Grieving wife thanks new boyfriend for stepping in as dad, loving daughters ‘fiercely’

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“I never could have anticipated my life as it is now. I still can’t believe these are the cards I have been dealt. I never could have anticipated looking into the future and being a ‘step-parent’ or having my girls be fathered by one. There are just some happenings in life you’ll never have any preparedness for. No matter how much life you’ve lived, experiences you’ve had, nothing can armor you with the appropriate readiness at the no-moment’s-notice it all changes forever.

My husband Shayne died unexpectedly April 16, 2016. He was 38, I was 29. We lived our normal routines Friday, April 15, and by the following morning I was looking down the empty barrel of my unknown future. With two small little ladies Audrey (having just turned 4) and Brooklynn (2), who held lots of confusion and frustration and questions as to where Daddy was, I was unmercifully hurled into widowhood.

Caroline Stephenson

I moved from my hometown of Houston to the Florida panhandle and began a new life rather quickly, three months after Shayne had been gone. I was establishing my new normal without the safety net of local friends or family. I held fast to my long-distance circle and eagerly embraced anyone who stepped into my path. Jessep was one of them.

From his couch in Michigan, he found me through a hashtag on Instagram six months into my widow walk. I wasn’t in the state of mind to entertain ideas of beginning any romantic relationship. He was just another random “follower” on my social. That changed February 14, 2017. After a few glasses of wine at the pool with a friend, she urged me to give this stranger my phone number, never assuming or having any expectation as to what that would cause. Well, a month later, we were blind-dating and meeting up in Toledo, Ohio. Thanks to cheap flights from Orlando, I was on my way to meet this guy who I had no idea would end up becoming my person. I just wanted to see if I could do it. Go out again, on a limb, with my heart. I had no idea how I would feel for him or if I could love or be loved again. I showed up anyway.

Caroline Stephenson

I hadn’t been a widow a full year, but something was calling on me — that I was not meant to live alone. I shared too much love with Shayne and carried too much around to have died with him that day. I had all this love to give, it was overflowing, and I didn’t have a clue as to where it would all go. What do I do with all this love I have for someone who isn’t here anymore to receive it?

Jessep and I met again in Detroit in April. And May came with devastating news that Jessep’s son, Maddax’s, mother also died unexpectedly. I decided I wasn’t letting them go. Come what may. Whether this was romantic or friendship, didn’t matter to me. All the extraordinary support and love I had been shown through the death of my husband was going to be given back. In whatever capacity I could do that from here, and whatever was needed.

They visited us and met the girls for the first time July 4th weekend and after that we couldn’t stop talking about the possibility of them moving down here. They moved to the beach and in with us September 2017. We decided it was time to live our life on our own terms. Love the way we want to love, who we want to love, and not leave an ounce out or behind. All we have is now. These children deserve stability and above all else, really big love. We’ve got plenty of it. And our presence.

Caroline Stephenson

My girls have been scooped up by Jessep and he has assumed his role selflessly as their ‘Daddy Jessep.’ Just recently Jessep stepped in at Brooklynn’s preschool to participate in ‘Donuts with Dad.’ I choked down heartache after she asked me in the car, ‘Will Daddy Jessep eat donuts?’ ‘Yep,’ I replied. ‘Will Daddy Shayne be there?’ ‘No, baby. Daddy Shayne isn’t going to be there. But Daddy Jessep will be, and he’ll always be here for you,’ I said as I tried to gulp down a golf ball of grief.

Caroline Stephenson

Explaining to a 4-year-old her Daddy Shayne died and is not attending her school functions is not a one-time explanation. She continues to ask where her Daddy Shayne is. Its excruciating, every time. To watch her little face, as she asks the question with hope, only to slump down in disappointment and confusion after she’s heard the answer. The same one I’ve told her 100 times before, since his death nearly two years ago.

But Jessep keeps holding onto us tighter, loves bigger and more fiercely than anyone I have ever known. Not once has he looked at me or any of our kiddos and said, ‘Your grief is too much.’ Or, when I talk about Shayne, ‘Your love for him is too much.’ We’ve never been ‘too much.’ He has taken it all in and loves big in his own miraculous way.

Caroline Stephenson

I cried big alligator tears when Brooklynn came home with a flyer that her preschool was having pumpkin carvings with Dad. I feel devastated for my own heart, but I feel even more for Shayne’s. He was an all-in daddy who wouldn’t miss events for and with his little ladies for the world. I remember Jessep telling me in the car, after a rare date night, that he is honored to be there for them and one day he hopes my joy for him showing up for them will eclipse my sadness that Shayne is not here.

Caroline Stephenson

There is an aching pang I feel every time the girls hit a milestone or do something for the first time and their Daddy Shayne is missing it. But, I am so heart-exploding with gratitude THANKFUL I have someone here, now, who is willing to scoop all of us up in our grief and sadness and raw edges and do it. Do it all. Show up for every daddy-daughter event with a big, courageous heart. His love is brave. And he already embraces being a father to these little girls, softening up and wrapping them up as his own. Shayne would be so thankful, so happy, so settled in peace someone is loving them.

Caroline Stephenson

And Jessep has given me the gift to pour my heart and empathy into Maddax, and be here for him, when he is missing his momma. I miss her for him, too. I want him to know I can be there for his heart, as much pain as I carry for the life I will never know, I am so grateful he is in my life and heart now. Jessep and Maddax. They have given my heart permission to let go of pain, and love further. Go further with my love I didn’t think would be possible.

Caroline Stephenson

We have had so much pain and loss and grief, but we focus on doing what our hearts are made to do: love. We show up at every soccer practice, school lunch or recital, every and any moment to connect with them. And love big anyway. Love harder than any pain we have ever felt.

Melissa Wilson Photography

Sure, Jessep and I have our ways we have parented and been in our previous relationships, but perspective has changed us. And the common denominator is our sense of urgency to not take for granted what we have now. None of this happened on accident. And a deep conviction, a knowing, that we deserve to create a very happy future, together. And happiness is playing the hell out of the cards you have been dealt, no matter what they are. Happiness is still ours for the taking. Love is the way there.”

Melissa Wilson Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Caroline Stephenson, 31, of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Submit your story here.

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