December 6, 2019

Never Married but Still a Widower: Finding Gratitude Years after my Girlfriend’s Death.

“Time heals all wounds” is a phrase that we all hear often.

Living with a significant loss for more than half of my life now, I can attest that this is not entirely true. While it is true that the pain of the open and gaping wounds does lessen with time, traces of the pain are always there. It’s taken decades for me to finally gain the perspective on how to best channel that pain.

For almost 30 years now the words, “three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again,” have echoed in my head.

In 1987, I was a sophomore at the local community college. I kept seeing this cute girl walking to class who had the biggest, most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I was head over heels, but far too shy to approach her on my own.

I would see her often talking to a girl who I had known since elementary school. So I cautiously asked my friend about her. She said, “Oh, that’s Dana. She is such a sweetheart.” A few days later, she gave me her phone number and said that “Dana would love for you to call her.” I called her that afternoon, we talked for two hours. We went on a date three days later.

Dana (pronounced Dan-na) was different from all the other girls I had known. She was smart, a straight-A student. Funny and genuine, with the biggest, most wholesome smile I had ever seen. She had that classic, all-American, girl next door quality to her. I was in awe. We became serious “girlfriend-boyfriend” immediately. I had dated some but never had a true girlfriend, and I was her first boyfriend.

We were both majoring in Business at Bakersfield College. I was a sophomore, Dana a freshman. We learned that we both had our heart set on eventually transferring to the hard to get into Cal Poly San Luis Obispo School of Business, which was about 140 miles from our hometown of Bakersfield.

I was accepted into Cal Poly and went away that next January. Dana joined me there in September. We were inseparable. We had many classes together, studied together, and spent all of our spare time together. We enjoyed all of the best that the college town of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding central coast of California had to offer.

We were that couple who everyone looked up to—always together, laughing, and having fun. We knew that we were blessed to have met each other. So thankful that we had each found such a soul mate to spend the rest of our lives with. It truly was a fairy tale, a one in a million type of relationship.

I graduated two semesters earlier than when she was set to. Once Dana graduated in December, we would be closer to living happily ever after. I stayed busy diving into my new job. Upon graduation, I went to work for my parent’s grocery company. I moved back into my parents’ house while Dana was finishing out her remaining two semesters of school. We decided that I should buy a house. A house I would live in by myself until we got married in a year or so. It would then become our first home.

Dana drove home to Bakersfield on the afternoon of Thursday, November 8th, 1990. The next day I closed escrow on this house. We were so excited. It was perfect for us.

That evening we went to our good friends’ wedding. On our way from the church to the reception, we brought my parents and several friends by the house to show it off. We were so proud. The remainder of the weekend focused on doing fun things for the house. It was Veteran’s Day weekend, so Dana didn’t have to go back to San Luis Obispo until Tuesday morning.

Monday night, after spending time at the house, we stood out in front of Dana’s house to say goodnight. We hugged, kissed, and talked. We had so much to talk about—the house, the wedding we went to, what our wedding was going to be like. Life was perfect and we knew it. As I was about to drive off Dana said, “three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again.” I smiled, gave her one last kiss, and said, “I love you.”

That was the last time I saw Dana.

The next morning, she was just outside of Bakersfield, driving toward San Luis Obispo. The details are still hard to talk about. A car took a left turn too carelessly. It clipped the back of Dana’s car, spinning her out of control. Her tiny car was then swallowed by an 18-wheeler coming from the opposite direction. She died instantly, with her car and the truck finally resting in flames on an elementary school playground.

The memory of the phone call from her dad to tell me that Dana died is etched in my head in slow motion like it was yesterday. The following days, months, and years blended together with such a painful fog. News of Dana’s death spread quickly. She was three weeks from college graduation, she had a good job at a local bank waiting for her. The story of the perfect, bubbly, all-American girl dying young had the media all over it. Reporters were calling ruthlessly. The driver who caused the accident did not stay at the scene, so there was a criminal side to the story too. I understood their need to report the story but they seemed so heartless with their approach.

