It was 2 days before their son’s 12th birthday. Joanne’s husband Andy went to lay down for a nap and never woke up. Faced with running her business and raising their two children alone, Joanne found herself experiencing many firsts. Watch her heartfelt story.
One magical moment in the summer of 1969 changed my life forever. A chance meeting. A spark. A love that was meant to be. A love that defined me. A love I will carry with me forever.
In 1964, my husband arrived as a first year teacher and basketball coach at my high school. I arrived there as an eighth grade student. No one—especially us—would have ever guessed that five years later we would fall in love and marry.
We were blessed with a son in 1976. In 1982, we moved to Las Vegas and, after a year of coaching, Vern went to work at UNLV’s sports arena. After twenty years, he retired to open the Orleans Arena. Vern was an amazing teacher, fabulous coach and inspiring mentor to many.
Vern had back issues that flared from time to time, so we weren’t initially alarmed when the pain began in 2006. However, when he got to the point where he could hardly walk, I convinced him to see a doctor. A CT scan was done but didn’t show anything, so Vern was sent to a physical therapist. And he got worse. We finally begged his primary physician to get insurance approval for an MRI. We weren’t home too long after the procedure when the doctor called and said, “My God, man, you have a tumor on your spine.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget those words.
We met with the surgeon early the next morning. A small room. Vern in a wheelchair, me on a stool, the doctor showing us the MRI scans. The tumor. The hot spots. Spinal compression fractures. And so many lytic lesions. Multiple myeloma. Cancer. Metastasized. Not a good prognosis.
And so it began, four plus years. Surgeries. Mistakes. Rehab. Physical therapy. Infections. GI bleeds. Pleural effusions. Pneumonia. Pulmonary embolism. Chemo. Radiation. So very many blood transfusions. Colostomy. Kidney failure. Dialysis. He went through so much. And then there was nothing more they could do to him. For him.
Vern’s final days were spent at Nathan Adelson Hospice. No more pricks and prods or waking him up for rounds. He was peaceful. I stayed with him twenty-four hours a day. And those final four days were a gift. He spoke very little the first two days and then was silent, but I have no doubt at all that he was able to hear my words.
When the death rattle arrived, I gently slid into his hospital bed, held him close and spoke to him until he slipped away.
Written by Dianne West in How to Help the Newly Bereaved. Dianne’s beloved 69-year-old husband Vern died from multiple myeloma in 2010.
It was a beautiful fall day. The temperature was perfect and only a few clouds hung suspended in the blue sky.
The date was November 18, 2007, a Sunday. We had been living in a hotel because our home had been flooded when Jacksonville Electric Authority did something called pipe bursting on the house behind ours. That day we were finally able to get into our home to start the cleanup. Barry asked if we would need him there all day because he needed to finish a project for school. He said he would be at Auntie’s house using her computer and then was going to help with the setup for his younger cousin’s birthday party. A couple of hours later he called to ask if we were going to make the party. We said no, because we still had more to do and no time to change. He said okay and then we exchanged, “I love you.”
We received three more phone calls from our son’s cellphone. First, he said he was back at the hotel and asked if we were going to bring something to eat. In the next call he said he was going out with friends. The third call was from his friend saying Barry had been shot and they needed to know what hospital to take him to.
We drove so fast down U.S. 17 that we saw the ambulance and followed it all the way to Shands Hospital. Barry was whisked into surgery and we were ushered into a waiting room. Hours later a minister came and asked if we’d spoken to the doctor yet. We told him we hadn’t, and he left to go get him.
We are so sorry.
Nobody likes those words at the beginning of a doctor’s statement.
Barry and his girlfriend were robbed while walking to a friend’s apartment. They stole Barry’s cross and wanted to accost the young lady. When Barry stopped one robber, the other shot Barry in the chest. The bullet pierced an artery in the heart, and they couldn’t stop the bleeding. He died in the early morning hours of Monday, November 19, 2007.
