Are you familiar with the power of love and the strength of hope in the midst of grief and trauma? Picture this: author, speaker, and podcaster Jessye Wilden and her family find themselves unexpectedly caring for two children left orphaned by their best friends. As they navigate this new and challenging journey, an unexpected addition to their family sparks a light of joy and hope, reshaping Jessie's perspective on life and the power of love.
Think for a moment about the challenges your own family has faced. Have you ever wondered how you'd cope with a significant loss? Jessye shares their personal experience of pulling together as a family and underscores the importance of prioritizing the needs of others. She paints a vivid picture of their journey through grief, the absence of support groups for families in similar situations, and her dream of starting a grief group to help others.
Now, imagine the strength it takes to choose love and empathy over judgment in the face of a personal tragedy. This episode features a compelling story of a woman who experienced the tragic loss of her son and daughter-in-law to murder-suicide. Her mother-in-law's act of painting her son's name in color every morning serves as a profound testament to the power of love. Tune in to this moving and uplifting conversation that will inspire you, make you think, and perhaps transform your perspective on life. Jessye Wilden's story is one you won't want to miss.
Follow Jessye on Instagram @jessye_wilden
Order Jessye's book and memoir, "We Wrote Your Name in Color"
Connect with her at https://www.jessyewilden.com/
Order Stephanie's new book Imagine More: Do What You Love, Discover Your Potential
Learn more at StephanieNelson.com
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Welcome, jessie Wilden. Jessie is an author, she's a speaker, she's a podcaster and, most of all, she's just a really special person. I know that because I have just read her memoir. Her memoir is called we Wrote your Name in Color. It's an amazing story about all kinds of topics that we experienced. It's about trauma, it's about grief, it's about redemption, forgiveness, it's about blending families and really, most importantly, it's about how to love other people better. Jessie was kind enough to agree to come on the Pivotal People podcast, so thank you for being here.Speaker 2:
I agree. I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.Speaker 1:
Before we get started, just tell us about you who you are, where you are, who you do life with and what led you to start this book.Speaker 2:
Well, I am a mom of five kids and a husband to a wonderful man, and we live at the very tippy top of California, the mountainous part. People think of Northern California as Sacramento. This is Northern California. We get snow, snow, wow. Yeah. What's unique about my family is that we span a big age group, with my children from age 22 at daughter and graduate school all the way to a daughter in kindergarten at five years old. So we are in all stages of life at once. Wow. Then I'm a writer, an author, I'm a speaker, a podcast host and just a passion for helping. People ask the question like what if I could heal? What if there is hope? What if life could be better than it ever has, even though this terrible thing happened? So we try to use our family story to have some clout in that world, because we have lived it. We have lived those days with the face down on the carpet, crying, and we have lived the most beautiful days since tragedy, and so that's my dream and my hope with sharing our story.Speaker 1:
That is what I found so appealing about your book, because I've read a lot of books on trauma and grief, but your book is really about hope and love and not just the concept of it, but you're living it. You have the example of your family. So I just think it'd be super helpful for everyone if you could just share your story, your family story.Speaker 2:
Well, I'd love to. Yeah, a lot of people hear about the story and they almost back away. So I understand that response. But really it is about hope and love and redemption and not getting stuck in grief and trauma. So the book starts and our story really starts where my husband and I had prayed for 10 years to build our dream house. It was just after the recession and things like that. We had always wanted to move into the town where both of our parents resided Mount Chester, california, a little mountain town, and so we had prayed and prayed and there just kind of seemed to be this gleaming opportunity with someone who was holding property for us to build a house. Our family is our inch construction, so that was like the way we could afford it and suddenly it seemed like the sea parted and we would be able to build this house. So we couldn't carry two mortgages. We sold our other house and my husband's family said you can move in with us. So with my daughter who was 16 and my daughter who was 10, we decided to completely move out of our house, sell it, move into this house of his parents and Ryan and I would live my husband and I would live in the back of the garage, in this little box of 300 square feet, and our two daughters would live inside with grandma and grandpa and we feel like we have our life kind of