‘He was out at a restaurant with my brother. The next morning, my entire life was over. ‘Caroline. He’s not breathing.’ I snapped back, ‘What are you talking about?’: Widow learns to grieve with her daughters after husband unexpectedly ‘died in his sleep’

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“I have to start this by being completely honest. I feel extremely anxious sharing the how and why I am three years into widowhood. I have no issue telling all the details since he died, and what I have done, but the why I am a widow… my neck gets stiff and I feel myself withdrawing.

I don’t have the ‘cut’s clean’ stories they share in the grief books I was given and eventually threw across the room in anger – ‘My husband was sick and died of cancer.’ ‘My wife was killed in a car accident.’ No. My person, Shayne, did not die because of the unmercifulness of the universe, roll of the dice of life and pure helplessness. My person died because of something he ultimately chose. And every time someone asks me the how and why, I have to be brutally honest and say, it hits me in the gut like the worst sucker punch you can imagine. Still. Three years later.

The truth gets caught in my throat on the way up from my knotted stomach. My heart starts racing and I have about .4 seconds to make a decision, ‘Am I going to lie? …and protect him? Or am I going to swallow the truth hole and just deliver it?’

374 Photography

In the weeks and months shortly after my husband unexpectedly died April 16, 2016, I chose the former. A lot. I chose not to disclose why he died. I told people tight-lipped, ‘He died in his sleep.’ I held onto the shame and guilt and purposely let them wonder. ‘I’ll do this for you,’ I thought. I didn’t even disclose it to my dearest friends, who were helping me in the trenches rebuild my life during that time. I took extreme insult to any strangers who would ask me, or message me their curiosities on social media. Who starts off a conversation in DM with ‘Hi, I know we don’t know each other but I am just wondering, how did he die?’ I took great offense and dissected each time I was asked. As if posing that question will release them of any angst THEY’RE holding onto… As if knowing the why and how will bring more peace in their own journey through this life. The how and why is irrelevant. He’s gone. Period. I didn’t understand why people didn’t just understand that no matter the WAY HE WENT, he’s gone. And it is excruciating.

Brandy and Beau Photography

Shayne Stephenson was the coolest and most genuinely selfless person I have ever met. We serendipitously lived in the same apartment complex and met in Nashville in 2006 while he was out walking his dog and became inseparable friends. The rest, history. Our life together was anything but smooth sailing compared to most, but the story I have to tell of us is one of pure adventure and love. He took care of me and I loved him with no limit. We lived in 4 different states, moved a total of 11 times, have two beautiful daughters (Audrey – 7, Brooklynn – 5), and a collection of sappy, hopelessly romantic love notes and cards that spans 10 years. We were genuinely best friends and smitten with each other. I do not have a shortage of evidence of his devotion to me. When I am feeling lonely, I go to the shoeboxes I have stashed in my closet and reach in for him. I sometimes think to myself, he really was it. This will be the greatest and most real love I will ever know…

Brandy and Beau Photography
Brandy and Beau Photography

The how and why he died was not who he was. It in no way reflects the person he committed himself to be to me and his two little ladies. I feel like I always have to disclaimer this because it really is not him. Even the most detrimental decisions we make, do not define us.

Unfortunately, the truth of it is, when I received the death certificate back nearly 3 months later – my worst fear and the gut feeling I had was absolutely staring back at me. ‘Accidental death due to the combined effects of alcohol, Xanax, and Oxycodone.’ Why am I telling you this? Why not just keep it to myself and swallow it whole for the rest of my days? Whose business is it anyway? Just be a good widow and stay quiet and protect your husband and family? Because let me tell you something: nothing, especially not anyone else’s truth or actions – dead or alive – should be held hostage by YOU. You don’t own the rights to anyone else’s actions, regardless of the outcome. Release it. And I am pleading, and willing to lay down my story, so more people know that it takes but one seemingly ‘harmless’ split second reckless moment to wreck the life you had. An uncharacteristic choice. It takes one ‘innocent’ night out partying, and someone offering you things you don’t ever do, to expire your life. And leave your family behind.

