“I’ve never told anyone this, but I heard the police before I saw them. It was a late September night, the kind where the air is just starting to cool in the evenings and it’s so appealing to sleep with the windows open. I woke up to low voices in the driveway. I thought it was Ben. There were so many nights when he’d bring a friend back to the house; anyone who was grappling with anything and needed an ear, no matter how late, found it with him. Except I heard a knock. And that didn’t make sense.
Ben had been out with a group of friends and had gone with one of them to an overlook to keep talking. As they went to leave there was an accident. Ben fell.
And with that knock I became a 36-year-old widow. I had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, and I was destroyed. I even asked the police chaplain ‘Can you give me a hug?’ I listened as they told me what they knew. I asked them over and over ‘How am I was supposed to break the news to my children?’ They said ‘No one has ever asked us that. They didn’t have an answer. It was the middle of the night, but they wouldn’t leave until I could reach a friend who could come over and be with me. Everyone I tried had their ringers off or didn’t answer. The police didn’t want to leave, but I asked them to and they finally did. And I sat there and waited for someone to call me back and tell me what to do next. One minute felt like an hour and two minutes felt like two hours. Then I realized one of my closest friends was in London and would be awake. I called her. I don’t remember much of what I said other than saying ‘I don’t know what to do!’ She told me who to call next. She wouldn’t hang up until I could repeat the list of people I needed to call, and in what order. And then I called them and told them. And none of it felt real.
I think we had a remarkable love. That’s how it felt to me. That’s how people have described it to me since his death. I can still remember the first moment I saw him, working at the restaurant I had just gotten a job at as a 21-year-old. I thought he was beautiful, but I was more drawn to the way he interacted with people. It honestly blew my mind. Ben loved people, hard and publicly. He hugged everyone. He befriended everyone. He could acknowledge your flaws and faults but wouldn’t hold them against you. It was magnetic, and so foreign to me—to be that open, that vulnerable, that unconditional, that giving.
Seven years later we got married. We left Chicago so he could go to grad school for painting in Tennessee. We bought a 1972 VW bus. We threw a million dinner parties. We built a studio in our backyard. We went hiking and camping, and then had two daughters and did it all with them. We bought our dream house. We had a big 40th birthday party for him. We went away for the weekend and talked about how insanely good life felt. He was dead less than three weeks later.
The first month was a blur. Planning his memorial. Wondering if I’d ever be able to take a shower without sobbing again. Getting woken up throughout the night by a little girl screaming for her papa. Waking up throughout the night crying for my Ben. I started therapy, and my therapist told me time was my friend, and it would help. I felt so deeply sad, and nothing but sad. I went through the motions. Family and friends took turns visiting and helping with the girls, the house, and cooking. They’d ask what they should make for dinner. I didn’t care.
But there was one other thing that helped. As my sister Jess went to head back to her home 9 hours away after Ben’s memorial, she hugged me and told me she had left me something in my closet. It was a ‘rainy day’ present, something for me to open when I was having a ‘rainy day’, OR one I just thought I couldn’t get through. Once I opened it, I was to tell her, and she’d send me another.
My days felt surreal. The pain was intense, the reality was unbearable. I was staring at a life I didn’t want. I had to move forward even when I felt like I couldn’t, which was essentially daily. I was helped along so much by so many people who sent meals, flowers, and cards. Every single gesture was meaningful and important. But those gifts showed up on their timeline, mostly in the early days after Ben died. Their arrival reflected when that friend was thinking of me, a day they thought might be hard. They meant so much. But there were days and days and days that were hard when no one was right there reaching out. What was incredible about my sister’s gift was that it was available to me not when she thought I needed something, but when I felt I needed something.
I can’t remember what that first gift was, but it was so powerful. It was an antidote to something that’s so tough about grieving…namely, that we live in a society that isn’t comfortable with grief. When it strikes someone we love, we don’t know what to say or do. We often just do nothing. We think saying nothing is kindness, that we’ll avoid causing hurt by not bringing the subject up. The reality was that I was always hurting, and it was so isolating to feel like my struggle wasn’t being seen. That people might think I was okay or were just silently hoping I was okay. But I wasn’t okay. The reality was that I was always hurting, and there were many, many times when I wished people would have asked how I was doing, or asked me to tell them a story about Ben, or even said they didn’t know what to say but they were there to listen if I needed to talk. But I also tried to let go of any hurt caused by them not doing so, because I felt so certain I would have done the same thing, never asked those questions, just trying to keep it light.
