Death Friends Grief Happiness


A few nights ago, I was having a dream. I was dreaming that I was at Purdue, and I was basically myself. I don’t remember why I was there: I may not have known even in the dream. But I had the distinct feeling that Jeff was just out of reach… like we’d broken up and it was something as simple as that. And I thought, “Omigosh – this is ridiculous. I’m just going to call him.”

Then I woke up. And I thought, “Yes! I’m totally just going to call Jeff!”

I had about half a millisecond where I forgot.

I often expect Jeff to walk through the garage door. What I expect — and what will actually happen — are two different things. I think part of me will always live in denial… not that I don’t believe it happened, but that I can’t believe it happened.

The other day, I had a conversation with a friend. It was a tough conversation. He was really, really sad… and really upset. I was totally present in the conversation, empathy pouring through the phone. I wanted to take the situation away from him, and I desperately wanted to say, “It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.” But in my most horrible moments, I want to slap someone who says that to me. So I didn’t. I just said, “This sucks. It shouldn’t have happened. I wish it hadn’t.”

But then, when we were finished, I hung up. His life is not mine. The memory of the phone call stayed with me, and my heart and stomach were heavy for my friend, but I wasn’t living it.

When I finished the phone call, I was sitting in my van outside Jake and Kate’s school. I had sat in the parking lot for 10 minutes, as we wrapped up conversation. When we did, I opened the Prime Now app on my phone; finished putting some groceries in my ‘cart’; picked my two-hour delivery window; and clicked ‘Place My Order’. And then I was completely disgusted with myself. How could I possibly order groceries at a time like this?! Who even cares about groceries?!

When everything was happening last year, I wanted people to feel it like I did. I wanted them to be crying when I was. In fact, when people cried in front of me – and then apologize for doing it – I’d say, “Please don’t apologize. It actually makes me feel better!”

I wanted two paradoxical things at the same time: for nothing like this to ever happen to anyone I know… and also, for everyone to experience it with me, so I wasn’t alone. I hated it that people could hang up the phone and then go buy groceries at Jewel. I hated it that people could leave my house at 8 p.m. and then go to their own house and sleep in the same bed with their spouse. I hated it that people went to work; went to church; went out to dinner; went and did anything that resembled a life of the living. Because we weren’t living that. We were living the life of the dying… and we didn’t know it yet.

My feelings were valid. But my expectations weren’t fair.

I suppose I’ve adjusted my expectations. I don’t expect people to know the right thing to say. I don’t expect people to completely stop their lives when something bad happens to me. And I can’t. That’s not how life works.

Because we can’t live anybody’s life but our own.

As one of my friends recently taught me, it’s fair to expect “positive intent” from others. Assuming positive intent gives grace. It allows conversation. It models how we want people to treat us. It’s not always easy, but it’s doable. And while some might accuse me of seeing life through rose-colored glasses, I can tell you that it’s not such a bad way to go about life. If people choose to take advantage of me, then that says something about them. Not me.

When Jeff was diagnosed, I was shocked at the outpouring of help, in the form of food, money, time, prayers… you name it. Floored. Jeff and I both: we often cried when people reached out to us, knowing that we might not have done the same if the situation had been reversed. We would’ve underestimated our impact. We would’ve underestimated how much our kindness mattered. Even Jeff, who I think often went above and beyond to help others, was shocked at what people did for us. I expected help, but far less than what we received.

And I didn’t expect people to stick around like they have. The kids and I have people who are in it for the day-to-day… the Monday-to-Friday crazy, when the loneliness settles deep in my stomach, and the realization that I am a single parent stares me straight in the face, in the form of an empty Children’s Benadryl bottle, and I call Trish and Scott to run to Walgreens for me, because otherwise I’d have to wake up two kids and put them in the car. It stares at me in the form of dinner not made or cleaned up; of the dishwasher not emptied; of laundry piled up; and of toys not put away. And, when I do empty the dishwasher, it stares at me through the one wine glass I put away, instead of two.

But my family has my lawn mowed. The Thomases have my house cleaned. Barb and Randy spend most of their Thursdays at my house, working their way through a “to-do” list that they ask me to leave. Often, I come home from work on Mondays, and they have taken my trash to the curb. And occasionally, I come home, and the trash bins are back in the garage; the dishwasher is emptied; and the dog has been taken for a walk.

The kids and I need people now just as much as we did when Jeff was sick. There’s a reason why people who come out on the other end of cancer are called ‘survivors’. There’s a reason why my children receive ‘survivor benefits’. And there’s a reason why I’m labeled as the ‘surviving spouse’ for many legal documents I have filed away. It’s because we’re all different now… and all of the connotations of ‘survivor’ apply.

And we also have something different to offer… something different that others can expect from us. For as much as having kids moved my center beyond myself, this has also shifted it. And now, Jake and Kate have empathy for the lonely and the abandoned: we often discuss when characters in books or movies have lost a parent or a loved one, and how we know what that feels like… how we miss Daddy, and it’s okay to be sad, but it’s also okay to be happy. Being happy is a choice that we get to make all the time.

There’s something deeply loving about being able to expect things from someone, and also to have things expected of you. There’s a predictability. A clearly-defined relationship. A deep trust. And no, expectations aren’t always fair. But a real relationship has expectations tied to it on both ends, and I think maintaining the relationship probably lies in clarifying what those expectations are. My family – both the Shepherds and the Thomases – have showed me that it’s okay to expect help. It’s okay to ask for it. And it’s okay to accept it.

I was paralyzed when Jeff was dying, because I felt that he was one of the few people in the world I could unconditionally expect something from. What would happen if he died? Who, if anyone, could I expect to be there for the day-to-day… the Monday-to-Friday crazy, when I want someone to talk to about my day, or bounce an idea around? To help put the kids to bed or watch TV for a half an hour? And, most of all, to give me a hug and kiss, and remind me that parenting is hard, and I’m doing basically okay? Who does that when you’re the only person over age 5 at your house?

When he died, I felt a void. I didn’t know who I could count on, or for what. I didn’t know what was reasonable, or fair to expect. I didn’t know what people could expect from me, or what I was able to give. And that is a scary place to be, because every relationship is up for grabs. They’re all being redefined. And as the ‘survivor’, my whole world blew up… it wasn’t just one relationship that changed. It was every. single. one. And when relationships change, expectations do too.

I can’t say for certain that I know what those boundaries are yet. But I can say that I am so thankful that they are forming again. Because expectations – for how unfair they can sometimes be – also offer a sense of security.

And, when done right, expectations offer love.

1 comment on “Expectations

  1. Pamela Leconte

    Jess, well said. I wish you could expect help from us.


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