Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Letter to God: Two Years as a Widower

Dear God,

Has it been two years already? Two years since I held my wife’s cold body? Two years since I watched the morticians carry her down the front stairs? It’s hard to believe.


As I have walked the path of a widower with You I have consciously chosen a middle path between two different forks in the road.

Fork in the path #1: To honor Shannon’s memory, I need to hold closely to things that were important to her.

Sometimes people, after a loss, attempt to keep life the same. The deceased’s clothes hang in the closet. The decorations on the walls reflect the deceased’s decorating. Things that were important to the deceased remain important to the one left behind.

God, you know I have not chosen this fork.

Someone told me last week, “Your life has really changed.” A simple list reveals the truth of that!

Today I call Danielle Reuss my wife. After I got to know Danielle I knew that we would have a very happy life together. I now affectionately refer to Shannon as my ‘late wife.’

I sold our home in Eyota and moved to Rochester. I left a lot of memories behind, and I admit it was tough walking through the place for the last time, yet a new life with a new wife required a new start, including a new home. I love our new place.

As I cleaned out our home in Eyota, many things which held memory went away, either given as gifts to others or donated to charity.

I have made the decision to sell Shannon’s business and am in the process of negotiating to get that done. Shannon had a passion for Treefrog Treasures. While I enjoyed it, the passion was not there. After two years of owning it without her, the time has come to let others take over and to step away. For years the business took a significant amount of time to oversee (even with three full time employees). Soon I will have more free time. I look forward to that.

New life has come, and I’m enjoying myself immensely. I’m on a middle fork, which means there is one on the other side.  

Fork in the path #2: To shield myself from pain, I avoid thinking about Shannon

Sometimes people, after a loss, try to ‘move on’ and live life as if the deceased never existed. They avoid talking about the deceased, put away pictures of the deceased, and do whatever they can not to remember.

God, you know I have not chosen this fork.

When my son Ben and I talk we often share memories of things Shannon has done. She comes up in conversation on a somewhat regular basis. After 22 years of marriage, I have a font of fun stories to tell!

Shannon’s ashes rest on a shelf in my home next to our wedding photo. The day will come when they are buried with her mother, but for now they remain here. A few decorations from our life together grace our new house. I have visible reminders around me of my life with Shannon.

Worship songs still bring tears. God, just this past Sunday the song kept returning to ‘Holy Holy Holy,’ the words from Revelation on the lips of the hosts of heaven singing Your praises. Shannon now sings with that host. I choked up trying to join in the singing.

Shannon’s family remains my family. Her folks remain my in-laws. We have forged years of relationship. They understand that my life has changed. They remain a part of that life.


My personal journey has kept me on a path between these two different forks. I deeply remember Shannon while living a new life. I have found it possible and healthy to live in this middle space. God, thank you for leading me on this journey.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Letter to God (and Shannon): Thank you for the wedding gift

Dear God –
I have a letter for You to pass on.  I include it below.  Shannon is with you now, not me, so I can’t just talk to her.  I’d like to let her know that I’m getting married in two days.  I know full well this isn’t how it works (it’s wrong on so many theological levels), but it feels like the right thing to do.
Thanks!
Pete

Dear Shannon,
I’m getting married in two days. Yes, married! Can you believe it? I think you knew Danielle, at least a little bit. She led worship from time to time at our church. She always goes out of her way to welcome new folks to People of Hope, so I’m sure you met her. She remembers meeting you!

I want to tell you about the wedding day, but first I want to thank you for your wedding gift. You gave me the best wedding gift a remarrying widower could possibly want. That day of hospice over a year and a half ago, while your physical body weakened as cancer took its toll, you sat me down, looked me in the eye, and said, “Pete, you are young. Go out and enjoy life. Find someone to love. I want you to be happy. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be gone.” Those simple, profound words opened up the possibility for a new relationship for me. You understood that I’m not a person who enjoys being alone. You remembered that the vows that we made to each other included ‘until death parts us.’  You loved me enough to give me the emotional freedom to step into a new relationship without an ounce of guilt that I somehow ‘betrayed your memory’ in some way. It took courage on your part to let go. Thank you for that gift.

