Friday, November 21, 2014

Misreading Connections (posted in Huffington Post UK)

About a month ago I returned from the most extraordinary trip to Kenya. I had the honor to bring a small group of young widows from America to visit widows in the slum of Kibera. It was a journey of courage and of new beginnings. Most of these women from America had not met each other prior to the journey, let alone the women we would be spending time with in Kenya. They had put their trust in me and in the organizations, such as Tirzah International, which we were joining with.

The flight to Kenya went smoothly and we got to know a bit about one another along the way. Our commonality of being widowed young instantly connected us, as did our desire to experience purpose.

We landed on Kenyan soil relatively easily and were greeted by one of the women from the organization that we had partnered with. She had such warmth about her and I smiled thinking of how smoothly this trip would play out. The following day we were introduced to Judy Mbugua, a woman with a large smile and an even larger presence. Judy founded the Ladies Home Care Fellowship, as well as, the retreat center that we were staying in. She shared with us her story and we connected over large plates of grilled meat at the famous Nairobi restaurant called Carnival.

The following morning the widowed women that are served by Home Care and Tirzah were brought to the retreat center to join us. We were divided into small groups that included a translator so that we could share our stories easily. I was given my group of five women and we found a table in the garden. The women were quiet at first, which was partly because of language difference. I fiddled with my hands as I went first in sharing my story of becoming a widow. It was met with silence and blank stares. I wondered how effectively it was translated. Then, one by one, the women went around and shared their own stories. I went into this experience knowing that our lives were very different, but I had thought we would connect over being widows. I was incredibly misguided on this. I had lost a best friend, lover, and someone I ultimately looked up to. I mourned the loss of who my husband was as a person and the companionship he provided. They talked about the financial devastation of losing a spouse and the vulnerability that resulted because of his death. It would be rare for them to remarry as no one wanted a widow. Their own in-laws and family took property and left them alone. Often their spouses had left them HIV positive as well. Not one of the women mentioned the grief that they felt in missing a friend or lover. Instead, they shared about the grief that they felt in feeling isolated by the community and losing hope in the future. We were miles apart in geography and in experience. My heart sank.

For the first time, I began to wonder if perhaps this trip was a waste since our primary grief clearly didn't connect us. This was my seventh trip to Africa visiting Non-Profit organizations. How could I have been so naïve? All the details for the trip were planned and organized. It was supposed to run smoothly.

The next morning we traveled to the slum of Kibera to meet again with the 21 widowed women. They welcomed us to the retreat center with hugs and smiles. We spent time having lunch and singing songs. They explained how Homecare and Tirzah had helped them to earn money and gain confidence. They shared their work with us and we purchased some of their beautifully crafted items such as sweaters and jewelry. It was an inspiring to see the pride in their creations and to see that they were beginning to provide for their family.

We were led on a tour of Kibera and visited some of the women's homes. It is always incredibly difficult for me to put this experience into words. How can one describe the sights and smells of the largest urban slum in Africa? The residents live in extreme poverty without access to clean water and electricity. It is dire and the situation challenges all the more when you began to put faces to it. The faces of our friends. I hurt for them and not just because of the extreme poverty that they live in, but also because of the loneliness that they experience.

That same day we had come up with the idea to take a Polaroid of each woman with her team. We pasted it on a piece of colorful construction paper and had the entire group write personalized words of encouragement. That afternoon we presented it to the women and read out loud the words that were written. Such a simple activity turned out to be a huge blessing. It began to make sense as I though of the pure isolation and rejection that they have felt. They need people to build them up. We all do. We all want to feel worthy. Certainly living in the slum and being isolated as a widow makes it difficult to feel such.

