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Battling Grief

“Daddy fell…” Those two little words began the sentence that would change my life forever. We had just celebrated one of the most joyous days of the year and were to continue the festive season with extended family members later that day. That morning I took a long bath and reflected on the past year’s ups and downs. A lot had happened in our lives that year and I, as all of us were, was completely unaware of the mountain I would begin climbing that afternoon. I remember, for the first time in awhile, feeling completely content and grateful for my family and was looking forward to the coming new year and wondering what new joys or trials it would bring our way. As I look back on that day now, I am filled with empathy and love for that family, my family.

Up until that day, in my thirty two years, I had never truly known tragedy. I was one of those people all of us are, who thought that “things like that don’t happen to me; they happen to other people but not to ME!” I was a wife and a mother of two little boys, a four year old and a five month old. I had married for love, something I had dreamed of all of my life. We were your typical American family living the small town life with dreams of watching our children grow into successful Christian men.

Death was, I believed, so far into the future that I never felt the subject needed to be acknowledged or addressed. Death couldn’t touch us. We were far too young to worry about such serious matters. We had a will drawn up when our first son was born but in my mind the likelihood of us putting that will to use before one of us was eighty five seemed almost hypothetical. That “hypothetical” situation happened within four years of us drawing up that will.

Back to that day… It was the day after Christmas, 2003. It began like any other December 26th. My husband, Darin, had taken our four year old, Devin, outside to play with some of his new toys. Darin loved being a dad more than any man I’ve ever known. He was the typical “big kid” , having bought a remote control airplane and left it, unbeknownst to me, wrapped up on the front porch. There was a note to himself from “Santa” on it, stating that he knew how he’d always wanted one! They had been outside for awhile when Devin came in the front door. The words that spilled out of his precious little mouth permeated my being like heavy lead. “Daddy fell off the ladder in the next neighbor’s yard and has blood right here”, he said as he pointed to his forehead.

I am not sure there are adequate words to express the whirlwind of emotions and thoughts that began to envelop me in that moment and in the ones following. I began blurting out questions and ran into the yard frantically in my robe and then back up the steps into the house again when I saw no sign of him. “Which neighbor’s house”? “Was he talking?” “Did the neighbor tell you to come get me”? Then, hospital…insurance card…get dressed…drive him to the hospital…get the baby…Go! I did all those things in a flash as my body shook and my heart pounded. I’ll never forget the horrific sound I heard next as I rushed down the front steps of the house, little Dracen in tow in his carseat and Devin and my little Dachshunds tagging along behind me. Sirens. Loud sirens!

The next several minutes are still a blur in my mind, like a very bad dream or an intensely dramatic scene shown in slow motion on a movie screen. As I drove my car over to the front of the neighbor’s house swarms of rescue squad volunteers buzzed in like honeybees who’d lost their queen. I could almost feel the color leave my face at the sight I saw next. Darin on the ground, blood running down his face… ladder knocked over… someone I don’t know trying to resuscitate him…neighbor talking to me in a frantic and sorrowful voice. “The plane was stuck in the tree“…“he insisted on getting it out“…“was going to climb the tree“…“I got a ladder“…“told him to be careful of that power line“…“told him to be careful of that power line“…“told him to be careful of that power line“. I think he only said it once but it was in my head like a skipping 45 on my record player when I was eight just as the words that were spilling out of my mouth as I watched this young man I did not know try to bring my husband back to life. “Why is he doing that? “… “Why is he doing that?”…“Why is he doing that?” Then I recall a female neighbor’s voice saying, “she’s in shock”.

The next thing I recall is my brother-in-law, Karry, showing up. I remember standing next to Karry in the street wanting to go with Darin and asking Karry if he was going to be okay. I think he said, “just stand right here”. I remember not hearing the words I wanted to hear from anyone. I wanted to hear that my husband, the father of my children, my best friend and partner, was going to be okay. That is what I wanted to hear but that is not what I heard and that is not what I felt. My mother-in-law, Pat, and Karry’s wife, Debbie, showed up at some point and a plan was in motion. Karry would drive Pat and I to the hospital in my car and Debbie would take the kids with her. I remember riding in the car to the hospital in the passenger seat of my car as I fidgeted with Darin’s insurance card, turning it over and over in my hands as I prayed silently as I’d never prayed before. “Oh please, God, please, please, please let him be okay. I’ll be a better wife, a better person, a better Christian if you’ll just let him be okay. I’m not ready to let him go. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I can’t survive without him. We can’t survive without him. Those little boys don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this!” I didn’t get to say goodbye. He’s going to be okay. I know you’ll let him be okay. Please, Father, please!” Those were the silent prayers I prayed on what seemed like the longest ride of my life.

I tried to sit down on that uncomfortable plastic chair in the hospital emergency room but I couldn’t be still. I saw the paramedics come through those automatic doors and I saw the look of disappointment and grief on their faces. Pat, or someone, asked how he was and she just shook her head and said they didn’t know. I knew she was not being truthful though I still had a tiny glimmer of hope left in me. I also recall a woman who I believe was the hospital chaplain looking our way. I knew the look on her face was bad, bad news and I wanted no part of it or of her. I tried to get away from her, to somehow escape the pain I knew was coming. I was ready for this dream to be over. I wanted to wake up!

I never woke up because as you know by now this was not a dream. This was real. This was life at its worst and I was about to be hit with it head on. Happily ever after, as I knew it, was over. I can’t even recall the doctor’s face or name or even what came out of his mouth other than “we did all that we could do” and maybe something about his heart. What?!??!!! I flung myself to the floor like a child having a temper tantrum in a department store when she was told she could not get the new doll or oversized lollipop she wanted. “But Dracen doesn’t even know him yet!” were the words I blurted out next. I wanted to run, run as fast as I could for as long as I could until I was back safe and snug in my familiar world. But I did not run for I had no place else to go. The world as I had known it was over. I knew I had to stand back up and start climbing.