Shannon, you get to be a part of our wedding ceremony. In the prayers we will remember the ways that God blessed marriages in the past, including Danielle’s folks, Dad and Edee, Dad and Mom, your folks, and, yes, Pete and Shannon Reuss. A picture from our wedding will join those other wedding photos (we were so young!). I do not enter inter a new marriage pretending that I have never been married before. I bring all the love that we had for each other forward, knowing full well that I am in a new relationship with a new woman. I have moments of tears as I remember the love we had for each other (I’m wiping some right now), but that past does not consume me. You freed me to love again. Again, thank you.

It’s going to be a fun party! We talked many times about our regrets of not having a dance at our wedding. We were young and didn’t know what a wedding could be like! Well, Shannon, on Saturday we’ll make up for that. We’re still not going to have a lot of dancing (you’ve seen me dance…it’s not pretty) but we’re going one step further: karaoke! Yup, we’ll be singing! You’d be proud. We’ll have games and pizza and family. It’ll be great!

In two days I again will stand with a woman and vow, “Until death parts us.” These are exciting days. Thank you for your part in making it possible.

Your loving husband (for you will always be my first wife),
Pete

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Letter to God: Goodbye to our home

Dear God,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written! After Shannon died we spent a lot of time together in these
letters as I worked to process what her death meant for me. In these past seven months life has continued to unfold. For the most part I have looked forward to the life that is to come: taking on new work responsibilities, moving things into a new home, planning a wedding. I step into the future with hope and anticipation.

Yet in the midst of that journey, from time to time I find myself continuing to walk through a valley of grief. In sorting through my home to prepare to move to a new place I’ve uncovered things which brought memories flooding through me: pictures of Shannon from our year of living in Idaho, Shannon’s ubiquitous ‘to do’ lists, her favorite ‘no hair day’ baseball cap. Memories bring joy…and pain. Last month I attended a meeting at the church that hosted Shannon’s funeral. I hadn’t been there since the day they wheeled the casket out the door and into the waiting hearse. As I approached the building I pictured the whole scene in my mind.

This week I have taken another step on that long journey. On Tuesday I stood in our home in Eyota for the last time. This morning completed paperwork will transfer ownership into a new name. Shannon and I bought the home in 2003 after a whirlwind day of house hunting. Her business moved into the basement, with inventory quickly overwhelming the place. This house saw Ben grow from a cute kindergartner to a grown college man. The walls reverberated with sounds of love, laughter, and joy. They also witnessed 11 years of chemotherapy, becoming Shannon’s safe haven when she felt tired or run down. The home became a place of gathering as Shannon entered hospice and loved ones streamed to say goodbye. It grew quiet after Shannon passed away and Ben went to college.

On Monday I signed my paperwork allowing the house to start new memories with a new family. It felt strange to only see my name listed as owner. I never owned that house alone…Shannon and I bought it. Shannon and I lived in it. Yet only one name remained, and I scrawled it on many documents.

On Tuesday evening I met the new owner for a final walk through. I stayed for a time after she left to say goodbye, goodbye to a place that knew so much love. As I walked from empty room to empty room I wanted to flood myself with the joyous memories of the place. They wouldn’t come. As I stood in the living room I remembered it filled with people coming to see Shannon on hospice. When I walked into the bedroom I remembered sleeping on the floor and Shannon stumbling into the bed the night before she died, frustrated that I wasn’t there to help her. As I entered her ‘office’ I could only picture the hospital bed with her still, unbreathing body. As I moved to the front door I envisioned the morticians carrying her frail body down the stairs. A place that holds so many wonderful memories had become a place holding pain. So with tears I said goodbye and walked away for the final time.

I may have left that house, but it remains a part of my story, a reminder that grief will never simply go away. Frankly, I don’t want it to. I gave several decades of my life to living with Shannon Helfritz Reuss, and I will never pretend that life just ‘moves on.’

