It was July 29, 2012.
I had a slight cold, and didn’t want to get up early. My husband Ken was an early bird. He’d jump out of bed, sing in the shower and start the day before the sun came up. Even though he knew how to work the coffee pot, he liked when I made the coffee.
An older gentleman told Ken a story that impressed him. This man said no matter how early he got up, his wife always got up with him to make his coffee. This gentleman equated his wife making coffee to “I love you”. Thus, when I got up early to brew a fresh pot, Ken felt loved. There is nothing special about my coffee making skills.
I got up, sick and head-achy, and headed for the kitchen. Ken was heading out early to go boating. He knew I didn’t feel well, and said I should have stayed in bed. I told him I was OK, and didn’t mind getting up. The minute he left, I went back to bed. I got up a couple of hours later, feeling much better.
I started a side gig with a friend
doing professional organizing. We had a client that day for a 4 hour session. I went to work, and came home to clean my house. I like my home to be perfectly clean and organized at all times. In reality this is seldom the case. The house had gotten cluttered, and it was driving me crazy. Using left over organizing energy, I began tackling the mess. I straightened everything up, and was folding the 3rd load of laundry.
Behind my home
I have an in-law unit that we rented out. The tenants lived there a few months, and seemed like nice enough people. As I folded Ken’s t-shirts, I saw through the kitchen bay window two police officers heading to the tenant’s door. I thought, “I wonder what they did.” A moment later, my doorbell rang. There were two officers from the Sheriff’s department, asking for me.
Ken had his own business, and periodically had problems with his construction workers. We also had other rentals, and had a rare bad tenant. I figured it was one of these two reasons why the cops were at my door. I did think it was odd, however, that they were asking for me, and not him.
They asked me who I was,
and I answered, “what is this about?”, and, “what is going on?”. They wouldn’t tell me anything until I identified myself. Once I told them my name, they asked if they could come in. I let them in, and kept asking what was going on. They made me sit down, then they sat.
At that point, I was getting concerned. I no longer thought their visit was a business or rental issue. I thought he had been in an accident. Were they there to rush me to the hospital ASAP?
I prefer to rip off a band-aid quickly. However bad the news is going to be, give it to me quickly. If it’s possible to make bad news worse, dragging it out is the way to do it.
The officer looked at me and said, “Your husband had a heart attack”, and then paused and simply said, “I’m sorry”. She skipped saying it was fatal. It took time to grasp what she was telling me. I recall wishing life was like a TiVo box, and I could go back in time before they arrived.
By the time they notified me,
he had been deceased for 3 hours. To me, he had just died that moment. I screamed, I think. Some parts of that day I have complete clarity, and other parts are forever blurry. I felt all the blood drain out of my body. I’m sure I was bright white. I felt shaky, and full of anxiety and despair. Anxiety attacks are rare, but when I do have them, the severity is debilitating.
I knew I had medication somewhere for it. I told the officer (who I learned was a Sheriff’s coroner), that I needed to find my medication. She followed me through the house until I found my pill container. She watched me as I took one pill. My hands were trembling, and I could hardly pick up the tiny tablet.
The officers asked me if there was anyone I wanted to call.
I called my mom. She was shocked, and said she’d come over with my sisters. I tried to reach both sisters. They were out together, neither with their cell phones. It took hours for anyone to show up. The coroner told the officer they could not leave until my family arrived. At one point both officers stepped outside. The coroner took my pill case, and returned it when she came back. She would not leave me alone with pills.
While I was waiting for my family
to arrive, I knew I needed to let Ken’s family know what happened. I had a therapist I’d seen off and on over the years who was like a family friend. I called her and told her of his fatal heart attack. Then I asked her to call Ken’s mom.
A short while passed, and my mother-in-law called me. She sounded fine. She obviously had not heard the news. The therapist told her to call me, but did not tell her why. She asked, “Where’s Ken?”. I said, “he’s gone”. She said, “where?”. I’m not sure what I said. I think I told her he had a heart attack. She wanted to know where he was. I said, “he didn’t make it”.
I heard a scream, and the phone dropped.
Her husband, Ken’s stepfather, picked up the phone. I can’t remember the conversation, except when I told him Ken died. He said, “Are you sure?” Actually, I wasn’t sure. I had not seen him, so part of me didn’t believe it was true.