figured out. It's all moving in the direction we've prayed. This seems like such confirmation and in that process we actually almost lose being able to build the house and we're like are we asking God for too much? Is this too big? Are we being so greedy? And there's a lot of questioning there. But it ends up that we're able to start building this house, our dream. Everything's on track. We feel like, okay, we're finally making headway. And two months into that process we found out surprise, you're pregnant. You have a 16 year old and a 10 year old. You are living in a box and you are pregnant. I think we're like, okay, so we were planning to expand our family. This wasn't something, but what really took us by surprise, that took our whole small community by surprise that we didn't see coming, was our best friends, who was my husband's little sister, and her husband, two months after that, had a suicide homicide event, leaving their two children, arneesa and nephew, behind, and nobody's are coming. It turned our town inside out with grief and trauma. His sister, whose name was Rena, was my best friend. She was a dance teacher beloved by 100 families. He was a worship leader. There were big members in the community of doing youth retreats and all kinds of things. It was so shocking and we had promised them that if something ever happened to them, we would take care of their kids. In one swoop of six months we got three more kids and we weren't living in our home. What I thought was the worst timing in the world the worst time to be pregnant, the worst time to have more children in our family when we don't even have a house turned out to be the best timing. That's where the hope comes in. Of all the things that I thought were wrong were the most beautiful parts that I was missing. Having a home where we all moved in as one family was the biggest gift I didn't see coming, because no one moved into each other's space. Everybody picked paint colors for their room and put their bed in there and their clothes. It wasn't like we just scooted over for them. Then this baby came six months after their death and was the glue. She has never known them not all as siblings and she was joy in the midst of pain. It was really reframed how I even see planning my own life and how I see hope and joy all mixing together with the darkness and the hurt and the healing.Speaker 1:
Wow. I had said before we started that I came from a blended family, not because of death, but because of divorce. Back in the 70s, early 80s, people at least in my experience parents weren't that concerned. We didn't do therapy when our parents got divorced. They didn't read books and talk about how to blend a family, Just threw the whole thing together and hit on and expected everyone to adjust. I have always hated that phrase. Kids are resilient. I've always hated that.Speaker 2:
I'm with you. I'm with you on that.Speaker 1:
Yeah, one of the things that really just warmed my heart about your book was how intentional you were about blending your family. It wasn't easy. I think anyone who's going through a circumstance for their blending families would benefit from hearing how you did that and the things that you thought about. Could you expand on that a little bit, especially since there were other extended relatives involved?Speaker 2:
Yeah, I mean I've thought about this a lot. I'm like how did this work? Because if you were to come over Stephanie, you would see so much joy here and the deep relationships between these siblings. I'm like, how did we get here? We've often talked about it. I think first I have to just really give credit to God because it is a miraculous thing that people could be so open-hearted to each other and have so much space for each other with love. I feel like the first thing is just prayer, because it is just a miraculous thing that anybody heal ever and let alone start a new family in the middle of your childhood. Kiran and KK, who we adopted, were 10 and 11 at the time, and then I had a 16-year-old and 10-year-old and then a newborn. So it was a lot of ages and a lot of life experience there. They all had different life experience. But one of the things I really decided was that as we moved into the new house that we make tight fences At first thought perhaps if we just are all really understanding and then I kind of introduce rules slowly, that we'll be able to kind of adjust. But I talked to somebody who actually ended up being our adoption worker. She said no, make the expectation super clear for everyone, because no one's guessing and you can always loosen them. Say not today, we're not doing that today. But to continually tighten is such an injustice to a child who is trying to figure out where they sit at the table, where their roots are going to be, how they fit in a new family. I mean, they all changed birth order, most of them changed birth order. So I mean it's like a huge upheaval of who they even know themselves to be and where they belong in a family. And then they're getting used to new parents and new siblings, new bedroom arrangements, and so I think it was like allowing there to be voice for everybody, to just allow them to be heard, and there'd be space for that. So we had a lot of team meetings and