In 16 days I will once again stand before a pastor with a woman I love and say, “Until death parts us.” Life will continue in exciting and wonderful ways. Yet even as I look forward to the future I bring the past with me. I am a widower. Shannon remains my late wife. From time to time that reality will flood my eyes with tears. That’s normal and OK. It doesn’t diminish my love for Danielle or the hopes I have for our life together.

These weeks bring new steps on the journey of grief. Not stepping away from Shannon and her memory. Not stepping to Danielle and our future together. Just steps on a journey. Thank you, God, for walking with me every step of the way.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Letter to God: One Year Later

Dear God;

One year ago…

One year ago my wife Shannon’s journey through cancer and hospice ended.

One year ago death came and claimed her. 

One year ago You welcomed her home.

One year ago I lay next to her still body, weeping over the loss of a woman I loved so much.

One year ago I stood by as the mortician carried her small, frail body out the door.

One year ago my life without Shannon began.

One year ago.

Twelve years ago, that day in February 2004, my grieving began.  On each step of the cancer journey, as Shannon’s health faded in and out, I grieved the loss of things Shannon and I so enjoyed.

Two years ago Shannon’s health was on an upswing, the chemo held the cancer in check.  We had an amazing summer of long walks, vacation, and time together.  We (unrealistically) talked of where we’d live when we retired. 

One year ago last September, in one doctor’s visit, we went from being one good chemo away from kicking the cancer aside to entering hospice and waiting for the end.

One year ago.

For one year I’ve had to learn what life looks like without Shannon Marie Reuss.  I have had to learn what it means for Pete Reuss to grieve (learning that we all grieve differently).  It hasn’t meant sitting on my own and feeling sorry for myself.  It hasn’t meant long nights of tears.  It has meant living life to the fullest.  It has meant doing exactly what Shannon told me to do, “Don’t pine away for me.  I won’t be with you anymore.  Go live your life.”  In this year I unexpectedly fell in love and asked Danielle to marry me.  In this year I have brought a partner on to Shannon’s business and moved it forward in exciting ways.  In this year I have lived focused on the life that You lay out before me. 

For me, grieving has meant finding time to intentionally pause to reflect and remember.  It has meant keeping a blog as a way to process my thoughts.  It has meant weeping during worship services as we sing about the host of heaven gathered around Your throne…a host Shannon now sings with.  It has meant telling stories of Shannon on a regular basis.  It has meant speaking to groups about the way that I’ve walked this journey of grief, a journey which began with my mother Edee in 1979 and continues through today.

God, one year ago my life changed.  You carried Shannon into Your loving arms.  In this year you have surrounded me with your love.  Some days have been rough.  Many days have been just fine.

One year ago.  Today I pause to remember the life of a woman who meant so much to me.  I’ll go for a walk in the woods, just like I did on this day last year.  I’ll walk alone with my memories.  Tears will well up. 

God, one year ago.  It’s hard to believe.  Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Your Child,

Pete

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Letter to God - Today would have been my anniversary

Dear God –

Twenty three years ago today, July 10, 1993, I stood at Your altar at Trinity Lutheran Church in Watertown, Minnesota, holding the hand of my fiancée, Shannon Reuss.  Before You I pledged to be faithful to her until death parted us.  I gave her a ring as a symbol of my love and faithfulness.  She became my wife.  You witnessed and blessed the whole thing.

Every year Shannon and I celebrated our anniversary.  Sometimes we’d go out for dinner.  Other times we went on small trips.  To celebrate our 20th anniversary we ‘pulled out all the stops’ and went to Mayo Clinic so she could have chemo (this is what happens when cancer is in your life).  Some saints from my congregation heard about it and decorated the room on the chemo ward for us (I’ll never forget that day!).  Last year we celebrated our anniversary with her getting prepped for radiation (did we know how to party or what??).  For twenty-two years July 10th would come and I would say to Shannon, “This is my anniversary.”   Not this year.  The ovarian cancer finally got the best of Shannon last October.  Now she celebrates something even greater before Your throne.

