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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.

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.

 

"Nothing was out there at the time that was specific to young widows and widowers," she recalls. This is why Clough feels a special connection to the New Hope Center's group for young widows and widowers called Circles of Hope.

"There's no age range on what constitutes a young widow or widower," Clough points out. "We define it by those still raising children at home. Age doesn't matter.

"It's not as common for people to lose their spouse in their 20s, 30s or 40s," she continues. "With older widows and widowers, many of their friends have been through the experience. That's not the case with young people. Friendships change when you're not part of a couple."

Kelly Thorp learned of the bereavement program Good Mourning Ministry via her church – and quickly felt a connection with the other young widows and one widower in the room.

"I don't have a lot in common with a 75-year-old widow who lost her husband who had been the love of her life for 50 years," she says. "I had my husband for only 18 years."

These programs can be crucial lifelines to young widowed parents, especially those living away from family.

"In our transient society, many young widows and widowers live far away from family and friends," Clough explains. "Grieving and trying to learn to be a single parent, helping your kids grieve and paying bills can be a huge struggle."

Burdick refers to these many life changes that can accompany the loss of a spouse and co-parent as "collateral damage."

"I have seen patients who've had to go back to work, take on extra jobs and some who have even lost their home," she says. Finances can be a huge burden: "Many young couples didn't have life insurance because they didn't think they needed it yet."

The stress, coupled with grief, can have significant physical impact.

"Stress is known to compromise the immune system," Burdick says. "In my own experience, I developed a sinus infection every six weeks for three years after my husband died. It was absolutely a manifestation of the grief process. It lands in the body and will express wherever you have a weakness."

And to grieving parents, minor problems can seem major when overwhelmed with their own grief, their kids' grief and myriad life changes happening around them.
During Circles of Hope gatherings, Clough likes to share what she calls her "toilet story."

"My husband could fix anything," she recalls. "Shortly after he died, I had a problem with my toilet. I had a Reader's Digest book about fixing anything. It had diagrams and instructions for what was needed. I went to my Aco Hardware to pick up a part. The guy behind the counter said, 'Now when you get home, have your husband do this … '

"I exploded. I was irrational. I took my feelings out on this poor guy."

Gunnar Ross has seen so many of the seemingly simple, routine aspects of his life change since Kristen's death – when he was faced with the new reality of managing a household and the busy schedules of young children solo.

"I plan meals on Sunday for the rest of the week," he says. "Our schedule must be so tight. If we miss a step, we won't be able to recover until the weekend."

Even small changes can mean big headaches.

"If a doctor's appointment comes up, or something at school, it can be challenging to react," Ross says. "Any hiccup that comes up has amazing repercussions."

Ross does what he can to be home by 5 p.m. "You must forgo so much," he says. "I can't leave one girl to go pick up another. We must all go places together. That limits what we can do."

Accepting help – from wherever it comes

Having been widowed young with kids, and working with scores of others who have, both Burdick and Clough counsel grieving parents that they must seek help.

"You mustn't be afraid to ask," Burdick stresses. "Get as much support as you can from the people around you. Avail yourself of the resources available for your children and for yourself.

"Seek support in any way that you can. Get into therapy."

Community support has been crucial to Shireen Johnson, also of Plymouth, who left home on a Monday evening in May 2011 to take in a movie with a visiting friend and came back to find her husband, Matt, unresponsive. He had died suddenly of an aortic rupture dissection at age 37 while the couple's young daughters, Leanne and Emma, slept upstairs.

 

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."

 

New day-to-day routine

Kelly Thorp returned to work three weeks after Ed's death. Like Ross, routine is very important to her.

"Being Type A, I am a project manager by career; I'm focused on tasks to get to the end goal," she says. "I run my life like that. That's why I am able to juggle everything."

Her always-on, always-moving lifestyle doesn't afford much time to curl up and feel sorry for herself. "To me, that's not an option," she says. "I have two children. I have responsibilities. I am good at putting myself aside."

When the Good Mourning Ministry opportunity arose, Thorp decided it might be a good chance for her to finally focus on herself. And over this past Easter, Thorp's daughters visited their grandparents out of state, leaving her alone for the first time in a long time.

"I got a massage, got my nails done," Thorp says, recalling how good it felt to have that time. "You miss having someone to say, 'Tag, you're it' to."

Shireen Johnson never returned to her full-time job as an accountant for Western Union following Matt's death. "I'm taking a few years off," she explains. "We made smart financial decisions, and I'm fortunate to not have to work right now."

Even so, Johnson finds it mentally and physically exhausting to try to get everything done. She's excited to have recently begun using a sitter, whom the girls love, to get out at least once every other week.

