Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of suicide, suicidal thoughts
“On August 1, 2019, my day started out like any other. In fact, it was a wonderful day. I had been married to my husband for a year and a half at that point and our little boy was about to turn 1. We were living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone service, limited wifi, and no overly close neighbors except for our landlord who was there sporadically in a house up the hill. In return for cheaper rent, we took care of the property, doing the things the landlord asked of us. On this particular day, he wanted us to spray some weeds up in the back pastures before the cows were moved there.
My husband, Erhardt, would have had to go spend a boring day alone, so instead, we decided to make it a picnic day. I would wander up with EJ and our dog Keeno, hang out and keep him company while he got the spraying done. After a few hours, I headed home, and he headed to our landlord’s house to put the supplies away. This is where the day took a turn. Here’s the thing, Erhardt had been battling substance abuse issues, and alcoholism for a very long time, but until this day he had, for the most part, been winning against those demons for a little over a year. Something he used to say to me all the time was, ‘Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t I stop at one drink?’ It was a thought that plagued him. He couldn’t just stop. He couldn’t be the ‘normal’ person only having one drink, or two, but then stopping.
I don’t know what it was about this particular day that led him to decide to test himself. I know him. I know him like the back of my hand, and I know he looked at all the liquor in our landlord’s house and thought to himself, ‘I’ve been doing so good for so long, surely I will be able to have only one drink. Surely I can be normal now.’ So he drank. Then he drank a little more. I don’t know how much he drank before he came home, but it was enough to set him into what I referred to as his ‘happy’ drunk phase. I was livid. I was beyond livid, but I also knew there was no point in arguing with him about the state he was in. It was a conversation that would have to wait until the next morning.
His happy phase turned into a less happy phase. He came up to me and told me he was going to take the only car we had and head an hour into town to keep drinking. That was my endpoint. There was no way I was going to allow him to leave me stranded with our child, drive drunk, put someone else in harm’s way, and get up to who-knows-what in town with money we did not have. When he was distracted, I grabbed the essentials for my son and I left. I thought I was making the best choice possible. What could he really get up to by himself? He would be forced to stay on the property, sleep it off, and I would deal with everything in the morning. Once leaving the house, it takes about half an hour to get back to cell service. At that point, I was expecting an angry phone call from him. When I didn’t receive anything, I got worried. But I couldn’t take EJ back, not when I wasn’t sure if he had hit his angry point of drunk.
So I called him. And I called, and called, and called. When he never answered, I assumed he was ignoring me from anger, so I asked someone else to call him. He picked up but not with the answers I was hoping he would have. He expressed suicidal thoughts. I panicked. I called the police, begging for them to do a wellness check, which is when they informed me he had already called 911 multiple times, expressing his suicidal thoughts. Begging for help. I couldn’t go home. There was no way I could put EJ in that situation. There was nothing more I could do that wouldn’t put my son in the middle of it, so I got us a hotel room for the night. I felt helpless. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus.
I spent so much time on the phone with the police, telling them everything I could think of that would help Erhardt realize he had so much to live for. I was hopeful. As long as the police were talking to me, that meant they were talking to him. I was scared but I was sure in the end, everything would turn out okay. We could get Erhardt the help he needed to heal himself.
There is something I distinctly remember I have never really shared before. I used to get blinding headaches as a child, migraines so bad I couldn’t move. I would throw up and would not be able to focus my eyes. All I could do was to pass out from the pain and hope it was gone when I woke up, but I had not had such a migraine in years. Until that night. It came on suddenly, maybe from stress, maybe from something else. I’ll never truly know, but the pain I got in my head was so severe I couldn’t move. I ended up throwing up in the trashcan and just praying the pain would pass soon. I passed out, and this was around 11 p.m.
I got another call from the police at 3 a.m. I talked with them for an hour and from everything, I was hearing I was sure he was still alive, they were doing literally everything they could to talk him down, and they would succeed. This gave me even more hope, enough hope, in fact, to go back to sleep. To know in the morning, everything would be okay.
Until I got the knock.
At 7 a.m., there were three police officers at the door. Honestly, my first immediate thought was, ‘That idiot is in the hospital. He probably broke his leg.’ That was what was running through my mind. The absolute worst-case scenario was he somehow managed to hurt himself and wound up in the hospital. I was already beginning to plan the lecture in my mind about what I would say when I saw him. But the first words out of their mouths was, ‘Your husband is dead.’