Last night I was with my new fiancée, Danielle (that’s a happy story for another written prayer).  I commented, “Tomorrow would have been my anniversary.”  Would have been.  If Shannon lived…then it would be our anniversary.  In this case, the ‘if’ did not happen.  Shannon does not live, so it is not our anniversary.

“Would have been.”  It sounded odd coming from my lips.  Odd, yet harshly true.  Life has changed, I can’t control that.  I can control my language.  On July 10th I will always say, “This would have been my anniversary.”  It will be  day to reflect and remember a past relationship that I deeply loved and appreciated. 

God, the change in language feels significant to me.

Recently I attended a church campout with Danielle.  In the midst of a conversation I found these words coming out of my mouth, “My wife Shannon and I used to…”    I could sense a flicker of confusion on the listener’s face.  He didn’t know me well.  I doubt he knew about Shannon, her ovarian cancer, or her death.  He did know that Danielle and I are engaged and that next June ‘my wife’ will be Danielle, not Shannon.  I quickly explained the background so he knew what I was talking about.

It made me wonder how to refer to Shannon.  For twenty two years the  title ‘wife’ went with Shannon.  I don’t want that to ever change.    What descriptor do I put in front of it to help people understand (without having to share the whole story)?  “My wife” makes it sound like she’s in the next room.  “My ex-wife” sounds like we were divorced.  “My first wife” can be taken in many directions.  God, I’ve settled on “My late wife” to describe Shannon.  It seems to fit well.  It acknowledges the relationship which meant so much to me, but it also makes clear that new realities have come.


As life changes, words change.  “Today would have been my anniversary.”  “My late wife Shannon.”  These small changes reflect the new reality that I live with.  Shannon has been gone for nearly nine months.  God, these words give me a way to hold to the past while living in the new life that You provide.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Letter to God (and Shannon): Mother's Day Pride

Dear God –
I have a letter for You to pass on.  I include it below.  Shannon is with you now, not me, so I can’t just talk to her.  It’s Mother’s Day, and I want her to be aware of how well her son is doing.  I know full well this isn’t how it works (it’s wrong on so many theological levels), but something in me wants to get this letter off my chest.
Thanks!
Pete

Dear Shannon –

I wanted to let you know…Ben is doing great!

In February I got to take Ben to the Cities for his All-State Band Weekend.  We missed the summer concert because you were sick (and I was busy), but I made it to this one.  His Concert Band sounded amazing.  Ben sat there on the stage in Orchestra Hall and played with so much enthusiasm.  Shannon, you would have been proud.

Last weekend I took Ben to Toronto for a Magic the Gathering Grand Prix.  You know how much he loves that game and how much time he puts into perfecting his strategy.  I piled him and Ryan into the car and hit the road so they could be in a tournament with 1700 other people.  As you can imagine, he loved it.  The plan was to let them play on Saturday and hit the road for home (it was a 14 hour drive!) right away on Sunday morning.  Shannon, we didn’t get to leave until 2 PM on Sunday because Ben played so well!  Only the best players played on Sunday, and Ben ended in the top 15%!  You would have been proud.

Yesterday was Ben’s senior prom, and (unlike last year) he actually went!  We got him a tux and he looked SO dapper.  Had you been here you would have taken a zillion pictures.  Shannon, he looked a whole lot like me at that age.  You would have been so proud. 

In three weeks Ben graduates from Dover-Eyota High School.  The end is in sight.  On Tuesday he takes his last Calculus exam and will go to college this fall with not one, not two, but THREE levels of calculus under his belt.  Ben’s graduation robe is hanging in my closet, a daily reminder that my time with him is short.  Shannon, he’s almost made it.  You would be so proud.