The funeral was a blur—a sad yet beautiful ceremony, a lot of crying, and a huge crowd. I could tell right away that people had no idea how to handle me. I was not her husband. We had not even officially announced our wedding plans. I had been looking at rings and plotting in my mind the perfect proposal weekend for January, but nobody knew that or really seemed to care when I tried to explain.

She was just my girlfriend to them. I was young, I would “get over it.” We weren’t married. We didn’t have kids. They would say that I would be fine and that I had my whole life ahead of me.

How in the world was I expected to “get over” the sudden loss of the person I was going to spend the next 60 plus years with? The small number of people who stood by me were the ones who acknowledged what happened was horrific and that it could not be fixed or cured. They were simply present and they listened. At such a young age, I was seeing first-hand how society was so inept at handling how to deal with the grieving.

I had a lot of friends, but most of them could not relate to me at all. I was the downer who they wanted to either cheer up or have no part of. They could not accept that I wasn’t myself anymore. Increasingly, my phone stopped ringing.

Here I am, almost 30 years later, to tell you that I have never gotten “over it.” I was able to learn to live with it, but not get over it. I moved forward—I didn’t move on.

We were not yet married. For many years this technicality bothered me. I felt marginalized as “just her boyfriend.” I felt like I could not be part of, or contribute to, the widowed community because I didn’t exactly match up with the widowed definition of losing one’s spouse. Technically, she was not yet my spouse and I let that affect how I felt I was viewed. It was not until I recently began writing and my blog began appearing on top global widow blogs lists that I finally felt validated as widowed.

Platitudes hurt. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s hurtful when someone utters a phrase that puts an optimistic spin on a tragedy. If you can’t think of what to say, just simply say that.

“I have no idea what to say right now, but just know that my heart breaks for you.”

Saying this is much better than coming in as an expert with a useless, trivializing platitude.

Big changes can be good. Two and a half years after Dana died, my parents sold the family business and bought a new one, two thousand miles away, in Western Kentucky. Once settled, I was able to start focusing on a new life. The newness was fresh and exciting. I began creating my own memories again.

After Dana’s death, I had become friends with a girl named Shelly. She had been part of Dana’s extended high school circle of friends. She understood what I had lost, and didn’t preach to me on how I should feel. I could be myself around her, with no judgment. Her friendship had really become a blessing.

I told her she should come visit over her holiday break. She agreed and was excited at the thought of visiting me and seeing somewhere different and new. When she stepped off that plane and I saw her for the first time in over six months, I hugged her—immediately realizing that my feelings for her had changed. This scared me like crazy. This was one of my dearest friends so I needed to squash those thoughts! But as the week progressed it became clear that feelings had changed for both of us. I was surprised at how normal and comfortable it was to me.

I knew Dana would approve, as she would definitely not want me to continue to be miserable and alone. Dana had liked and respected Shelly. Shelly knew my whole story; I did not have to explain a thing.

Our relationship progressed quickly, as we had such a solid foundation built from our strong friendship. My parents and my closest friends understood and were happy for us.

Within two months Shelly and I began making plans to get married. Everything moved quickly from this point forward. Our relationship changed at the end of December and we were married the following May. I was certain that the last thing I was doing was replacing Dana with Shelly. My heart had expanded to allow Shelly in it, but Dana would always remain in my heart and my love for her would never diminish.

Vulnerability allows us to love once again. The layers of my friendship with Shelly were deep and real due to the rawness and vulnerability I allowed myself to share with her. I needed a friend to share my darkest thoughts without fear or judgment. She responded with a genuine ability to care. A romantic connection was the furthest thing from either of our minds at first. Our relationship changed organically—a special friendship built the foundation to a love that was unique and special.

The evolution of our relationship that eventually led to our love story was easy for the two of us to understand. We were surprised, but it seemed natural to us. But some of those closest to Shelly, Dana, and myself could not understand it at all. Their judgment was deeply rooted before we could even begin to explain.

