Dan Summerlin loved sports and had started a softball team at his church, First Christian Church. While he was playing on the FCC team, his arm broke while he was throwing the ball from shortstop to home. Little did Dan and his wife, Scottie, know that his arm breaking would lead to the discovery that Dan had cancer.
From his diagnosis in May of 2016 until the day he left this Earth on July 30, 2017, Dan Summerlin lived life largely. In spite of treatments and all that goes along with that, Dan did like he always had done: He lived. And when he was no longer with us, we grieved.
On the one-year anniversary of Dan's death, Scottie shared some thoughts that are worth passing on about grief and what she has learned in the past 365 days.
"First, in my opinion, this can be a messy age in life," says Scottie. "Many people are dealing with marriage troubles, parents passing, children leaving the nest, health problems, career crises, financial strife, you name it. All of these things cause grief, and it's not a competition. There's no prize for the most pain. Starting over at any age is hard. And scary. Change is challenging."
Immersed in grief work through reading, counseling and talking with others facing major life changes, Scottie has put every Type A bone in her body to work in order to move forward. It's her only choice. She is acutely aware that Dan is never coming home again.
"What's helped me most is trying to be understanding of others," Scottie shares. "When someone cuts you off in traffic or can't remember your name in the grocery store or isn't friendly to you, they might be grieving a loss of some kind. You don't know what they're dealing with. Grief is overwhelming. You're very distracted. It takes months for your brain to get back to normal."
Somehow it never seems like the right time to have the hard conversations.
"Have you talked with your spouse about what you would want if something ever happens to you?" Summerlin asks. "Spend some time doing it. People who lose their spouses tend to really struggle if they never talked about their wishes.
"Do you have a will? Do you have a plan for your children? When something happens to a loved one, the people left behind are in no condition to make hard decisions. You can never have enough health, disability and life insurance. No one ever thinks something is going to happen to them. But if it does, it's often too late to change policies. Money in no way buys happiness. But not having to worry about how you're going to pay next month's bills is a huge stress reliever."
Summerlin reminds us that people in pain are emotionally reactive.
"They can't help it, so please be forgiving of them and decisions they make that you may not agree with," Summerlin says. "Until you've walked in their shoes, you truly don't understand their struggle."
If you have people in your life struggling with the loss of a loved one, give them your permission to move on so when that person is ready, he or she can give themselves permission to move on. The timing and what moving on looks like is different for everyone.
Staying stuck in grief with the pain of the past is no way to live. Everyone deserves to look forward to the future with the ability to find some joy, peace and comfort each day.
"Today I am thankful for Dan Summerlin for so many reasons," Scottie says. "He was a wonderful man, husband and father. Was he perfect? No. Did we have the perfect marriage? No. We had real 15-year marriage struggles just like everyone else. But what I can say is we both always wanted what was best for each other. Now, we were both strong-willed, so we could for sure disagree on what was 'best,' but I always knew no matter what, we loved each other and we would work it out.
"The one advantage of anticipated death is the ability to plan. Dan and I were able to have all the conversations needed, and he certainly set us up for success in his passing. He left the boys and me with a strong foundation of love and support. We could not be more grateful for our friends, family, school, church and community. They have helped us each day, before and after the cancer.
"There was very little I didn't know about Dan. I'm thankful for that. I have no regrets with him. He swept me off my feet from the first night I met him, and I loved and adored him as I held his hand as he took his last breath. I'm looking outside this morning, remembering what the sun looked like coming through the windows at the moment he passed. Honestly, yesterday felt more like the one-year anniversary to me since last year, July 30th was on a Sunday."
Summerlin shared that after Dan passed, she found the sweetest, yet most heartbreaking note that she thinks he meant to give to her before he died. He wrote it in the last few weeks when his faculties were leaving him. She wanted him to write letters to the boys, but he wrote one to her instead.
"Because he knew the best way for the boys to be happy was for me to be happy," Scottie says. "And he gave me his blessing one last time, in writing, for me to move forward and find joy. And that's what I try to do each day. Happiness is 100 percent a choice. No one or nothing can make us fulfilled. We have to choose it for ourselves."
After Dan's passing, Scottie, started a support group for widowed moms raising children. The group, called Turning the Pages Together, is open to all women in the active stages of parenting, from birth through college and beyond. They meet twice a month, once during the day and once at night, at First Christian Church, 650 McCallie Ave. in downtown Chattanooga. For more information, contact Scottie Summerlin at firstname.lastname@example.org, the organizer, Lisa Hale Gilvin, at email@example.com or go to http://firstchristian-chat.com/what-we-do/.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.