“On March 5, 2015, my then husband (Dan) fell asleep in his ‘man cave’ downstairs. The ‘man cave’ looked probably as you would picture it: really big, plush leather recliners. A framed Philip Rivers Chargers Jersey on the blue wall. A signed Mike Trout original canvas on another wall. A countless number of Chargers and Rams and Angels and Ducks ‘stuff’ hung up everywhere else. A large, flat screen TV on the one wall that didn’t have sports stuff. As you can imagine, it was a room that provided him (and any other sports fan) with a sense of calm and comfort. So, on that Thursday night, after he got home from a doctor’s appointment to check on how his back was recovering, it wasn’t all that weird for him to change into comfy clothes and hang out on his recliner while watching ESPN.
Around 8:30, I walked by the man cave, and he shouted, ‘Hey D! (that’s me). Did you know Thomas Jefferson was buried in a pine box? Anyway, I love you very much.’ I stared at him and sort of laughed and walked upstairs to fold some laundry. By the time I came downstairs, he was fast asleep, and snoring SO loudly, I didn’t have the heart to wake him up. I stayed awake for a while, putting away laundry, cleaning up the kitchen, just working on random errands. I was pretty restless that night and was wide-awake wandering around the house. For a while, I sat in the recliner next to my snoring, sleeping husband – responded to e-mails, fiddled around on the iPad, read a book, played on my phone…but couldn’t quite fall asleep.
At 3 a.m., I finally went upstairs and tried to get some rest. At 3:15 exactly (and I remember this because I looked at my phone thinking that my alarm was scheduled to go off at 6:15 so I need to fall asleep already!), I finally fell asleep with the sounds of Dan’s snores in the background. At 3:40 a.m., for some odd reason, I opened my eyes. And I heard silence.
I ran downstairs – to this day, I have no idea why I panicked – and I turned on the light to the man cave.
Dan was right where I left him only 40 minutes earlier, still in his recliner. Only this time, I knew he wasn’t asleep. His head was cocked over to one side, and pink foam was sticking straight from his mouth, fluid was draining from his nose. I shook him HARD, shouted his name as loudly as I could, and grabbed the phone to dial 911 while I started CPR.
He was 6 ft tall (I am not 6 ft tall) and 200 lbs. (I am not 200 lbs.) so I knew I wasn’t strong enough to pull him off the chair to try and save him. So, I leaned the recliner back as far as I could and started pounding on his chest. I knew I wasn’t making progress, so I focused on breathing for him instead. Every time I would breathe into his mouth, I would hear gurgles in his throat, and that pink foam was getting inside my mouth, so I knew I had to deal with that. I grabbed a towel from the bathroom and started scooping all the fluid out from his mouth while trying to breathe as hard as I could for him. Scoop, breathe, scoop, breathe.
This lasted for 6 minutes, before the paramedics arrived. They took over CPR while I sat on the floor and watched. Police officers arrived on the scene and pulled me away, they made me call my parents and his parents. I don’t remember those phone calls, but I know they happened because the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital in the ER lobby surrounded by both sets of parents. I was filling out paperwork while we waited.
Almost an hour later exactly, at 4:50 a.m., I was ushered into a room with similar leather furniture that Dan had in his man cave, and the ER doctor told me (along with my parents and Dan’s parents) that Dan was dead. I was again in a room full of leather furniture; this time with the words ‘I’m so sorry Dan’ repeating in my head.
He was 35 years old. That night, at the age of 32, I became a widow.
A widow who was 30 weeks pregnant.
I was 7 months pregnant with my son, Jack, the night that Dan died.
The next week was a blur. I went from getting ready for my baby shower which was supposed to be that Saturday, to having a house full of people all trying to make sense of what happened. I went from decorating a nursery to planning a funeral. I went from writing thank you notes for presents we received for the baby, to writing a eulogy. I went from looking for a pediatrician to looking for a therapist.
The funeral was the following Thursday, and 600 people had packed the church Dan grew up in and saw me deliver a eulogy to honor a life that was lost so suddenly, and much too soon. I went back to work the following Monday.
Now, you might think that’s weird. But my world turned upside down, and I needed something – anything – that was stable, to keep my mind working, and required me to interact with people. Otherwise, I would have sat on the couch and stared at the ceiling. I did enough of that at night already, and the days were painful for me.
