‘I grabbed the phone and called 911. ‘He’s not breathing, my husband isn’t breathing!’: Woman recounts losing husband, blaming herself amid arguing, CPAP machine

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“Before reading, understand this may be a trigger for some of you. I’m leaving nothing out. Some details will be explicit.

December 6, 2008. The day that changed everything. I went to work like any normal Saturday, which are always busy for me. The night before was my brothers annual Christmas party, Whoville themed that year and a complete blast, so I was already exhausted starting my day.

Whoville themed grief

When I came home from work Jeff decided we were going to go to a ‘friends’ wedding. A wedding I wanted no part of because we had no clue who these people were. See, one of Jeff’s buddies from work invited us to his sister’s wedding, who neither of us had ever met. Jeff being one to never turn down a reason to celebrate, jumped at the chance to go. Me, not so much. He was always game for a wedding and a chance to dance with his wife. I felt it was rude to crash someones big day, but we were going to anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some weddings and love witnessing love at every opportunity, just not without an invite. I’m too introverted for all that nonsense but I always did my best to let Jeff pull me out of that. I figured what the hell, it could end up being a good time. Except, I was already in a mood when I got home. I didn’t want to go, there wasn’t a single article of clothing I wanted to wear, I didn’t even know what attire was appropriate for the wedding. Indoor, outdoor, formal, casual, I had no clue. Because we didn’t get the invite from the bride or groom. So of course this started a little tiff before we left. Ultimately I put an outfit on, he told me I looked beautiful, like always, and off we went.

Married couple fighting

Still irritated, because I’m stubborn, we arrive at the reception, completely missed the ceremony. Jeff’s buddy comes over for me to meet for the first time. He then introduces us both to his sister, the bride. At this point I’m super uncomfortable because I don’t know a single soul other than Jeff. We grab a couple of beers but I can’t relax. By then Jeff is irritated with me for not having a good time and it starts a fight. Let me rewind just a tad. Jeff had the day off and had been drinking all day, then continued drinking at the wedding, which added to my reason for not being able to relax. That was a usual cause for tension but it’s for another time. We end up leaving and arguing the whole way home. He said things to me he’s never said, hurtful things. It continued to escalate the entire drive. I lashed out and we kept going at it until we walked through the door.  I was so frustrated and hurt by all of it that I grabbed my Christmas village and threw it across the room, multiple pieces to be exact (I’ve never bought another village piece since). Things didn’t stop there, we kept fighting and I eventually threw my wedding ring. That snapped me right out of things. I grabbed my ring and put it immediately back on. No part of me wanted our marriage to be over, emotions were just high and they weren’t coming down so I reacted. Badly.

He chose to go to bed, I stayed awake to clean up the shattered village that was scattered throughout the entire downstairs. Little did I know, that shattered village was about to become the metaphor of my life. I cleaned with Law and Order SVU on in the background, I cried and cleaned and cried some more. Then I hear it, it was Jeff: ‘Babe!?’ I asked, ‘What?!’ (still being stubborn) Jeff says, ‘I love you!’ I said ‘I love you too!’ Then he goes, ‘Good! Then come to bed!’ I told him I’d be there in a little bit after I’d finished cleaning. He told me ‘Ok.’ The last words I ever heard from him.

I hear him snoring from upstairs and think to myself ‘Crap, he pulled his mask off, I should go put it back on.’ I didn’t though because I have to fully wake him up to do so and I knew I was headed to bed shortly after. He had sleep apnea and used a CPAP machine, pulling it off was a common occurrence. I went upstairs about 20-25 minutes later. Before I got to the room, it felt off. As soon as I walked through the doorway, every step felt like I was walking through water. The air felt heavy for some reason, like trying to breathe through clouds. I set my water on my nightstand and looked over at Jeff, he looked like he was sleeping but it didn’t feel right. I said ‘Babe?’ Then walked around to his side of the bed, put my hand on his face and leaned down. He had goosebumps but he wasn’t breathing. I yelled his name over and over again, smacked his face more than once trying to rouse him. Nothing. I ran to my side of the bed and grabbed the phone and called 911. Screaming and freaking out I yell ‘he’s not breathing, my husband isn’t breathing!’ She asked so many questions, I don’t remember what they were, but I answered them. She tells me to do CPR. I cry and scream I don’t know how and she tells me she will walk me through it. She says I have to get him onto the floor that I can’t do compressions on the bed. I tell her I don’t think I’m strong enough because he weighs over 200 lbs. She says ‘YOU HAVE TO DO IT!’ I set the phone down and think ‘moms pull cars off their babies, I have to do this.’ I bend down and put one foot under my arm/armpit, grab the other foot the same way, and pull as hard as I can. I drop both feet then run up and grab his head to lay him down so he doesn’t hit his head. I begin CPR. The 911 operator tells me the paramedics are about 2 minutes out. I tell her my alarm is on and the door is locked. She says I have to unlock the door and disarm the system or they will not be able to get in. I run down the stairs and turn off the alarm and swing the door wide open. I run back upstairs to continue CPR. In my heart I know he’s gone. I could feel it. I hear the firemen and paramedics running up the stairs and think they can save him and work a miracle, that I just don’t know what I’m doing.

