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The Stepping Stones That Help Our Family Across a Dark Ocean of Grief

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Six months ago, tragedy struck, and after a sudden 24-hour illness, my sons and I lost a great man, their father and my husband. Before today, I never really knew how many tears one person could produce and quite how long six months could feel. It can be a torturous eternity. I never knew how strong I could be or how much we were loved. I also never realized how unprepared any of us are to deal with death, especially the death of someone so young, vibrant and in the prime of their life.

When a death happens, many of us don’t know what to do, what to say or how to act. We’re awestruck at the swift and unimaginable pain we are feeling and witnessing. The realization that life is so undeniably fragile, that we are so mortal, and that the vast majority of the time, we are taking it all for granted is overwhelming, frightening and breathtaking.

We feel immobilized by all the questions running through our mind, our thoughts bouncing around in the flood of all those emotions. We aren’t quite sure how to grieve or how to help anyone else grieve. We often wonder… how we can be of service to the family? How we can let them know how sorry we are? How can we be sure they know how much their loved one meant to us?

Endless possibilities of ways to help and to express those sentiments fill our head, but none sound quite adequate enough or appropriate given the situation and the enormous loss they feel. We mull over our own ideas, we share the shocking news with others we know, we filter through their suggestions and then sit with ourselves feeling sad and in shock, wondering what we can do, how we can help.

Some of us settle on an idea or two, and we act. Some of us wait for a better idea. Some of us do nothing for fear that our gesture will not rise to the occasion and might fail to meet the greatness of the tragedy. There is the fear that it won’t meet the expectations of those most bereaved, nor those of their friends and family.

I’ve been there myself. I’ve seen a close friend lose a husband and watched others have to say goodbye to a parent or relative. People I loved were in pain, and I didn’t know what to do, but in the last six months, I have learned. I have been taught by some remarkably thoughtful, generous and courageous people. I include courageous because I think it takes great courage to approach the bereaved in those moments. The moments where nothing seemed quite right but they knew they had to do something, and they did.

Each of these people was wise enough to know what they were saying might not be the perfect words, but they said them anyway. They knew the dinner they brought over might not have been the most elaborate dish but that the love would shine through and provide comfort. They knew we desperately needed to get out of the house and shared their family hike with us, and in doing so, provided the fresh air and hope so desperately missing for us on that day.

In the last six months, our family has been touched by the most wonderful acts of kindness and love. Families, neighbors, teachers, basketball buddies, colleagues, classmates, acquaintances, and even strangers sent cards. They wrote and shared precious memories of my husband Jon, some I had never heard before. Some wrote poems or drew pictures. Anything in writing is truly a special gift because I will have that forever to share with the boys. Each word is a treasured tribute that will help the boys know and remember their dad.

Some special people helped plan a few key items for the service and provided their valuable talents to create beautiful tributes. So many people came to the funeral, many of whom loved him and some of whom had never met him but wanted to be there with us. They traveled far and made the time in the midst of a busy holiday season. People came to the house, sat with us, ate with us, hugged us, cried with us and laughed with us.

Christmas came eight days after we buried Jon. People brought gifts for the boys, candy for me and chew toys for the dogs. They took time from their own family celebrations to visit us on Christmas Day, even though it was incredibly uncomfortable and painful. If they were far away, they sent emails and texts and uplifting messages. We were remembered on an incredibly challenging day.

Families from the boys’ school brought dinners quietly to our doorstep. They included plates, napkins, serving utensils, handmade cards, and toys and joke books for the kids. They were the most thoughtful, nutritious and healing meals we’ve ever had.

Friends called and asked what we needed from the grocery store. They picked us up for last-minute play dates, adventurous field trips, invited us on their family hikes, to their family movie nights, to impromptu picnics and volleyball games, to their Taco Tuesday dinners, to play cards with their in-laws and to their cookie-making parties.

My husband’s friends stopped over on their way home from work to see if there were things we needed to be done around the house. Friends and family members hosted the annual parties we normally would have. Friends anticipated days that might be extra painful, such as Valentine’s Day. By hosting a fun sleepover, they made sure we weren’t alone. Others sent special deliveries of popcorn and candy with sweet notes. Neighbors still take our trash cans out to the curb on trash day, which is so helpful because I can never remember to do that. It was Jon’s thing.

The family doctor, clients, business competitors and vendors, friends of friends, and local businesses have sent donations to us and his favorite charity. We have received stars named in his honor, trees planted in his memory, and special engraved mementos. Collections from different groups were taken, and we received gift cards to help wherever we needed.

One day we were plucked from a blissful, happy place, and we awoke dazed and battered on an island far, far away from our old life. We felt isolated, empty, deserted, terrified and broken. We hid in the island’s caves for a bit and huddled in the bushes for a while, but eventually we walked toward the shore and dipped our toes in the water and waded out until we found a few stepping stones to begin our long journey to a new place.

Each incredible act of kindness, caring and consideration from others has served as a stepping stone across a deep, dark, terrifying ocean. We’re still out in choppy waters with a long way to go, and some days the seas are really rough and knock us off those stepping stones. The love we receive from our courageous community acts as our life jacket, and sometimes we even need a rescue raft to get to the next set of stones, but with a lot of help, we will keep going. Someday we will arrive back on the mainland and feel a little more whole and renewed.

I share this in the hope that when we are each called upon to help a loved one through what seems impossibly painful, we can all just act and not worry about finding the right day, saying the exact right thing, or creating that flawless meal or providing that perfect experience. The precision of the action is not what’s important. It’s about being there, not forgetting, being willing, making the time, and having the courage to be with your loved ones in those dark and awful moments. I hope we will always remember those who are grieving and keep making the time and effort to continue putting out those stepping stones for them.

Originally published: October 28, 2016
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