‘He died in his sleep. I HAD to take care of myself in order to take care of my kids.’: Widow creates ‘encouraging’ self-care subscription box for others battling grief

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“Dave and I met through his sister, Nina, who was my good friend. We both needed roommates so that’s how we started. I didn’t really know him well, but Dave and I ended up becoming great friends and remained this way for a couple of years until we just couldn’t deny the chemistry. I ended up moving out and then we dated (kinda did it backward, didn’t we?). Dave proposed to me on a beach in Thailand in August 2000 and we married in December of that year.

Dave and I experienced fertility issues and adopted our sons, Brad and Bryce, in 2005 from the Oregon foster care system. Brad was seven and Bryce was 5. They are brothers. We lived in Portland at the time but decided to move to eastern Oregon in 2007 so we could raise our kids in a smaller community. Dave had taught high school math most of his career but had an opportunity to teach K-12 music in a small community outside LaGrande, Oregon. Dave’s passion was music so it was a great fit. Plus, Dave grew up in eastern Oregon and had family there.

Family of four holding fish standing by creek
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

We played in the snow in winter—camped and fished in the summer. The boys played soccer, basketball, football, and soccer.  Dave coached the boys’ football and baseball teams. Dave and I knew each other so well before we got married—this was key. I knew he had my back and I had his. We were best friends, good partners, and loving spouses. No marriage is perfect, but we really respected and cared for each other’s feelings. We made each other feel safe.

Dave loved being a dad—he was born for it! We both dove in head first as parents when we first met our boys. Once we became a family, our lives revolved around our kids. It’s like we were making up for their early years before we had them.

Then, one snowy Saturday morning in January 2011, the world came crashing down. Dave had died in his sleep. The medical examiner concluded the cause of death as a respiratory illness and sleep apnea, which caused him to stop breathing. He was 46 when he died. Brad was 13 and Bryce was 10 (11 days shy of his eleventh birthday). They had already experienced so much childhood trauma before they came into our lives, I just couldn’t wrap my head around them losing two dads at a young age! Fortunately or unfortunately, they had coping skills learned from a very early age navigating foster care.

Father fishing at lake with two sons
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

A month after Dave died, I remember Brad saying to me he had to be ‘the man of the family.’ It was sweet of him to think it, but I let him know not to worry—I had everything covered and his job was to be a kid. For those first few months, I didn’t cry too much and I thought it was weird. Like, I didn’t love him enough to fall apart and cry all the time. I literally had no feelings about anything—I moved through life like a zombie and it really scared me. The tears would come later after the shock wore off and I allowed my emotions to move through me.

Solo-parenting after the death of your spouse is no joke! We were all hurting and grieving in our own ways, but the boys still had to go to school. I went back to work after a 5-week leave of absence, the boys played sports and had homework, bills had to be paid, carpools, meals had to be prepared, groceries bought, etc. There was no one to share the load with anymore—Dave was gone and I was doing it all. I was exhausted.

Two brothers after swimming doing funny poses
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

I moved us back to Portland where my support system was when the school year ended (6 months after Dave died). At this point, the realization hit I was truly alone and this was my life now. I was in a tremendous amount of pain and started soothing myself with wine in the evenings after I put the boys to bed. At the time, I felt like I’d never feel love, joy, or purpose again, and I was in a deep, dark hole. My drinking started getting out of hand so I sought help—not easy for me to do, as I don’t like being vulnerable or asking for help—but I had to let go of all this because I knew the wine was only temporarily making me feel better and helping me sleep.

I started grief counseling to help me understand what I was going through and to also help me help my kids. It was also nice to have her tell me I wasn’t going crazy, all my thoughts and feelings were pretty ‘normal’ in deep grief. She also guided me to the awareness I was being really hard on myself and to acknowledge I was moving through an unimaginably difficult time with Dave’s ‘out of order’ death, and I really needed to honor all I was doing to keep my family afloat. I knew in my gut I had to start taking better care of myself so I could take care of Brad and Bryce.

Father and sons dressed as cowboys
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

It’s like when you’re flying on a plane and they tell you to put the oxygen mask on first before assisting your child with theirs. I knew I couldn’t help my kids process their grief if I wasn’t dealing with my own. I was open to anything that might make me feel something (hopefully good). I started with my body and got regular massages and pedicures. In the past, I generally didn’t pay too much attention to bodily self-care. I took a lot of baths because I liked the feel of warm water on my skin. It didn’t feel indulgent to do this—it felt necessary.

Each step I took on my self-care quest built self-confidence and gave me the courage to move forward in healing and processing my grief. Self-care was a game-changer for me as I began the work of processing my deep grief and practicing tons of self-care to move forward. It took time, but I did find I wasn’t alone and I could experience joy, confidence, and even love again. 18 months after Dave died, I felt ready to explore the dating world. I was curious about the idea of potential companionship, physical intimacy, maybe even love and partnership again.

Father sitting on couch with one son on lap and the other standing behind him
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

I was also raising Brad and Bryce and had to be thoughtful about what I was doing so I got very clear about what I wanted in dating and partnership and started making a list. Dave and I had been in a very solid partnership. I knew what love looked like and knew its challenges. I knew I was different now and had grown. My list of what I wanted in a new partnership came out to several pages. When Sean and I first started dating, I found myself glossing things over.

I had dug so deep into Dave’s death with my own research of grief, and I had made genuine huge healing strides, but I still was not 100% ready to share parts of the life I’d led with Dave with a new man. I found myself walking the line of being appreciative and somewhat in awe of Sean’s willingness and desire to hear about my ‘previous’ life and not be intimidated or uncomfortable. Sean is kind, generous, funny, confident, open, and willing to put in the work to have a healthy partnership. It’s as if the Universe put him in my path. I have enough space in my heart for both Dave and Sean.

Family of four standing in front of mountain with trees
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

It’s a beautiful thing. In 2015, in front of our family and friends, Sean and I were married on the Oregon Coast. Last year, a friend sent me a beauty product subscription box. I ordered it (actually forgot about it) and it showed up on my doorstep a few weeks later filled with beauty and body care items. I remember feeling stressed about something or other going on in my life and when I opened it, my attitude shifted in a positive way.

Then I started thinking, ‘What if a box like this had shown up on my doorstep (happy mail!) every month when I was solo-parenting and moving through grief? What if there was an easier and convenient way to show me some love, kindness, and compassion? What if a box just showed up on my doorstep and all the self-care items and resources I needed and wanted were picked out by a widow who understands what I’m going through?’

Woman wearing orange shirt smiling
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

I want to help other women navigate through this unimaginable time with a little more grace and ease than I did, which is why I created Filled With Gold subscription boxes. Filled With Gold is a monthly box to support widows with self-care, created by me, someone who understands the pain and loss of the death of a spouse and life partner. It’s a way to encourage another widow, wherever they may be on this path of widowhood if I can move through hard things and find hope for the future, so can they.”

Woman holding self-care subscription box and smiling
Courtesy of Melissa Pierce

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melissa Pierce. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and on her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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