They usher me out of the room. I walk down the hall to the loft and call my baby sister. I’m crying that Jeff isn’t breathing and the paramedics are trying to resuscitate him, she’s not sure she’s hearing me correctly, asking me ‘what and what happened?!’ Then the female paramedic comes out and says ‘there’s nothing we could do.’ Screams that sound animalistic come out of me and I drop the phone and fall to the ground. From this point forward, some of these are my memories and some are things I’ve been told. My brain has blank spots, tucked away, and I’m sure that’s where they will permanently stay. The female paramedic picks up the phone and asks my sister if she’s family, my sister states she’s my sister and the paramedic says ‘you should get here as soon as you can, your brother in law is dead.’ On my knees, hunched over screaming and sobbing, I notice the firefighter watching me, wanting to reach out and comfort me, unable to. I begin to dry heave and run down the hall to the bathroom, he chases after me to make sure I don’t go into our bedroom. It’s a crime scene now. I run into the bathroom and slam the door bracing it shut. I don’t want anyone to come in. My head on the toilet, one foot holding the door shut, I feel someone trying to come in. It’s my oldest brother. I don’t know how much time has passed, minutes maybe. He comes in and sits on the floor embracing me, both of us sobbing. At some point we go downstairs, I don’t remember even walking, let alone ending up in the family room. The next thing I can remember is people arriving, not knowing who made the calls to get them all there. So many people came in and out, so many people around me I can’t remember who was there and who wasn’t.

When I think about it, it’s like I’m watching this movie of my life play out in front of me. I don’t remember who called Jeffs brother, I do remember the phone call and that he made the phone call to their mom, I was so worried about her. My parents were unaware of what was happening because they were on a cruise ship. I believe my sister in law got ahold of the captain to speak to them, but it was days before they could get to me. Phone call after phone call, hearing he’s gone. Sitting on the couch, feeling numb, the homicide detectives come in. They introduce themselves and explain that they have to investigate to make sure there was no foul play, because he was so young. They asked if there was anything they could do and I said ‘bring my husband back.’ I don’t recall saying this but I’ve been told I did, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I was also told the detectives said it looked like a house full of love. It definitely was, regardless of what transpired earlier that night. The coroner arrives and does his investigation, asks me so many questions and informs me I have to fill out a statement. I ask if someone else can do it if I tell them what to write and he says no, I have to do it. This whole process, I don’t remember, I’m simply going through the motions totally in shock. The coroners assistant comes in with the gurney and I completely lose it falling to the ground again sobbing that I can’t watch them take him out of the house for the last time. Jeff’s best friend shoves the assistant and the gurney into the garage (I’ve been told) so I can gather my things and leave our home. Where I wouldn’t return to for over a week, almost two.

Walking outside to my brothers car I encounter more people, friends and so many cars. I climb into my brothers car with my sister and brother in law to head to their house. I don’t recall the drive or even walking into their home. The next thing I remember is attempting to sleep on an air mattress next to my sister. I didn’t sleep, every time my body would slightly doze, I would wake up crying, replaying the whole nightmare. The following day so many people came to show their love and support but I honestly only remember a handful of those people. I believe I have this stored back in my memories, because every time I saw someone I had to retell the story of what happened. I had to relive it over and over again.

So many pieces of my memories the following few weeks have huge holes in them. I believe I remember what I need to and the rest can stay where it is, locked away. I will share more about the grieving process another time. I want to share this now for a few reasons, every time I share, I heal a little bit more. I am more than what happened to me and more than just a widow, it took me a really long time to believe that. I share this because my story might help someone else heal as well. Our relationship wasn’t and isn’t defined by this one fateful night. No relationship is defined by a single moment. I carried guilt and shame for far too long for fighting with Jeff, only to lose him shortly after. This is where I learned what I shared in a previous blog, ‘if you show someone you love them every day, you don’t have to say goodbye.’ I questioned if Jeff knew I loved him after that fight, even though I had just told him. I questioned if it was somehow my fault. I fear shame sometimes still, especially with sharing this with all of you. Will you judge me for how our final night was or hell, even judge him? Brene’ Brown says ‘if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.’ So I share.

Please let my story be a reminder that anything can happen in an instant. Tell your loved ones you love them, even when you’re mad, tell them and show them all the time. Life passes us by far too quickly to hold onto anger and frustration. Love hard, forgive quickly, and have the courage to be vulnerable. It only takes an instant.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Danyl Garnett. Submit your story here. For our best stories, subscribe to our free email newsletter.

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