The women told us how grateful they were that we flew all those miles to be with them. They felt loved and validated by that. One of the women from my group put her arms around me and didn't let go. She stroked my hair and told me she loved me. My eyes were opened to the connection that had taken place that I did not originally see or feel. I had a picture in my mind of what our trip and our connection was to look like and true to most travel experiences, it didn't play out that way. I looked for it in one way and yet it happened in another. Perhaps we didn't connect as widows, but we did connect as friends. Women who support one another. Friends. Allies.

So often we have such grandiose pans and need to have projects that yield visible results. The problem is that sometimes you do not see the results. I was reminded of this. Showing up is what counts. I don't think you can ever truly regret showing up and trying. When you reach out to touch someone, they inevitably end up touching you.

Women from our group looking out at a double rainbow during our safari at the end of the journey

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sisters in Grief Trip to Africa

As Originally posted in The Huffington Post Blog

The Third of May, 2007 was the day that my husband Mark died. The Third of May, 2007 was the day that I, for the first time in my otherwise rather charmed life, wished death upon myself. I was only 29 years old. Almost everything in my life has changed since then.
While living in an affluent suburb outside of Chicago, I felt alone in my grief as a young widow. I felt the loss of a level of expectation that perhaps only those living in first world countries have the luxury to possess so ignorantly. I had lost the American dream of the good-looking and successful spouse, the white painted fence, and the security of living life as I would design it to be. My sense of control was swept away by a harsh wave of realization that we, in fact, control little. I have since learned that it is best to live life with open hands as we cannot hold onto much of this life, no matter how tight our grip may be.
After my husband died I traveled to parts of Africa with a small group of individuals. I had been to Africa numerous times in years prior, but this time we visited a widow's colony and I met women who were not only widowed, but also forced to live on their own. These women had formed a community and the organization that I was traveling with was there to build them a well. We walked and talked with these women who had invited us into their lives. We also toured the neighboring villages where we were allowed into the homes of some of the residents. Stepping inside one of these tiny mud huts, my eyes swept across the otherwise bare mud walls until I noticed a small and frayed embroidered tapestry that said, "Learn to appreciate even the little that God gives you." Tears formed pools in my eyes as the impression of that tiny wall hanging was grafted on my heart. The framework for my expectations in life was forced to make a major shift. The experience opened my eyes and shook the dust off of long lost impressions from previous trips to third world countries. I realized that these women in Africa were my sisters. They were my sisters in grief and my sisters in hope as they taught me how to dance even through life's difficulties.
The experience of my visit certainly wiped out any self-pity that I was holding onto. Yes, I was widowed. Yes, I had experienced grief on a very deep level. Yes, my heart ached for my husband who I missed with everything in me. However, I was a young American woman who lived in a country in which I was free to pursue my own goals and dreams. I lived a life in which I was supported by those around me. My community didn't shun me, but instead supported me. I had much to be grateful for even in the midst of my pain. Glimmers of light began to appear in my otherwise dark soul. I felt connected, inspired, encouraged and full of purpose. The idea to bring widows from first world countries to visit widows in the third world was born.
I have found it to be a rare occurrence to feel such absolute vision and purpose. There have been very few times in which I felt as though I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. Writing my memoir was one and now this idea of taking young widows from America and Europe to visit their sisters in grief in Africa is another. I knew deep within that I was to pursue this. I had no idea when or to what magnitude, but the intention and purpose had been set firm in my otherwise feeble mind. I have expectantly waited and the timing has now presented itself. This October I have the honor to be traveling with a group of young widows from America and Europe to visit the work of two non-profits that assist widows in Kenya. I hope that this trip provides the space and opportunity for a group of women to support, encourage, and inspire one another. I pray that we will learn to live life with purpose and in gratitude for even the little that has been given. I desire for our hearts to feel joy in the midst of sorrow and perhaps most importantly, I long that we will learn to dance together as sisters through the grief with open hands and new purpose. We may not be able to control much, but we can choose gratitude and how to spend each and every day as it is given.