I was told by a couple of people that my wife and I wouldn’t survive the loss of a child. Not because they were being mean or spiteful, but because of what they’ve seen happen to others in our situation. And it is true, I’ve seen it also. There is no guaranteed survival after the loss of a child. There is work. You have to want to do this work. The hardest thing in life to do is bury a child. Your child. So if you work at it slowly, because it’s going to take time, you can make it through.
Burying a parent, you know you have to do that, and even your spouse. Life will not start over for you, and the majority of the people you meet won’t have a clue as to what you’re dealing with. Everything outside of you will exist as it is. Children will play in the park, people will still wave their fists in anger when someone cuts them off on the road, and you will survive. You will be a survivor.
I can’t promise you that every day from here on out will be sunshine, and you wouldn’t want me to. I can tell you it will be hard, exhausting, and it will feel like it would be easier to go your separate ways. Love tests for your heart and soul multiplied by infinity. Stay in that love, and communicate. You are a survivor!
Written by Barry Brooks, Barry’s 19-year-old son was murdered in 2007. His full story is published in Grief Diaries: Will We Survive?
The warm summer day started out just like any other. I was busy organizing the kids, planning dinner, making a mental note to fill the car with gas and pick up a gallon of milk on my way home from their soccer game. Suddenly without warning, I was engulfed by a raging fire. I suffered third degree burns over my entire body. Not an inch of me was spared.
People rushed to my side to help but there was nothing they could do. Medical care was limited and the best medications did little to ease the agony. I wasn’t sure I could survive such intense suffering. Worse, nobody could tell me how long such agony would last.
Doctors gently gave me the news that although my physical self would heal, the disfigurement would remain for life. My family, friends, and coworkers no longer recognized me. I no longer recognized myself.
At first, doing little things like sitting up in bed or standing were so excruciating they took my breath away. The mere thought of eating, bathing, and dressing left me feeling helpless and hopeless.
Pity and sadness were apparent in the eyes of everyone who came to my side. I understood the sadness but hated the pity. Why on God’s green earth was I spared the peace of death?
Learning to live with complete disfigurement and extreme pain is overwhelming. Excruciatingly slow and exhausting, it takes years of great effort to master what were once basic activities. Some days I hurt too bad to even try.
When out in public I pretend to be normal to ease the discomfort of others who are brave enough to approach me. Those who avoid me merely add further angst to my broken spirit. Pretending to be normal is exhausting and quickly depletes all my reserves. By the time I finish errands and return home, I’m utterly spent.
Worst of all, there is absolutely nothing that I nor anyone else can do about it.
For you see, that complete disfigurement and intolerable pain described above is on the inside of my body. The pain is unchanged, the disfigurement is still complete, and the scars are permanent. The new life thrust upon me that day when my child died caused a firestorm that engulfed every part of my life. The only differences between me and the patient who suffered third degree burns over her entire body is that I lived. And my pain is invisible to the world.
Welcome to the life of a grieving mother.
Today is International Bereaved Mother’s Day, a day to honor those who walk the hardest journey known to motherhood. It’s been nearly nine years since I began such as transformative path, and although that isn’t much time in the world of grief, it’s enough to uncover treasured lessons buried deep under the rubble.
The journey begins very ugly.
“Why me, God?” I wailed. “What did I fail to do to deserve such a fate?”
“It’s not what you did not do,” he said. “It’s what you will do.”
I didn’t understand, and stood at the door of The Wailing Tent spewing vile words and gnashing my teeth. Outside were solitary tents for mothers who weren’t willing to accept fate’s invitation. Not wanting to be alone in my agony, I forced myself across the threshold.
Inside the tent, sisters tended to my broken soul without judgment. They taught me that love comes in many forms, and we don’t need to know someone in order to love someone. For we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
I also learned to love without boundaries and judgment. This is the point on my journey when judgment of others faded from my heart.
