeking his dominant queen” who pledged to be castrated for his future mistress. There was the married fella searching for an addition to his polyamorous relationship. Only semi-good-looking gals need to respond as his wife “was quite homely” and abundantly jealous.

Then there were the usernames: AwesummaCumLaude, Eatyourkitty and Chocolate Reggie whose self-summary proclaimed, “Just a funny man with a big dick and full wallet,” were a few highlights of this brigade.

I came to the realization that I needed to apply some filters to sift through the invitations infiltrating my inbox and “likes” tallies. There were the simple sorts regarding age, height and marital status. Long distance romancers and professed CIA operatives were weeded out. Then there was the Not a Chance in Hells:

  • Dudes who posted more pictures of possessions – boats, motorcycles, guns, etc. than themselves. Boys bragging about their toys repelled my interest.
  • Grand displays of hunting and gathering prowess. Apparently, a lot of women are enticed by all sorts of aquatic life dangling from hooks. I had better fish to fry.
  • Costumes of any kind. Save your pirate garb for Halloween.
  • The inability to compose a simple sentence. I was a sucker for well-written note demonstrating they had actually read my profile. Terse missives such as “Hey Baby,” “Yummy,” and “Mmmm,” did not set this essayist’s heart aflutter.
  • A sprawling list of dislikes. Profiles spewing negativity and demands of “no drama” signaled someone who was seeking compliance, not a relationship.

Getting with the dating program

The laws of attraction are a bit cockeyed in the virtual world. You are introduced as the result of a succinct CV processed through an arbitrary algorithm. Physical mannerisms, nonverbal cues or pheromones are not in play just yet. Charm and other nuances are compressed like dough through a pasta machine, then transmitted via an LED display. This two-dimensional showmanship was superficial at its best. Counterfeit at its worst. It took me a while to acclimate and learn how to decipher these exhibitions.  I’m not sure if I ever actually did.

With the simple click of a button, your interest in someone is proclaimed to the technological universe. Hopefully, they “wink” or like you back and the initial courtship begins. Last time I was in the dating arena, you danced with one partner at a time. When utilizing an app, one engages multiple prospective mates simultaneously. No more waiting to get home to check the answering machine. Messages appeared at all hours of the day and night. On some days, the frequent alerts buzzed my phone like a bumble bee stuck in a window shade. The cacophony of it all left me woozy. I soon became addicted to the rush of electronic seduction. On other days – many many days – the notifications fell silent. I checked and rechecked my phone, desperately seeking my fix.

“All that is gold does not glitter” – Tolkien

During this period, I relied heavily upon a close single friend for guidance. She was my Obi Wan – gifted in the ways of dating and an excellent counselor. Her eager apprentice, I regularly divulged the ups and downs of this unfamiliar terrain. We regaled each other with tales of fleeting passion, being ghosted and assorted profile oddities.

She recognized my dating immaturity, gradually teaching me to trust my own instincts and realize my self-worth. Each time I would come to her sorrowful from a rejection or breakup, she would always bestow the same advice, “I’m so sorry you’re in pain, but every relationship provides a valuable lesson. Whether it identified a trait in a man you can’t abide or gained an awareness of what brings you happiness, you have gleaned an insight into what you want out of a relationship.” Her mentorship proved invaluable.

This is not meant to be a manifesto railing about the perils of online dating. I know quite a few people who have successfully found their soulmates and/or future spouse. Personally, I frequently connected with men I found attractive, had a decently active dating life and various brief relationships. Did I find the next love of my life? That story is yet to be told…

 

 

 

The Seven-Year Itch

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It’s been seven years.

A week of revolutions around the sun.

Happy (?) deathiversary to me.


I’ve made (some) progress.

My days no longer commence with torrential tears.

I seldom sense the vacant weight of my wedding ring.

Still, my singularity seems abnormal.

A bunker of pillows occupies the empty promise that is his side of the bed.

The duo I once was has been replaced by a shadowed silhouette and what is left of me.


I obstinately strive to satisfy my sons’ paternal vacuum. The maternal exercise in futility I refuse to cease — the truth I’m reluctant to verify.

Even in the slightest dilemma, I wonder: What words of advice would he impart? Would this be happening if he was here?

The absence of a father’s wisdom torments a mother’s heart.


My widow’s shroud swaddles and suffocates. It’s my daily personal paradox: Do I let it lull me into a muffled serenity or should I cast off sorrow’s cocoon?

Grief is the wolf that threatens my sheep’s clothing.

When my children were in elementary school, they each witnessed the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly. As it neared the time for the insects to emerge from their chrysalis, the students were warned not to “assist.” Aiding or abetting in the butterflies’ escape could result in malformations. There would be no choice but to let flightless creatures succumb to their deformities. Successful transformation required solitary struggles.

I continue to curb such a transfiguration. I’m seeking adaptation, not evolution. Disowning all traces of my former self would be tantamount to annulling my marriage. I need to move forward, not break away.


My mourning attire is beginning to itch. At times it is sweltering. But will shedding it completely leave me basking in a cool breeze or shivering from my cold reality? Is such a prophecy feasible?

Do I really want to know?

The future whispers from just beyond the horizon. Uncertainty muffles the echo, but I must submit to its summons. Inertia will only spawn decomposition.

That’s not what he desired for me.

That is not what I aspire for myself.

A Mother’s Tale: Shielding and Letting Go

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Photo Credit: Flckr Commons

Once again, it was thrust upon us.