The next several weeks after Dan died continued to be a blur. I lost all the weight I had gained from my pregnancy. I couldn’t eat, I wasn’t sleeping, and I was scared. Therapy was important and necessary but that’s a process that requires patience, and I didn’t have any. I didn’t know how he died or why he died, and I am not a girl who does well with not knowing. What I did know was that I had to get through the hardest part of grief quickly, because I was going to be responsible for a child in less than 3 months.
So, I held my chin up. I went to therapy twice a week. I let my sister throw me a shower. I accepted presents and wrote thank you cards when I could think of it. (to be honest, I still owe a lot of people a lot of thank you cards. But I tried.) I decorated the nursery. I slept alone in my house. Every time I would walk into the man cave, I would smell that foam, tremble, rush to the bathroom to throw up. I forced myself to get over that and sat in the man cave for an hour every day until I stopped. I actually set an alarm on my phone and wouldn’t let myself leave the room until the alarm went off and a full hour passed. I realized I wasn’t married anymore and I took off my wedding rings. I felt that reality was important to keep me grounded, so I made it a point to focus on reality.
On May 11, 2015, I had a doctor’s appointment and shared that I wasn’t really feeling the baby much. The doctor sent me to the hospital, where it was determined that they had to get the baby out that day. My body wasn’t ready to deliver, so I was scheduled for a C-section that evening.
As I was wheeled into labor and delivery, the nurses asked me where my husband was. My sister got there just in time, told someone (the nurses or the doctor, I still don’t know exactly) the cliff’s notes version of the story, and that topic didn’t come up again. When the anesthesiologist was getting me ready for the epidural, just before he stuck that needle in my back, he put his face right in front of mine and said, ‘How did he die???’ I just stared straight ahead and focused on breathing.
At 7:06 p.m., I was in the operating room, holding my friend’s hand, and said, ‘this is not how it’s supposed to be.’ My friend, Amanda, looked at me, and said, ‘that’s not you. Don’t say that.’ And that was the first and last time I said those words out loud.
Exactly 2 minutes later, Jack was born.
I was in the hospital for 4 nights, where I stared at the walls, did what I needed to do with Jack, and focused on breathing.
On Thursday night, I went home to my mom and dad’s.
On Sunday afternoon, I went home to my house. And life with just Jack and I began.
2 weeks after Jack was born, I hired a nanny. 3 weeks after Jack was born, I went back to work. I know lots of you will think this is crazy. But life was officially confusing for me. I was a wife, then I wasn’t, I was alone, and then I became a mom. I hated labels (the ‘W’ word – widow – especially would turn my stomach because I felt like it defined me.) Work was the only thing that was not confusing.
So, I went back to work 3 weeks after having a baby.
Jack was healthy and already sleeping through the night. That’s right – my child, at the ripe old age of 2 weeks old, started sleeping from about 9 p.m. – 5:30 a.m. every day. (PS: he now goes to sleep at 7:00 p.m. and wakes up at 7:00 a.m. so I think he just really likes his sleep). I never had the stress of a child who didn’t like to eat or sleep. I don’t know what it feels like to be up all night with a newborn. Everyone has their own beliefs, but I am convinced Jack knew to come into this world happy, easy and full of joy. It was as if he thought to himself – you know what, mom has been through enough; I need to go easy on her.
My first work function was a conference in Park City, Utah. People were surprised to see me, but I did my thing. I smiled, I was engaging, and I focused on others. It was at this conference, in front of my good friend Elisa, where, for the first time since Dan died, I collapsed on the floor and started crying – hard.
I thought I had everything under control. I got through the hardest part while I was pregnant. I had Jack and he was healthy and had no idea what had happened and didn’t know what he was missing. I hired help. I had my job and my family and my friends. The thing is, I wasn’t feeling anything. I wasn’t feeling anything bad, I wasn’t feeling anything good. I was going through the motions. I was surviving, I was not thriving.
The very next day would have been Dan’s 36th birthday, and that was the day I broke up with grief. I realized I had been devoting my emotions – all of them – to feeling nothing because I didn’t think I deserve to feel good, and I was too afraid to feel bad any more. It was easier to just live in my numb bubble than let myself feel anything that might hurt me again.