I learned about compassion in ways I never comprehended. My sisters taught me to have compassion without fixing another soul’s problem, lest I rob them of an opportunity to grow.
In addition to love and compassion, I learned about forgiveness. Forgiveness not just for perceived imperfections in others, but for myself as well. This opens the door to self love.
Next comes gratitude. This isn’t fathomable in the journey’s beginning. But through profound sorrow we learn that life can change in an instant, and to appreciate all we have. A grateful heart is a happy heart.
I then learned about hope. I discovered that grief comes in many forms, and without grief there would be no need for hope. Many are robbed of hope but when we help them find it, it helps our own heart to heal.
Finally comes beauty. I learned that our hearts can hold joy the same time as sorrow, and I merely had to give myself permission to embrace life’s beauty. In doing so, it balances the sorrow. That was perhaps the hardest lesson of all, and yet one I treasure most.
Inside The Wailing Tent, no words are spoken. The eyes and heart teach everything we need to know.
So you see, while my journey began very ugly, it has transformed into one of beauty. When I earned my membership into The Wailing Tent, an ancient and sacred sisterhood known simply as the club, I learned to become an ambassador for love, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, and beauty. Although I don’t always get it right, the lessons I gained through losing a child helped me evolve into a better version of myself.
“It’s not what you did not do. It’s what you will do,” God said.
Today I’m honored to be a member of The Wailing Tent, a place that receives all mothers embarking on life’s hardest teachings. I miss my child with every breath, an ache that lives inside my bones, but without such a journey I would never have had the opportunity to learn life’s most valuable lessons.
I am grateful.
Happy Bereaved Mother’s Day to all.
I met James Cameron Mjelve in 2005 while we were both living in Edmonton. At the time he worked for a laborer’s union. We married in 2007 and had three beautiful children together, one boy and two girls. In 2009, Cameron decided to go back to university and finish his Education degree.
In 2010, Cameron was in his second year when I began to notice that he was struggling more with the course load. During Christmas break Cameron seemed different, a little off from his usual self. Perhaps a little depressed, but nothing to be overly concerned about. In January 2011, our youngest daughter was born with a disability and the stresses of life became overwhelming for Cameron. He began to struggle even more with his university courses.
On July 21, 2011, my husband committed suicide. We were both forty-two at the time and our children were three, two, and five months old.
There is much that has changed in my life from losing a spouse. Perhaps the first is that I’ve had to learn how to use the word widow when speaking about myself. That alone has been a tough adjustment. I’ve become single again and I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable in a room full of couples. I’ve had to become comfortable in a room full of widows. I’ve had to become comfortable crying in front of both those groups of people.
It has been a difficult experience, losing a spouse. I’ve had to face major decisions for myself and the children alone. At times this has been very stressful, especially when I’ve had to make decisions which impact my children’s health or our financial stability. It has been so difficult not having anyone to bounce ideas off of. Friends will always tell you they are there to help you and listen, but it’s still not the same. I miss my friend who shared everything with me.
But I have learned from my experience, and developed a stronger decision-making process. As a result, I have been able to become more confident in the decisions I make. Another way my life is different is that I simply cannot do the things I want to do. I cannot run to the store at 10 p.m., there is no one to watch the children. I cannot sleep in on a Saturday if it’s been a tough week of being up in the night with sick children. Even something so simple as taking a vacation has become a major undertaking. Not only is there no one to help me with the children, but there’s no one for me to share the experience with. Even if we as a family are on vacation and the children are enjoying themselves, who did I get to tell about my experience?
Life is lonely. I don’t have anyone to share even the small moments with. There is no spouse who laughs with you or remembers with you. There is also no one who touches you. Yes, the kids hug and climb all over me, but it’s different than the simple loving touch of a husband.