What Not To Say to Those in Grief: Part 2

As originally posted in the Huffington Post

Harsh words spoken from the lips of children can provide a bit of laughter. Harsh words spoken from the lips of adults sting. Here are some more examples of what not to say to those that are grieving, this time as taken from adults:
#1. "Don't worry. In time you will get another husband, child, friend, etc."
Although this may be true someday, it is not at all something that one wants to hear when grieving. I am now remarried but at the time I believed that I would never marry again. Saying that I would remarry made me feel as though people didn't realize how special my husband was. I lost someone who could not be replaced. Think about it, you may have another child or spouse or friend, but each and every person is unique. You can NEVER replace an individual and saying that you can devalues the one who was lost.
#2. "There is a reason for this. You will see the purpose (or God's plan)."
This is a saying that is commonly said within many religious circles and it can offend people whether they believe in God or not. When my husband died I struggled think of any grand purpose that would justify his death and I couldn't come up with one. Having someone tell me about a grand purpose while they turned and walked home to their spouse lit a angry fire deep within.
#3. "What can I do to help?"
This is perhaps the most common mistake. In the midst of grief I was so depressed that I couldn't identify any need. Tasks like shopping for groceries or mowing my lawn all seemed so trivial. I didn't eat, drink, or even sleep much. As cared so little about myself at the time, I certainly couldn't identify any need I had and being asked to identify ways in which someone could help me simply added another burden. Looking back, the friends and family who brought food, mowed my law and did grocery shopping without even asking were angels to me. They saw a need and acted on it.
#4. "You will grow so much as a person because of this."
I can certainly say that I am arguably a better person after going through grief. However, hearing this from others made me feel as though they believe he needed to die in order for me to be a better person. It also made me feel belittled as if I required such a deep level of growth that it took a major tragedy. Besides, your personal growth seems irrelevant at a time when you feel as though you might die from the level of misery you are in.
When looking at these examples of what not to say in grief, we are naturally led to the obvious question of what then to say. I have been asked for such numerous times and although I have personally swum in the depths of despair, I hesitate greatly to answer because each person and situation is unique. It is far too complicated for trite sayings. Therefore, I find it easier to focus more on what to DO.
My first word of advice is to learn to sit in silence and LISTEN. In fact, do not say anything. I realize that this is very hard to do as we are a culture of quick fixes, but it will help more than anything you could ever say. There are no words for grief and those who are grieving need to know that you are there for them. They need the physical presence of a friend and the support of a gentle hug. The best thing that anyone said to me at my husband's funeral was, "I am so sorry Sarah. There are no words". It was said with tears in her eyes as she embraced me. We stood together in that silence and it allowed for me to cry and release the pain that had been built up. I needed that more than any word spoken from her lips and she knew it.
The second word of advice is to act in kindness when the opportunity presents itself. Although I wasn't able to identify any needs I had during my darkest hours, I had friends and family who watched and showed up to act when it was most needed. Look for the times in which you can help and then do so. No matter how simple it may seem.
Finally, commit to being a friend in the coming months and years when others have long forgotten about the pain. We are a culture that moves quickly and yet grief does not.
Listen. Show up when needed. Be thoughtful and kind.

What Not to Say To Those in Grief (As originally posted in the Huffington Post)

