Heads up, there are some graphic descriptions ahead. 

Yesterday I visited James’ grave for the first time since the day we buried him there last fall, three days before my birthday. 

Maybe that makes me seem like a bad wife, or a bad widow, or even a bad person. Maybe you think I should have been out there every weekend, laying over the patchy grass, sobbing, asking God “why.”

My experience with loss is so vastly different than most, so the feelings after that loss are about ten thousand times more complicated and different. Losing someone to suicide is a mind-f*ck, even in the “best” circumstances. Months of talking with other widows, and specifically suicide widows, (there’s a Facebook group for everything) has taught me that not all suicides are the same. Some are planned, notes are left, warnings given, “don’t go into the garage, just call 911.” Many are done as the “last word” in an argument. Some are unexpected and the family truly had no idea their person was in so much pain. And a shocking number had threatened their partners with suicide for years, should they ever try to leave. 

The grief that accompanies suicide is wide ranging and different for every person and circumstance, it cannot be pigeon-holed.

There’s a show on Netflix called Dead to Me, in which the main character loses her husband suddenly, after he was hit by a car while walking. In the very first episode, a neighbor brings over a casserole says something to the effect of “we can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”

Clearly having heard this countless times already, she replies without missing a beat, “Just imagine that your husband was hit by a car and died suddenly, and violently. Its like that.” 

Every time someone says this exact phrase to me, which is every time I meet someone new, I think of this scene and imagine myself answering with brutal honestly like she does. 

“Just imagine that your husband found out you wanted to leave, walked to another room and killed himself, and left you to call 911, attempt to save his life, and usher approximately 200 first responders past your sleeping children so they could get to him.”

That night, even with all the therapy in the world, will never bring me warm, loving or happy memories about James.

I held a pair of my leggings against the gaping wounds on his head with one hand and called 911 with the other. The same leggings I wore home from the hospital when I had my third baby. That will never not be in my memories.

In the last few moments we were alone, while listening for approaching sirens in the distance, I sobbed. I called his name and tried to get him to open his eyes. I prayed my kids would stay asleep. I held back vomit when I realized the white, spongy pieces scattered in the pool of blood in front of me were pieces of his brain. I seared with sadness and anger and fear and pain. That will never not be in my memories.

I realized how strong the smell of blood was. Blood and gunfire together are a smell I will never forget, like metal and smoke swirled together. That will never not be in my memories.

Maybe someday, that scene will not be the first picture in my mind when I think about him, I hope it wont be, but I can tell you that seven months later, it still is. 

There was so much more to him, I wish the good moments stuck around more than this moment, but they just don’t. It was too big, too painful, and too traumatic to be glossed over by sweeter memories of days gone by. 

Another person who had a different relationship with him, and wasn’t there to live through that night, certainly has different memories than I do, and that is a good thing. James deserves to be remembered for all the good, too.

Remembering the good doesn’t mean discounting the pain and reality of the living, and acknowledging the pain and reality of the living doesn’t discount the good. 

I am mostly at peace. I’ve been raising my kids on my own for the better part of a year. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, fighting, bedtime, lying, obsessions with new Disney characters, consequences, family dance parties, chores, doctors appointments and unbelievable love, all on my own. It’s hard and absolutely draining and also makes me wonder what else I can accomplish. I’ve lived through most people’s worst nightmare, maybe I can run a marathon, too (coming October 2020, tentatively).

Our days almost always end with little preschooler prayers which break my heart and make me angry at him all over again for the hurt these kids still live with. “God, give Daddy a hug for me” or “Dad, I got a stuffed Batman and I wish you could see it,” or  “Dad, can you come visit me in my dreams?” And I hope he does, they deserve at least that much. 

I will visit his grave again when I am ready, when I’m a little further down the road of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t a momentary decision made once and for all, but more of a winding road. Sometimes its smooth and easy and sometimes it doubles back on itself and then asks you to climb steep hills one day and lets you coast down the other side the next. He’s not in that grave anyway, he’s moved on, completely at peace.

But he we are, in this fallen and beautiful world, where death and pain exist alongside joy and peace. Embracing all of them means to live in the tension, to be an active participant in being human, to feel it all.

And right now, seven months away from that night, I’m still not ready to visit him again. Maybe in a week or a month or a year, or however long it takes me to get to the “feeling-ok-about-visiting-the-grave” road marker on Forgiveness Ave. But it can’t be hurried or rushed, and there’s not use in faking it to my own detriment. So I’ll be here. Writing, telling the truth, raising my kids, discovering my new meaning and direction and love, and when its time, I will visit him again. 

