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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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Local parents who have lost a spouse: Gunnar Ross of Livonia with daughters Charlotte and Vivienne (left); Kelly Thorp of Plymouth with girls Ryan and Regan (top right); Shireen Johnson of Plymouth with Leanna and Emma (bottom).
Photos by Kristen Hines

Editor's Note: This story appeared in the July 2012 print edition of Metro Parent. It is the third in a three-part serious entitled "Loss."

Like many little girls, 8-year-old Charlotte and 5-year-old Vivienne Ross like to wear their hair in braids – a hairdo their father, Gunnar Ross of Livonia, learned to style via YouTube videos. It was one of many parenting tasks his wife Kristen had always taken care of before she died at the age of 36 in October 2008.

"I'm still not much good at it," Ross says of his braiding skills.

When Ross assumed the role of only parent after Kristen's months-long battle with multiple myeloma took her life way too soon, so many things Kristen customarily took care of fell into his lap.

"She did all the mom stuff," recalls Ross, an engineer with Ford. "She did the laundry. She prepared the meals. She took care of the girls from a medical standpoint."

For Ross, Kristen's absence has meant adjusting everything from morning hairdos to afterschool activities to deciding what's best for his daughters – all on his own.

"It was always so nice to have Kristen there to make sure I wasn't charging off in the wrong direction as a parent," Ross says. "Sometimes, you do things when you're exasperated. Now, I try to think about what Kristen would do in a situation. I try to re-imagine how she'd temper my exasperation."

Helping a child grieve while grieving the loss of your co-parent, spouse and best friend is reality for millions of Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 15 million women ages 35 to 49 are widows; some 5 million men in the same bracket are widowers. Many also are parents of young kids.

Young widowhood is a reality with which Kelly Thorp of Plymouth came face-to-face in February 2011 when her husband, Ed, succumbed at age 40 to the acute leukemia he battled off and on for more than nine years.

"Before Ed died, he shared that he didn't want to leave us," recalls Thorp, who's an IT program manager at Ally Financial. "But he said that if he did, he knew we'd be OK."

Thanks to the support of a large extended family, "phenomenal" nanny and fellow members in the "Widows Wine Club" she formed, Thorp and her two daughters – Regan, 12 and Ryan, 4 – are adjusting to life without dad and making it a point to openly and regularly talk about the special guy they love and miss so dearly.

Facing the 'collateral damage'

Judith Burdick, a psychotherapist in Bingham Farms, lost her husband Mark suddenly in 1991 when he was just 35, and she 31. His death left Burdick to raise their two young kids, Laura and Andrew, alone.

"I went to a couple of support groups, but they weren't right for me," Burdick recalls. "They were attended mostly by people much older than me. The issues were so different."

Instead, through individual counseling for herself and her children, Burdick was able to work through her grief. But the lack of resources for young widows and widowers compelled her to pursue a career in psychotherapy. She now counsels patients experiencing grief or loss – and has a large patient population of young widows and widowers, an area she considers one of her specialties.

Cathy Clough, executive director of the New Hope Center for Grief Support in Northville, also was widowed young. In 1983, her husband died, leaving her to parent 5- and 9-year-old boys and a teen stepson.

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