Midlife Loss of Spouse or Child–From Grief to Inspiration

The toughest day of my life was New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2006. Just three days prior, my wife Gloria had received a highly encouraging report from her oncologist following three months of chemotherapy. All the signs were great–her cancer appeared to be in remission!

Because our two grown children lived far away–our son in Austin, Texas, our daughter in San Diego, California, Gloria and I decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve and her victory over cancer at home–just the two of us watching the ball drop at Times Square on TV. Shortly before 7 PM our home rang and my wife answered. Suddenly, she dropped the phone and turned to me sobbing in utter disbelief! Our daughter’s close friend was calling to inform us that our only daughter Kristen, a former Navy pilot, had been killed instantly at age thirty when her single engine plane stalled out and nose dived suddenly into the ground after retrieving an advertising banner to fly over the San Diego Chargers football game.

The horror of the moment can only be understood by parents of a child killed in an accident or some other tragic event. It’s not supposed to happen this way! God doesn’t intend for any of us to outlive our own child. In a few terrifying seconds our daughter’s love of life, ambitious plans and shining future as a professional pilot had been snuffed out! Emptiness engulfed my wife  and me as we contemplated a future without the daughter we so loved and admired.

Paralyzed by grief, little did Gloria and I realize on New Year’s Day, 2007 that in death Kristen’s brief thirty years on Earth would become an inspiration for the remainder of our lives.  Looking back, I see clearly that my own daughter’s life also provides an ideal blueprint for a joyful, purpose-driven and benevolent approach to daily living.

My wife and I always knew that Kristen was self-assured, strong-willed and inner directed. On her first day of life in October, 1976 she survived a delicate operation by an extremely talented surgeon with very small and capable hands. You see Kristen was born with her esophagus attached to her windpipe instead of her stomach–without the operation she wouldn’t have survived. Baby Kristen survived the operation with flying colors and never looked back. Doctors marveled at how rapidly she  recovered and went home.

At age four after soloing on a kiddie plane at an amusement park Kristen declared, “I’m going to be a pilot when I grow up!” She never gave up on her dreams. After working her way through a prestigious four-year college, she went straight into Naval OCS and on to flight school. An accomplished  Naval aviator, Kristen flew missions in the Middle East, South America and the North Atlantic. Transitioning to commercial aviation, she flew advertising banners over southern California beaches and football games mostly for the fun of it and to log flight time prior to applying to a major airline.

It wasn’t until after Kristen’s death that Gloria and I discovered the full extent of Kristen’s service to others and her favorable influence on those around her. Here are only a few examples:

  • At Kristen’s memorial service in Iowa, a number of friends flew up from Jacksonville, Florida (one of her last Navy posts) in the dead of winter; all commented on Kristen’s warm personality and unique can-do attitude.
  • A volunteer from the Naval Relief Society described how Kristen drove solo 358 miles overnight from Jacksonville to Pensacola, caught two hours sleep in the back seat of her car in a Wal-Mart parking lot, purchased several hundred dollars of relief supplies with her own money and spent the next several days helping out with disaster relief following a Gulf hurricane.
  • At a second memorial service in San Diego, two female Navy officers relayed how Kristen had inspired their careers.
  • A Personnel Director described Kristen’s intervention on several occasions to help resolve workplace disputes.
  • A close friend sent us a letter: “Kristen was always genuine, never talked behind your back. When others were gossiping, Kristen would always intervene and put in a good word for the person being maligned. The most independent, self-assured person I ever met–but never haughty and never at the expense of another.”
  • Kristen never tolerated bullying or put-downs. She always looked for a positive feature in another person to comment on: “You have great eyes!” Once, patrons of a dance club were mocking a man dancing to his own beat. Kristen called  the man over and began dancing with him, silencing the critics and making this man’s day.
  • Kristen used her wit and strength of character to survive and prosper in the male-dominated world of Naval aviation. One she offered to assist a gentleman attempting to move a heavy freezer. The man remarked, “This is a man’s job!” Kristen responded with a big smile on her face, “Well I can do just about anything better than a man, so you’d better let me help!” Together, Kristen and the man got the job done.
  • Kristen refused to hide or dwell upon her own imperfections. She confidently noted qualities she liked about herself and sought out companionship with others who appreciated those qualities.

Following our daughter’s tragic, untimely death, Gloria and I had two choices–the same midlife choices you may face should you lose a loved one in his or her prime:

  1. Spend months, even years stuck in neutral or moving forward in low gearforever lost in a bitter, hopeless remembrance of how much better things used to be. (Why did this happen to me?)
  2. Rededicate your life to honor the memory of your loved one then begin moving forward to build a productive, joy-filled future. 

Is there any doubt in your mind which is the better choice? Will you, your departed loved one or anyone else benefit from your lingering in a permanent state of sadness and inactivity? Is this what your loved one would want were he or she still alive? OF COURSE NOT!

I am not a trained grief counselor, but from my own experience and that of close friends who have suffered loss, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Grieve and mourn for as long or as short a period as you need but by all means don’t experience guilt. Some folks require a long time to recover from a tragic, unexpected loss. Others handle grief best by getting right back to work. If that describes you, you don’t have to explain, just do it!
  2. As early as possible, take that first small step to recovery. Call a good friend. Attend church or venture out to a non-stressful social function. Go to a ball game or a movie.
  3. Seek whatever outside assistance you need to advance beyond grief to recovery. If you are a person of faith, ask God for strength of acceptance. Establish on-going relationships with other people of faith, especially those who have recovered from similar loss. Join a support group (e.g., Compassionate Friends, a national organization with local chapters comprised of parents who have lost children.)
  4. Remind yourself daily that your only realistic positive course of action is to plan out, then visualize, the remainder of your life in service to self and others. No matter how devastating your loss, you can’t afford to forfeit control over your very own personal destiny.
  5. Seek out a cause or take up that hobby that you always have wanted to try. A perfect solution might be volunteering for a cause that honors the memory of your departed (e.g., American Cancer Society if your loved one died of cancer.) Volunteer activity or a hobby can’t compensate fully for your loss, but you may make new lifelong friends and uncover joy and satisfaction in an unanticipated direction.

As contradictory as it first may sound, the recovery phase from any life-altering traumatic loss may prove in hindsight to be an ideal point in time for personal midlife renewal! Unlike most procrastinators, those of us suffering tragic loss don’t have the option of retreating to the past, putting off needed change or clinging to a less-than-fully-satisfying present. Our only logical choice is to move forward to something better.

If you are a person of faith, there’s nothing wrong with asking God for a sign that your departed loved one is OK. You may be pleasantly surprised by the answer! My wife and I have received several positive signs from Kristen:

  • Shortly after learning of our daughter’s fate, a vendor at craft fair rushed over to tell my wife that in her mind she distinctly heard Kristen  laugh and proclaim, “”I’m fine!” That’s precisely the way Kristen would have reacted when she was alive.
  • After driving a few blocks to mail a letter, I discovered on the car’s front seat next to me a pair of sun glasses I’d been missing for weeks. I swear to God they weren’t there when I got in the car.
  • One night, a beautiful series of lights suddenly flashed on and off in our daughter’s bed room for no apparent reason for only a minute or two, then just as suddenly faded away. We discovered absolutely no explainable source for this splendid light show.

We have had four or five other signs beyond rational logic. I don’t pretend to know where or in what form our daughter’s spirit resides today, but I am 100% convinced that Gloria and I will see her again. Somewhere in the universe, Kristen is “fine” with the same vibrant personality, caring attitude and spirit of adventure that she had on Earth. For the rest of my life, she will remain an inspiration.

 

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