The Night that Pain Won

This is hard. Talking about marriage, PTSD, pain, mental illness, and my real true life, is really hard. The events of the last few months have been transformational for me as I’ve come to learn that my story is, unfortunately, not unique. I have heard from friends and acquaintances and women I have never met, that witnessing my experience has helped them to take steps for themselves, for their spouses, and for their families. If any good comes out of this, that’s it.

Those steps can be so many things. Helping their wounded Veteran seek help, teaching kids about mental health and mental illness in age appropriate ways, or seeking therapy for themselves. But sometimes the pain is too great, the hurt is too deep, or it is simply not safe. We are left with painstaking decisions to make about these soldiers we love, our children, our future, and our reputation and theirs.
James did the best the he could with the shitty hand he was dealt. He loved his family the best way he knew how, while the ever-present war raged in his mind day in and day out. When I feel anger rising up inside of me, I remember his pain. It was pain that I had glimpses of, but I never knew its power until I held it in my arms on my bedroom floor.

James’ pain was a force. It lashed out in moments of fear and insecurity and then went dormant when he sang twinkle twinkle little star to Josie as he tucked her into bed.
He needed help that he never received, which is the case for most of us. We don’t like asking for help, or admitting we need therapy, or sharing the terrifying thoughts crossing our minds, or telling the truth when its scary or unflattering. But I think it could have saved his life.

No one person is all one thing. We ebb and flow. We have good days and bad days. Days when we put our pain and fear in its place, and days when we let our pain and fear control our minds and actions.

For me, this day was one when I harnessed my courage and pain and forged through my fear, and took a step towards healing.

For James, this day was one where his pain and fear became too much.

I am trusting you, my community, to read this with love and grace. I am trusting you with my story because I know that it matters. I am trusting the world with this moment because I am not the only woman who has been in this moment, and James is not the only wounded soldier who has fallen to his pain. We are in this together.

For months, I agonized over how unknown and unseen I felt, how lonely I was, how lost I was in the deep end of being a faithful and loyal wife to a man living in pain. I felt frustrated, then guilty for feeling frustrated, then mad at myself for being mad at James, and repeat.

I wanted so badly to stay married, to keep my family together, to keep my kids and their Dad under the same roof. My kids don’t understand war and pain and grief and PTSD, I couldn’t explain to them that mommy was drowning. They were so small and fresh and innocent and untouched by the darkness of grown up life.

I cannot be selfish enough to subject my kids to this just because I’m not happy.
So I played the part, I tip toed, I squeezed myself into places I was never supposed to fit and gave up my autonomy and opinions and desires so I could keep James happy and calm. My full time job was “emotional and psychological manager.” I knew what to keep to myself, as to not stoke the flames. I knew what needed to be done by the time he got home from work to avoid accusations of my laziness. I knew what would happen if his laundry wasn’t, or if all of the forks were in the dishwasher when he was trying to eat something. I knew what music and tv shows to not turn on. I became a professional tip-toer. A professional walker-of-the-egg shells.

I knew what to do to keep my ship running smoothly, and I did it fairly successfully for a long time, until I was bending over backwards so far that I just about snapped.

It worked until I realized that I wasn’t keeping my kids safe from a broken family. My family was broken.

In my attempt to normalize our home life and not raise any red flags for my kids, I normalized an unhealthy relationship.

In my attempt to normalize our marriage so my son wouldn’t feel the need to stand his little body between me and my husband, I normalized abuse.

When I look back at myself, in the middle of that mess, I feel so much compassion for the twenty something year old who was barely hanging on. There was no room for introspection, or curiosity, or finding herself, or learning about healthy relationships.

There was only what was in front of her. A bunch of kids who needed her to survive, and a husband who was hanging on by a thread. That girl made lemonade out of lemons the only way she knew how.

Earlier in the day, before the night James took his life, I met with a therapist for the first time. I scheduled the appointment hesitantly a week or so earlier, knowing that I needed to talk with someone before my head exploded. After settling in on the blue loveseat in her office, about thirty seconds of small talk, I dove in head first and unloaded years of pain and shame and fear and guilt around my marriage.

She affirmed everything I had been feeling, the absolute mess in my head and my heart.

My home was not healthy or safe, and seeking help was wise. Despite the guilt and inner conflict and feeling that I was betraying my husband by even being there, she thought I was doing the right thing. That meant a lot to me.

