The last two weeks I’ve done some soul searching. I’ve come to some stark realizations about how several very separate events in our lives can be so intertwined that we confuse them and bundle them up as one package. One painful moment seems to run into the next painful moment like paint running together on a canvas until all beauty is marred and is seen as one giant glob of paint. My task now is to unravel the package and deal with each event separately.
I married a man 12 years older than I. I was only 22, and he was 34 when we married. He was divorced, and had a 4-year-old son. At 22 years old, I was totally unprepared to be a stepmother. I had the great blessing of coming from a happy family, and I had no clue what divorce was all about. Nothing in my short life history could possibly prepare me for the emotional turmoil that comes with divorce.
Mistakes were made, and many of them were my own. Unfortunately, the biggest mistake that I made was not realized by me until it was way late in the game, and my stepson was an adult. It was too late to undo what had been done, so I began the process of repairing the damage. Suddenly, at 35 years old, my stepson was tragically killed while filling a pothole on Highway 50 just outside of Sacramento, California. To make matters worse, he was killed two days before my birthday, four days before our anniversary, and two weeks before Christmas.
Grief takes on many forms. I’m not schooled in psychology, so I won’t try to give an accurate description of the stages involved in the grieving process. I will speak only to what happened to me personally.
Initially, I stuffed my grief in my pocket. After all, he had a mother, father, siblings, widow, and children who certainly deserved to grieve more than I, or so I thought. While his stepsons were adults, his stepdaughter was 10, and his daughter 8 when he was killed. I went into protective mode to help my husband, children, and grandchildren. I pulled it together long enough to get through funeral planning for a huge funeral to include hundreds of Caltrans workers. I kept it together long enough to speak at the funeral. We managed to get through the holidays. I testified to the California State Legislature in support of the “move over” law to protect the safety of highway workers. I continued to keep it together for my family while we waited for the Highway Patrol report. It took just two weeks short of a full year to receive that report. Everyone wanted to know what was in the report, but understandably, nobody wanted to read it. So I excruciatingly read all 184 pages of the report and summarized it for my family so they wouldn’t have to read it. Three full years after his death, I was sitting at my desk at work, looked up at his picture and lost it. Three years of grief all came at once, and I cried all day mindlessly attacking projects on my desk simultaneously.
Repentance and Making Amends
After grief (or really simultaneously) came repentance. I felt I needed to repent for mistakes made as a stepmother. Repentance is a process. One of the steps of repentance is making amends so there is justice, and we all know that sometimes it is too late to really make amends. How could I make amends to a stepson who had passed beyond the veil? The only thing I could do was to try to educate people about highway worker safety which I was already doing. I needed to turn his death into something good. Now, I worked with a vengeance. I blogged, I used social media, I wrote letters to the news media, I took every opportunity to get the message out.
The other night, I was sitting at my computer past midnight literally holding my left eye open with my left index finger while pinning Highway Safety Worker posts to my Pinterest board on the internet. The annual memorial for fallen Caltrans workers was this week, and in an emotional burst, I had renewed dedication to educating the public about highway worker safety. When I could literally no longer see the computer screen, I said out loud, “Stop. What are you doing? You have got to stop.” Then it hit me. I needed to forgive myself.
Here is my next challenge. Maybe it is the next step of grief, or maybe it is just the next step in my personal growth. I need to forgive myself.
The last 4 1/2 years since my stepson’s death, I have actually thought at times that I should never have married my husband. Maybe he should have married someone older and wiser who could have been a better stepmother. I should have told him that I wouldn’t marry him. Yes, that’s how crazy I’ve been. We have been happily married for 35 years, and those are the thoughts that occasionally come to mind since my stepson’s death. He could have had a more patient wife who would have been more loving, more caring, more understanding, more, more, more. If only I had been perfect. If only I had done this. If only I had done that. If only I had said this. If only I had not said that. I should have made him a special dinner instead of making him eat what was put in front of him. If only I had let him throw that basketball in my living room. If only I hadn’t scolded him for playing one parent against the other and instead looked the other way. Yep, I know. It makes no sense. Grief makes no sense.
I find it interesting that I was able to forgive the young driver who took my stepson’s life, but I’m still struggling to forgive myself for feeding the kid peas, making him tie his own shoes, and demanding that basketballs were “outside toys.” Normally, I’m a very logical person with a very logical mind. Grief is not logical.
“When the Lord requires that we forgive all men, that includes forgiving ourselves. Sometimes, of all the people in the world, the one who is the hardest to forgive—as well as perhaps the one who is most in need of our forgiveness—is the person looking back at us in the mirror.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency
I love that quote because it has certainly been true in my life. Forgiveness has never come easy to me, especially when I need to forgive myself.
It is time for me to unravel the events in my life and deal with each one separately. Each “stepparent moment” is separate and distinct from the tragic accident that killed my stepson. I can no longer bundle them into one package. The fact that I married a divorced man with a 4-year-old son is separate from my inexperience with divorce.