The Color-What Helped

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog complaining away about things people did or said that although well-intentioned, were not helpful. A friend recently sent me an article on grief and I am so glad I read it. I was surprised to notice that the author was able to come up with some positive outcomes from her very tragic loss. Given my newest attitude about seeing the world through color, I’ve been thinking a lot about possible silver linings. Although that is still too hard right now, I have been able to think about things people did or said that were and continue to be so helpful.

My parents, brother, his wife, and family from across the country.  There is no way to explain how they’ve all sacrificed to help me when I needed it most.  Help came in the form of taking care of my very basic needs, like picking my kids up from school so I wouldn’t have to see anybody to bathing my kids because the very thought of it overwhelmed me (and still does sometimes).  My parents cancelled a dream trip to Ireland so they wouldn’t leave me (the company never gave them their money back despite the fact that they had travel insurance but that’s a rant for another day). My brother left his restaurant in the care of his wife and staff who took over for him (the goodness of people extends so many degrees of separation) so that he could take care of me.  My aunts, uncle, and four cousins traveled from NJ to take care of me.  They were careful to spread out their visits because they all knew that I would have a ton of support initially–so they visited in spurts over the next few months.  One aunt was there at the very beginning of the AFTER to navigate me through my days.  Days when I couldn’t think, hold a conversation, remember small things, or even return to my home.  She was there for me step by step.  Reminding me of what I needed to get done, who I had to call, where I could stop and use a restroom (because I kind of lived out my car initially during the days while my boys were at school–not ready to go to my home yet).  My cousins separated their visits in the couple of months that followed–taking my kids to birthday parties (because I still couldn’t bring myself to do things like that), organizing my home (especially certain rooms), cooking for my kids, making sure my kids got homework done, etc.  They both literally said “I am here for you.  Tell me what to do”.  When I still couldn’t think at that point, they just took over.  I needed that.  I’m not saying this would work for everyone–but I really needed my loved ones to come in and just take over.  My uncle, aunt and other cousins came together around Christmas time.  I couldn’t even think about Christmas.  They put up my tree and decorated it while I sat in another room and sobbed.  I don’t even know if they know what a big deal that was.  It was everything at the time.

Jake’s friends.  They took over all the things that needed to get done in the immediate AFTER.  They wrote his obituary, planned the service, and set up/cleaned up after the service (because I was just a hysterical mess–there was no way I could have folded a chair).  They even paid for all of it–which was a huge deal.  In the AFTER, money and finances became a really big concern, so any help in that area was needed.  More about that in a minute.  Despite their own grief, Jake’s friends checked in on me, sent me packages, helped me figure out things that needed to get done that I never would have thought about, made sure I had Jake’s outgoing voicemail message saved to my computer so the kids and I could still hear his voice, patiently took many, many phone calls from my kids, and one of his friends even gave me a car!

My friends.  This subject could be a book all on its own.  I’m not even sure where to start or how to organize my thoughts about my friends.  While I remained at the hospital with Jake during those four days and nights when time stood still, there were several exceptional people who made sure I was never alone.  Friends who didn’t ever ask me if they should come (because I would have said no).  They just came and stayed.  They didn’t care that I wasn’t very good company.  They just stayed with me.  One friend spoke with nurses and doctors and asked all the right questions and wrote down detailed information for me because I was unable to think about anything.  Other friends brought me toiletries and changes of clothes (desperately needed and probably not so subtle hints) and spoke with whomever necessary to find me a place to shower.  Another friend went out to my parent’s house to help my mother manage my four crazy children who had no idea where either of their parents were.  Her husband took the school supply lists and went out and got all the things my boys needed to start school in a few days.  She even ran a half marathon in Jake’s honor that weekend.  Another friend did all the work with the organ transplant people in getting Jake’s handprints made so we would have those forever.  That was not an easy task–and very messy.  I really didn’t want to have anything to do with it–but my friend knew that I would appreciate and need those handprints  later.  So, she did all the dirty work.  My friends talked with hospital staff and helped me climb into bed with Jake to sleep with him one last time–something I would have never even thought to ask.  Friends who previously didn’t know each other, exchanged contact information with each other and with my parents, in order to coordinate the “care and handling of Kristen”.  They made sure I was never alone in that hospital that became my whole entire world.

Once I was back at my parents’ house and my children had been told, friends came from all over the place.  They brought kid friendly food, they brought their own kids in order to play with and distract mine, they brought me my favorite coffee, but most of all, they came and sat with me.  I couldn’t hold a conversation.  But they came anyway.  Unbeknownst to me, they worked to pull together an online sign-up sheet to bring my family meals for the next couple of months. People contacted this group of friends to find out what I needed (because I had no idea what I needed and people sensed that). A friend had her husband make Costco trips for me for months and then deliver to my house. One friend had someone from her church come to my house several times and clean my house for free!  Once I returned home, I would sit outside and people would just show up, kids in tow.  They sat with me and fed my kids and forced me to go out to lunch.  I wasn’t ready to stay in the house by myself for a very long time.  My parents often stayed with me, but it took a toll on them.  Some friends came for sleepovers so that my parents could have a break and I wouldn’t be alone.