It was a lot for me to process in one day, and we agreed that we wouldn’t even start talking about next steps until I had another two weeks to think and read and reflect. I left the office feeling empowered and terrified at the same time. I had been honest and vulnerable and told the truth out loud, and it was exhilarating.

When I got home, James wanted to know what we talked about. I told him that I was still dealing with Postpartum Depression and hoped that would put the subject to rest.

“That can’t be all you talked about for a whole hour.”

He must have sensed my uneasiness, because he began to push harder.

“Was it about us? Was it about me?”

I was silent, I felt exposed, I was safe only a moment ago. I kept my eyes down.

“Should I just expect divorce papers from you then? You’re going to take everything from me just like that?”

I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. I knew that trying to explain myself would only escalate the situation, but I also knew that he was not going to leave without an explanation.

This conversation was about to happen, and I couldn’t stop it. I wasn’t ready. I had only barely cracked open this Pandora’s Box. There was so much more I needed to think about and process through and I was being asked to rush the whole thing and put my cards on the table right in that moment. This was supposed to belong to me, for just a little while, until I had done all the work and talked to my therapist for months and weighed every angle and option, but there we were. He demanded answers, then and there, something I knew he would not back down from.

I broke down. I spilled it all. I didn’t feel loved, I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own home, I didn’t want to live the rest of my life diffusing bombs. I talked to a therapist because I knew something wasn’t right, and that thing was our relationship.

It spiraled so quickly. The only thing he could see was the seemingly insurmountable moment before him.

He slammed his head into the counter, blood was running down his face.
“Dad, why are you bleeding.”

I turned and saw Charlie, all of four years old, standing there concerned. I did what I always had, I assured him that everything was ok, Dad just has an owie on his head but he would be fine.

Somewhere in that haze, we managed to get all the kids to sleep. On any other night, this was my favorite time. But tonight, bed time meant that it was just me and him, and there would be no escaping the rising conflict and thick tension between us.

Trying to downplay the severity of the situation, maybe for him and maybe for myself, I went into the kitchen to make lunches for our kids, who despite everything, still had school the next day. He followed me.

Yelling. Pleading. Apologizing. Blaming. Wall punching. Accusations. It was a dizzying blur.

This is what happens when I stand up for myself.

He stood on one side of the kitchen, boring holes into me with his eyes. I stood on the other side, making PB&J’s and desperately trying hold myself together.

And then, he turned and stormed away, shaking the kitchen table with his steps as he stomped down the hall past our sleeping kids.

Their bedrooms were right across from our room. I kept glancing their way, praying I wouldn’t see a little blonde head poking out, wondering what the yelling was about.

As he walked into our room, I let out a sharp breath and started sobbing. I hunched over onto the counter, heaving and scared to death of what the aftermath of all of this might be.

I looked up again and peered down the dark hallway to make sure my kids were still in bed, just in time to hear a BANG from our bedroom down the hall.


The Price of the Loyal Wife

I was 19 the first time I held my inconsolable future husband as he recounted just a taste of his experience in war. He had come home from a deployment just a few months earlier, and slowly, the memories and fear and terror were emerging. We were in his Dad and step-mom’s house, upstairs in a freezing cold corner room. Sitting next to me on a stiff mattress covered with an loved-to-death quilt, he told me to leave. He told me it would never work, he’d seen too much, done too much. He explained in his own words that between the loss of his mom two years earlier and his months spent in a war zone, there was no way he could ever be a whole person again. He wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t touch me.

In that moment, with my quivering boyfriend hunched over on the bed next to me, sobbing, he was giving me his blessing. It was my out. My chance to save myself from whatever lay within his mind that he thought was too dark for me to ever understand. In that moment, I made the first decision of many to stand by him and his brokenness. I didn’t think about it too hard, it was a decision made out of young love and unchecked loyalty. Years later he would still talk about that night and how I didn’t leave when he begged me to, how I didn’t leave even though he warned me. It was a story he told proudly. He told that story so everyone would know, I was a good wife. Faithful, enduring, loyal, beautiful, even a saint sometimes. I would accept his praise, as if those hollow-feeling words made anything easier to endure. As if his calling me a saint made it any less traumatic and painful for me to be his emotional buffer. Onlookers would tell me how lucky I was to be so loved.