The heart expands, and my heart has two deep loves inside of it. People struggle to understand that. Society believes that once you fall in love again you have replaced the one who has died, but this is a big fallacy. What actually happens is that the heart has the ability to open up to love two people. The love for the person lost doesn’t diminish, but the ability to deeply love and have a great relationship with the new love flourishes in an amazing and complex way. I feel fortunate that this is what happened to me. Without what I experienced with Dana, I don’t believe that I would be able to love Shelly the way that I do.

Shelly and I have been blessed with two boys, Dylan and Taylor. They have given me tremendous joy and happiness. But the anger and the rage from the pain of my experience and the way I was treated lingered for well over 20 years. I cringe when I think of some of the situations that this anger and rage created. I was always a ticking time bomb, and I hated the angry, bitter person that I had become.

It took another tragedy for that to change.

On January 17th, 2013 I was at work and received a call from Shelly saying she had been hurt. It was hard for me to understand at first. There was an explosion in the kitchen, she had been hit in the face.

She sent me a picture of her swollen, bloody, black and blue face. I was horrified. On the drive home, I received a call from a nurse. Shelly had managed to scrape the ice and snow off of the windshield enough to be able to barely see to drive herself to the nearby urgent care. The nurse said she needed to be driven quickly to the hospital in the next town, which was about 15 minutes further north. They were worried about her eye and nose. The nurse drove her to the hospital and I met Shelly there. I was shocked seeing Shelly so battered and bruised. It turned out that her eye was fine, but her nose was broken. All else was reported as being okay, we felt thankful and drove home.

Shelly had made some homemade ginger ale, and she put the finished product in empty two-liter bottles. One bottle ended up at the back of the refrigerator. Shelly discovered it one day and decided to pour it out. She sat it on the kitchen counter, got busy, and forgot about it. It sat on the kitchen counter, slowly turning into a bomb. At the exact second that Shelly passed the kitchen sink, the bottled exploded. The force of the blast knocked Shelly to the ground, unconscious.

All seemed fine as Shelly’s face continued to heal. About two weeks after the accident, Shelly was suddenly struggling to walk and talk. We saw a neurologist the next day, and he told us that Shelly had a traumatic brain injury. She was like a soldier who had been hit by a bomb at war. He also told us her life would most likely never be the same. Ninety percent of those knocked unconscious never regain consciousness.

We were told we should consider ourselves lucky.

The journey since has been one that has amazed me with Shelly’s grace, strength, courage, and positivity. She has had to learn to walk and talk again. Many pieces of both her long-term and short-term memory are gone. She struggles to multitask. Her brain is in constant panic mode from the severe PTSD she is saddled with, but she never feels sorry for herself or asks “why me.” I have become her caregiver, as she cannot do many things on her own.

My own transformation began happening in the months after Shelly’s accident. Here she was, in such a seriously injured state, but with such a remarkably positive attitude. With this inspiring survival story happening right next to me, how could I possibly be feeling such anger and self-pity? In the simplest of terms, witnessing Shelly’s strength and grace made me come to the realization that all of my rage and resentment needed to go away.

Gradually, much of the anger that I was carrying for so long subsided and turned to both gratitude and perspective. I began to realize that I have a story to tell and a gift that I can begin to use to help others. I must admit that some of that anger has turned into sadness. Sadness that Shelly has to struggle in such a way, as well as sadness that Dana lost her life so long ago.

But I have found that my heart has become filled with much newfound gratitude.

Gratitude that Dana shared all of her heart with me in the short time she had here on this earth. Gratitude for Shelly, with whom I share tremendous love and happiness. She gave me such a reason to smile once again. Gratitude for the handful of people who stood by me through those darkest of days. Gratitude for our two sons, as they have given me such a true purpose to get through each day with.

And immense gratitude that Shelly is still here to continue on this journey with me.


A version of this was originally published on my blog, Ten Thousand Days.


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