‘I threw myself at him, buried my face in his uniformed chest, and just screamed.’: Young widow recounts healing journey using support groups

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of grief and loss that may be upsetting for some. 

Living Our Dream

“Hi. My name is Ona, and up until April 18, 2021, most would consider me your average middle-class suburban wife and mother in Phoenix, Arizona. At least that is what I considered myself. I worked from home, worked out in the early morning on my Peloton, hiked to catch sunsets, drove a big SUV to and from my kids’ sporting events, sat with my family to enjoy dinner, had a BBQ on the weekends, planned vacations, and went to bed every night with a grateful heart. Life was beautiful, our marriage was strong, my husband and I considered ourselves to be pretty decent parents, and we were doing what we knew to do to plan for our future. I was a teacher, working for an online school since 2012, while my husband was in law enforcement.

couple on a date wine tasting
Courtesy of Ona C.

As I said already, we were living the dream, our dream! In July of 2012, we were blessed with identical twin boys. We’d always laugh at the statistical data of having identical twins; the chance is 1 in 250 and they are not genetic, in case you didn’t know the data. Three years after the twins, we welcomed a singleton to our family. He came in as a spitfire, and he is still claiming that status today. As I write our updated story, the singleton is 7 and the twins are one week shy of turning 10. All three boys are extremely smart, athletic, resilient, and just plain ole’ amazing, if I don’t say so myself.

The Day Everything Changed

The morning of Sunday, April 18, 2021, at approximately 6:15 a.m., my world as I knew it was completely flipped upside down when I woke to find my healthy, handsome, amazing husband dead. Blue in our bed with his left arm dangling off the side. My legs immediately felt as if they were made of concrete and I could not stop screaming. I somehow managed to find my phone to call 911 but don’t recall anything of the conversation except my repeating: ‘My husband is dead. No I cannot calm down, he is dead!’ My sister and her family were visiting at the time. I eventually handed the phone to my brother-in-law since I had no idea what the 911 operator was saying to me.  I found out later she was instructing us on how to perform CPR on him. My brother-in-law and sister attempted CPR, but he was already gone.

couple at their wedding holding their hands
Courtesy of Ona C.

I know my sister and her husband have their own grief and ‘pop-up’ visuals from that morning that they have to work through, and I feel guilty for that even being part of their lives now. After I gave the phone to my brother-in-law, I went into my boys’ room, organized a group hug, and said, ‘Boys, your dad is dead and that is all I know at this time.’ The looks on their faces were blank and they collectively said, ‘OK.’ What else could I say or do? I have no idea!

Shortly after the 911 call, first responders started showing up at our house: fire, EMS, and police. The firefighters rushed into my house and, I’d say within 45 seconds, one of them returned to the front yard where I was standing. I knew from the look on his face what he needed to tell me. I’ll never forget him. He was a tall, broad, strong, tan, and very handsome man. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I am very sorry Mrs. Young.’ I screamed, threw my body into his, and pinched the under parts of his arms over and over again. I knew Geoff was dead but to hear someone else claim it as official was unbelievable. The officer who arrived at our house was the husband of our youngest son’s teacher. I ran to him, threw myself at him as well, buried my face in his uniformed chest, and just screamed.

Shortly after all the presence of first responders, I got my first text message from a friend checking in on Geoff. The night before we were with friends at a BBQ. Geoff left early because he wasn’t feeling well. He received his Covid shot before the BBQ, and after a couple of hours, he just didn’t feel well — tired, had chills, and a slight headache. He went home early to lie down but assured everyone he was fine. I was at the airport picking up my sister at the time he started to not feel well and went home. He assured me he was fine and encouraged my sister and I to go to the BBQ, get some food, have some fun, and he’d see us back at the house later.

family on a hike before dad passed
Courtesy of Ona C.

So we did. We were back at our house by 7:30. He was lying down but said he was totally fine. He asked for ice water and a Tylenol. We only had Alleve, and that was for me when my stubborn knee acted up, so I went up to CVS and bought Tylenol. Let’s just say that was the last time I ever stepped foot in that CVS… too much PTSD from that place. OK, back to the text messages. Bridget sent a text on our friend thread saying, ‘I know it is early. Sorry, I’m an early bird. But how is Geoff feeling this morning?’ My reply was, ‘HE IS DEAD!’ I believe this was around 6:40 a.m.

The next couple of hours were spent pacing the sidewalk of our cul-de-sac barefoot, still in my sleep shirt. I was calling people I had to tell the news to, texting others. I threw my phone into surrounding cacti numerous times. I’d look up to the sky and scream. Some people didn’t believe my texts so I’d reply to them with a selfie I took with the responding officer. Looking back it is all so surreal. I still can’t believe it!

shocked woman taking a selfie with an officer
Courtesy of Ona C.

Within hours our house was flooded with people who love us. Nobody knew what to say, few knew what to do, BUT they were there and I can’t imagine it being any different. If you didn’t know my husband was dead behind our police-guarded master bedroom door you would have thought we were having a celebration of some sort (from a bird’s eye view at least).

For the next month of our lives, we were not left alone. I don’t know if behind the scenes my family and friends (many of whom didn’t know each other very well) had a rotating schedule or calendar set up, but what I do know is the boys and I were taken care of. We were shopped for, cooked for, cleaned for, cared for, entertained, chauffeured, and loved beyond measure. Another widow I have met on this journey, Debbie, shared how brave it is for people to show up for a griever. When I heard her say this during a podcast with Karen Sutton (the Widow Coach) I nodded my head and cried. It is beyond measure brave for anyone to show up for a griever. Grieving cannot be fixed; there is no cure!