Part of me was naïve to the effects of war and violence and death, seeing and touching blood and gore, and what those experiences do to the human spirit. Another part of me was young and in love and nearly impossible to reason with. This man, who I had held on such a high pedestal for his courage and bravery and strength, was in a puddle before me, and it was disillusioning. In that moment, I was afraid. I was afraid of losing the person with whom I was in the midst of a whirlwind romance. I didn’t want to see the future and family and first house we’d talked about and planned in our late night teenage fantasies fall apart. I was afraid to lose the man I loved.

So with a great amount of confidence and even more determination, I told him that I would not go. I would not leave.

Hundreds more times I would choose to stand by him. I would stand by him when it meant denying myself. I would stand by him as I lied to my own family about why he seemed so angry and on the edge, brushing it off, trying to lighten the mood and quell suspicion so we could move on with the conversation and move the spotlight away from us. Because I knew that if the spotlight lingered too long, they might start to see. If they paid attention or listened in long enough, they might see that my soul was slowly decaying. They might start to see the pain beneath my bright facade, they might see that his off-days were not an occasional bad day here and there, but that his instability and anger were a part of him as much as his eyes and hands and the paratrooper tattoos down his arm.

I would stand by him the countless times that he told me he wanted a divorce. I would cry and feel betrayed and hurt, until he came back, saying he was sorry and would never leave me. I would accept his apology, while my mind was flashing between anger and confusion and pain. I would know instinctually that this wasn’t what love feels like, but with a few years marriage and kids under our belts, it became increasingly more difficult to be honest about it, even to myself. I would stand by him in his fits of rage, his pain, his trauma, and his hurled accusations and pleading apologies. I would pull him out of pit after pit, collapse at the end of the day from the exhausting toll of it all and then wake up the next day and do it all over again. I would help him clean up his bloody hand after he punched a perfect fist-shaped hole in the door of the linen closet, put an ice pack on his forehead after he bashed his face into a wall when he couldn’t find another outlet for his pain.

That freezing cold December night would play out so many times over the next few years that I would forget what it felt like to stand up for myself, my interests, my heart, my ideas, my soul. I would forget, until I began to remember. An avalanche of revelation would be triggered by a handful of small of moments of honesty and bravery and loyalty, but this time, to myself. And in my remembering, a vista would unfold before me and give me clear, discerning eyes. And I would think back to the very beginning, when I made the decision to stay.

Am I Doing this Right? An Amateur, Unofficial Guide to Grieving with Kids

I thought the worst news I would ever have to break to my oldest (five-year-old Charlie), was that we couldn’t go to Chik-fil-a because they are not open on Sundays. This might sound trivial to you, but you try to keep your cool when you’re jonesing for some nuggets and waffle fries on the Lord’s day and your freakin’ mom says you can’t have them. Its devastating, especially if you’re five. I’d listen to him lament about the injustice and ask me “WHY” fifty seven times and complain and go through all the stages of grief, and then we’d go to McDonalds and all would be well again. For the most part our kids’ problems, while they definitely feel huge and Earth-shattering to them, are not. There’s the temper tantrum when they want to blue spoon but the blue spoon is in the dishwasher, so they have to use the red spoon. Its annoying and they might scream and cry and yell, but they get their frustration out, there’s some kind of conclusion, for better or worse, you laugh at the drama of it all, and eventually everyone can move on. I long for those small problems. Don’t get me wrong, we still have plenty of those. Just this morning Charlie opened a vanilla yogurt for breakfast, dumped an overflowing heap of granola on top of it, and then decided that he actually wanted peach. I’m a dick and told him he had to eat the one that he already opened, sorry dude. Cue all the tears, calling me the meanest mom ever, laying on the floor crying, etc. (important update: he ate the vanilla yogurt and we have since reconciled.)

So what do you do when the problems aren’t small, aren’t easily fixed with a temper tantrum or a new yogurt? What if they have no choice but to experience more loss and pain than most adults ever will? It’s not fair that my small children have to learn to live without one of their parents. Its not fair that they have to navigate deep, unexpected grief before they’ve even started kindergarten. Its not fair that they have to explain to their friends that their dad wont be picking them up from school anymore, or he can’t take us trick-or-treating, because he’s dead. Its not fair that someday, when they are older, they will learn a broader truth about what happened that night. They will grieve all over again, but this time over the facts that they couldn’t handle as preschoolers. Yes, its still true that Dad was sick in his brain, and he died as a result of that, but that vague explanation is only going to hold them for so long until they figure out that there is much more to it that they don’t know. Eventually they’ll know the truth of how he died, and where, and why. I can push it off for a few years, a decade or maybe more until they’re teenagers, but not forever.

