Sometimes Things Fall Into Place

“Life is either an amazing adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller

Since I posted last, I moved back home. Technically, that is true–I moved back to Charlotte, NC, where I grew up, and back in with my parents. That’s home, right? Parts of it do feel like home, but my home has been other places for at least a decade already.

This is not the first time in my life that I’ve done something that I never thought I’d do. At various points, I’ve said I’d never get married, never have kids, never get a tattoo, and never live in the south again. I’m kind of almost close to realizing I shouldn’t be making dramatic, declarative statements like that anymore.

My life has felt really out of control for a very long time. A terminal cancer diagnosis is a very humbling thing, because it becomes very clear, very quickly how little you can actually change or control about life.

And that’s a tough thing for someone like me. I believe very strongly that we have the ability (and responsibility) to make things better for ourselves. When I was staring down a long, difficult path ahead with no end in sight, I didn’t know how to deal. I had experience looking for balance in my life to endure a job I didn’t like, but I didn’t think there was anything that could possibly balance the load I was carrying.

What a lesson in letting go. There’s no sense in working yourself up over circumstances (or people!) you cannot change.

The good news is, it turns out this phenomenon works both ways. I thought long and hard about my decision to move back to Charlotte. I balanced the good things that I knew I had in Chattanooga with the possibility of opening myself up to other new adventures in Charlotte, plus the support I’d get from my parents with my daughter.

Of course, I didn’t know what would happen when I made that choice. I knew that I’d have to leave my job and pack everything I owned, but then things started happening that I never could have predicted. The month before I moved, I started dating someone I really connect with. We decided to try long-distance without knowing how long we’d be apart. I moved, applied, interviewed, and got a job (that I love)…two weeks later. He got a new job here and moved to Charlotte one month after I moved. What?!!

So, all of the sudden, a flood of good things have been coming my way. I feel happy and excited about what the future will bring for the first time in a long time. Some of that is because of the outstanding people I have in my life who stepped in to help, some of it is because of how hard I’ve worked, and some of it I just have no explanation for, but either way, I am so, so grateful.

What Does Grief Look Like?

I think everyone experiences different forms of grief in their life, even from a relatively young age. You grieve the loss of a pet, the ending of friendships, and boyfriends/girlfriends who made an impact on you.

Grief is something that most people can understand as a concept from those kinds of experiences, plus depictions of grief in books, TV, and movies. It’s basically sadness, right? So lots of people can see or guess that you’re sad and relate or try to cheer you up.

Some people know about the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance are the most common ones you’re taught in Psychology 101, but now there are versions with additional stages, wheels, etc. This is a really great article about how that’s a lie.

This Reddit comment felt like a more accurate description of what it’s been feeling like for me, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that grief is different for everyone.

My experience of losing my husband to cancer less than three years into our marriage and becoming a single mother of a toddler at 30 is completely unique, even if someone else shares those same circumstances. The way you deal with those facts depends on how you grew up, what you understand about the world (including your religion), the relationship you just lost and the ones around you, and about a million other factors.

What I’ve learned is that loss is a common experience, but it’s also an extremely lonely one. No one exactly understands, because they aren’t you. I often want to be around people and want everyone to leave me alone at the same time.

The one thing that makes it worse is sometimes feeling like people are expecting my grief to look differently than what it does. I’m not going to pretend like I can speak for anyone else, but here are some things that I’ve discovered about myself during the grieving process:

  1. Above all, let me be normal. Or maybe normal-ish. Whatever I was before this. Don’t hold back, don’t stop joking, don’t keep things from me because you’re afraid of how I’ll react. Let me own my reactions and we’ll deal with it from there. I’m still an adult and I’m pretty good at recognizing my own limitations, so if I can’t handle something, I’ll let you know.
  2. Please don’t tilt your head and ask, “how are you?” like you’re expecting me to burst into tears at any moment. I hate crying in public and this feels like you want me to do that. You can ask how I’m doing, but if I say good or OK, you have to let that be an acceptable answer.
  3. I really don’t want to talk about cancer. Cancer sucks. We can talk about people–of course I’m concerned and want to know how people affected by cancer are doing–but I do not want to talk about this cancer vs. that cancer and what each one does differently or similarly. Cancer is also not a “common interest,” so please don’t connect me with people just based on the fact that we had this terrible experience. I’m always happy to meet great new friends, but hopefully we share something else in common.