Flying home from the work event, I realized that devotion is actually a lovely thing. But we need to be careful about who and what we devote ourselves to. I was devoting myself to grief and guilt and sadness and numbness, and it was time to stop that. Love, passion, friendship, optimism, happiness – these are the things that deserved my devotion. Not grief. It was time to start living again.
So, I started going outside. I focused on creating memories and routines and traditions with Jack. I returned phone calls and texts. I worked on identifying what made me happy. I stopped seeing a grief counselor and started seeing a therapist who specialized in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which – due to what I saw and had to do the night Dan died – I was diagnosed with early on but just ignored. PTSD is not something that easily goes away, and I did not want to think about another ‘thing’ that defined me. I researched it, accepted it, and I acknowledged that I experienced something traumatic and tragic. I began working on understanding coping mechanisms rather than just keeping my chin up and ‘dealing’ with it.
I began investigating Dan’s death. I interviewed doctors and coroners and more doctors. I read autopsy reports and googled every long medical term I was presented with. I learned everything I could about CPR to understand if there was something I could have done. I read about death and dying and what happens to the body in the immediate, and then in the minutes after death and understood he died in those few minutes I fell asleep. I researched signs to understand if he waited for me to leave the room and close my eyes because it was his time, and he couldn’t leave if I was right there next to him. I researched premonitions and his last words to me to see if he might have known something was coming. I retraced his steps that night and asked to see security cameras from his office and the gas station he stopped at after the doctor’s appointment to see if he might have fallen or bumped his head. I researched the prescriptions the doctor wrote him that night to see if there might have been an adverse reaction.
Right after I had Jack, I made the decision to put my house up for sale because there was no way I could afford it on one income, but also because I wanted to erase the memories of living there. Once I started waking my emotions up again, I realized that was foolish. My memories would follow me everywhere, and I was pretty sure I could make this work. So, I refinanced my house – a 2-month process that was awkward and uncomfortable, but successful. All of a sudden, the mortgage went down by almost $2000 and I could afford it on my own. I redecorated. I painted the former man cave cupcake pink, took down the sports memorabilia, put up an inspiration quote wall, and moved my office into the room where Dan died.
I became very passionate about authenticity. I realized that the reason labels (wife, mom, widow, single, married) scared me is because I didn’t know what category I fell into, and I had no control over these new labels that I was attached to. If I focused on my authentic self, the labels wouldn’t matter. I could figure out who Dina is – rather than who Dan’s wife or Jack’s mom or Dan’s widow is – and that makes sense to me. I met Dan when I was 20 and was 32 when he left my life. So many of my habits, my preferences and my choices revolved around another person. The first trip to the grocery store was incredibly hard for me – I stared at the cereal aisle for a good 30 minutes, trying to remember what kind of cereal I liked. Eventually, things started to make sense.
Everyone encouraged me to find my ‘new normal’ and I rejected that completely. I was passionate about finding ‘normal.’
Slowly but surely, I was feeling again. I was feeling the good, the bad, and the indescribable. But for every negative emotion, there is a positive emotion, and I recognized that was worth the journey.
I continued to redecorate my home. I don’t like football – that was something Dan was crazy passionate about, but it’s not for me. So down came the football stuff, and I wouldn’t let myself feel bad or guilty about that. I felt ready to try new things – I started wearing different jewelry, tried new clothing styles, and explored new hobbies. I focused on sharing more, talking more, and learning more about other people, because our time on this earth is limited, and I want to be accessible to the people I care about. CS Lewis said that friendship is born when one person looks at another and said ‘What! You too! I thought I was the only one!’ I believe that and realized that closing myself off from others meant closing myself off from the opportunity for fulfillment.
When Dan died, the words I most frequently said was ‘I did not choose this!!’ The feeling of having no choice is not a pleasant one, and I became laser focused on the fact that I had no control. The more my authentic self-emerged, the more I realized that I did make choices in life, and just because one thing happened that was out of my control doesn’t mean I no longer have control about anything else. I chose to be a wife, and I was a good one. I chose to be a mother. I chose to try and be the best mother I could possibly be. And I chose to let love in again.
I started understanding that the heart has the infinite capacity to love, and while I was petrified at the notion of meeting someone new, I was also curious. We aren’t meant to live in this world alone, and I was getting lonely. I eventually met someone, and that someone got to know my authentic self. And what started as a friendship turned into companionship which this year evolved into a marriage and a family. Something I never thought would happen for me happened this past April, when I walked down the aisle toward Rick, made my own promises to him, and heard him promise to love me AND Jack unconditionally.