Life After Loss

Some widows I have met share that after the funeral it seems most people stopped coming around. I will forever be grateful that was not our case. I had a severe fear of being alone. The fear stemmed from those insecurities that were birthed from Geoff’s death. The big black cloud hanging over me was all I could feel; everyday tasks were non-existent. It is very hard to explain but I honestly felt like a skeleton. It was almost as if I needed a caregiver, a babysitter. For months I was illiterate.

My sweet friend, Stephanie, was my secretary, my notes taker, my detail keeper, and I am sure, my doer of other duties that are hard for me to remember. My friends Theresa, Melissa, and Angela were my Uber drivers. There was NO WAY I was getting behind the wheel of a car. If I couldn’t focus long enough to brush my teeth, how on earth could I focus on driving? Looking back a year and telling this story now, it is still hard to understand the depth of my shock and the way it manifested itself. The panic attacks, the fears, the numbness, the inability to decide, and even more, the lack of confidence in what I knew. It was all there. Like I said, a skeleton.

By June of 2021, approximately 3 months after Geoff’s death, I started to be able to function a little bit on my own with the help of another accompanying adult or two. The black cloud was now gray, but the anxiety I had on a daily basis was crippling. The physical aspects of my grief consisted of tingling limbs, racing heart, numbing thoughts, headaches, blurred vision, butterfly-filled stomach, and many other ‘totally normal’ ailments. At this time I was seeing a clinical counselor once a week. She did the job I needed during that time in my grief journey. I was told everything I was feeling and doing was ‘normal.’ OK good, I was normal. That was good to know because normal was the farthest thing from what I felt. Normal sucked!

As the summer months went on, I was still crippled with anxiety, fears, insecurities, and doubts regarding how on earth I was going to survive this tragedy and trauma. Who am I now? Will I ever be OK again? What happened to the person I was before Geoff died? Was that person real? Was the dream I was living and extremely grateful for real? I spent much of the time after my kids went to bed browsing social media. I started following other widows for inspiration, wisdom, and comfort. I filled two journals with letters to Geoff.

family selfie in the car before dirt biking
Courtesy of Ona C.

I missed him terribly, but journaling allowed me to connect with him on some level. How I wanted his reinforcement that it was going to be OK and that I had the ability to make the right decisions for our boys and myself. My close friends still came over to hang with me, and we had many sleepovers. Those sleepovers, the face masks, the hours of watching reruns of Friends, the laughter, and the nurturing will forever leave pitter-patters on my heart when I think of the first year of surviving widowhood.

August 2021 came around, and I decided to go back to my online teaching job. The first month was OK. I survived. I even succeeded a little bit in my professional duties. However, once the caseload picked up and my Outlook calendar was packed, I couldn’t function any longer. I asked for some family medical leave time, but I was denied it due to not having enough of a physical ailment, so I resigned. One thing positive about going back to work was that it triggered my brain to start working again.

Investing In Healing

During this time, about 5 months after Geoff died, I wasn’t finding the same comfort from the clinical counselor I was seeing, so I stopped seeing her. I had been following people on social media, and what one particular gal shared always sat well with me. It just so happens she is also a widow coach and was going to be starting a new group soon. I bravely reached out to her and did a free 15-minute call. Being on the call with her was magical, and I will never forget it.

It was my first conversation with someone who really related to how I felt, understood what I was going through, and knew what I would continue to go through. I signed up for Karen’s next group and it was THE BEST THING I COULD HAVE DONE FOR ME! Deciding to sign up with her was tough though. Should I really spend this money on myself? What if the group isn’t worth it? Can I afford it? Again with the money questions. It was super scary to spend money on myself. SUPER! A gift of learning at a very complicated time. I had to heal myself, and spending the money to do that was absolutely necessary. So here is something you need to hear: Find someone who you are comfortable with and invest in yourself. I hope you are lucky enough to find someone like I did, but if you don’t find that person right away, don’t give up. There is someone out there.

self care night for widows - women wearing face masks
Courtesy of Ona C.

In Karen’s group, I learned it is possible to thrive again, to dream again, to be whole again. Our mindset is what matters, the choices we make matter, we are still here, and we have a purpose. The gals I met in the first group I did with Karen are from all over the world, and most of us are still in touch almost a year later.

Rebuilding Our Lives

It’s now been 14 months, and I have made some big decisions over that time. I sold our Arizona home, moved to Michigan so I could have the support of my family, and quit my job. I also bought a house, planting the seeds for our ‘reshaped’ family to grow. I have invested in myself and my healing. I could go on and on about the healing I have done and continue to do. The rebuilding is amazing and beautiful – sometimes painful, but always beautiful. My boys have shown their resilience too. Through all of our moving, they were in three different schools this past year. I made the decision to enroll them in a private school where I think they will be in a smaller community that can provide some more of the familial environment they need.

Having our life, or what I thought was our life, crumbling to the ground just like that is devastating, crippling, and numbing. If there is any advice I would give to other widows it’s to first find your support group. Find out which of your friends love you unconditionally; lean into the family that listens to you without judgment; allow in strangers who want to help you (not fix you). One note about those people who come into and stay in your life — think about their bravery and be willing to give them some grace. Especially in the earliest days and weeks, they have no idea what environment they are entering and if they are even helping. Recognize their efforts are well-intentioned and they will look for your cues and feedback – even if it’s minimal. Get to know another widow, and work on you. Find how you want to heal and do it! Take the risks! You and your healing are worth it!

Trauma, grief, and uncomfortable life changes wreak havoc on your body, your mind, and your soul.  The healing process following it and through it is hard work. Love yourself, be kind to yourself, and let others in.”

woman doing yoga on a beach in front of water
Courtesy of Ona C.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ona C. from Michigan. You can follow her journey on Instagram. 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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