Someone I love dearly and knew me closely timidly asked, ‘Did he do those things regularly?’ That’s when I considered never bringing it up again and keeping his secret. I did not want anyone thinking he was an addict, or recreationally did drugs or abused alcohol. That’s not what he did and that’s just not who he was. He was out at a restaurant, drinking with my brother and waiting to go pick up a friend from the airport. The next morning, my entire life as I had known it, was over.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

There were entirely too many moving parts in our life during this time. Our oldest daughter had just turned 4. Taxes were due that week. And unbeknownst to our families, we were planning to move to Florida. The morning of his death, I not only had a cake order (I ran a small cottage cake business from my kitchen) due but, had advertised a garage sale at our home. Shayne had his best friend visiting for the weekend, too. The waters were not calm.

My brother took us to Chuy’s for dinner Friday night and I parted ways with them after we finished up and the girls were becoming restless. Shayne buckled the girls in their car seats and gave them loves, came around to my side, said something, and walked away. I remember specifically watching him walk through the parking lot back to the restaurant in my side mirror. I did not have a damn clue that was the last moment I would see him alive.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

I blew up his phone Saturday morning because it was so unlike him to no-show. He was not one to stay out all night and/or not call or alert anybody. I wasn’t panicked so much as I was pissed. ‘How could he do this to me?! We’re moving! We’re having a garage sale! I am finishing up a cake for a birthday party!’ I postponed the garage sale and kept trying his phone and getting voicemail. My brother finally called me from my mom’s house a few minutes away, and I will never in my life forget what happened next.

‘Caroline. He’s not breathing.’ I immediately snapped back, ‘What? What are you talking about? Wake him up! I’ve been trying to call him all morning!’ I was so angry. I did not trust what my brother was saying because I knew he had been drinking all night. So, I hung up on him. Seconds later I received a call from my mom. ‘Hon, you need to get over here. Shayne isn’t waking up.’ I immediately hung up and ran to our girls’ room and rattled them awake and started dressing them. I hurried them to the car and somehow got them buckled in their seats before breaking open with panic and frantically calling my friend. I drove to my mom’s neighborhood and as I turned the corner down her street, I saw her entire cul-de-sac full of first responder vehicles and police. I shut down. I instantly knew I was about to begin something I never wanted to experience.

I parked down the street, put on a movie for the girls and told them I’ll be right back. I ran in flip flops into my mom’s home, through the living room, into the kitchen and whipped my head to the right where I saw him lying on the floor, being worked on. My brother grabbed me and I started punching him, saying, ‘WHAT DID YOU DO?!’ I didn’t know, but I knew. A female officer grabbed me and held me on the floor and started praying over me. I kept trying to look at him and all I saw was his legs. I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. I knew he wasn’t with me anymore. I felt the tether between us had been severed, I couldn’t feel him in the room anymore. I kept trying to will him back to the room but I was being taken outside. I tried getting over to him and kept asking, ‘What happened!?’

A police officer interviewing my brother and Shayne’s friend who had just arrived late Friday night said, ‘Stupidity is what happened. Stupidity.’ I deflated as much as someone could. I will never forget the tone of his voice. Just outright disgust and disappointment. I can still hear the way he said that and the way he looked at me. I took that so personally.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

I was escorted to my mom’s driveway and told I needed to leave the scene. After all, it was now a crime scene they had to investigate. I was having an out-of-mind-body experience and couldn’t relate to my surroundings or what anyone was telling me. I found a place in my mind I could go for refuge, I started thinking, ‘I know where I have to go. I know where I have to take him.’ Right then. Minutes after realizing he was gone, I started planning for this. I remember falling to the concrete and beating my clenched fists against the grain. Someone came to me and tried lifting me up and I said, ‘But, we were going to move to Florida. He’s mine.’

The days after are a blurry mess. But I began taking steps to get us out of the house we were in. The owner wanted to short sell the home and had informed Shayne a few weeks prior we needed to be out by May 1st. After his death, she still wanted me to leave the house. In the moment I was panicked because I had no plan as to where I was going to go or do now. But hindsight, that was the biggest blessing in disguise. The 2 weekends after his memorial service, I held two garage sales and with the help of money donated to the girls and I from the most generous hearts – I was able to leave the house and put personals in storage. I decided that while I didn’t know exactly what the next steps of our life were – I’d start with honoring him. I’d keep it simple, and start there. I’d take him to places I knew he needed to be, and rest.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