My normal emerged.
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become better. More authentic, more accessible, more passionate. I’ve also lost a lot. I’ve had a crisis of confidence that still creeps up often, I’ve worried more than I should, and I will always wonder if I did enough that night. I will always feel guilt over leaving that room and falling asleep. But there are a few things I remind myself of all the time, that I think is worth sharing with you as well. Because all of us will experience something hard. Experiencing life means experiencing the good and the bad, and none of us are immune from the bad.
First: there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance. I thought I accepted death and life and everything in between right after Dan died. I was never one of those people who thought he would come back or call me or walk in the door ready for dinner. I knew my reality, so I thought I accepted it. I didn’t – I tolerated it. Tolerance means ‘dealing’ with it. It’s not rejecting reality, it’s taking reality as is and working on moving on. You tolerate a sore throat because there’s not a darn thing you can do about it, but it sure doesn’t feel good. Acceptance is peace, and that peace is critical to moving forward. So, as you deal with something hard – whatever that might be – don’t stop at tolerance. Seek acceptance before you move on.
Secondly: There is a difference between bravery and strength. SO many people would tell me I am so strong and handling all this so well. I would always get a little squirrely about this, because I would think ‘what are my options here? He’s gone, Jack’s coming, I have to pay a mortgage, anyone in my shoes would do the same thing.’ The more I considered it, the more I realized that people actually meant I was brave. It was strong of me to acknowledge that I couldn’t afford my house and it was time to move on. It was brave of me to acknowledge that memories go everywhere with me, so running away from my house wouldn’t solve anything. I encourage you to recognize your own bravery.
Third: You can break up with toxic emotions the same way you break up with toxic people. We ALWAYS hear the advice to eliminate the toxic people from our lives – and believe me, I’ve worked on following that advice in the last few years. You’d be amazed at some of the stories of how I was treated or things that were said about me after Dan passed away. I surrounded myself with people – many of them my colleagues – who amplified my strengths and stayed away from anyone who picked on my weaknesses. I encourage you to do the same. But I also broke up with those toxic emotions that were plaguing my thoughts. This is ongoing – like breaking up with the bad boyfriend, those toxic emotions keep finding their way back and sometimes it can be hard to part ways. But once you do, it is so refreshing. Devote yourself to the good: the optimistic, the confident, the brave, the happy, the passionate, the loving. Break up with the bad: the pessimistic, the anxious, the frustrated, the anger, the second-guessing. It’s hard. It takes time. It takes bravery. But it’s worth it.
Finally: I believe our perspective is naturally based on our experience. I think this is a mistake. Here’s what I mean by this: after Jack was born, in those 3 weeks before I went back to work, I was sitting on my couch scrolling through Facebook. I saw the status of an acquaintance – not even a friend – and it said ‘OMG. Traffic was SO bad to work today, I was a half hour late, I’m so annoyed, KILL ME NOW.’ I was fuming. I started typing: ‘Whoa is me! So, traffic was bad, big deal! My husband died and I’m taking care of a newborn all alone. Also, don’t say ‘kill me now’ – I saw what a dead person looks like, is that what you really want? Please.’ Now thankfully, I didn’t post that. And I think I stayed off Facebook for the rest of the day that day. But my reaction was not fair. Traffic sucks. She’s allowed to be mad and annoyed and frustrated. She’s allowed to vent on our own social media page. Just because I went through something hard doesn’t mean that other people aren’t allowed to experience their own level of hard. Everyone experiences the hard, the bad, the uncomfortable. Sure, there are scales of it, but it’s all there. My experience can’t define my perspective, it would mean that (in my mind) no one else has ever gone through anything as hard as me and they don’t have a right to complain. If I shift my perspective to acknowledge that everyone goes through something hard, and it’s important to have compassion and grace toward everyone’s struggles – no matter the level of those struggles – I’m a better person. I encourage you to not let your experience define your perspective. Accept your own experiences, beliefs, and struggles. Be brave and bold. Break up with the toxic emotions and devote yourself to the positive emotions. Let your experience expand your perspective, not define it.
Everyone has hard times. Everyone. No matter what hard thing you are going through, love will always win.”
Read Dina’s follow up story here.
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