"Matt and I had often talked how we felt like our marriage was taken over by the kids' activities," she says. "We had conversations about finding a sitter and going out on date nights. We never got there. Now, I'm definitely going to get out more. Life is so precious. I want to be happy and enjoy myself, so I can be a good mother."

Missing a co-pilot

Even with the constant influx of family visiting for the almost four months after Matt's death and daily phone calls with her mom and sister, Johnson often feels a deep sense of loneliness.

"At the end of the day, there's nothing like that partner, your soul mate," she says. "You miss having that 'What do I do about this?' conversation. I'm making decisions all by myself."

Johnson also feels a sense of guilt that she is here to see her girls grow up when her husband is not. "He died so young," she laments.

Although open to the possibility of dating and even marrying again someday, Johnson says she's not ready yet.

"I listen to some of my widowed friends talking about dating and dating websites, and we laugh a lot," she says. "But I'm not there yet. That's a full-time job in itself!"

When Johnson does start dating again someday, she suspects her girls will be amenable.

"They often ask me, 'Can we have a brother'?" Johnson laughs. "I tell them, 'You need a mommy and a daddy.' They'll then ask me to get married, so they can have a baby brother."

Johnson uses her Catholic faith to help explain the concept of a stepfather.

"I used St. Joseph, Jesus' stepfather, as a frame of reference," Johnson explains. "They now understand if I ever were to remarry, that they'd have a stepdad. Our faith has been so helpful. We couldn't have gotten to where we are without that."

Both Cathy Clough and Judith Burdick remarried after the death of their first husbands – the fathers of their children.

"I've found that people who've loved and who have been in strong relationships want to love again," Burdick says.

While several love connections have been made in the support groups that she has helped lead over the years, Clough notes that the timing needs to be right.

"Occasionally, men in particular will be so overwhelmed over the loss of their wife and have this idea that wouldn't it be nice to find someone who could help?" she says. "Our group sessions help these people realize they don't have to marry right away."

Charlotte and Vivienne Ross often bring up the topic of their father remarrying.

"They're in favor of it," he says, "as long as it's not a Disney stepmother. If you've been widowed, there is an inclination to be remarried. I am open to what God brings into my life."

 

For her part, Thorp is absolutely open to finding love again and even remarrying, though her older daughter has struggled with the idea.

"I've told Regan that the reality is I'm a young person, and I'm not going to spend the rest of my life alone," she says. "I reinforce to her that that doesn't mean that I don't love her dad. I will move on, and when I do, she'll be OK with it."

Parenting with mom or dad in mind

Shireen Johnson admits to having a hard time making decisions in general. But when it comes to her girls, she says, she'll have flashes of perfect clarity.

"It's at those moments that I know it's him," she says of her late husband. "Matt loved fishing. He was a big outdoors person. I knew soccer was important to him, so I signed the girls up for soccer."

Similarly, Johnson bought Leanne a bike for her birthday.

"Matt always wanted the girls to be outside playing," she explains. "I could have easily given in and gotten her something else. But I knew it is something he would have wanted her to have. It's unbelievable how much clarity I have about certain things that I know he would have wanted for the girls."

Before Kristen Ross died, some of the most tender conversations she had were about her faith and her love for Christ, Gunnar Ross recalls.

"That was her whole hope for her two girls," Ross notes: "That they'd have that same faith. That, and good manners!" And it's his goal to continue to nurture a strong faith within his daughters while making new memories with them.

"So we now make homemade marshmallows," Ross says. "As an engineer, I like to try new things in the kitchen. This is our new tradition."

Following her husband's death, Kelly Thorp found a company that takes a deceased loved one's thumbprint and makes it into a charm. She purchased one for each of her girls as a physical memento of their dad.

"Regan always wears hers," Thorp says. "I see her holding on to it when she is nervous or wants to feel comforted."

And every day, Thorp gathers her girls and they pray, asking God to bless daddy in heaven. Sometimes they'll also flip through the memory books mom created for each of them, featuring 90 pages of photos of dad.

"This is especially important for Ryan, who has no memories of him," Thorp says.

Thorp does occasionally think ahead to the life milestones that the girls' father won't witness.

"I think about graduation, college," she says. "I wonder who will be the stand-in for their dad on their wedding day. If I am with somebody, would it be him? Would it be my dad? Or me? I know they'll make those decisions in a way to honor their dad. And I, of course, will respect whatever they decide to do."

Johnson recognizes that her daughters are still young, and while many significant milestones lie ahead, she doesn't get too far ahead of herself.

"I learned the hard way from what happened to Matt that you never know when your time will be," she says. "So many people want more money, the bigger house. There are way more important things."

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