then we often just really decided. What we decided was that we were going to be seen as a family, that we were one family now and that we weren't going to do things the way Danny and Rita did them. But what we were going to do is we were going to really see them as all siblings and all as equal. There wasn't going to be this divorce family mentality where those are your grandparents and those are your grandparents when we do Christmas. We are a family, and that was not well received by some people. Some people got that innately. They understood that we have some people who have seen adoptive families or blended families and that was just super easy. Others were like I did not sign up for this and it became actually a lot of contention. But the people who decided to love and make space and say I have more it was really an abundance mindset, saying I have more now, I have more grandchildren, I have more cousins or whatever the fill in the blank was those are the people that my kids found the most healing with and from, and so I think really it's just opening your mind to say these are our boundaries, these are the ways we're going to protect each other and make sure everyone's hearts and psychological safety is present, and then from there people get an invitation or they don't have to do that, and so that was actually a really hard thing because I took a lot of fire for that, but in the end it made everybody feel like they were wanted and they were equal and that they were all worthy of having the same Christmas presents, of having the same holidays with grandparents and things like that, and so I think in the end it made them not have to be competitive or fight for attention, and so that everyone could relax into who they really were.Speaker 1:
And that's what struck me, because my parents were divorced and remarried, so there was all this division. And so what you said was, if the extended family that were associated with KK and Karen, they just wanted KK and Karen and you're like, no, it's all five kids, not for the sake of just your kids, but KK and Karen, if we're going to see each other as siblings, we're all together. We are a package deal for all sides of the family and that for you. I just looked at that and thought how beautiful, how unselfish. It had to be harder for you, but from day one it seemed to me just fully embraced. They are your children and telling the whole world they are our children and all five of us are a family together, which there's a lot of different ways it could have gone. We had, I remember, when our families were combined. We had team meetings. We didn't call them our parents in column, team meetings, they called them gripe sessions. So right there. I can still remember everyone's complaints. I can't remember mine, but that's not positive. But I think we've come a long way in, I think, 40, 50 years of trying to figure out how to blend families.Speaker 2:
And I think we did have a team. We had therapists and teachers who were part of that. We had grandparents who would bring us a meal or something or help with rides to school, and so I thought that village is really, really important so that I can be more present. And then I tried to really spend time five minutes a day, let's see, it was 10 minutes a day After the baby was born. I tried to spend 10 minutes a day with each child and that was 40 minutes and it almost killed me, because sometimes I'd be like what do you want to do, son? And as a little 11-year-old he's like I want you to watch me play video games and I'm like has it been 10 minutes yet? But what I wanted? I didn't want someone to think that they're a reward from being sad or dramatic, Because I thought there is going to be a little bit of a worry that I am seeing, and so I thought, if I can right up front show them that they are each seen for who they are, for their normal daily life, I thought that maybe we could squelch that before it started, and that was a really good thing. And the other thing was that they themselves were incredibly generous to me. They were open-hearted and they wanted to be a family and they understood that I was not their the mom before, but that did not erase the mom before, and so a lot of credit really goes to them and their heart. For us they were 10 and 11.Speaker 1:
That kind of trauma I can't even imagine you describe it in your book. But there were other relatives vying for their guardianship and I can remember you describing their reaction when you and Ryan let them know that you were going to be their parents. Can you share that?Speaker 2:
Yeah, the weird thing is is that no one really wanted guardian or spoke that they wanted guardianship. It was more like they wanted Assurances. I think when that kind of crisis runs into your family, energy just goes zinging. All the fears start. You're like, if this terrible thing could happen, then what are the other terrible things that could happen? And also, everyone was just trying to figure out what's my seat at the table now. And so I think people who had had already difficult relationships with Danny and Rena kind of were like I need to make, I need Assurity that I am going to matter. So I think in some people that just meant that they came over and were ready to vacuum or fold laundry. Other people that meant that they needed to take us to court or show up at court and say I want all of these Assurances that I will get them for this weekend or I will you know Whatever. It fill in the blank whatever they they felt that they might lose. And so I thought it really comes from, when crisis hits, how we're gonna see it, if we're gonna make more space for love, if we're gonna lean into pain or we're gonna try to Run from that pain and take control. And so in that I think we were a really good fit because our kids already went to the same school. They were already, we were at the same church, they already would come over and spend the night and so, and then we were the same age as their parents had been. So I think it was just a really good fit. Plus, the kids really wanted that, and so God just protected us and helped us. But it was. I mean, some of those seasons were about the hardest of my life and in really trying to hear God, there was no manual. I would search online or Facebook just to see if there was a support group for someone who was Raising kids who had both lost their parents that were family, and I just I've never found that group and so I just my. My encouragement would be that God is a light to our feet, one step at a time. I remember doing a couple things and I thought no, most most days I was like I have no idea what I'm doing. I have no idea what I'm doing but I would pray and I would lean into what I felt God was showing me or teaching me and my husband was a great rock in that time Too. But I didn't really know. And I remember the first time we went to a therapist. He's like how'd you know to do all these things? How did you do all of these things that you did? These are part. This was the perfect solution or something, and it was. I could not see the whole map, I could only see the next churn. So I would just say to any moms out there who are in difficult situations or seasons with their own children, whether by birth or adoption or divorce. I think knowing that you can pray and ask God and he will show you what next step is so, is just what I needed to hear in that time.Speaker 1:
Hmm, and you listened, and that's the thing you listened. You had the overall. I always like people are like what's my purpose? What's my purpose? And God makes it so simple. Our purpose is to love him and to love other people, and so when I you look at your story, you end in you talking your website about all of these different Topics you cover, but the last one you say is the power of love, which really throughout the whole, the theme was always. What I kept reading in your book was you were putting other People's needs ahead of your own. We haven't even talked about what was going on in your life. Did you have a career? Did you have a job? You had a number of things that you had to worry about, and yet all we've heard about and all you seemed to be concerned about Was how well you love the people in front of you. And you know it's so simple. We make it so hard. I'm not saying it's easy. It wasn't easy to take 10 minutes. Oh my gosh. I had sons. I was not that mom. I was like I can't watch you play video games for 10 minutes. There's someone who plays video games. Don't ask me to play video games. I don't even understand it. But you know what. You're right for them to feel seen, for them to know their value and their important, no matter where they are, and not simply to say, oh well, they're resilient, what. How wonderful that you knew. You could just ask God and he would show you the next step. And I know I wrote in my little devotional journal today you know, we walk by faith, not by sight. It's a continual reminder why you're not going to get the next 10 steps. If you do, they might not be God's idea, that might be coming from you, the step at a time. So the power of love, I think, is you talk about. You know trauma and grief, and there isn't a group out there. Now, since, have you thought of starting? Is that part of what you do is ministering to parents who are in somewhat similar situations?Speaker 2:
You know, that's actually a dream I have right now is to do kind of some different. We've been starting to do grief groups and they're just little retreats and no one wants to go to a grief group, so we've got to come up with a better name.Speaker 1:
Yeah, a whole group.Speaker 2:
The truth is, yes, it's definitely a hope group and we did it one for bereaved moms in Florida and there was just about 13 people there and that was that was life changing. And so I think rubbing shoulders with people who are similar so I'd love to do one of like blended families or just different types of groups. But I also I want to do a conference, and so that is in the works. That could be for all kinds of grief or loss or suffering, and I think, just like you're saying, being even a child of a divorcee is often a lot of loss involved in that, and so I think there's a lot of people with kind of this ambiguous grief that are not seen. And then I think, eventually I'd like to start doing some coaching, one on one, which I think will be the most powerful. But so far I've been speaking to groups and I've been doing those retreats and then I have these beautiful conversations afterwards and then I try to kind of form those into podcasts and and put them out into the world. But yeah, all of that other infrastructure is slowly working. So anybody thinks that's a good idea, reach out to me and I'll make sure you know all the details.Speaker 1:
Well, and it's important to have a coach. So when you, I'm sitting here thinking, how did you write a book with five kids wanting kindergarten?Speaker 2:
I got up really early. I got up. I got up at four in the morning and I tried to write. My number was 1250 words and if I could hit that day I could be done. And so sometimes in that first two hours at six o'clock as the kids were waking up, I would hit it. Other times I would need to keep coming back at nap time or other things and I just. But I had a. The same way that I wanted to have a big family. I remember when we first got married that was our dream is to have a big family, and then it seemed like maybe that's just not what God has for us. So God had already planted a dream in my heart and it was strong, and so when that all happened, I think I remembered all those dreams and God was a dream catcher for me. But also, in the same way, this book was something I felt like our community needed to heal and I feel like people need to hear the side of suicide and trauma and healing and like what went on under our roof, so that maybe people could borrow some of that in their own lives.Speaker 1:
When you can't find a group to support, you and yours was a little more complicated because you had some negativity coming. The title of the book is we Wrote your Name and Color. Can you tell us where that title came from? Oh I'd love to.Speaker 2:
Yeah, yeah, this is kind of a funny thing because it was the first story I ever wrote. Covid shut in had happened. I had painted and done everything I could to the house and I remember thinking like there's this one story that is nagging at me that I need to tell, and so I just decided I'd write it in my laptop, close it up and keep it until the kids were older. I feel like I just was the only person who knew the story. What happened was is, when the book came, I wrote it all in chronological order and it was somewhere smack in the middle and then my editor actually I think it was Kim Stewart, our mutual friend she said that's your prologue, and I thought it was so poetic to be the prologue and the title of the book. So because I was living in that little box beside the main house, behind the garage, and I was pregnant, I had tremendous morning sickness and after Danny and Rena had died, that was just so heavy. But I was so happy to find in my third pregnancy that if I ate protein it would go away for like two hours, and it was medicinal. I did not want to eat anything, let alone something protein, you know. So I would sneak into the house as soon as I would wake up. At six in the morning, seven in the morning, I would go in and I would find Ryan's mom her name is Pam getting on her shoes. And what had happened was is we lived like less than half a mile from this overpass that was encased in cement and a train would migrate across. But it kind of became our town's social media platform. People would graffiti there and we called it graffiti bridge, and so it was kind of like if you know, go Mount Chester Bears, or if Carroll had cancer, or there were a lot of political ones like we hate Trump, we love Trump, you know all getting erased, re-rolled and rolled in paint. And after Danny and Rina died in the sorrow and the outcry of the community. People had gone and painted their names beautifully all over that bridge Danny and Rina, we love you. All the things that reminded them of them were pictures. But what we had found is that, because Danny had killed Rina and people were griping with, we don't want this to continue to happen, and so we don't want to celebrate him. We don't want. We actually want to erase that so that people know that is bad. But what that did was, as we would drive under the bridge, we would see that his name was crossed out, and so Pam was the first one to see it, and so, in the stillness of the morning, before the kids would get up and get ready to go to school, she would go and paint his name back. It had been crossed out every night in black, and so every morning she would go back and paint it in color, and it was just this breathtaking thing that only I got to see, and it actually became quite torturous. It's such a beautiful idea, but the fact that she did that for weeks and someone every night would come and cross his name out in black, leaving Rina's, and then she would go with whatever paint she found, so his name would change in colors every day. I thought I have never in my life experienced love like that, someone who you say he was my son, even though he did this thing, he is not the sum of his worst decision. That is not who he was and that is not who I will see him as, and that is not who I want him to his children to see him as. And it didn't mean she was sweeping it under the carpet, what he did, but it meant that love was more powerful than a worst decision, than even death, than murder, than sorrow, and love wins. And that really was the beginning of us all. Healing was her example to us, and what I think is we wrote name and color also becomes a metaphor of the things that people cross out in our own lives, of the words that people say, of the ways that we can cross people's names out, or we can write people's names in color. We can go you are not that, that is not who you are Like. Remember who you are, remember how you're made, remember how we love you, and we can continually. We don't get a say of what people write, we don't get a say of what people blackout, but we get a say of the ways we write in color, and I find that to be just like we could all choose that as a life mission.Speaker 1:
