When Someone You Love Dies

My brother and I sandwiching two dear friends

Last year the unimaginable happened. I lost my youngest brother to a massive heart attack at the age of 49. Up until then I had felt secure in the natural order of things: the older ones go first and the younger ones get old. Our dad had died four years earlier, and while we wished we had had him longer, he’d lived a good long life of 84 years. We’ve attended several funerals for that age group over these last few years, and although they were sad occasions, we still felt sanguine about it; we even expected it.

The day my brother John died was a Sunday in late January. He had just texted his girlfriend that he loved her for the first time on his early morning ride home to his house from hers. He had planned to join us at our place for dinner that night to introduce his new love to his 15 year-old-daughter. This was a big day and he was excited. I’m sure he thought the heartburn was just a nit. After he mentioned it to his daughter on the way to her soccer game that morning he’d probably written it off as something he’d eaten. It wasn’t. He was having a small heart attack that led up to the one that took his life hours later. He never made it back to that soccer field. Hindsight is torture.

It’s the worst kind of shock and loss when someone you love, at the top of his game and happy, drops dead. My husband and I were bereft. After calling my immediate family and John’s girlfriend with the awful news, the urge to band together was strong, and we asked all the local family to come to our house that night. We knew that things needed to be done, decided, and organized. Three of my kids were at a good friend’s house, and so I called her to tell her that I needed to leave them a while longer and why. She likely started telling our other friends because by the time we arrived home, there was food being dropped off – lots and lots of food. It kept up like that for days. I personally couldn’t eat much, finding wine to be my temporary panacea, but the food was heated and consumed by others, and I was so grateful for that.

I felt a little insane during that initial period. I couldn’t write the date, for instance, because that would mean we had left behind the time when I could save John. In a plea to God I offered up a limb in exchange for my brother’s return to the living. My husband was concerned about me, but I was desperate to reverse this horrible event. Sleep was a welcome respite, but it was just a temporary escape from reality because the morning brought with it the waking nightmare one feels when death has visited. One day, in particular, I awoke late and came running downstairs to tell my husband I had forgotten to get our preschooler to school, when he met me to say that my good friend had come to get our son earlier. A deep sense of relief set in…my friends had my back. I knew then I could let myself grieve, and they would help me get through it.

This April a friend’s husband succumbed to his battle with pancreatic cancer at 43 years old. He fought it hard, but this disease is a formidable foe. Only a very few survive it. They have four young children, as do I, and that’s a lot of people to take care of when you can barely put one foot in front of the other. A plan was put into place using the Doodle website: each night someone would bring dinner, help bed the children, and be with our friend through the evening. So far, two months of weekday visits have been filled in, and our friend has expressed how much this helps her.

A new day

a new day

It’s clear to me now that those of us over 40 are going to go to more and more funerals. What is also clear is the ever-increasing need for community and support through these losses. If you haven’t experienced someone’s death yet yourself, I’m sorry to say that it’s coming, and that you will need help through it. If you know someone in the throes of grief, then by all means reach out, bring food, send a card, make a phone call, arrange a lunch date. Don’t be shy; the grieving person can always refuse your overture, but you must still make one. The gaping hole of loss can never be filled, but the more love one feels the more hope they have. So reach out, tell them how sorry you are, hug them, and one day they’ll do the same for you. It’s the natural order of things.


Pancreatic Cancer: Know it. Fight it. End it.

Today I walked with Team WKRP (in memory of Bill Priestley, a community friend) at the PurpleStride Rhode Island event for pancreatic cancer, and I made the decision to have my 6-year old daughter and 4-year old son walk with me.  At first they were a bit resistant to waking up early and having to exert energy, but after they saw the event in action they were excited to be a part of it and enjoyed it!  I was initially planning on running it by myself, but when I heard others were bringing their kids, I realized this could be a great learning experience for them.

The weather held out, and the race started after the introductions and speeches were made (Allison Alexander  former ABC News Anchor was the emcee for the event – she walked in the race with her family as well)!

My daughter was able to walk most of the way (a couple quick wagon breaks along the way), but my son was pulled by myself and some others the entire race.  He was in a wagon decked out with signs for our friend, Bill Priestley.

We saw the Priestley family there walking for their husband/father, who just passed away April 8, 2011.  He battled pancreatic cancer for 18 months, and he leaves behind a beautiful wife and four wonderful kids (all ages 6 and under).  His wife, Kinda, has a wonderful supportive network of friends in East Greenwich, RI and many were at the race (Team WKRP and Team Priestley from Edwards and Angell, the law firm Bill worked for before he got ill).  It was nice to see these groups, as well as many other large groups out for people in the community (another being the group from Happy Hearts Preschool, walking for the owner’s husband who is currently battling pancreatic cancer).

Pancreatic cancer is a hard illness to overcome (survival rate is currently about 4.6%), and it is nice to see people out raising money for research to help find a cure and to learn more about the disease to help increase the survival rate.  After the 5K was finished and we were on our way home, my daughter said, “It was nice all those people gave money and helped out people that are sick.”  I am very proud of her for saying that, and I realized that the decision to bring my kids along was a good decision after all.  They did learn from it, and it was a great experience for them to see the community coming together to support a cause and to support loved ones, both battling pancreatic cancer and those that have passed away from the disease.  Please visit the PurpleStride Rhode Island site to donate money, or consider donating to the Priestley Children’s Education Fund, which can be sent to The Law Office of Joseph A. Priestley, Jr., 85 Beach Street, Westerly, RI 02891.

* Have you included your children in community events for raising money and awareness?  What lessons did your children learn?

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Kristin Wheeler