lAs originally posted on the Huffington Post

Years ago one of my close friends told me that I should write about what NOT to say to those who are grieving. She stood by my side after my husband's death and heard first hand many of the offensive things that were spoken from the lips of others. Initially these comments angered and offended me. However, in time, these feelings slowly subsided as I began to realize that most of these offences were coming out of ignorance. The intention, I have chosen to believe at least, was often well meaning but the timing of the delivery or the content of what was said was off.
It was seven years ago that I lost my first husband in a tragic plane crash. At the time I was a second grade teacher and just the other day I came across the letters that my students wrote after his death. So now, at the thoughtful request of my dear friend Paige and with inspiration from my former seven year old students, I provide a list of what not to say:
"Dear Mrs. W,
I feel so bad for you. You must be sad. 
Sincerely, B.
PS. it is snowing in Colorado"
Although you may be excited about what is going on in your own life and think it may be helpful to share, do not do so unless he or she who is grieving asks. The beginning stages of grief are lonely and hearing about what is going on in the world can be rather isolating. It can make one feel like life goes on for others without so much of a thought about the person who died. Also, stating the obvious in that the grieving person is sad and has experienced a tragedy is awkward. I remember people standing in front of me saying what a tragedy it all was while staring into my eyes. It made me feel the pressure of having to console them and assure them that I was okay in order to ease their minds.
"Dear Mrs. W,
I know how you feel. My cat had passed out and I had to stay home for three days. 
Sincerely, R"
The saying, "I know how you feel" can be incredibly infuriating. Although you may think you feel as though you understand, you do not. Each person, relationship, and situation is unique. Treat them as such.
"Dear Mrs. W,
I am so sorry that Mr. W. died. But on the bright side you still have Bristol (dog). 
Sincerely, C"
Pointing out the positives in another person's life in the midst of their grief is an incredibly common mistake. Although I loved my dog Bristol, it in no way took away the pain of losing my husband. We can laugh at how ridiculous these words of a seven year old are, but I can assure you that many adults made similar comments. I was told to be grateful that I was young and would likely marry again. I was told to be happy about the love that I had experienced. Although statements such as these can be true in time, they seem to devalue the person who died and the feelings that the griever is experiencing.
"Dear Mrs. W,
I feel really bad for you. I know how you feel. My Grandpa died before I was even born. 
Sincerely, C"
Comparing a death that you have experienced or have heard about to the death of another is not fair or correct. Again, treat each person and each situation as unique. You may have had a similar experience, but you do not know all that the person feels.
These letters from my former students now provide me with laughter when I read them. However, the similar comments that I remember being made by adults do not. Everyone that I know who has grieved the loss of someone close has been offended by another's often well meaning comment. We are uncomfortable with pain and we want to lessen it with our words. So often the words that end up being said are those that attempt to console the one speaking them instead of the one who is grieving. Think about it. Be strong enough to show up and physically be there. Do not avoid the person or try to fix it with your words. Just be there. Some of these sayings may be true and perhaps can even be said at a later point, but not initially. Commit to reaching out in the months and years following by learning to listen and by learning to be a faithful friend when they need you.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Painful Reality of Becoming a Woman of Strength

Ephesians 3:16: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being
We all want to be women of strength. However, we likely do not desire all of what it takes to become her. Physical strength, emotional strength, spiritual strength and mental strength all require discipline and hardship. We long for the end result but we don’t want to endure the road that leads us there. We pray for God to make our life easy and instead he promises to discipline those he loves. He does this to develop strong characteristics within us.
Proverbs 3:12:  Because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.
I can vividly remember three specific times in which I was told that I was a strong woman and they all were birthed out of hardship. The first was after my husband Mark died. “You are so strong!” people would tell me when they would find out the grief I had gone through. People would say that they didn’t think they could survive like I had. The truth is, they likely would have. They would have because they would have no other choice. We must all go on and with God’s help, we can. I wouldn’t have thought it possible myself until I was in the depths and God led me through. Trusting in God and leaning on Him provides the ability to endure.
The second time I was commended for being strong was after running a marathon. My physical strength was built to a level that I had once never imagined possible. I remember watching my best friend’s sister run a marathon many years ago and thinking it was an impossibility for me. I started with a few miles and after much training, I completed 6 marathons in 3 years. This physical strength was built through hours of sweating the many tiresome miles of training. It was not an easy accomplishment and this is why it tasted so sweet to reach the finish line. Discipline leads to achievement.
The third time I was commended for being strong was after the birth of my child this past July. I labored for hours, many without pain relief, and eventually delivered a healthy baby boy. The physical pain that I experienced was worse than I had imagined and my husband, who watched it all, praised me for my strength. Ever since then, I have a new found respect for what women all over the world go through! I have to admit, I felt a bit feminist after the birth as I thought surely there is nothing women cannot do. We endure terrible pains for the outcome of a beautiful child. We endure pain to birth life.
“If you meet a woman of whatever complexion who sails her life with strength and grace and assurance, talk to her! And what you will find is that there has been a suffering, that at some time she has left herself for hanging dead.” -Sena Jeter Naslund
A woman of strength is one who is not merely physically fit, but one who is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually strong as well. Developing strength requires constant discipline and it is often built through hardship. By focusing less on ourselves and more on God who gives generously to those who ask, your strength can be built on every day. It is something to strive for daily in prayer and in action.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