It was Thursday and we had been staying at my parents’ house for the last few nights. James was still on life support awaiting his organ donation surgery, my house was torn apart, and at that point I couldn’t imagine ever stepping foot back in that house again. So, we stayed at Jojo and PopPop’s house. I felt ok about this, as OK as I could at that moment, but my kids, especially Charlie, had some questions. And as always, he needed his answer YESTERDAY. He drives a hard bargain and demands answers, I can only imagine that this will benefit him greatly in a future career, and hopefully not in a prison gang.

“Why are we still here?”
“Where’s Dad?”
“Why can’t we go home?”
“I want to play with my friends.”
“Why are people brining us presents and food?”
And most confusing and pressing to him was, “Why is everyone crying?”

I knew my smart as a whip preschooler was not going to take any more of the bullshit answers I had been giving him the last couple days. This was obviously not a “fun sleepover” and people were not constantly pouring into the house with gifts “just because they love us.” Per usual, he could see right through me.

On that Thursday night my parents and sisters and I (and a few others, sorry if I forgot you) were all sitting around my parents’ long dining room table, when Charlie appeared on the other side of the table and locked eyes with me. Interrupting everyone with his booming voice, he said “Mom, why we are still here? Tell me right now.” My heart sank. It sank because I knew this moment was inevitable but I also dreamed that maybe somehow I could avoid it. I’d let them think that their Dad was “at the Army,” as they liked to say, and then eventually we’d move on in blissful ignoranc. I like to call these Denial Fantasies. My Denial Fantasies also include, “if I ignore my pain long enough it will go away”, and “James is going to walk through the back door any minute and explain how this has been the wildest misunderstanding EVER.”

I stood up from the table and picked up my sweet boy. He was heavy, he has always been heavy, but in that moment I wanted to hold him and protect him the way you only can when you have a sweet, fresh newborn who is still unaware of the reality of pain and loss and injustice. I carried him across the living room and into the master bedroom, where I plopped him next to me on the bed. My mom came with me for moral support and Josie came too, but she was completely uninterested in what we were talking about and eventually wandered back out to join everyone else. Oh, to be three.

“I know you have been noticing that there are a lot of people here, and we are sad, and we haven’t been home in a few days…” I took a deep breath, “and that’s because Daddy was sick. He was very sick in his mind, and he was so sick that he died.”

His little body started shaking, he yelled at me first, “no he’s not! Dad isn’t dead!” He buried his face in my chest and cried like I’d never seen before, or since. I felt his warm tears running down my chest as he told me that he wanted his Dad back, he wasn’t really dead, he’s going to come back, “I KNOW he’s coming back,” he told me. In a heartbreaking effort to make this situation less confusing for him, I had to tell him that Daddy really is dead. He is not coming back. It felt cruel at the time, like if I let him hold on to a sliver of hope that his Dad would come back from the grave, maybe this would be slightly more digestible for him. Like when a family dog dies and the parents get a new, identical one and cross their fingers that maybe the kids wont notice and will be able to avoid the pain of loss. Thats a little more tricky to do with a human. I told him the truth, in an age appropriate way, and it sucked. Dad is dead, really dead. He’s not coming back. We want him back, but that’s not how it works. I am very sad just like you are. We can talk about being sad, or mad, or how we miss Daddy. We can give hugs or ask for hugs whenever we need them. You can talk about Daddy whenever and wherever you want to, you don’t need to keep him a secret or pretend that you don’t think about him.

After a few minutes, I had said all that I could say to comfort him, he cried, I cried, and in my limited experience with consoling a grieving child, we called it good for the moment. This was only the first of many tear-filled conversations we’d have in the weeks and months to come. We held hands and walked back out the rest of the family. Charlie went around the table, one by one, asking each person “Are you sad my Dad is in heaven?” And one by one we all melted with his sweet sincerity. James was still dead, we were all still reeling, but my heart swelled watching him and as one by one, each person told him “yes, I’m sad about your Daddy too.”

Kids tell the truth, especially the little ones. We haven’t ruined their transparency yet by telling them to be quiet, polite, not to make people feel uncomfortable, to stay away from taboo topics. They don’t have a filter to weed out all of the things that might make people feel awkward, they just go for it, awkwardness be damned. They don’t waste time formulating an eloquent Facebook comment or searching for the perfect Bible verse for their grieving family member. They don’t dance around complicated issues or avoid hard conversations, they jump straight in with both feet. I see you’re crying, are you sad about my Dad too?

