‘MOM! Something is wrong with Dad, he’s on the floor!’ Only 30 minutes prior, we were laughing about the fact my husband didn’t meet us at the pool.’: Widow shares 19-year love story after losing husband to heart attack

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“My phone rang as I walked along the path leading from the ocean to our rental home. ‘MOM! Something is wrong with Dad, he’s on the floor and I don’t think he’s breathing!’ My 14-year-old son was frantic. For a brief few seconds, I remember thinking he was joking.

It was only 30 minutes prior we were laughing about the fact my husband didn’t meet us at the pool, assuming his morning game of beach volleyball with my son wore him out after my son reported his Dad was really sore after the game, for good reason. He said, ‘He was acting like he was 18 years old diving for the ball!’

We assumed he was tired and laid down for a quick rest. Little did we know those moments after his shower, he had a massive heart attack and lay on the bathroom floor of our rental house; alone.

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

My memories of those moments, hours are foggy, but I remember running with my beach bag down the road to our rented house when I got that call, I may have even dropped the bag.

When I arrived in the door, I found my 17-year-old son giving his dad CPR as he lay on the bathroom floor with the tap running, towel around his waist and toothbrush on the floor.

My son was on the phone with 911. We didn’t know the address of where we were. I franticly looked around the rental house through mail desperately trying to find it, but feeling as if my brain couldn’t think clearly.

My 14-year-old ran out the door yelling, and a neighbor quickly came to assist and take over CPR. I called my friend, who was vacationing down there as well. She came to get my 9-year-old daughter and delivered her by golf cart to her mom who had a vacation home in the same community.

Nat Caron Photography

Emergency vehicles came flooding down the narrow roads of this small oceanside retirement village. Before I knew it, we were standing outside of the house while first responders worked on my husband for what felt like hours.

As we stood outside helpless, my sons were frantic. They started yelling about things they should have done. I grabbed their faces simultaneously and shouted, ‘NO! We’re not doing that, we are not blaming ourselves!’

They took my husband into the ambulance and sat there for again what felt like hours. Finally, one of the paramedics came to report what hospital they were taking him to. I screamed, ‘Is he breathing? Is he breathing?’ He answered with hesitation, ‘Yes,’ and left.

I cried with relief and said, ‘Boys, it’s okay he’s breathing, he’s going to be okay.’ I quickly started grabbing everything Mike would need for a hospital stay –  a change of clothes, shoes, his phone, etc.

Even while I was doing this, I feel like I was convincing myself everything was okay, ignoring my gut feeling that it wasn’t.

Our friend’s Dad drove us to the hospital – about a 15-minute drive, the longest drive of my life.

When we arrived, we ran in the emergency doors. A doctor, almost as if he knew who we were, immediately approached us. I said, ‘Where is my husband?,’ anxious to see him.

The doctor looked at me and said, ‘We’re sorry, we did everything we could.’ Those words will forever haunt me.

I remember feeling a sudden rush of calm, like I shifted into another state in that moment, from panic to an autopilot protective mode.

I didn’t yell or cry, I just became numb, in disbelief, shock. My 14-year-old fell to the floor sobbing, while my 17-year-old began to pace.

When we went into the room to see him, he was still hooked up to all the wires and tubes.

My oldest son was anxious, almost nervous, to approach, and my youngest asked, ‘Can I kiss him Mom?,’ through his sobbing. He kissed his Dad, they said goodbye, and they left the room.

I stood over him and I looked at the details of his face, his hairline, and his body, taking every detail in.

I knew this would be the last time I looked at him, all of him that was so familiar after 19 years together. I said goodbye to him, kissed his forehead and his big hands, and walked out of the room. Looking back, I recall being so calm and logical in those moments, again; shock.

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

My husband and I fell in love almost instantly when I was 23 and he was 30. Only weeks into our relationship, we both felt we found something special and were talking about a future together. He had a 7-year-old daughter and it wasn’t 5 months into our relationship we found out we were going to have a baby together.

We bought a fixer upper home, got a puppy and became an instant family. Through renovations and the birth of our second child, getting married was never a priority. We finally decided to elope. We said everything in our relationship has always been about kids and building a family, this is about us. So we were married in 2005 in Antigua, a beautiful setting for the two of us, alone.

Sandals Antigua/Carlayne Gilbertson

We didn’t have a perfect marriage, my husband worked long hours in his profession as an electrician.  This caused strain on the family, especially after our last child was born.

We went through some pretty significant issues with our home, building a new business and financial issues, which all took a toll.

We loved each other though, deeply, no matter what; we saw each other, and we stayed committed through all the ups and downs.

The craziest part was we had made that trip to Florida a transition for us, a plan to make some changes that were more in alignment with how we wanted to feel. We had some great conversations on that beach about our future.

We left the hospital and my boys broke down even harder when they realized we were heading back to their 9-year-old sister, and we would have to deliver this life altering news to her, Daddy’s little princess, and then to their oldest sister who was not on the trip with us.