The droves of family members and friends who showed up at the hospital next was comforting yet overwhelmingly painful. The depth of pain on each of their faces cut into my soul and filled me with unfamiliar emotions and one that I was familiar with, Anger! I was angry that this was happening to me, to my family. We weren’t perfect but we were good people, weren’t we? “How could you let us down like this, Lord? How could you?” This anger was magnified when I saw the unbearable pain on my in-laws’ faces. Bob and Pat are two of the most exceptional Christian persons I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. The anger alternated with feelings of fear and an overbearing sadness. My emotions were bouncing around like one of those little bouncy balls kids love to get from a bubble gum machine. I was lost.

I cannot recall how long we were in that hospital or most of what took place while we were there but I will never forget going into the room to see him. Walking into that room where his body lay gave new meaning to the word “surreal” for me. I talked to him as if he were still in there though I knew he was not. This was painfully evident when I took his hand that still wore his wedding band from under that stark white sheet. For the first time since I’d met him, nine and a half years earlier, that hand was unresponsive to my touch and for the very first time in my life, I wanted to die. I did not want to stay behind and pick up all the broken pieces.

Walking out of that room to go home and leaving him behind filled me with a massive void. It was as if my naivete had been dissolved and all that I was vanished, leaving behind a combination of numbness and raw exposure. I felt that everyone could see inside my soul and that all my emotions, which were normally kept in tact, were on my sleeve for all to see. There must have been at least thirty people there who had come to give support and grieve their friend, cousin, nephew, etc. As we passed through them on our way out of that room where his body lay, I was compelled to reach out and embrace some of them who were mostly friends of his. This was a very uncharacteristic behavior for me, the old me.

It was dark out by the time we left the hospital to go home. Walking back into the house where the Christmas tree still stood and the presents we had unwrapped still lay under the tree was a dose of harsh reality that I was ill- prepared for. So many faces, some familiar and some not, poured in and out of our little house over the next three days. I think back on it as a compassionate invasion of my space. They all came bearing food, paper plates or toilet paper and each one had the most mournful look of sorrow on their face. “Please call us if you need anything”. I was surely going to wake up from this nightmare soon. I just knew it.

The nightmare only got worse as I did not wake up. I will spare you all the nauseating details of the next couple of days that involved picking out a casket and the ironing of his burial clothes, even underwear, something I’d never done in my life and am still not sure why I felt the need to do so. He died on Friday, we received friends at our church for about six or seven hours on Sunday and buried him on a cloudy Monday. It took about two weeks for our lives to settle down as we began the struggle for a new sense of “normal”.

As the numbness began to wear off, it was replaced by a pain that was almost debilitating at times. I recall sitting in the bathtub almost paralyzed by this pain and emptiness inside. This grief was smothering and sucking the life out of me. I prayed with all that I had left in me, which did not feel like much at the time, and I felt Him. I had never experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as I did in that moment. It was as if Jesus Himself entered my bathroom and held me in His arms. I felt His unfathomable love embrace me and fill me with the strength I needed to get through the rest of the day.

"One day at a time” became my motto and Jesus was my rock in a way that I have never allowed Him to be before. I knew, even that early into this journey, that I was growing as a human being and as a Christian. I had never felt I needed Him before in the way that I did now. I now needed Him in order to breathe, to get out of bed each morning, to care for my grieving four year old and my restless infant. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still had days when I yelled at God for allowing this to happen. I had moments of intense rage that seemed to alternate with feelings of gratefulness for all that I still had and for all that I was learning. Mostly though, there was just an incredible sadness and overwhelming sense of loss.

Although I was surrounded by those who were grieving for the same person just as fiercely as I was, I felt that no one around me could relate to what I was going through, personally. I knew that I needed to reach out to other young widows with children and had an overwhelming desire to do so. I found exactly what I was looking for on a website for young widows. I would read their individual stories and breathe a sigh of relief to know that someone else really did know what I was going through. Each story was tragic and I felt myself feeling empathy for each one of them though at the same time it was comforting. They knew what I knew. I formed close friendships with three of these ladies from the online support group and each one of them will forever be precious to me. I’ve no doubts that God brought us together.

By the time these friendships were formed, I was beginning to gain a newfound sense of independence and confidence that I had never quite known before. I felt empowered by the fact that I was battling this storm of grief head on and taking charge of my life. I did still, however, have extreme lows and moments of self-pity. I could hear God talking to me, telling me to get it out, to use it. That is when I began writing poetry. I had never attempted to do such a thing ever and honestly, did not think I was capable of it. but when the words starting pouring out of me onto the paper, I felt alive. The poems always began during my lowest points, when I was hurting intensely. They would usually start out dark and painful but I could always hear God’s voice reminding me of how far I’d come and encouraging me to end each one on a positive note and to remember Him in each one.

I was never really quite sure what to do with the poems after I finished them but I always felt a sense of accomplishment afterwards. It was as if I’d just sat down face to face with God and worked out my problems in a therapy session. I knew I had to share the poems with someone so I would email them to family and friends, always with positive feedback and sometimes a few tears. I have not written a poem about grief in quite some time for I am no longer actively grieving. I have been happily remarried for three months now and life is good. I have, however, been feeling that tug again which I believe is God trying to tell me something. I hear Him telling me that He’s not even close to being done with me yet and that I need to step up my game! I am not sure yet what it is that He is calling me to do but I do know that when He speaks to me, I'm sure gonna listen...

October, 2008

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. (Psalm 105:4)