In lieu of sending out Christmas cards this year, which would have taken far too much time and money (last year I sent out over 120), I’m posting this update on my family instead. It may not be the same as receiving a letter in the mail, but hopefully it will still be enjoyable to read.
As Christmas and New Year’s Day approach, it seems fitting to reflect on memorable moments from this past year. My children and I have had our share of victories and struggles, but through it all, we’ve learned to persevere, to lean on one another, to ask for help when we have needed it, and above all to trust in God to provide for all our needs.
So many loving people have blessed us with their support and generosity. Without them, we would not be where we are today, which I’m delighted to say is a much better place than where we were nearly two years ago following Kristen’s sudden and tragic passing. Our mornings and nights are rarely easy, but we have adapted to our new routine as a family of three, and our love for one another has never been stronger. There is not a single sign of defeat within us, and our future together looks bright!
My beautiful children continue to grow and mature. Ian turned 1 in February and Elizabeth 6 in May. I like to tell people that I don’t feel like I get any older, but when I look at my children, the passage of time becomes pretty obvious. Both of their birthday parties were rousing successes thanks to the love and support of family and friends.
Ian was absolutely adorable in his little birthday hat, but he surprised us all when he cried out in terror as soon as we placed the cake with the lit candle in front of him. Many in attendance had never seen him cry before, and I never imagined he would react to fire that way. Perhaps he will grow up to be a fireman. I don’t know what his career path will be, but I do know he is growing up fast. He took part in his daycare’s Christmas program this year, the first of many I hope. Seems like just yesterday I was holding his little 7 lb. 8 oz. body in the hospital.
Ian is such a joy. I’ve been with him as he’s said his first word (“Da da” by the way) and taken his first steps. He’s moved away from baby formula and enjoys feeding himself with a spoon these days. He’s always smiling and happy. My friends regularly remind me how fortunate I am to have a child with his temperament, and they couldn’t be more right. He is my little buddy, my precious little man. He brightens every day with his smile and playfulness—especially when he sticks out his tongue. My prayer for him every night before bed is that he will come to know Jesus in a close and personal way. Lord willing, I will be with him throughout his life to offer unconditional love and unwavering support, but I also pray God will continue to send loving people into his life to fill in the gaps where I fall short as a single parent.
Elizabeth was involved in several remarkable events in 2014. She finished Kindergarten and moved up to 1st grade, performed in her first dance recital, attended her first church camp, went to the beach twice in one summer, sang in her school’s Thanksgiving program and our church’s Christmas program, and lost her first tooth. Her school also recognized her as a STAR3 student for being Respectful, Responsible, and doing the Right thing. The school board presented her with a commemorative plaque, and we were excited to have the support of her teacher, guidance counselor, and principal.
As Elizabeth has grown a little more, she and I have started going out on Daddy-Daughter dates. I took her to the Greensboro Coliseum twice in December, first to see Disney’s Frozen on Ice and then for her first college basketball game. She enjoyed Frozen more (I knew she would), but it was nice to share quality time and make memories together. That’s really all I care about anymore, making sure that my children feel my love and support and see my desire to be part of their lives.
Elizabeth is also a fantastic big sister to Ian! The two of them play together so well, and there is no sound more pleasing to my ears than hearing their innocent laughter. Any time Elizabeth has been gone for a sleepover, I’m reminded of how much I rely on her in the mornings to help me with Ian. She watches him while I’m in the shower and plays with him when I’m getting dressed. She’s so very loving and gentle, and I do not know what I would do without her. I pray for her every night, too, and hope that she will dedicate her life to serving God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The past year has been tough for me. March 4 marked the one-year anniversary since Kristen’s death. I took the day off from work to visit her grave and reflect on the journey I’ve been on since she’s been gone. I know I’ll see her again one day, but it was hard to believe that a whole year had passed since she left this earth. It seems even more surreal that in just a few months, it will have been two years since she died.
