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Losing a Spouse: Moving Forward as an Only Parent

After the death of your partner, how do you grieve for yourself, comfort your kids, make ends meet – and imagine a day when you won't feel so alone? Widowed southeast Michigan parents open up.

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The next morning, Johnson and friends hid Matt's car, so the girls could go to school and daycare as usual while mom collected her thoughts and mobilized those who could help her and her daughters process the most significant loss of their lives.

By 1 p.m., the school pastor had notified Leanne's teachers at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, and the school's counselor had collected information for Johnson on how to talk to her girls. This was crucial for Johnson – who had no idea how to answer the questions she suspected her daughters would ask or what to expect their reactions to be like.

"This was so helpful," Johnson recalls. "Leanne, who was 5 at the time, reacted exactly how the counselor said she would. She asked a few questions and then went off to play. If I hadn't known that was a typical reaction, I would have been really worried."

It is this support that Johnson has experienced since that first day after Matt's death that has kept the family stateside.

"Many people expected me to move with the girls back to Jordan, where I am from and where my family still is," Johnson explains. "And to be honest, if this had happened a year earlier, before Leanne was in school, and I hadn't had the support of our school and church community, I probably would have."

Through her church, Johnson also learned of the Good Mourning Ministry. During the program, she met Thorp, whose kids attend the same school. Later, Thorp emailed all the young widows she'd met.

"We got on so well and shared the awful experience of being young widows," Thorp says. "I proposed that we get together with our kids, have some food and drink some wine."

Informally dubbed the "Widows Wine Club," the group meets periodically.

Johnson feels fortunate to have found these women in similar circumstances. Yet she was acutely aware that she didn't have the answers to all of her daughters' questions about their dad's death – or how to help them through the grief process while helping herself to do the same. As a result, Johnson simultaneously started taking her daughters to Ele's Place in Ann Arbor. This bereavement program for children and their families has been a blessing.

"I didn't know what to do with the girls," she recalls. "I didn't want to mess them up! We went for a solid year every week."

While the girls attend age-specific sessions at Ele's Place, Johnson attends the spouse loss support group happening at the same time.

"There is a bond there," she says of her experience with the other bereaved spouses. "We laugh. We cry. We swear. They've helped me a lot. We're all in different stages of grief. By the end of the first session, some new people had started.

"I could tell that I had made progress, because I could see in them where I was nine months earlier."

Like Johnson, Gunnar Ross was amazed by the outpouring of support he and his family have received since Kristen first was diagnosed with cancer, through today – three and a half years after her death. Kristen was a member of Moms of Preschoolers (MOPS), a network of moms with kids the same age.

"When Kristen became sick, I went from knowing no moms to knowing many," he says. "Many of these moms came by with their little girls to play with Charlotte and Vivienne. Most brought food."

Meals were one of many simple gestures that, when added up, have helped take some of the day-to-day tasks of running a household alone off Ross' plate.

"My brother-in-law, Michael, mowed my lawn every week for a year and a half so I could spend that time with the girls," he recalls.

And each Tuesday night, Ross' mother-in-law takes Vivienne overnight. Wednesday nights, she does the same with Charlotte.

"The girls get a special sleepover with Grandma," Ross explains, "and I get a date night with each girl in the middle of the week."

Ross' own parents moved in with him and the girls for more than a year, from the time Kristen was first diagnosed until seven months after she died.

"With my parents living with us, I was able to work on fixing me first and getting to a point of being functional, so I could help my girls," Ross says. "Sometimes I would go and be alone. My faith was a major comfort."

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