My youngest daughter cried and fell into my arms when I said the words, ‘Daddy didn’t make it.’ The four of us hugged and held each other while we cried in disbelief at what had just happened.

He died on December 22, 3 days before Christmas, on a family holiday in Florida. We live in Canada and had driven down to have a 2-week vacation. I was left in another country with 3 of our 4 children, Christmas presents wrapped and stockings hung.

There are no words for me to share the devastation, shock, and trauma we experienced, so I won’t try, but I can tell you devastation is not a strong enough word to describe it.

The loss, the shock, the trauma, that immediate state, that’s just one element, because when the shock wears off you are left to deal with the damages.

Those damages run deep, they change you, they impact your emotional health, your physical health, your finances, your behaviors, your relationships, your work; everything. And like any disaster it can take years to rebuild, and for some, a lifetime.

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

As a wife, I had to deal with the loss of my partner, left to manage the life we built together alone. As a mother, it is the most painful thing you can experience to watch your children suffer when you cannot fix it for them, you feel a sense of failing them, after all it is your job to protect them.

It is even worse when you are not able to support them in their pain because you too, are barely hanging on.

I remember feeling like not only had I lost my husband, but I also lost my children as I knew them, because they would never be the same again.

We were stuck there until Boxing Day, the logistics of dealing with a death in another country over the Christmas holiday. We didn’t go back to that house. Our friends moved all of our things out and we stayed with them.

My sister flew down the next day, missing her Christmas with her two small children. She and our friends sat beside me at the funeral home on Christmas Eve, helping me make decisions about my husband’s body. Going back to that day and time seems surreal and like a lifetime ago.

We went on with Christmas morning as if we weren’t living in hell for the sake of my 9-year-old. Maybe she could still believe in some magic in this world. It’s strange how you just survive, like an out-of-body experience.

We left to drive the 22 hours home on boxing day, leaving my husband behind, but anxious to get home to our devastated family and friends desperately waiting to wrap their arms around us. We arrived home on my birthday to a house full of family.

The grief, the dreams, the physical pain, the loss of everything you thought your life was. The reality that you will never look at, or touch that person you slept beside for 19 years, you will never hear him laugh or say I love you again. I used to hear his truck pull in the driveway or imagine him walking up the front steps of our house. Maybe they were wrong, and maybe he didn’t die. The mind plays many games in grief, and the healing process is a street fight.

What I quickly realized is I still had the ability to feel immense gratitude, for the love we felt around us, for the way our tribe of family and friends came together to support us day and night. They delivered meals, helped with household chores, slept beside me at night, took care of my children’s needs and just sat with me.

This gratitude was new, and then I began to feel gratitude for the new gratitude, even despite my pain.

I didn’t think I would ever feel good again, feel joy, or peace. I truly believed this would be my new existence, my children’s new existence.

As time progressed though, I began to find moments where I could think about something else. These moments were celebrated by me, they provided me with faith that maybe I could be okay again one day.

And as I sought out resources for our children and myself, we began to heal, accept, and find ways to move forward.

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

There were many painful moments – the day my daughter and I were watching a show where someone got married and she looked at me and said, ‘Who will walk me down the aisle now, Mommy?’ That was a knife to the heart.

The time my teenage son screamed, ‘I don’t want to talk to you! I want to talk to my Dad!’ Of course he did, as he should be able to.

A collection of such moments have continued to build resilience for me in how I react, respond, and what I make of it mean, and over time those moments become less painful and heart wrenching, just the reality of loss and all of our individual journey’s to navigate.

Today I am a different woman than the one I was just seconds before that phone call. I will never be her again, and as much pain as I have had to go through to get here, I love the person I am today. She is resilient, brave, courageous, compassionate, grateful, more relaxed and free.

I feel more connected to life, to my purpose and passion, I am grateful every day that I am alive, and I want to really LIVE.

I don’t waste time living through fear, I want to live through love, because I realize how precious life is, I realize that the rules aren’t as important as I once had thought.

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

I want to help leave a legacy for him, the man he was, through the service to others.

We as a family raise money for The Seasons Centre for Grieving Children; a local support group that has made a big impact on my family by running an annual golf tournament in my husband’s name.

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

My daughter and I also recently spoke at a Gala to raise money for them as well. I support those in grief and low self-worth through my social media using my own experiences and my skills as a Strategic Intervention and Performance Coach to help others to move forward with resilience, self-awareness and strong self-love.

We all will suffer in our lives, we will all experience pain, we will all die eventually. What we focus on determines how we feel about those circumstances and the way we are able to move forward in our lives after such loss. The only option I see is to focus on the beauty, magic and miracles in life, forever grateful for what he brought to our lives by being more of the things we loved most about him.”

Courtesy of Carlayne Gilbertson

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Carlayne Gilbertson of Oro-Medonte, Ontario, Canada. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories from those experiencing grief and loss here:

‘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? What are you talking about?’

‘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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