The anniversary of her death along with so many stresses in my life began to take a heavy toll on me. I struggled with a lot of anger and bitterness. I couldn’t understand why God would allow Kristen to die and leave my kids without their mother and me without my wife. I kept thinking, “How could anything good come from such a tragedy?”
I was in a dark place for much of the first half of the year, and sometimes it felt like I was just sleepwalking through life, as if someone had flipped an autopilot switch and I was merely going through the motions. I found that I couldn’t move forward until I allowed God to take my brokenness and mold me into a better and more complete person. That was difficult for me to do: to let go and let God have His way with me. I fought Him for a while, but in the end, after I had exhausted all my plans, I realized what I should have known all along, that His ways are better than my ways. Once I yielded, He began to mend my brokenness, and I am a stronger person today because of His never-ending love, grace, and mercy.
Despite the emotional turmoil I was going through, I continued with my history Ph.D. program and finished all my coursework in the spring. It was such a great feeling to know that I will never have to take another class again. With the academic year over, I was able to recharge over the summer. I was privileged for the seventh year in a row to work with UNCG’s incoming freshmen, answering their questions, and helping them register for classes. I always enjoy the experience, seeing the students’ excitement and working alongside many wonderful faculty and staff. I really needed the summer to unwind and rejuvenate my tired mind, body, and spirit, and a weeklong trip to the beach definitely helped. It was during this time that I decided to create a dedicated blog to document my journey through grief (rather than filling my up friends’ news feeds with long status updates on Facebook).
The start of another academic year breathed new life into me. In the fall, I taught a course on US history from 1492 to 1865, and I really enjoyed working with my students. I feel like I grew as a teacher and learned a great deal from the experience. However, my most significant accomplishment in the fall came when I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams. I had to be familiar with all of American history as well as the main arguments of nearly 450 history books in order to prepare for three written exams and an oral exam.
The task of studying seemed daunting, in part because my grief had wiped out most of my memories from the previous two years. I remember going to class, reading and discussing historical works, and writing papers, but to this day, I cannot recall a lot of the specifics. It’s like the information is still there in my brain, but I can’t access it. For someone with a fairly good memory, this has been unsettling to say the least. But I trusted God to guide me, and I relied on several wonderful families to watch my kids on the weekends while I studied. All the stress (and weight gain from eating too much junk food) was totally worth it, though, as I am now one step closer to finishing my degree. Only my dissertation remains.
On a personal note, after nearly 18 months of intensely grieving, I entered a new phase of my life and started dating again. It was time to take this step and allow a once-dormant part of myself to reawaken. I am glad I did because I learned that it is OK to enjoy being with someone else and not feel guilty about it. When I was going through the most debilitating grief, I simply couldn’t imagine dating someone after Kristen, but thankfully I had the support to work through those dark times. Even though I lost my wife and am a widower by definition, that label does not define me. I remain happily single now and have no plans to enter into a serious relationship at this time, but I am glad I was able to trust someone else with my heart and love again.
I love to share what God has been doing for my children and me! Please ask questions if you have them. Too many people are afraid to ask because they don’t want to say something that might upset me, but I welcome questions (I am a teacher, remember?) I’ve witnessed some of the impact my story has had on my community, and I’m grateful to Nancy McLaughlin and Joe Rodriguez of the Greensboro News & Record for running another article on my family this past March (we actually made the front page above the fold! Check out the article here: http://www.news-record.com/one-year-later-young-widower-father-adjusting-to-new-life/article_dd7a0682-b566-11e3-b324-001a4bcf6878.html)
My hope is that by sharing my story online, more people will see that I’ve found peace and joy in this world even though my wife is no longer part of it.
My grief did not kill me. I might have felt like (and hoped) it would at times, but this journey has made me more compassionate, loving, and authentic. I am a better person today than I was two years ago, and God willing, I will continue to grow and mature just as my children do each day.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Joseph, Elizabeth, and Ian Ross