Life has been different and even difficult, for sure. But I also see it as an opportunity to grow. Although my life will never be what I had dreamed it would be, I am discovering there is a new life that I can make. It unfortunately doesn’t include my husband, but it does include my children and we take Cameron’s memory with us wherever we go. And we are learning that we can still live a life that is full of meaning and adventure, even if it wasn’t the life we originally chose. And I do feel like I have a choice. We live in a society that is very focused on couples. This is not the life that I chose, to be single at forty-two years old, but I also feel like I’m presented with a choice on how to react. I can sit and wallow in self-pity and despair over broken dreams, or I can get up and start life over again.
I will always, always remember my husband. I will always grieve his loss. I will still cry over his loss. But I will choose to keep on living and to help my children find their life as well.
Written by Julie Mjelve. Julie’s 42-year-old husband Cameron died by suicide in 2011 Read her full story in Surviving Loss of a Spouse.
“It will get easier.” Now, eleven years later, I can say that yes, in some ways it has. My Dad’s death is no longer one of the first things I remind myself of when I wake up, nor is it the last thing I think about before I fall asleep. But it has been 4,019 days, and I still miss him. April 22 is a constant reminder. I still have days and weeks when it’s just as painful as it was eleven years ago, and I still have moments that make my head spin, today will always be one of those days.
There are several things in particular that almost always trigger one of these moments and force me to quite literally say hello to my grief. There have been countless occasions when I’m watching a movie, TV show, or listening to a song and something hits me. A line or situation sticks out, reminding me of my dad in some way. Suddenly something’s different; there’s a pang of sadness, a feeling of nostalgia, or a flood of bittersweet sentiment. Sometimes this moment is brief and I bounce back immediately. Other times, I feel the tears rushing to my eyes.
There’s something incredibly bittersweet about accomplishments, knowing that my dad’s not here to enjoy them with me. Hands down, one of the hardest things that has come with losing Dad is the occasional realization of how much time has passed and here we are eleven years later. Birthdays, holidays, and other milestones are all reminders. There are days when I feel like it was just yesterday that he was taken from me, other times, I feel as if it has been a lifetime.
Many people who have not lost someone to homicide mistakenly believe that it’s something you will get over, or that you’ll have some sort of closure. However, the truth is, I still hurt eleven years later. It’s not a constant, overwhelming, consuming grief, but the little things within which grief hides hit me when I least expect it.
Take a good look at the photo and for the love of life please give no less than 100% of your attention when driving.
Life can change in an INSTANT. There are no second chances. Drive safely and responsibly. The presumption of guilt starts at 0.08%. Responsibility starts at 0.00%.
How do I describe my mom? She was a bundle of contradictions, especially toward the end of her life. My mother was born to a very poor farming family in upstate New York. She was the kid who literally got one pair of shoes a year and put cardboard in the bottom when the soles wore out. This led her to be determined that her children would never be without the desires of their hearts. She was generous with those she loved to a fault. I used to say that I had to watch her finances because she would be the little old lady eating cat food while she paid for her children to dine on filet mignon.
My father worked for the United States Government. We, my parents and four siblings, traveled the world and got to experience things that many dream of. I watched my mom entertain ambassadors and foreign dignitaries with an ease that would have put the finest event planner to shame. She always reminded me of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She dressed like her, had amazing poise and seemed to be flawless in her ability to make everything look easy. Memories of fine china and white linen are as ingrained in my childhood recollections as Barbies and Match Box cars. Mom was simply magnificent when she was in her element.
My father died in 2001 from pharyngeal cancer. It was slow and ugly. My oldest sister and I made a pact during that time. Our motto was “no regrets.” Looking back, I have none. I was there constantly for my dad; my world stopped that year. When it was time to say goodbye, I was holding his hand and there was no doubt in my mind or in his how deep our love for the other was. In retrospect, I was afforded that luxury because Mom was once again doing her Jackie Onassis impression and keeping everything running flawlessly. We supported her and dad, but she was definitely the backbone. I hated what happened that year, but I have no regrets. I wish I could say the same for my mom’s passing.