I hope for your sake that you never have to tell your preschoolers that their Dad died. It truly sucks, 0/10, do not recommend. But if you do, be honest with them. Don’t give them a look when they bring up their complicated and real feelings in public. Let them talk openly about how angry, confused, sad, lonely or OK they are.

Charlie tells me some days that he doesn’t really miss his Dad, “today I feel OK, I’m not really sad.” Awesome, thank you for telling me, I’m glad you’re having a good day. Other days I can tell by his mood that he’s hurting, he needs extra grace and room to breathe. Both are normal and OK. My three-year-old Josie talks about James every night when I’m tucking her in. Like clockwork, we lay down and she looks up at her wall where there are several pictures of James and Josie together and of our family. She tells me, “look! It’s Daddy and baby Josie!” or “that’s my Dad, his name is James, I love him, he is in heaven, and his beard is very scratchy.” We have so much to learn from the way kids grieve and process loss. I subconsciously omit parts of my grief and trauma, because its awkward, it can be uncomfortable, some people will move toward me in compassion and some won’t be able to cope with being so close to someone who has had this big of a loss. I’m slowly learning that its not my responsibility to protect you all from my pain so that maybe you will feel more at ease being around me. I’m learning that its much better to be like a kid, to tell the truth, to let the chips fall where they may. To have good days and not feel guilty about being happy, to have bad days and not be apprehensive about telling the people who love me. Today I am ok. I got all three kids up, fed, dressed, out the door and the big two to school by 9 am. I got a giant coffee, which I downed on my way to the Y, my safe haven. I dropped my littlest off in childcare and now I get to spend a couple hours by myself and enjoy the simple pleasure of being alone to work out or pay bills or look at my phone or take a nap. The hole in my heart doesn’t ache too terribly today, and that is a gift I will gladly accept.

Your Husband is Dead…ish

We sat in a tiny holding room in the back corner of the Emergency Department waiting for an update from the Doctor in charge. I was so familiar with the Emergency Department because that’s where I spent most of my time at work, ironically “sitting” with suicidal patients who posed a risk to themselves. It was my responsibility to not take my eyes off of them for a second, to remove anything from the room they might use to harm themselves, to literally follow them into the bathroom for their own safety. The irony was not lost me.

On the short drive in, following the ambulance, I kept saying “there was so much blood, there is no way he is still alive…there was SO much blood.”

I’d had to change out of my clothes before I left because I had blood on my pants, but I wasn’t allowed to go into our bedroom because it was considered a crime scene(thats a phrase I never thought I’d have to use.) I dug through a basket of clean laundry I had left in the kitchen and found a pair of jeans, and then went around the corner to change in the hallway, because again, my bedroom was a crime scene.

As if it weren’t enough that I couldn’t go into my own room, we also had to get my sleeping kids up and out of the house so the police could start their investigation and conclusively determine that James’ had killed himself with a single shot to the head, and that nothing more had happened.

I left for the hospital with my mom while my dad stayed behind with dozens of cops, firefighters and paramedics and began to carefully peel each kid out of their safe, warm bed and into the car so they could sleep at my parents house.

All the while, there was James, self-inflicted GSW to the head, in the back of an ambulance where I was quite confident he’d already been declared dead.

When we pulled up to the ED and got out of the car, a team of social workers, police, and hospital staff were there to meet me and shuttle my mom and I to a waiting area. “We don’t know your husband’s status yet but let us know if you need anything.” I asked for a cup of ice water and a bag to throw up in. I feel like those two things should come standard in any “distraught wife” situation.

We waited for what felt like an hour, social workers and chaplains and victims rights reps came in and out. They gave me pamphlets about grief and said “we don’t know if he actually died yet, but we’ll give you this to hold onto, hopefully you won’t need it.” They would sit down next to me, have no idea what to say, and so we’d sit in silence that was occasionally punctuated by a question.

Them- was this intentional?

Me- how do you accidentally put a gun to your head?

Them- do you have any kids?

Me- yes, 3.

Them- *painful pause* oh God…how old are they?

Me- 1, 3 and 4

Them- *longer painful pause, more stunned silence* ….. *stare at me with no words until one of us broke eye contact*

Finally, after over an hour, a doctor came in, introduced herself, and sat down. A tiny part of me was holding out hope that she’d walk in and say, “this has been a crazy misunderstanding, he’s actually fine and you can come on back and see him!”