What Jess did was give me a way to be seen on the most impossible days. When the strain of being a single, grieving parent dealing with two young kids and having no family on hand to help made me feel like I just couldn’t make it till the end of the day. When I felt so sad my body literally hurt. When I felt so depressed but still had to get out of bed and do the laundry and pack lunches and do the school drop-off and go to work, it felt like I was trying to tread through sand. In those worst-of-the-worst moments I could open a gift and feel seen. I had a huge source of relief and love and concern available to me without even having to ask for it. At the very moment I needed it, often while broken down on the floor of my closet, I could open a box, read the encouraging note that came with it, and feel a little lighter. Each time I heard my sister saying, ‘You got this.’
Our culture doesn’t talk about grief, so that leaves us with some misguided sense that not talking about it is the way to go. I want to change that. No one tells you what we’re capable of; not breaking into one thousand pieces but splitting in two. We can eventually figure out how to wash the dishes and be excited about back-to-school photos while at the same time being somewhere else, a place where we are deeply sad or angry or scared or constantly on the brink of losing it. I didn’t begin to feel truly depressed until more than two years after Ben died. It lasted for months and coincided with the holidays. I fought it hard—exercise, sleep, reading, good food, no drinking—but just making it to the end of the day felt tough, even as I was going to holiday parties and buying Christmas gifts and celebrating my birthday and traveling. Life firmly feels like two lives now; the half that is grieving what Ben and the girls and I lost, and the half that is living my life with gratitude and joy.
And I think we’re losing out by not speaking out about that half of us that feels destroyed, in part because there are these very real opportunities for connection and solidarity that go unrealized, and in part because there is love and support to be had. We don’t have to do this thing alone.
After Ben’s death, I kept finding those moments of connection with friends who had slammed into their own struggles. An unexpected divorce. A beloved sister’s death from cancer. I fashioned my own rainy-day boxes for them, so that they could have a way to be seen on the days I wasn’t calling or texting or even thinking of them. Time and time again I’d unexpectedly get an email or a text from them expressing what Jess had allowed me to experience so many times. ‘Today was the worst. The rainy-day gift helped. Thank you.’
The more Jess and I, along with my sister Dani, talked about it, the more we felt like we had come across a way to empower people to show up in the best way when something horrible happens to a friend. I’m pretty certain that if the shoe were on the other foot I would have shown up in the wrong way. I would have assumed that not talking about it and trying to keep things light was a kindness. My instincts would have been wrong. And I would have felt powerless and frustrated and unsure.
We created Rainy Day Boxes as a way to help others feel powerful and sure about how to actually help someone who is grieving. We’ve created collections of boxes filled with individually packaged gifts that are meant to be opened over time, each paired with a note that acknowledges the struggle and conveys love and support.
It’s been fulfilling to see it come to life and see others experience what Jess has as a giver and what I have as a recipient. Each and every bit of feedback we get shows me it is working. People want to be seen as they work through their grief.
If you know someone who is grieving, show up. Insert yourself. Ask how they are doing in the days, weeks, months, and years afterward. Write down the date when it happened. Remember it. Mark it. Keep sending letters and emails.
If you’re grieving, I’m sorry. It’s a crummy club. I don’t have any magic answer. Time has been my friend. I talk about Ben as much as I can. I’m really trying to be better about asking for help and saying yes when it’s offered. And I’m giving more of my time and love and help to others, which is one of the only things I’ve found that really fills me up.
But it’s been so hard too. It’s been three years since Ben died, and there are days when I still feel utterly destroyed. I’m not lonely, but I’m so lonely for Ben. But there are more days where we—the girls and I—are doing it. We cook dinner together and have dance parties and read chapter books aloud and go to gymnastics. It’s a lot of normal stuff. But we also have a deeply raw spot inside each of us that makes our house different than most—one that’s still filled with deep cries and tough discussions about why us? Why papa? I’m still angry I’m denied this wildly unconditional love, that he can’t watch our girls grow up, and I can’t see who he would have become. But I think he’d like the person I’m becoming.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kate Seamons. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook and also her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more inspiring stories about surviving the loss of a loved one here:
‘I’m not scared to die, I’m scared to be forgotten. And I’m worried about you.’ I had no words, just tears.’: 28-year-old widow gets sign from husband in heaven, ‘I’m okay Mama Bear, I made it, I’m now pain free’
‘I need to apologize to my kids. I haven’t been the best mom. I wasn’t supposed to be a mom without him.’: Widow says she was ‘impatient, irritable’ after husband’s death, admits she ‘didn’t know how to do it’ by herself
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