In three short months Ben will be off to college.  All the hard work you did in raising this boy is paying off.  He’s a brilliant, talented kid who succeeds at whatever he puts his mind to.    Other parents constantly remind me of how much they trust him…how much caring and compassion he shows…how helpful he is to their kids.  Shannon, you quit your nursing career to stay him with Ben and raise him well.  You did good work.  It breaks my heart that you don’t get to see him grown, living with your legacy.  It doesn’t seem fair.

Happy Mother’s Day!  I know you loved this boy with your whole heart.  He’s doing great.  You’d be proud.

Your loving, widowed husband,

Pete

Monday, April 18, 2016

Letter To God - Shannon's Birthday & Six Months Without Her

Dear God,

Six years ago we pulled out all the stops to celebrate Shannon’s 40th birthday, with karaoke, catered food, and nearly every friend and family member joining in.  While a 40th doesn’t usually require a party of that magnitude, this one did.  At that point Shannon had endured two surgeries and over six years of chemo to keep her ovarian cancer at bay.  Many people get anxious around birthday time, especially major ones like a 40th.   Shannon had the opposite perspective, excitedly proclaiming “Another birthday and I’m still alive!” 

God, this morning I woke to April 18th.  Shannon’s birthday.  Another birthday.  God, she’s not alive.  Exactly six months ago Shannon took a breath for the last time.  Six months ago I fully entrusted her to you, to live in Your presence.  Six months.  Sometimes it seems like yesterday.  Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago.

God, today’s events served as a symbol of my journey of grief. 

Today I went to Chester Woods, the place where Shannon and I went on countless walks over the past years.  Chester Woods, the place where I went for a walk mere hours after her death.  I parked in our usual parking lot and took familiar paths through the woods.  A year ago Shannon and I walked those trails and watched life come back to nature around us.  Shannon would pull out her camera to capture the newly emerging leaves and flowers, recording the beauty all around us to share on her Facebook page.  Today I went to Chester Woods to remember.  It felt like the right thing to do.

But God, today at Chester Woods was very different.  I walked the trail with Danielle, not Shannon.  When we came to a fork we turned right instead of left.  Before long we found ourselves deep in the woods on trails I didn’t know existed.  We found new places, walked a much faster pace, shared very different conversations.  Yet the paths looped back and finished on familiar territory. 

I have a little 9 foot dinghy that I brought home from the cabin somewhere around 2011 with a plan of taking it to Chester Lake.  Now, nearly five years later, I went boating at Chester Woods.  God, I went to Chester Woods today and new experiences blended with the old ones.

That’s my life these days.  I live surrounded by memories of Shannon.  I’m in the house that she loved and decorated.  Her photos hang on the wall, our wedding rings lie on my dresser, her ashes rest in the living room.  I will never forget the woman I loved so much for so many years.  Today I wore an old Relay For Life T-shirt with ‘Caregiver’ on the back.  It felt like the right thing to do.

God, despite all those reminders, I live in a new world.  In the past six months I’ve done many new things, I’ve reconnected with old relationships, I’ve built new relationships.   I no longer serve as a caregiver to someone with cancer.  My days look vastly different than they have over the past decade.

God, I’m trying to find a healthy balance between the past and the present.  At Chester Woods today I took the opportunity to tell Danielle about meeting Shannon, our early years of dating, our engagement, our marriage.  I recalled our camping trips to the mountains of Idaho, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the southern end of Illinois.  I told about the countless letters she would send to encourage her friends.  In the midst of those conversations Danielle and I talked about many other things that pertain to life in the here and now.  God, today I remembered the past while being with someone new in the present. 

Tonight Ben and I went out for dinner at Shannon’s favorite Greek restaurant.  We shared memories of ‘mom.’  We looked ahead to a future without Shannon in it.  We need both.  It felt good.


Shannon’s birthday today.  Six months of life without her.  God, I find myself in a healthy place.  On the one hand I’m not ignoring Shannon or the huge impact she had on my life.  On the other hand I’m not trapped in the past and unable to move into the future that You have for me.  It’s an interesting journey.  Thank You for showing me life in the midst of death.