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Special Feature – Grief and LossBy Holly Mack

No one ever expects or thinks a single traumatic event can change their lives forever. I am here to say it does, and to share my story about grief and how I am managing it. I never thought my husband, best friend, and the father of our daughters, would abruptly leave this world forever, leaving me and my family in shock and a deep state of sadness. 


It was a normal day on November 20, 2012. After finishing work, I waited for my husband Kevin in the lobby of my worksite to be picked up. As time passed and Kevin did not show up, I figured traffic was heavy. After more time passed, I felt panic because Kevin is usually never late. A coworker came down to the lobby and I used her cell phone because Kevin had my phone. I called home and my oldest daughter Faith, who was seven years old at the time, answered the phone and I asked her, “Where is your dad?” She replied, “He has been sleeping since this morning and I cannot wake him up.” 


I suspected something awful had happened so I rushed to my office to call 911. It seemed like an eternity for the local police and paramedics to call me with an update on the status of my husband. Within ten minutes they called and told me to get home as fast as I could. I knew in my heart Kevin was gone because the paramedics were not taking him to a hospital. I contacted my children’s daycare staff to get someone to pick up my daughters and get them out of the house.  


My boss already left for the day, so she asked my former boss Lisa if she could drive me home. While walking to meet her, I used my coworker’s phone to make several calls to family and Kevin’s work. I remember telling one of Kevin’s coworkers to call their district manager because Kevin had passed away. I was trying to keep it together at that point. When I finally met up with Lisa, I don’t remember getting into her car or what I said to her. It took us an hour to get home because of heavy traffic. During the long ride home all I kept thinking about was my girls and how I was going to tell them their dad had gone to be with God in heaven. I remember telling Lisa there was no way I could afford my mortgage on one salary and I was afraid I would not be able to take care of my girls financially. I felt overwhelmed with so many different thoughts and emotions. Lisa told me that everything would be alright. 


When we finally arrived at my house, I became totally emotionally numb. When I got out of Lisa’s car, she took my hand. My neighbors were standing in my front yard crying. All they could say was how sorry they were Kevin passed away. Lisa and I went into the house and were greeted by a police officer, paramedics, my best friend Lisa, and Kevin’s best friend Dennis. The paramedics told me Kevin died of a massive heart attack in his sleep. 


Everything from that point on was a blur. My former boss Lisa took charge because I could not as I felt so despondent and overwhelmed. She greeted family members and helped me contact the funeral home so they could retrieve Kevin’s body. Before the funeral home staff came to retrieve Kevin, I went upstairs with my best friend Lisa, Dennis, and my mom to see Kevin. He looked peaceful—like he was just sleeping. I said to him, “I know you are not here and are with God. I am not happy about this, but it was his decision to make.” I then kissed him on the forehead and left the room. Once the funeral home came and took Kevin everybody started to leave. I remember walking my former boss Lisa out and her saying, “I don’t know what to say.” We hugged and I thanked her for everything. Then I will never forget what she said to me. She said, “God sent me to you tonight.” I believe he did! 


Kevin’s was the second funeral I had to help plan, as my father also unexpectedly passed away three weeks prior. When planning Kevin’s funeral, I discovered that he did not have life insurance through his job. Thanks to Kevin’s sister, father, and employer coming up with a fund, Kevin was given a proper funeral. After making arrangements my mom, my daughters and I went back to the house for clothes because we were going to stay with my mom overnight. I will never forget what my daughter Faith did. She ran upstairs to our bedroom and grabbed the bed frame of our bed which was the only thing left after Kevin’s brothers tossed the bed out in the trash earlier that day. She was sobbing and said, “Daddy, what did I do wrong? Why did you leave me?” All my mom and I could do was hold her. I kept telling her that she did nothing wrong. When it was time for the viewing and funeral, Faith chose to not be there, and I was fine with her decision. 


Kevin’s funeral was a blur to me. The only thing I remember was the beautiful eulogy his sister delivered. After Kevin’s funeral I focused on taking care of my girls. I took a week off from work so I could get them signed up with social security death benefits, pay bills, and get our lives organized. Going back to work served as an escape for me, because I did not have to think about Kevin dying. My coworkers and boss were there for me when I returned and are still here for me today. Since Christmas was approaching, my coworkers asked for a list of toys and things the girls needed. My girls’ eyes lit up when they saw the gifts. Kevin’s employer also got the girls gifts and took up collections for Christmas. Over the holidays, I had an awful time dealing with Kevin’s death, missing him so badly and feeling I could not do anything about his death. I seldom drink, but because I could not deal with the circumstances surrounding Kevin’s death I escaped once by drinking. I felt helpless and so low I did not care what happened to me. Thank God it just made me sick and the next morning I woke up. I felt so ashamed of myself and from that day on I never used alcohol for an escape.   


The next six months were very difficult. I did not sleep or eat properly. It was difficult to come home after work and deal with the reality that Kevin was not there. I made sure the girls were well taken care of, but did not focus on myself. Faith was becoming withdrawn and started to lash out at me. I knew I needed to help her deal with her feelings surrounding her father’s death, so I contacted a program for grieving families, which we have been involved with ever since. I slept on the couch as I could not stand to sleep in our bedroom—the last image I had of Kevin was of him lying dead on our bed. I could not stand to live there anymore and it was affecting my mental and physical health. 