My friends and family have been awesome during this tough time, and taking time to be grateful is one of the things that’s really helped me a lot. Thanks for taking the time to read this and care!

A New Year, A Fresh Start

I mostly hate New Year’s Eve as a holiday. It’s doomed to fail from the start because it’s built up as the most epic party of all time, and it almost never is.

However, I believe pretty strongly in the importance of times of reflection, and the coming of a new calendar year is a pretty natural time to think back on everything that’s happened in the previous year and where you want the next year to go.

“My mom says it’s not 2008 that sucks, it’s growing up.” –Misha Heller, 12/30/2008

While I feel like it’s pretty self-evident that the past year has been the worst of all time, what with losing my husband to cancer and becoming a single mom to a toddler, there were some good things and I definitely learned a lot.

In the new year, here’s what I’m looking forward to:

  • Overdosing on positive things. This means being intentional about bringing in the most amount of good things in my life that I possibly can: positive, supportive people; fun activities; good music; and time for myself when I need it. Banishing guilt about being focused on this.
  • Downsizing. I have accumulated a lot of stuff over the past year(s), especially living in a large space. I’ve completely forgotten about a lot of the things tucked away in various closets I never visit! It’s starting to feel like it’s weighing me down, so I need to organize and purge what we don’t need. Baby stuff included.
  • Being healthy. I know this is everyone’s favorite New Year’s resolution. I used to be good with this one but have recently experienced the classic caretaker’s conundrum where your own health gets pushed to the bottom of the list. Time to reprioritize.
  • Practicing contentment. To me, this means appreciating what I have and not trying to compare my life to anyone else’s. I am super fortunate, especially in the number of great people I have in my life, and I don’t want for anything.

I used to think there’s an order that things are supposed to go in, and you need to be in a relationship, and then get married, then have kids, etc. This is obviously not invented, it’s a social/cultural script. Thankfully, we live in a time where there are many publicly-acknowledged examples of other models.

Maybe my story is be in a relationship, then get married, then have a kid, then be a single mom who lives a fulfilling life with amazing friends and family.

Who knows what the future will bring, but it feels like the only place to go from here is up.

The Death Certificate Saga [Updated]


This is a rant story about how it’s been more than four months since Allan died and I still don’t have his death certificate.

First, a quick explanation as to why this matters: the death certificate is the thing that you need before you can convince student loan companies that they won’t ever get their money, before you can turn your joint checking account into a single checking account, and before you can transfer the title of your husband’s car into your name, to name a few. It’s basically the key to making all the awful paperwork and administrative crap you need to do when your spouse dies go away for good.

So, the funeral home submitted all the paperwork (correctly) right after Allan passed away, and told me that it takes 4-6 weeks for them to get it back and then they send it to me. Cool. After six weeks had passed, I called them to follow up. They said they actually had it in the office, but they didn’t think they should send it to me because it has an error on it and they’re the ones who have to resubmit it for corrections.

What’s the error? Someone at the TN Department of Health had whited out my last name and typed Lutes (Allan’s last name) over it in the line for “informant.” I have no idea why. No one I’ve spoken to has any idea why. I’ve never been Jasmine Lutes, but maybe someone thought I should have been?

On September 2, the funeral home submits the form for what’s now called an Amendment to the death certificate. As I understand it, it goes from the funeral home to the county Dept. of Health, and then on to the state office in Nashville. However, it’s no longer handled by the same people who made the mistake: now it’s in the hands of Vital Records.

Since early October, I’ve called and left three or four voicemails for Vital Records that were never returned. I spoke to someone at the county health department twice, at which point they just confirmed that they had a record of the amendment being submitted and that’s about it.

The mayor and Senator Corker were both at Allan’s funeral and sincerely offered help if I needed it, so at the urging of friends, I called both offices (this is actually more of a constituent service than a personal favor, so anyone can call and ask for help). Tuesday, November 17th was the mayor, and and Friday was the senator. Staff members in both offices were super friendly and helpful, of course.

Magically, last week was the first time I ever got a call back from anyone at Vital Records. I spoke with someone named Pam, who, while nice, was also pretty much completely unhelpful. She couldn’t tell me what the delay was, where my amendment was in the queue, or when it was expected to be completed. When she suggested that I write a letter explaining the issue, get it notarized, and send it in with the copy of my birth certificate, I paused.

