A smile. A wave. An unsolicited favor. A short text message to ask “How are you? Do you need anything?” A care package at the front door. Individually each of these may seem small, even trivial. But to a person in need, they could be the difference between hope and despair, inspiration and desperation, even life and death. Sometimes we miss the opportunity to offer kindness. Not because it is beyond us or because we don’t think to do it. Sometimes we neglect to engage because we feel it is not enough. What difference could MY little effort make? It will seem ridiculous or out of place. It is not small, or ridiculous, or out of place. I have had the misfortune of being that person in need and I promise you, the individual and collective kindness I received from YOU, my community, saved me.
February 11, 2017. Just typing the date drains the blood from my body. My world went dark that day. It was on that day that I lost my husband Neil to a fatal heart attack…the kind they appropriately call a “Widow Maker.” Until that moment I had everything; a beautiful and caring husband who was a pillar of the community and a devoted father. Together we had built a wonderful family, with three healthy and vibrant children, a dream home, and a circle of dear friends. The sudden loss was beyond tragic. The bottom fell out. I felt I lost everything. I would stare into the abyss throwing out a whisper only to receive echoes of nothingness in return. I could not function. The bottomless pit found its way into my gut no matter where I hid. Curled up in a ball under the covers, on the floor of my shower, sitting in Neil’s chair rocking myself with the rhythm of the saddest dirge. Each day brought more pain and more rivers of tears. But YOU held me up, never loosening your grip, never letting me drown. The more I drifted toward nothingness, the tighter you made your grip, refusing to let me forget. Reminding me of who I am, how beautiful my children are, reminding me of my purpose and that I am still here. I am still alive. YOU reminded me who Neil was, to me and to the world. YOU spoke of the life lessons I had learned from the most generous spirit I had ever known. How he empowered me to follow my calling and create my own path. February 11, 2017. I lost my Neil to a heart attack. I thought I had lost everything. I did not. As a matter of fact, I gained more on this and the subsequent days than I could possibly ever have imagined.
In the weeks following Neil’s passing I was in shock, consumed by grief, and both mentally and physically exhausted. I was dependent upon the adrenaline my body produced as a byproduct of total immersion in horror. Where my children and finances were concerned, I was crystal clear, almost robotic. Beyond that, in the realm of anything EXTRA, I was functionally disabled. In the paralyzing moments when I was without the crutch of my inner circle, I melted. As if on a psychedelic trip, I fell into a trance while watching dust molecules float through the air. I showered, washed my face, dressed and undressed. Anything more ambitious was met with complete disinterest. Working, picking up from where I was prior to February 11th, and focusing on healing were all out of the question. Neil was gone. Who was I to believe I deserved to go on, move forward, thrive? I was sure that I, at least in part, also died that day. Neil and Carolyn. Carolyn and Neil. That union gave me the grace to breathe. The union was broken and I was now suffocating with grief, self-loathing, and guilt.
My loneliness was met with time. So much endless time to wallow in my depression. I questioned myself, over and over. What good was all of my strength if I could not use it to save him who was most precious to me? What could I have done differently to preserve my husband, my world, and a perfect life? I was filled with regret that turned into debilitating pain. Pain that left me gasping for air. Would it ever dissipate? I had to wake myself up from this nightmare. I was running out of life. One bar left. Game over…almost.
Through the darkness I saw the slightest shimmer of light. If only for a brief moment, I felt hope. That shimmer sustained me when the dark was at its blackest. Whether it was actual light or the memory of light, it grew, and I grew stronger. I began to regain my perspective and dare I say develop a new one. I was experiencing my rebirth. My sorrow and heartbreak were the stepping stones to my metamorphosis. The transformation is ongoing. My second act is being written each day. Who I become remains to be seen.
My rebirth is a testament to my faith, my children, and YOU. Neil is woven into each of those three pillars, make no mistake. My faith encompasses all that I think about related to Neil. It’s my faith that will bring me back to him. It’s my faith that gives me comfort that he is in a better place, resting in peace, happy and content while watching over us, protecting us and guiding us. I think it unimaginable that I could have lived through this without my faith.