My sons and I were watching television and soon realized “IT” was going to be part of the storyline. Our lighthearted summer romp through The Hamptons was referencing a significant anniversary in the life of its main characters, a pair of brothers. Being the shrewd (and somewhat rabid) TV viewer that I am, I was able to quickly deduce the meaning of the upcoming fictional date.

Intuitively, I scrutinized my boys’ expressions to see if they had caught on. One of them readjusted his relaxed posture to more formal pose; the other shifted a bit in his chair. What used to take effort had now become instinctual. A narrative meant to tug at the heartstrings of most viewers was going to twist and turn ours. All three of us braced ourselves accordingly.

It had been 25 years since the death of their (the main characters’) mother.

“Shit!” I thought for seemingly the thousandth time. For a few years after we lost my husband, I would sidetrack my boys’ attention away from the television when such a plot development occurred. Sometimes, I would “accidentally” change the channel. “Oops!” I’d exclaim in my best, pseudo-innocent voice. Such tactics can only work for so long.


Wonder Woman Bracelets

Source: Giphy

The difficulties escalate this time of year.  My maternal eye views every Father’s Day themed commercial as a dart aimed squarely at my children. I would like to stand in front of them like Wonder Woman, deftly deflecting the onslaught of paternal imagery with a PING! and a POW! of my magic bracelets.  I’d encase both of them entirely in chainmail, if possible, to repel the wily projectiles that made it past me.

Regrettably, I haven’t always made the best decisions when it came to exposing my sons to unsuitable material. Case in point: I took both my sons to see the movie, ‘The Express’ mere months after losing their father. It was a film about Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. We were a football-obsessed family, so this should have been an enjoyable, but relatively uneventful weekend outing. What I carelessly overlooked is that Davis dies shortly after being drafted by the NFL. Of leukemia!!! Not my wisest parental decision.


I know it’s completely unrealistic, but I have often fantasized about a process where a cable customer could create a personalized warning system. A subscriber would enter whatever topics offended their sensibilities or damaged their emotional well-being. Shows would be subsequently scanned and customized alerts would appear when necessary. In the case of our household, they would read:

Caution, the following content contains scenes either depicting or referencing the death of one or more parent.

VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED


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In the movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale,’ it is a woman who constructs the breastplate that best guards the heart of Sir Ulrich. It is lightweight, flexible, but durable. He is able to joust without unnecessary constraints. I used to be my sons’ blacksmith. The sole designer of their shields. But they are now young men. They must forge their own suitable armour.

In the end, the hero of the movie winds up being overburdened by his defense mechanisms. His metallic safeguards, no matter how accommodating they once were, become too rigid for him to continue. The newly christened knight discards his gauntlet and faces his final opponent unmasked, unshielded, and exposed.  Ultimately, he is victorious over the enemy that challenges his rightful place in society.

Whatever fortifications my sons select – whether they are walls, moats, or armour – it needs to be an individual choice. It is up to them to determine if they want to erect barricades. They alone elect whether to build them up or tear them down and when. As much as I may desire to, I can’t protect them anymore.

And so, tonight we will turn the TV on again. Will our viewing choices be friendly to our little family? Maybe. Maybe not. A strong fatherly lead could induce a wave of melancholy in my sons. A commercial featuring an affectionate husband might strike a chord with me. It’s impossible to predict. Unless we choose to live a life of solitary confinement, complete avoidance is impractical and not at all feasible. We will each weigh our options. We will measure our selections against our defenses. Hopefully, at least for now, we won’t be found wanting.

Grief Lessons You Are Never Taught: The Prelude & Aftermath of Special Occasions

Lee Hayword

Few things in life are more personal than grief. The only one-size-fits-all premise is that everyone encounters, digests, and processes it uniquely. Since the progression of that process is in a perpetual flux, I find myself commonly exhibiting three different modes of grief. (Although I am sure there are others lurking.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:

  • The Neon Sign: This is time I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of “Sympathy for the suffering!” and “Alms for the widow!”
  • The Grace Kelly: Like a favorite pair of classically-styled earrings, my grief during these moments is subtle and demure, never ostentatious. It’s the pièce de résistance that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there.
  • The Influenza: This is the ailment you try to ignore – attempt to maintain the stiff upper lip. The problem is, the more you try to stifle this type of grief, the harder it is to breathe and the increasingly nauseous you become.

All these types are prowling about, waiting to crash the party, when you are about to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was recently discussed in a post on Medium and subsequently featured in the Huffington Post.

What I didn’t disclose, and what nobody prepares you for, is the before and after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days – and the ones when you feel the most isolated.  

The days, often weeks, before are a gradual crescendo. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You’re apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it’s an event that you have to attend – want to attend – such as a child’s graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.

When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling or as uplifting as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, throbbing ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.

But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails, or presents don’t materialize to celebrate, soothe, or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten – bereft of comfort and understanding. Like a burn victim, you need to debride the dead tissue: expose the uncontaminated and living flesh existing underneath the defunct scabs of yesterday. Most of the time, this is a solitary and nerve-wracking assignment. No one else recognizes the necessity.

For those who are grieving, give yourself the time you need to contend with a celebratory challenge. Allot at least 72 hours to endure and not be your customary, post-loss self. If you need more – take it! Don’t berate yourself if you can’t “get over it” in an arbitrary “timely” manner. Sorrow’s schedule is subjective. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one’s struggles.  Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.

Photo credit: Alone by Lee Hayword