I so love that you talk about in your website. You talk about your family values and you listed them loved. Empathy triumphs over judgment. Okay, empathy triumphs over judgment. Can you imagine in our country if we all adopted that outlook in our world how different our world would be? I mean, judgment just comes naturally to us. You know I can. I've got judgy thoughts going in my head all the time. I catch them. I'm like stop it. Why do you think that empathy triumphs? We expect people to be empathetic with us. But, so easy, right, right. And so the idea of your mother-in-law or your family or anyone else just truly putting that in action every day. That's what love is. So I think when you said people back away from this story. When you hear suicide, homicide, maybe that's unpleasant, but I would just encourage people to lean into this story because there is so much to learn here. I learned I mean we make it so hard and yet it should be so simple Just love other people better. Just love other people better. We know what that is. We know what that is. And Bob Goff says all the time I love this. Maybe he doesn't say it all the time, but I repeat it all the time. He says you know, it's noble to go across the ocean to help someone, but you can go across the street and love people better and within our own families we can love people better. It doesn't have to be some big fancy thing that you put on your resume. It can be something as simple as visiting with a neighbor who other people don't visit with. Absolutely, I started doing that and I have to tell you something I started to visit after Bob said that. I started being intentional about visiting with neighbors of ours who I'm not going to say elderly, because I'm in that category be older than us, okay, neighbors who are older than us. And initially I'm thinking, oh, aren't I being nice. You know taking chicken salad to my neighbor. Well, guess what? I discovered Sitting one-on-one with my neighbor. She is so interesting and has so much wisdom. She's not the person who's going to stand out at the neighborhood party with everyone being loud, she's going to be quiet one-on-one. Now I selfishly deliver chicken salad around so I can get a nice little hour visit. Now, I don't force my way in. Usually they invite you in and usually they're there and usually they have time. But I discovered that going across the street is this beautiful, wonderful thing and it's really not for them.Speaker 2:
And that's the truth. It's for me. So, yeah, we being mom to my five kids is like really, it's like I shouldn't get any credit for this ever, because it's such a gift to be in their orbit. I think too, a lot of times people think of love as sweet or nice and we have a saying in our family. It's kind of become our family motto is soft hearts, strong backbones. Because love has a soft heart but it still has a strong backbone and I often think we I can't even start thinking is this loving, like me, making this boundary and you're so mad and like I feel like I'm dividing the family or, you know, telling a kid that they can't do something. But I thought love has a strong backbone because it has to protect right. It has to do what's right, it has to look out for others. But it also has a soft heart and I think if you keep that soft heart and that strong backbone and then you go across the street like, that changes the world, doesn't it?Speaker 1:
I love that it changes us, it changes us, it changes our little world and it hopefully, as you're writing about it, it's inspiring other people to do this in their worlds, whether they're a blended family or not. It's really just about empathy triumphing over judgment, the power of love. So where can we find you? It's on Amazon and probably every other bookseller, but your website. I would encourage people to go to your website and we'll have it in the show notes. But it's jessiwildencom and that's spelled J-E-S-S-Y-E-W-I-L-D-E-Ncom. And that's just a start, because she also has a great podcast. I've been on it. It's just really fabulous.Speaker 2:
It's getting better and better.Speaker 1:
Great podcast and she's a speaker and she has all kinds of wisdom on her site. She's probably teaching retreats, maybe ultimately doing a conference, so keep your eye on her, but I just want to thank you so much for being with us, and have I left out any other ways to find you? You've got your social media stuff on your website, okay.Speaker 2:
Yeah, I do, and Instagram is my favorite. But no, just go to my website. Thank you so much for this. Definitely for this. It's been a joy.Speaker 1:
And I feel like we're going to stay in touch, so we will.Speaker 2:
Friends for life.