Making New Summer Memories

Author: Elizabeth Culp Sergent

When we woke that Thursday morning in May, our boys, ages 8 and 5, were excited that there were only two weeks left of school until summer break. At 8:08 that evening, our whole world changed when that knock landed on our front door. Those two weeks came and went while we attended Brian’s funeral service and met with our casualty assistance officer. 

And then came summer. With no routine, no structure, and no requirements, no one in our home wanted to do anything. We were numb. We were sad. We were frustrated. We were fighting the reality that we now had to redefine ourselves as sons and as a single mom and widow. That summer there was a lot of quietness in our home. A lot of tears. A lot of video games and half-eaten meals. And there was very little time spent outside. Very little laughter. Very few conversations. That summer came and went.

As the new school year started and we entered our year of “firsts,” I desperately wanted us to feel normal, to feel happy, to feel like we used to feel. We went to children’s museums, we played games at the arcade, and we joined youth sports teams with other military kids on post. I thought that doing the same things we had done with our dad and husband would draw our boys and me out of the fog and give us some healthy, happy experiences.

I was wrong. Instead of happy, we felt awkward and out of place. We were no longer the same as everyone else, the same as we used to be. We were different. And we didn’t like it. Everywhere we went, we said, “This is where Dad did…” or “Last time we were here, Dad was with us.” It wasn’t working. I had to try something different.

So I planned a trip to Legoland. Brian and I had taken the boys to carnivals and theme parks in the past, and we had talked a year earlier about taking our boys to Legoland one summer. My hope was that this trip would be fun and exciting since the boys loved Legos and theme parks—but not exactly the same as the places we had visited with their dad. This was our first real adventure, just the three of us, and it taught me five valuable lessons:


1. It’s helpful to do things that are similar but not exactly the same.

I learned through several awful experiences that doing the same things and going to the same places as we had when Brian was alive was not healthy for us. I had to plan activities that were similar to, but not the same as, the activities we used to do with him. I purposely found events off post and took our boys to activities that did not remind us of time spent with their dad. We weren’t trying to forget him; we simply needed (and deserved) to spend our energy enjoying ourselves rather than carrying the boulder of grief everywhere we went.


2. Planning provides something positive to focus thoughts and energy on.

Thinking about an activity or event gave me something to look forward to. I discovered an outlet for creativity through planning small trips. I learned that I didn’t have to micromanage every detail and I didn’t have to have something on every page of our calendar. We still needed our downtime. But exploring online and having conversations with fellow survivors channeled my energy and provided a goal that my mind could manage.


3. Scheduling activities offers a sense of control over something.

This is so crucial. When we lose a loved one, our hearts break. When we lose a vibrant, active member of our household and our daily lives, the void can feel suffocating. Planning for a weekend trip to the park or a spring break trip out of town gave me a feeling that I was driving my own life instead of being driven by grief and a situation that I couldn’t change.

Planning also provided a helpful framework during trips and activities. This framework freed me to be able to address the unexpected hiccups since I already had a blueprint in mind of what we wanted and needed. I discovered that I didn’t feel instantly anxious or completely overwhelmed when small or large issues surfaced because I wasn’t flying by the seat of my pants or wasting energy thinking about the next step. For the first time in my life, I knew I was several steps ahead.


4. Boundaries are important. 

Boundaries keep crucial pieces in and unwanted pieces out. They determine who we allow to affect our decisions and how much of a role they play. I learned that I don’t have to stay with relatives when they offer because splurging on a hotel room offers some privacy, a place to retreat from the visits and company, and a pool for the kids to splash around in. I learned that I don’t have to accommodate the kids every waking moment and that, sometimes, Mom just needs (and deserves) some quiet time in a coffee shop. Boundaries also helped me stay within my budget when we traveled and gave me the courage to say no to activities that I really didn’t want to be a part of and yes to those that brought me satisfaction and happiness.


5. Owning the journey prevents it from owning you.

As we approached the first angelversary, I had to have a serious conversation with our boys. I sat them down and told them that, yes, this journey we’re on stinks. Yes, it’s not fair. There’s nothing we did to deserve it, and there’s nothing we can do to change the situation. Dad is dead. We aren’t. We are still alive. And we are responsible for how we live and walk this path. We have to own it. I told them that if we didn’t decide to own this journey, it would own us. The death, the grief, and all the yucky parts would win again and again unless we decided that our lives would move forward.

Scheduling our family’s activities on my own did not come naturally to me. It didn’t feel comfortable at first, and I wrestled often with the idea of imposing structure on myself when I was already wrestling with having so many other emotions forced on me through this loss. Learning to plan was a necessity that helped smooth the path in front of me.

Four years later, summer is here again, whether or not we feel prepared. I still don’t have an activity for every page of our calendar. That’s on purpose because downtime gives my boys and me a chance to relax for the sake of relaxing. But I have scheduled a few short road trips with the family and sprinkled some local camps, activities, and concerts throughout the three months. Let this be a time that adds smiles to our hearts and laughter to our souls as we take ownership of our time and our journey and make it, as best we can, healthy and happy. 

Elizabeth and boys
Elizabeth and her boys at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Culp.


From the pen of...

Elizabeth Culp Sergent, Surviving wife of Sgt. John “Brian” Culp, U.S. Army, earned a Master of Education in special education and a Master of Science in psychology and is a former special education teacher. She lives with her sons, now ages 12 and 9, North Carolina.