Obviously, that’s not what happened. The first thing she told us was “this is not a survivable injury, and your husband does not have any brain activity.” I already knew, I’d seen it, I was the first one on the scene 5 seconds after it happened. But hearing that made my entire body go numb and my ears start to ring m…this couldn’t possibly be my real life.

“But,” she paused, “he is an organ donor, and we’re doing everything we can to keep his body alive so he can still donate.” She explained that they had given him the maximum amount of blood products, his heart had already stopped twice, and it was looking unlikely that he would even survive long enough to be a donor.

But by a true miracle, and with the help of about 100 IV drips, he stabilized and was moved from the ED to the ICU.

I cannot possibly convey to you what it was like to walk into a room where my otherwise healthy, strong, fit husband was laying lifelessly in hospital bed. His head was wrapped but still bleeding, his ventilator was breathing for him, dozens of meds were doing the job that his brain and body couldn’t do anymore. Keeping his heart beating, his blood pressure stable…but none of this was to save him.

They were keeping him alive, sure, but not so he could hug his kids again, or eventually be well enough to go back to work, or live to tell his story to help others. They were keeping him alive for the incredible purpose of donating his organs, and his life cut short, to those who needed it. It was his last physical earthly contribution, the last thing he could ever do with his body to help someone else.

He would never be able to wrestle with his 4-year-old again, but someone else will. He’ll never be able to kiss me and tell me he loves me again, but someone else will. He will never tuck his kids into bed again, sing them songs, read them books in silly voices, or play hide and seek with them, but because of his donation, someone else will.

This kept me going for the next three days as I sat with him in the ICU while organ recipients were notified and doctors flew in and began the huge job of orchestrating the symphony of surgeries that was scheduled to happen Friday morning.

All the while, James was dead. He was officially declared brain-dead about 12 hours after his self-inflicted injury. His time of death was announced at his bedside and sent out to start printing his death certificate. But he was still warm, still breathing, the machine next to him beeped with every heartbeat. For being dead, he seemed very NOT dead, which is a mind F all of its own.

The days between Tuesday night and Friday morning were torture. My kids were with my family at my parents’ house, asking repeatedly to go home so they could play with their friends, and obviously not understanding why we couldn’t. They missed me, they didn’t know at that point what had happened, they didn’t know their Dad was dead yet, they just wanted ME, and all I wanted was THEM, to hug and squeeze them and never let go. But on the other hand, my declared-dead/looks-very-alive husband was in the ICU, and it seemed like any good wife would be by her husbands’ side until the very last moment. It was my last chance to ever hold his hand, or spin his wedding ring around his finger, touch his tattoos that he loved so much, or kiss his cheek.

As much as I was thankful for the ample opportunity to say goodbye, it was another layer of pain having to be away from my kids in the lowest point of my entire life. That first night, I finally went “home” to my parents’ house to sleep for an hour around 4 am. I crawled onto the air mattress where my quietly snoring 3-year-old Josie was sleeping and pulled her into my chest, her fuzzy blonde curls in my face.

The reality of being a single mom, a widow, the fact that my toddlers now had front row seats to a bonafide tragedy, had just barely started to dawn on me in that moment, and it was unbearable. I didn’t sleep at all, I just held that little girl and cried until she woke up a couple hours later.

Those three days felt like a gift at points and a punishment at others. Now that at least THAT shitty part is over, I can look back and appreciate that I got to feel his warm skin, kiss him, talk to him, hold him and put my head on his chest to hear his healthy, strong, 27-year-old heart beating, all the way up until it was taken from its lifelong home and placed in someone else’s body, where it’s still beating now.

Making our way through life often requires us to hold opposites at the same time. My husband is gone, the father of my children is gone. He made that choice in a moment of utter despair. I loved him, and I’m mad at him sometimes for leaving me and 3 tiny kids to pick up the pieces. I weep for him because his mental illness was so painful that this was the only viable option, and I weep for myself for enduring so many years of pain, isolation and fear. Absolutely nothing in life is as black and white as we want to make it. Learning to live in the in between, in the nuance, is where we start to learn and explore and understand what it’s like to be human. To love, lose, get mad, forgive, redeem, and begin to put those shattered pieces back together and form our new, imperfect lives.