People loved mom, but she never fully trusted their loyalty. She was always sure that she was not up to the standards of others. Her self-confidence was frighteningly low. She masked it well most of her life, but toward the end, as her filters began to fade, I saw how the fear of what she perceived others’ opinions to be had removed much of the joy from her life. It was a shame because it was all self-induced. As I said, people loved her; she just did not allow herself to be vulnerable enough to be fully loved. In June 2014, I received a call from my oldest sister saying she thought mom had had a stroke. I threw some clothes into a suitcase and immediately began the twelve-hour drive to my mom’s house, while my sister began her nine-hour drive. It was the beginning of the longest seven months of my life. Mom had indeed had a stroke and would require extended hospital and post-hospital therapy to recover. Again, my sister and I made a pact, no regrets.
I can honestly say that from that point on, Mom was not alone for one single day until she died on January 21, 2015. We battled through stroke recovery, which is a story unto itself. One must experience it firsthand to even begin to understand the trials that accompany stroke recovery. We were two weeks away from Mom being able to live independently when she took a small fall. Due to the blood thinners she was on, we went to the hospital for a precautionary check-up. They found lung cancer.
After consulting with specialists, looking at Mom’s overall health and mental state, we decided to go with an intense five-day radiation plan known as CyberKnife. Mom did fantastic. Although we would not be sure of the results for six months, we felt very confident and went into the holiday season with high hopes for the future.
Thanksgiving and Christmas went by with no glitches. We were happy and had a house full of children and grandchildren. It was a happy time. My sister came to my home to stay with Mom so I could go on my annual family vacation between the week of Christmas and New Year’s. We wanted Mom to go with us, but she was just not prepared for the amount of “go time” we experienced. Our family squeezes a lot into that week. When I got home from vacation, Mom came down with a cold which turned into pneumonia. It was time to go back to the hospital. Mom was in the hospital for about ten days. She was released to a rehab hospital to regain strength and walking ability. I was confident she would overcome this as she had every other battle. I was wrong.
Monday, January 20, 2015. I was heading to the rehab after school. I was staying there so I could be close to Mom. I got a call saying she was being combative and disoriented. I got there and found her bed had been lowered to the floor so she would not be able to fall out of it or to climb out as easily. My guts screamed to get Mom to the ER, but the nurses assured me it was just digestive and they were taking care of it. After a half hour of watching her hurt, I looked her in the eyes and asked if she wanted to go to the hospital. She nodded yes. The nurses argued with me, and I ended up telling them that they could call the ambulance or I would.
Mom arrived at the hospital around 11 p.m. I remember thinking I should call my husband, my kids, someone. But I knew I needed to be alone through this. I didn’t want to have to console anyone else. Although the doctors kept telling me that my mom was going to be fine, there was one nurse who was brutally honest. I looked at him and asked if I should call my siblings. He said it wouldn’t be a bad idea. One of my brothers and one of my sisters made it in time. The other two did not. I hold guilt that I should have called sooner.
That night has some of the worst nightmares of my life. I can’t tell anyone about them because I don’t want them to have the same images in their mind that I hold in mine. It was not a peaceful passing. I hate myself for some of the things I did. I excuse it by saying that I thought I was saving my mom’s life and doing what the doctors said, but it does not change the fact that I participated in the pain and fear my mom felt before she died.
No amount of self-talk takes away the pictures that are on a constant loop when I close my eyes.
Written by Sophia Blowers. Sophia’s 79-year-old mother died of internal bleeding in 2015. Read her full story in Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Parent.
Michele Neff Hernandez lost her 39-year-old husband Phil in a cycling accident in 2005. Faced with darkness and hopelessness, she set out to find out how other widows survived. This is her story.
An inside look at traumatic sibling loss with guest expert Dr. Heidi Horsley, professor of Traumatic Loss During Childhood at Columbia University, on the 35th anniversary of her brother’s death at age 17 from a car crash.