Since my husband did not have life insurance, I filed for bankruptcy as I could not afford mortgage payments. Fortunately, my Nana let us move in her house since she lived out of state.  The next couple of months were spent packing up our house, and cleaning up and painting the house we would be moving into. Friends and family helped with the move. Only good things came out of the move to my Nana’s house—we are closer to family and church, and in a better school district for my daughters.


My girls and I have slowly come out of the fog and funk we were in. I believe my faith in God helped get us through the rough times. My church family was there from the beginning to help us through our struggles and is an important part of our lives. My mother lives close by and helps with the kids and provides love and support that we need. My kids are doing well now. My older daughter Faith is finally able to deal with feelings about her dad’s death and is now open with me about her feelings. Faith has developed new friendships and is happier. Both of my daughters are involved in Sunday school and activities at our church.
I believe that I am doing a lot better due to the strong support systems I have. My family and friends provide emotional and spiritual support to me and my daughters. They helped me get my driver’s license, move into our new home, brought us meals, visited us, and showed us much love and kindness. Many of my friends keep in contact through social media, phone calls or letters.   


My family stepped up after Kevin passed; they helped us fix up my old house, pack to move, and move in our new home. While this practical help took away much anxiety and worry, their emotional support was essential to my healing. We attend church services and functions with loving relatives. I will never forget my daughter Gillian’s baptism. About a week before she was to be baptized, Kevin’s brother Kenny called me and asked if he could stand in for Kevin because he knew how hard it would be on me to stand up in front of my church by myself. The baptism was beautiful and there were a lot of tears because Kevin and my dad were not there. It has also been helpful that my girls have grandparents they see regularly. Kevin’s father shares stories and memories about Kevin with them. I could not fathom what I would have done without the love and support of family, friends, coworkers, and church.   


Since Kevin passed away my coworkers have been there for me in many ways. Sharing my story with them has helped my grief. When it is National Grief Awareness Day for Grieving Children, my boss sends an e-mail to get everybody to wear blue to show their support to grieving children. My former boss Lisa, who has been there for me since the worst day of my life, has been like a big sister to me. I will never forget all she has done for me and my girls. Another friend at work who lost his wife years before I lost Kevin has also been a great support. I share my honest feelings with him and he reminds me that it is okay to suffer and feel sad at times as this is a reminder of how much I loved my husband and miss him. Talking with him and others who have lost spouses has been an important source of support and healing.  


The love and support of pastors and people in my church has been wonderful and uplifting. All the pastors know my story and have been there for my family. I can reach out to them for support and encouragement. I feel at peace when I go to church because I not only feel the love of my church family, but also God’s love. I pray a lot because I feel closest to God when I am at church or in prayer. Prayer and talking with God are powerful and comforting. When Gillian was baptized, Pastor Kevin asked me to share my story with the congregation. I did this because I felt a connection with God that he wanted me to share my story to help others. There was not a dry eye in the house. I am glad Kevin’s brother Kenny was standing there with me because I really needed his support. Pastor Kevin also was the one who told me about the Caring Place, which is an important support system for me and my daughters.


In my group at the Caring Place, I learned a lot about myself and the grief process. Grief comes in waves like the water in the ocean. I have good days and bad days, which is to be expected. I learned there is not a specific length of time I should grieve. My girls and I are with families going through the same thing we are, so we share feelings and events. Some of the feelings my girls and I have learned to deal with are sadness, loneliness, loss of hope, and uncertainty about the future. 


One of the neat things we got to do was to make a quilt square for our loved ones. Our square had a picture of my dad and Kevin on it. The squares were sewn together to make one quilt.  During the dedication, everyone cried and shared their grief. I held my daughter as she cried. She has opened up about her grief because she has other kids to share her feelings with. She knows she is not alone. My youngest daughter talks about missing her dad, but she is still too young to really understand all of this. Because of my growth I was able to resume our regular family vacations, which initially I stopped as I could not deal with not having Kevin with us. When we returned to our usual vacation spot with other family members, we were able to share good memories of Kevin. I swear I felt his presence in that beach town and really felt at peace. Our friends at the Caring Place helped to give my family hope that things will get better.   


To help with our grief we have come up with some rituals to remember Kevin. On the anniversary of his death we write notes to him and tie them on balloons and let them go. At Christmas time we burn a candle in his memory and set a place for him at the dining room table.  Also, we put his favorite ornaments on our Christmas tree. We also share stories about him and remember the good times. I also make comfort foods that he liked. We watch the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey games on the television because Kevin was such a big fan. My girls now love the game of hockey because of this. Every day we remember him in some way because that’s what keeps his spirit alive. 


In closing I would like to say I have been through a lot and by the grace of God I am still here and stronger than I ever was before. I accept and live with my grief, and do not avoid my feelings. Staying connected with God and loving family members, friends, and colleagues helps me get through each day.