I said [paraphrasing], “Wait, why would I need a copy of my birth certificate?”She said, “To show your maiden name, since you weren’t born in Tennessee and we don’t have it on record.” I said, “Pam, there is no maiden name. Lutes is incorrect, and my last name is Zick. I’ve only had one name.” She said, “Your maiden name is the one you had before you were married.” I said, “Pam. PAM. I have only ever had one last name. I have never changed it. Zick was, is, and will always be my last name.”

WOW. She says, “Ohhhh. Well in that case, you don’t need to send in a copy of your birth certificate. A notarized letter should be fine. You can send it to my attention and I’ll get it taken care of.” While I appreciate the effort, in no other setting would it be acceptable to ask the customer/grieving widow to handle more paperwork and mail that in to resolve their issue. Normally, in basically any business, if you mess something up, you make it a priority to fix it and then let the customer know the status of the issue you’re trying to resolve. But this isn’t business. This is government.

Today, I spoke with the staff member from Senator Corker’s office who can help me and try to figure out what’s going on over there. I filled out another form, this one (pictured above) a privacy release form so they can get into the records if needed. Thank goodness they at least know about emailing and scanning things. Godspeed.

Unfortunately, this saga isn’t quite at an end. I’m just so freaking sick of having to deal with things like this. If I never had to call another stranger at a company or government office and tell them that my husband died, I’d be totally fine with that.

UPDATE: The saga actually has come to an end, thank goodness. After a couple more frustrating calls with Vital Records, I finally received it in the beginning of December.

It’s still unclear what exactly happened, who was responsible for it, and what I could have done differently. There is apparently no accountability in the chain of custody from the funeral home to county to state offices.

I only really had the energy to fight this battle once I had gotten a few other stressful things off my plate, so I can’t imagine what it is like for others who are in worse situations than I am in. I also couldn’t have done it alone–so many people helped and encouraged me. I want to give a special shout-out to Kelly in Senator Corker’s office, who also followed up with me to make sure the situation had been resolved.

Reaching Out

A lot of people seem to minimize it when they contact someone after a loss. They say something like, “Just reaching out,” “There are no words, but…” or “I know everyone is asking you this, but how are you?”

If you sent me a Facebook message, text, email, or card, thank you. If you came to Allan’s funeral, visited me, gave me a hug, made me food, took me to lunch, offered to help, raised money, sent flowers or presents, thank you. I may not have responded, or if I did it sounded short or robotic, because I don’t really know what to say any more than you do. Sometimes you did know what to say because you had been through something similar, or you are just way more emotionally intelligent than I am.

Everything you did was right and amazing. I know why we say “reaching out” now. It really felt like you were extending a hand into the darkness to me. I’m still floundering and trying to figure out my new normal, but if I had any doubt before, now I know just how many truly wonderful people I have in my life. It’s a weird thing to be sad and at the same time overwhelmed with gratitude, awe, and love.

It also makes me realize that I’ve missed a lot of opportunities to reach out to people in tough circumstances. I chose not to because I didn’t feel like I knew how, or I figured they already had enough support from people closer to them and we haven’t talked in a while anyway. Man, how wrong I was. Better people than I am reached out to me after not talking to or seeing me in years. YEARS, like a decade. Wow.

I know I never thought about the possibility that I could be changed for the better after losing my husband, but I can tell you I will strive to err on the side of sending that message or card rather than not. It certainly doesn’t hurt, and you never know how much it could mean.

Alexandra’s Birth Story

Waiting, waiting, waiting. Alexandra’s birth story starts with a whole lot of waiting around as Allan, my parents (plus friends and family on Facebook) and I watched the days past my due date pass by. I was going to bed hopeful that each night would be the night contractions would start, and waking up disappointed every morning that nothing had changed. I was trying to do whatever I could to think about other happy things until Baby Bear decided to make an appearance, including a delightful pedicure date with my mom.

Thursday’s Doctor’s Appointment

As I mentioned in my 41 Weeks Pregnant post, I was supposed to go in to have an ultrasound to check amniotic fluid levels on Tuesday, but the tech was out sick so my appointment was rescheduled to Thursday, March 27. I was relieved to have the two extra days for labor to start on its own, but womp womp, I was still pregnant–12 days past my due date–when I went in that morning. Continue reading

Welcome to the World, Alexandra!

Baby Bear is a mystery no more…it’s a girl! Alexandra Zick Lutes was born Friday, March 28, at 7:20am. She weighed in at eight pounds, six ounces and measured 20 3/4″ long. Everyone is doing well, and she especially loves her dad and grandparents showering her with love.

holding hands with papa