Photograph courtesy of Lauren Benson
If you have suffered a life changing loss or disappointment and you feel alone, I want to welcome you here. I hope this will be a place of comfort, company and hope.
Let me introduce myself.
I'm Jan, a woman born and bred in Alabama, a true daughter of the South in many ways. I'm an author who wrote a little book of essays entitled Fighting Forward: A Widow's Journey from Loss to Life about my own unexpected journey through grief.
I was raised in the church and entered into a love relationship with Christ at the age of nine. Married at 18, a mother for the first time at 19, I arranged my entire life around my idea of how a good Southern, Christian woman looked and acted - I always did what I was "supposed" to do. I loved my family, wrote thank you notes, attended church every single time the doors were open and tried to learn to make fried chicken and loved college football. I served as a youth minister and fell in love with "my kids", many of whom remain good friends to this day. I served, served, served in church. I married the first man I ever loved, Phil. And all the while, I sang. My entire life has been accompanied by - and even defined by - a soundtrack of songs I loved to sing. And because of that love of music, I served as a worship pastor for fifteen years.
Then life began to change.
The music faltered and stumbled along. Some new songs entered in, written in a minor key.
I spent a few years running a non-profit, I traveled and trained indigenous leaders in developing countries, working in Rwanda, Uganda, India, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic. While I have no idea what impact my teaching had on others, I do know that the encounters I had with the beautiful people I met along the way changed me. I was privileged to sit with survivors of the Genocide in Rwanda and hear their stories of loss. I danced along side sisters and brothers in Uganda who shared with me the truth of their life as they lived in a war zone for twenty-eight years. I prayed with sisters in India who had been cut off from their families because they became a Christian. I hammered nails in Guatemala for homes for families who had little shelter. And all along the way, my heart was being carved. As I worked, one thing became evident. This was where my soul felt at peace. Sitting with people who were broken.
I had no idea what turns and twists my own life would take in the years ahead. Soon I would join the broken myself…
All of my life I had absorbed the teaching that if we just do all the right things, if we just live right and make wise choices and love God, then things would work out and your marriage would prosper and your kids would turn out like you desired and on and on. In other words, I had somehow come to subconsciously believe that nothing tragic would touch my life if I just followed all the rules.
Oh how I was wrong.
To paraphrase Sara Bessey, "Once upon a time I had it all figured out. Then I didn't."
In 2013 my husband was unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of kidney cancer called Collecting Duct Carcinoma. He lived only 17 months, dying on August 26th, 2014, only six days shy of his fiftieth birthday. In that time I learned more than I had learned in all of my previous life about living and what was truly important. And when he took his last breath, I was catapulted on a journey I never asked for: the journey of grief and widowhood.
And can I just say this? Loss and grief, mistakes and regrets, brokenness - it has humbled and stripped me like nothing else. My life - and my soul - has been rearranged and reawakened by death and grief. I have struggled with my faith. I have learned to live with questions. I am forever altered.
Since Phil's death I have done all I can to embrace life with enthusiasm while also taking a lot of quiet time to really listen to my soul. I cried buckets of tears and took lots of long walks and naps. I was afraid and determined all at once. And in the midst of that I wrote. I wrote and I wrote and eventually I wrote my way back to sanity. Then one day I put it all together in a little book and gave it a name: Fighting Forward.
Since that fateful day in 2014 I have gotten a new pup; a mini Australian shepherd named Ruby. I call her my "therapy dog". I finished my college degree (it only took me 32 years!), traveled to Ireland and Italy with family, began graduate school, and, surprise of surprises, I married again. I was not expecting that. So now I live with my puppy Ruby and my new husband Matt, starting all over again. My life looks nothing like I planned or expected. I have learned that joy and sorrow are two rivers that run simultaneously through my life and that, somehow, our hearts are able to grow, even in pain, so that we can live and love again.
I have three adult children who live in other states and, oh, how I miss them! I am an only child and live only about two miles from my father, in the area where I grew up. Sadly, we lost my mother to Alzheimer’s in June 2016. I miss her so. I live on a bluff near the Tennessee River out in the woods where it is peaceful and quiet. I love to read, stand up paddleboard, sing, lift weights with my husband, walk on the beach, chase sunsets and dance. I consider two necessities in life to be time (and resources) to travel and space to write, ideally in a beautiful location. Some of my favorite things are sitting in the dusk on my back porch listening to the insects sing, walking the beach on Cape San Blas at sunset, paddling my board down the Tennessee River as the sun begins to sink, cuddling on the couch in a "puppy pile" with Matt and Ruby, getting to visit with my kids and watching Alabama football.
I feel a strong desire and calling to help people post loss, in particular my fellow widows. To this end, I volunteer in a variety of ways that give me the honor of being with them. I help administrate a Facebook group of widows and I head up our annual Widow 2 Widow Christmas project which you can read about on our Outreach page. All the while I continue to speak up and write about the realities of loss and grief and to advocate especially for widows, a group that is terribly underserved.
I’m in the midst of working towards attaining my Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Alabama, while gaining my certification in Bereavement and Grief Studies through Dr. Alan Wolfelt's Center for Loss and Life Transition. One day, I hope to have a retreat cabin for people to come and rest post loss as well as a counseling practice that focuses on some of the least of these: those that grieve and mourn.
For today I keep writing. I keep loving. I keep learning.
I hope you will read along...we are open and real around here.
Let me know how I might help you.
Jan received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alabama, with a depth study in Leadership.
Jan spent fifteen years in ministry as a licensed and ordained worship pastor.
Jan is the Founder and President of the Give Worship Project, a non-profit which provided training for indigenous leaders. In this capacity, Jan worked and taught in many countries.
Jan has many years of experience speaking and leading retreats.
If you'd like to listen to more of Jan's story, you can hear an interview here.
Jan is the author of "Fighting Forward: A Widow's Journey from Loss to Life" and co-author of "A Worshipful Life: Developing a Lifestyle of Praise".
Jan is the founder of "Widow 2 Widow" - a project to help reach out to widowed individuals during their first Christmas post loss.
Jan helps administrate and lead a free and private online support group for those who have lost a spouse.
Jan is currently attending graduate school to pursue a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.