When The Good Times Bring Up Grief

Three months ago I married a truly remarkable man. We met in a way that many believe, could only have been of God's design. He has had the strength to hear about my past and to read my memoir. He has allowed me to talk about my grief and he has comforted me when I have cried. He has many of the wonderful qualities that Mark did, but he is also completely different. Mark loved to go to bed early and my new husband loves to stay out late. He makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts and he loves to dance. Two things that I didn't have in my previous relationship. I love him and I am grateful that God has brought him into my life.

As our wedding approached, I was filled with excitement and surprisingly, also grief. Planning the wedding brought up memories of my wedding to Mark. It was a time of joy sprinkled with some sorrow. It surprised me some as I had never been told that the good times can bring up the dark ones.

It bothers me when I hear how happy people are that I have "moved on." They mean well, but the term "moved on" disturbs me. I have not "moved on" from Mark. I will always love him and miss him. Each friend you have is unique and different. If you lose a friend, you don't replace him or her with a new one. The same is true of a spouse. I love my new husband in a different way as I am a different person now and he is a different man. I believe the term "moving on" implies that you don't think about or grieve the past. I do though. The past is a part of who I am.

As I have adjusted to my new married life, many memories have been brought to life. It stirs up emotions that have laid dormant. At times it surprises me and at times I expect them.

I will cherish these gifts that God gives for even though life is bittersweet, it is also good. For this, I express my gratitude.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Perspecitve. It changes everything.

When I was left a widow at the young age of 29 in suburban Chicago, I felt as though my story was one of the most tragic I had ever known. When I compared my life to those around me in the affluent suburb in which I lived, I seemed to be so alone. I felt as though everyone else lived happily in their marriages with their beautiful children and in their comfortable homes. I know better now.

After Mark died, I traveled back to Africa with my in-laws. We visited a widow's colony and I met women who were not only widowed, but forced to live on their own, barely surviving. They lived together as a community and the organization that I was with was there to build them a well for fresh water. My eyes filled with tears as the reality of what I was experiencing sank in. It was difficult to comprehend and it certainly wiped out any self pity that I was experiencing.

Yes, I was widowed. Yes, I had experienced grief on a very deep level. Yes, my heart ached for my husband who I missed with everything in me. However, I was a young American woman who lived in a country in which I was free to pursue work and goals and dreams. I was also supported by those around me. The community didn't shun me, but instead supported me. I had much to be grateful for.

In this African village we were touring, we were allowed into the homes of some of the residents. These homes, which were mud huts, were taken care of with pride even though there was nothing to them. In one of them, I noticed a hand made wall hanging on the otherwise bare mud walls. It said, "Learn to appreciate even the little that God gives you."

Wow. That hit something so deep within me. It challenged me beyond measure.

Whatever your circumstance, wherever you may be, learn to live in gratitude. If these women in Africa can, certainly most of us can as well. It is a better way to live.

Love. Serve. Give.

A photo of the wall hanging.

If you are a widow and are interested in visiting and serving widows in Africa or India, please let me know. You can contact me through Purposeful Wanderings ( at

Read about the city of widows in India:CNN article on widow city in India