I Moved my Husband into the Laundry Room

Last night, I moved my husband into the laundry room. For nearly the last two months, all of his stuff has been boxed up in my bedroom, our bedroom. His clothes, shoes, books, socks, wallet, had all been haphazardly packed up in the days after his death. One drawer of our dresser was packed full of all the random things I keep finding all over the house that belonged to him. Notes scribbled on papers, a pocketknife, a hat, parts of his police uniform, all shoved into a drawer that I subconsciously labeled “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”

But last night I decided it was time. I moved his boxes to the laundry room. It took me about ten trips up and down the stairs until I finally had everything moved. Our bedroom is clean now, and quiet, and it looks like a more of a reflection of me than of us. We have pictures of James all over the place, we talk about him every day, but moving his earthly belongings, even just to a different room in my house, felt like a tiny ounce of closure. And the weird thing about grief is that in the same moment I felt both relief and sadness. Relief that slowly our world is moving forward, and sadness that its moving forward without him.

We spent so much time apart during our seven year relationship between living in two cities, Army training, and police training, that I often have to remind myself that he isn’t coming back this time. It always feels surreal for a moment when I remember that. I have put kids to bed, gone to doctors’ appointments, been the sole caregiver for months on end, but he always came back. Now I sit in that weird, sad, surreal moment of remembering again that he is gone gone this time…. until I’m interrupted by a kid yelling from the other room that I need to come RIGHT NOW because Peppa Pig turned off and I need to fix it ASAP.

James was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder about five years ago. After several verbally and physically violent episodes where neither of us felt safe, he finally called the VA. He saw a psychiatrist, and was officially diagnosed with PTSD and started receiving financial benefits for it. It felt a little insulting, a couple hundred dollars for my husband’s wounded soul, but we were also super poor at the time. Like if we had over $100 in our bank account at the end of the month felt like we were BALLIN’. So we took the disability benefits, he went to therapy for a little while, and all was well for a little while.

Years went on and these episodes would come on, particularly in the middle of stressful seasons. Yelling, breaking things, hurting himself, threatening suicide… and then for a few months it would be mostly peaceful. I would slowly relax, and we would both settle into some form of normalcy until another stressful event triggered the next bout. I think it would have been hard enough being newlyweds alone, but we were 21 (BABIES), and like I said, we had no money, and suddenly I was pregnant with baby #1. We were both struggling to figure out how to be married and manage money and handle the stress of home ownership and having a baby when we ourselves were babies.

My focus shifted after we had Charlie, as I think happens with most new moms. When that new little person comes into the world, our Mom instincts go UP TO 11. Slowly the realization came that this baby would be here to witness everything, hear everything, someday he would start to realize what was happening in his home, for better or worse. This, tiny, innocent person completely relied on me to keep him safe.

At times I packed up our kids and left for a few hours because our home was not a safe place and the only thing I could do was remove our kids from the situation. I would pull back in the driveway a few hours later, kids in the back seat, tired, ready for bed, and walk into an emotional war zone. “I had a gun to my head, I was ready to do it. I wrote you a note,” he told me more than once. I found one of those notes once and realized in that moment that I could have easily come home to a body instead of my husband.

In all of this, I want to make ABUNDANTLY clear that James’ mental illness was not his fault. He experienced more than any person should with the loss of his mom at 17, joining the army at 18, and being deployed to Afghanistan at 19. It’s more heartbreak, tragedy, stress and fear than one person, basically a child, is able to process in a healthy way. It was not his fault.

James’ mental illness was not his fault. His mental illness was not my fault. It was not my kids’ fault. But despite that, all of us paid and are still paying the price. I was intimately involved and intertwined with his pain and exhaustively tried to help him heal, but there is only so much you can do from the outside looking in. I did my best to make his world, our home, safe and peaceful and non-triggering. But in the end, I know that I couldn’t do his healing for him, he was the only one who could have done that.

But now he’s gone. He is at peace. Nearly eight weeks ago, he ended his life. And I am left with millions of thoughts and experiences and words and emotions that I believe I have a responsibility to share with you.

I know without a doubt that I am NOT alone in this place. Service members cannot be expected to come back from combat and be ‘good to go’ and reintegrate back into normal life, and spouses/partners cannot be expected to take on the role of a trained, experienced therapist to help our loved ones learn how to do life again after traumatic events. I am going to be honest and transparent and real about my marriage and the death of my husband. I have an opportunity to open the door for Military members, Police, First Responders, AND their partners and families to be honest and transparent with their experiences too. That’s where the healing will happen.

Shame and fear keep us hidden away, scared of what others might say or believe about us, but there is freedom in telling the truth. I’ll leave you with this:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” -Maya Angelou