I see Neil in my children every day, which brings both happiness and sorrow. They bear so much of him in the way they look, act, and sometimes even breathe. It is for my children that I awaken each day. They keep me focused and they drive me to be a better version of what I am in this moment. While that better version may currently be nothing more than an elusive dream, chasing that dream keeps me sane and emboldens me to rebuild myself. They are the sole focus of my love now. Daily, through them, I am reminded of all I have for which I am grateful. The love I share with them is not only mine but their father’s as well, which now flows through me to them.
Finally, there is YOU. The collective YOU. My community. YOU selflessly gave your time, support, and love to us. You brought smiles, hugs, care packages, warm meals, texts, emails, flowers, letters, mass cards, and gifts for my children so they would be distracted from their pain and loss. Your posts on Facebook and LinkedIn brought me to my knees. YOU saved my life. I was torn between not knowing how to say thank you and not wanting to say thank you because that made the loss all the more real. Your generosity was overwhelming. I only had my gratitude with which to respond, and there were times where I was too shell shocked to adequately express even that. If you wondered if your kindness worked, it did. If you thought your gesture went unnoticed, it did not. YOU brought smiles to my children’s faces, and laughter to their hearts. How can I thank you for that? Impossible!
YOU kept giving. Your tireless assistance empowered me to keep going. I had to match your energy. The meal train you provided in the months following Neil’s passing spared me the struggle of planning and preparing meals. My family was fed because YOU cared. What began as a constant reminder of my loss, morphed into a blessing that lifted a tremendous burden from my shoulders. Local moms brought groceries. Toy stores reciprocated our past patronage with gifts for my children. Neil’s colleagues brought memorabilia, an old guitar, pictures, nostalgic keepsakes, and more. Friends researched grief counseling for us and took on all of my outside responsibilities until I was able to take my life back again. I even received condolences and offers of help from people Neil and I didn’t know. Unbelievable!
I am awed by the depth of the care and compassion YOU bestowed upon us. The teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and instructors in my children’s lives treated them with tenderness as they entered class or practice or church choir rehearsal. I received their beautiful, heartfelt updates as my children progressed through their days. There is a sense of responsibility assumed by each of them, knowing the care my children need now that Neil is gone. They were not asked. Yet they answered the bell. They were not compensated. Yet they served tirelessly. Unknowingly, they became YOU. My community. YOU all had our backs, and we are eternally grateful.
I am reminded of the “Footprints in the Sand” parable. Whenever I could not stand on my own, my tribe of sisters lifted me up. They stood vigil for months making sure that I was eating and sleeping. They traveled across several states, even continents leaving their families, canceling their lives to just be with me and my children. They made sure I had someone to sit with every night and that I wasn’t alone in the house after the kids went to bed. With them by my side I was able to organize the most beautiful tribute for Neil. My sisters touched my life and imprinted themselves on my soul. I honor them by passing along these stories to my children so they may learn generosity and kindness.
Men are different. We all know this. The death of a peer makes them question their own mortality and take stock in their affairs so that their families are provided for when their time comes. It pains me that our conversations are strained because we silently share in so much pain. Rest assured I understand. Neil loved all of you so much. Whenever I see you, I am reminded of that and of how much your friendships meant to him. You showed up in so many ways. Providing council, time, guidance, and love for my children. You are so necessary and so appreciated. Since Neil passed you have not missed a beat. Doing what you do, providing. Incredible!
I have learned so many lessons during this journey. As Neil’s eyes closed, mine have been opened wider than ever before. It is in my nature to share when I have abundance and teach when I gain knowledge. With that, indulge me as I impart the following. We are a community. Locally, culturally, globally. We are each part of the collective. If we begin with love as our foundation, we have infinite power to affect change, provide hope, and lift each other up. I am living proof.
Thank you Mike Shaw for your friendship and editorial contributions.