Close friends from high school flew from around the country to visit.  I hadn’t seen these friends in ages.  I don’t think I’d seen one of my friends since my wedding in 2003!  But they left their kids, husbands, jobs..their lives to come and be with me.  They hung out with me and slept in bed with me  and ran with me.  They took my car and went food shopping and cooked for my kids and played with my kids.  They fixed their own meals.  These types of help may seem so small to someone reading this.  But they were not small.  They were so significantly huge–I can’t even find the right words.  Although I’ve been friends with these people for many years, my friendships with them have deepened and changed because of the things they did to help me.

New friendships developed as well.  People who continue to want to spend time with me (despite the fact that I am completely self-absorbed still).  Friends who keep me running–literally.  These girls have run with me through the fall, winter and now into the spring.  They have run with me in 20 degree weather.  They have run with me during downpours.  During these runs, these ladies have become my “color” (which makes sense if you read my previous post about shades of gray).  I look forward to being with them.  They are willing to try new things with me.  We laugh….a lot.  But they’ve cried with me as well.  They also never hesitate to give me a big sweaty, smelly hug at the end of a run.  They helped me develop a “life”, when I was convinced mine was pretty much over. They are the ones who stayed.

Friends from near and far called me, texted me, and emailed me.  For the most part, I never responded.  It wasn’t about them–I really appreciated the fact that they were reaching out to me.  I just couldn’t talk or write.  My brain did not work well enough for me to do these basic things.  Thankfully, those friends have persisted in their calls and texts–and only recently have I started responding.  I even have a friend who sent me letters–long letters–in the actual mail!  I don’t think I’ve received letters like that since college.  That takes a lot of time and effort in this day and age.

Then, there is social media.  Say what you will–but for me, its been an incredible way to stay in touch with people I’ve frequently wondered about, but thought I would never see/talk to/know about again.  People from my childhood, high school, and college, who continue to send me messages letting me know that they still think about me and pray for my family–they check in on me.  These check-ins mean so much.  The people who plainly state “I don’t have the right words to say-but I am thinking about you”.  That’s all it takes for me.  When I posted about a beer I had fallen in love with, friends from near and far (including friends’ husbands) researched high and low to try to locate this beer for me.  When I mentioned my love of cupcakes, an old friend from high school actually had a dozen delicious cupcakes delivered to my door.  Friends have reached out and because of that, I’ve made deeper connections with people and sometimes brand new connections.  It makes me feel like the whole world is my friend.

My job.  My boss is absolutely incredible.  I am fortunate enough that she is also my friend.  She taught me about the “Kristen Suit” and has had many wise words of wisdom that really have struck a chord with me.  She gave me space and never pressured me to return to work.  She made gentle suggestions that encouraged me to start back to work slowly when I was ready.  She assured me that going back to work would be the easiest thing I had done in months.  She was right.  She continues to work with me, to help me get everything I need out of my job.  I swear there are some months where I only work 50% of the hours I am supposed to work because of sick kids at my house, or other things that come up.  A lot of times, I still have problems with focus and attention and tend to forget basic things (like my timesheet).  She has been remarkably patient and understanding with me.  She bends over backwards for me–and I know I am so lucky to be working for her.

The community.  Particularly from the boys’ elementary school–the community supported us in ways I never would have imagined.  People I didn’t even know showed up at my house with meals and offers to help.  The school rallied around my boys.  Every single teacher they’ve had at that school, past and present, attended the memorial service.  I will never forget how I felt when I saw all of them walk in. It was a feeling I can’t describe.  The teachers, the nurse, the principal, the office staff..they all take care of my boys.  That school is like a second home to them.  The PTA sent in a cleaning crew.  They gave us gift baskets at Christmas.  We had “secret Santas”-and to this day I’m not really sure who they were, that left gifts on our doorstep. To this day, all I have to do is ask for help when I can’t be in four different places at one time and people eagerly assist me.   From the younger ones’ preschool, there was also some support.  Several parents got involved with bringing us meals, one of the dads took on a legal matter for me pro bono, and a staff member who is a tax accountant, did my taxes this year for free.  As much as I have the desire to run away a lot of the time, this community keeps me here.

Money.  This became very complicated and I hesitate to even write about it because it’s such a sensitive topic.  Jake and I have always had separate bank accounts.  Jake was very much the breadwinner of the family as I only worked part-time.  Jake paid all of the bills.  To be honest, I didn’t know a thing about our finances.  When he passed away, I was not allowed access to any of his accounts because his name was the only one on them.  Money was a significant cause of concern.  Almost immediately, one of his friends gave me a check to cover a few months worth of expenses.  More of his friends, sent me checks saying they “owed” Jake that money.  One of my friends also gave me money (instead of donating to one of the charities in Jake’s name).  I likely wouldn’t still be in my home if it weren’t for their generosity.  We were awarded scholarships for different activities that the boys wanted to get involved in that I couldn’t have afforded at the time.

I noticed a lot of my posts up until today have had an underlying (or outright) negativity.  For today at least, I believe I’ve turned a corner in also thinking about the positive–the color.  People always want to help–and reviewing the length of this post, it looks like they have. In so many ways-it’s all big.  It’s all significant.  It has all made a difference in how my family has dealt with this tragedy.  So…thank you.  Sincerely.

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