We set out in our van, not even a month after he died. With my two ladies and Shayne’s older sister, we made our way from Houston to Nashville. Our first stop was to the apartment complex we lived in and where we met, underneath a maple tree. I let him go along I-65 South as I drove us through Alabama into Florida. We landed in the panhandle just in time for our 7th wedding anniversary, May 16th, and buried him along the Emerald Coast at our wedding venue in Santa Rosa Beach. We traveled down to Orlando and stayed for almost a month staying with friends and family – whoever took us in. We took him with us wherever we went, leaving him everywhere we were (Disney World, Kennedy Space Center, Clearwater Beach). Like breadcrumbs on a love journey, I let pieces of him go everywhere I stepped onward.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

I finally found the courage to sit at my sister-in-law’s computer one morning and apply for an apartment in the area where we were married along the Gulf coast in the Florida panhandle. Having left Houston and been on the road going on 2 months, I needed to make a decision about where we were going to set up our lives. With all my personal belongings sitting in a storage unit still in Houston, with all my anxiety and fear about making a huge decision without Shayne, with all my worries of adequacy taking on solo parenting with no one in that area to help me, I leapt.

Nearly 3 months after I lost Shayne, we landed here. At our beach. And have been here since. It will be 3 years here, in our new life, July 7. I realized that Shayne and I’s someday would never happen so, why not now? Why not live it anyway? Fear of the unknown was the only thing holding me back and I realized quickly, my worst fear had already come true and, I survived that, so what’s left to be afraid of? I knew only one soul when we got here. I had no one else. I didn’t have a job yet, no idea where the girls were going to school, no real plan. It all unfolded, every day, every step I took was something I decided and chose and guarded with my life. It was so heartbreaking making this move without him, creating a new life without his input and guidance and steadiness. We had moved so many times before and it felt normal, except I couldn’t reach out and grab him for stability. It was me. I was it. It has taken me this solid 3 years to find my footing with being a widow and mom of two, now 31-years-old, and simultaneously throwing another big life change into the mix – willingly! I wouldn’t go back and rewrite our new beginning. This is exactly what I need this to be.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

I was able to quiet the noise, and stand still with my grief. I allowed myself privacy to grieve and live this new life on my terms, without input or judgement from anyone. Everyone important to me was at arm’s length and I realize and was honest about that to myself, I need(ed) that. The way in which Shayne died had already compounded so much guilt and shame on me, I didn’t need what anyone else thought I should be doing or have done with our girls. I knew he would want me to wrap up his ladies in every ounce of who I am and live. Live life. It can be beautiful in his absence. We will create it.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

I traveled throughout the first year and took him along on each trip. I flew to Chicago after the Cubs won the Series in October ’16 (he was the biggest Cubs fan I knew, it was heartbreaking he died 6 months before they won) and I left him at Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and the exact place he proposed in Millennium Park. He came with us for the trip we took for the year anniversary of his death and our oldest’s 5th birthday, to Las Vegas. We left him at Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and he even came with me into Ceasar’s Palace and I left him at my seat in the theatre where I saw Celine Dion. I took him with my skydiving on my 30th birthday and everyone in the plane almost inhaled Shayne Stephenson because I couldn’t get the bag open. I held him in before jumping. He’s everywhere I have been as his widow. That was important to me. Because of him, I am able to live and love as I do. I will be grateful until I no longer get to do this.

Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

I needed to honor him, OUT LOUD. I needed to do this. Take him everywhere and tell anyone listening, we can still love them so hard and all in and keep living. I started meeting other young widows and in coffee shops and flying across country to meet and hug them. I tell them, ‘I get it.’ I want to make sure they know, it’s okay to talk about this person, it’s okay to love them even harder than ever, our hearts are big enough and capable of loving that big. Don’t let anyone minimize what your heart is capable of doing.

I will keep showing up and sharing who Shayne is and was to me. I met him when I was 19, we married when I was 22, had our first little lady when I was 25, second little lady when I was 27, and he died when I was 29. He was 39. Although we didn’t have the epic, long life together, it was the life we lived during the seemingly short time we had together that resonates in my heart, and the life I am living now. The way he loved me set me up for success. I know who he was. I know how he loved. I know the Shayne no one else saw, and I am grateful beyond words. So, what do we do with things we are grateful for? I will give it all back. And share it. Lovin’ life, lovin’ Shayne.”

Melissa Wilson Photography
Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson
Courtesy of Caroline Stephenson

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Caroline Stephenson or Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook and her blog. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories from those experiencing grief and loss:

‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ I held her face in my hands and brought her eyes to mine. ‘Baby, there was an accident. Daddy died this morning,’ I whispered to my 12-year-old daughter.’

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