Denial is my best event, so I was in limbo for a few days. He died on Sunday, and I could not see him until Wednesday. Because he was only 51, an autopsy was mandatory. I could not see him until they completed the autopsy and transferred him to the funeral home.
I did not have a wake,
but the funeral home gave me a one hour slot for anyone who wanted to come and see him. I went in first. This is not real, this isn’t happening, I convinced myself. It became real when I saw him lying perfectly still in a long box. The sheet was up to his neck to hide the autopsy scars. I talked to him, and then let dozens of other family and friends have a chance to pay their respects. When the hour was up, I went back in to say my final goodbye.
My mom stayed at my house for a week,
and took care of everything. She fed my dogs and picked up after them, cleaned my house and fed me. I didn’t have an appetite, but ate small bites at odd hours.
I am self employed, and money was a huge issue. My mom gave me a check for $1,000 and told me to take the week off work. I am forever grateful for that. I was in a fog all week, so it was best that I did not have to work. A week was not nearly enough, but it was all I could afford.
I had meetings with an estate attorney,
my friend who was a priest to arrange the service, and the funeral home where the cremation took place. There were countless people to contact. There were many who were not notified in time to attend the service, despite the memorial being four weeks after his demise. Two weeks after his passing would have been our 22 year anniversary.
I knew it would take time to settle his estate. There were many things that needed to be sold. His business paperwork filled the garage. I hired his workers to sort through his business equipment. How could I know what was valuable and what was useless? I was tenacious about taking care of everything as quickly as possible. It took 2 years to settle all things related to him and his business. If I was unorganized, it would have taken much longer.
Everyone says “don’t make big decisions”
soon after someone passes away. While that is sage advice, it is not realistic. I had to make decision after decision, very quickly and not in the best frame of mind. There were some issues that simply could not wait.
My family and my friends were supportive beyond what I can describe. I had to settle up the really rough parts myself, but I don’t know how I could have done it without the help I had.
I always wondered after my experience
with losing a spouse, if it is better to know they’ll pass away soon, or have something happen suddenly. Had he been ill, and given a short time to live, what would we have done? How difficult and painful would it have been for him to feel the clock was ticking quickly? Just because you know something is going to happen doesn’t make it any easier when it does. It may have been less stressful for me to settle things after his passing had we known it was coming. We could have prepared for the practical side of things. It would have been more stressful for him to live knowing his days were numbered.
I think if he had the choice, things would have played out pretty much as they did.
Always be prepared.
It feels fatalistic to live each day as if you wont have a tomorrow, but there are things everyone should do now. Your life can change in just one day. He died without a will. We didn’t have much, so it was not as problematic as it could have been. I still strongly recommend anyone alive over the age of 18 have a will. Even a hand written notarized note is better than nothing.
Know where everything is.
Ken had a corvette he purchase 14 months before his demise. It was insured, but not registered, and there was no pink slip. I was unaware of this, and searched through 40 boxes of his paperwork, one sheet at a time, looking for it. I spent 13 months dealing with the DMV to get a replacement pink slip so I could sell it.
Thin the hoard.
Since his business dealt with construction, many left overs were stored behind the garage. A drill rig was parked alongside the garage which I sold it for half of what he paid for it. He would have negotiated a higher price. I just needed it gone.
Talk about what you want.
I knew he wanted to be cremated, but never got a straight answer about anything else. It is uncomfortable to talk about this eventuality, especially if you think it is a long way off. He told me to put his body on his boat, light it on fire and send it out to sea like a Viking funeral. While I’m sure part of him really wanted to go out like that, it would have been helpful to have a “Plan B” that was more realistic.
Give yourself time to grieve.
I did not have the luxury of time after his unexpected demise. The week my mom stayed with me I experienced every emotion imaginable. After that, I suppressed my emotions in order to tackle all that needed to be done. I thought, if I can just get through all this, I can fall apart later. While I am glad I settled everything inside of two years, I don’t think suppressing my feelings was the healthiest route.
Give yourself grace.
I honored everything I knew he would have wanted (except the Viking funeral). After that, there was nothing more I could do. I did my best, and I believe he would have been happy with my decisions. One small comfort to me, especially in those first few days was a repeating thought; I’m glad I got up and made his coffee.
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