I don’t have a clear memory of what happened next. I remember hearing someone screaming, ‘No!’ It took me a couple of seconds to realize it was coming from my own mouth. I couldn’t tell you what the police officers looked like, I couldn’t tell you what their next words were. I only remember thinking, no. No, they are wrong.
I used to work on an ambulance and my next thought was, ‘They didn’t check right. Of course, they didn’t check right. Do they know how to check?’ I had such an overwhelming need to go, to go there, and show them, of course, he was alive. Maybe a little worse for wear but c’mon. This was Erhardt. Erhardt could survive anything. He was my big strong South African and there was no chance in hell he would leave me. None. He wouldn’t do this. It was some ridiculous prank, and he would run around the corner laughing that I believed it. Any minute now. Of course any minute now.
I don’t know how long it took for me to stop screaming. For me to start listening to them again, but even when I was listening all I could think was, ‘I need my daddy. He will talk sense into them, he will tell them this is all ridiculous. It couldn’t possibly be my husband. Did they even have the right house?’ Right around when I called my father, EJ woke up. He woke up to strangers in the room, with mommy crying, and a room he did not recognize. So I got it together. I put the tears away, I picked him up, I changed him. And I started to plan.
I numbed it out, the pain, the fear. I had EJ to take care of.
My entire world sharpened to one point, to one thing I hung onto like a lifeline, and that was I had to take care of EJ. I don’t remember the social worker coming, but she came to help, to distract me. Next, Erhardt’s uncle came. Still, I don’t remember it. I remember snippets, snapshots of clarity of that day. I remember going home, sitting on my deck, chain-smoking because I wanted to smoke so much I would puke. I would be in pain so it would take away the pain I was feeling inside.
Eventually, the cavalry arrived. At a moment’s notice, at the drop of a hat, my siblings, my dad, my mom, my stepmom, they were there. They came, from 6 hours away within a minute’s notice to be there. Whatever else has happened in the last year since Erhardt’s death, that has always been a shining moment in my memory. Watching car after car pull into my driveway, watching them pile into the house, for me. They came without questions, without hesitation, because I needed them at that moment more than I have ever needed anyone.
That is the clearest memory I have of that day. Then they got started. Within hours, they had the essentials of my house packed, my animals squared away (the ones they could find), and EJ in his car seat.
Just like that, I lost my home. Just like that, every single thing I had spent years building, with the person I was supposed to grow old with, was gone.
If I focus really hard, I can remember more snippets of the day, more moments. But I don’t like to focus too hard on that day. I don’t like to remember the pain, heartbreak, or confusion. I try to focus on Erhardt’s smile. On the way he called my name in the meadow the last time I saw my sober, happy, loving husband.
3 months before this, I turned 23.
3 weeks after this, our son turned one.
4 months after this, my husband’s 28 birthday and our 2 year anniversary passed.
I have spent the last year relearning who I am, becoming someone different in order to survive. Before this, I took so much pride in being a stay at home mom, in being Erhardt’s wife, in living on a rural ranch and taking care of my family. But that was all gone in one swift day.
My dreams of being a stay at home mom to EJ, of giving him a full-blooded sibling — hell, of having chickens on our little ranch — were all dashed. I have had to create new dreams, new goals to reach, new hopes for myself. For months after Erhardt died, I would seek anyone out I could to tell them about my decisions, even on the littlest of purchases, to just nattering about my day, because I was so used to having a partner to discuss it all with. I was so used to not having to make the decisions by myself I felt adrift, lost, without having him to talk to.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have checked my phone or the weird feeling of waiting for him to call me to tell me he misses me and it’s time to come home. If there is anything I’ve learned through my grieving process is every day, it can change. Some days, I feel okay, happy even. Some days, the tidal wave of grief is almost crippling, but I’ve learned it’s also my journey. To be easy on myself, to let myself feel what I need to feel without any expectations on myself.
Sometimes I feel like I’m failing, and that’s when I need to have the most patience with myself. That’s when I always need to take a step back and remind myself I am still healing. I am still trying, still moving forward, and that’s all I can do.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shayla Thiessen. You can follow their journey on Instagram. 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 powerful stories from widows in their grief journeys:
‘I can’t… goodbye… I love you,’ he slurred. I never heard the gunshot, just his screams. He wanted me to hear everything.’: Widow resorts to post-loss drinking, sex binges to cope with husband’s suicide, realizes he ‘wasn’t the monster mental illness made him out to be’
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