Widow. Fighter. Hero.

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Our story begins with tragedy and death. The details of our resilience are in the fight – the daily urge to resist giving up, facing everything we didn’t want to do or maybe still don’t want to, for days or years on end, for a bigger purpose.

We have to fight to thrive, not just for ourselves, but also for our children. They depend on us and they look up to us: We are role models for them. They have to see our strength and our hope to know that it exists, and we will be better than just “okay.” Our children aren’t our only excuse to fight – our fight is for ourselves, our own joy. Everyone wants to get up and have a great day. No one gets up seeking out the worst day possible. And when the worst day happens, and it does sometimes too often, in many shapes and sizes, we find ourselves struggling to get through those days. The end goal is to have happier days.

How do we do that? How do we get there?
We fight.

That fight always looks different.
It’s putting up a Christmas tree, it’s taking down a Christmas tree.
It’s getting out of bed.
It’s getting dressed.
It’s finding purpose.
It’s moving forward.
It’s taking chances.

In 2012, Mason and I found ourselves, old friends, separated by years apart, and states away. We hadn’t spoken in over six years. We were both Army families. I was married to Greg, and we had a daughter, Gwen. I was a Department of Defense civilian, Greg was a soldier assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group. Mason, also a soldier – assigned to an aviation squadron – was married to Bobbi and they had a son, Eli. We had been close friends when we were stationed in Italy in 2002. Bobbi threw my baby shower; Mason was Gwen’s godfather.

As many Army families do, we lost touch through career changes and moves to different posts. We had kept in contact for about half our then 12-year friendship. We had also kept ourselves informed of each other’s successes through social media, emails and mutual friends – people in our circle that had many of the same contacts.

In July of that year, Greg was shot in Afghanistan. His wound was catastrophic enough for me to be notified by the command that he was not expected to survive. Years of preparing for this very moment all came to a head. The Army prepares spouses through a series of training events, the use of Family Readiness Support Groups, and other structured opportunities to make this moment, known as “The Knock,” as easy as it can be for the most difficult moment of your life.

“The Knock” is when the unit your spouse serves in has to inform you that your spouse is either gravely wounded, or has been killed in action. Greg was shot, in the head, and not expected to survive long. Gwen and I knew this was a possibility and had our passports ready in case we had an opportunity to fly to Landstuhl, Germany, to meet with Greg and be at his bedside. He would be evacuated from the battlefield and flown to Germany as soon as possible. Eventually he would be transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

For eight days, Greg survived, in a coma, with no chance of survival. We had prepared ourselves over the last nine years of war and seven deployments by having his living will updated, his funeral arraignments decided and his disposition of remains determined. Every day for those eight days I woke up and tried to get through my day. I had to do things I didn’t want to do. I had to talk about organ donation. I had to I had to make funeral arrangements. I had to deal with paperwork. I had to choose a coffin.

The night before Greg was to be extubated, knowing what was to come at 8 a.m. the next morning was brutal. I cried all night, living out every dream, every memory and every milestone he’d never be a part of. The worst thing by far, was having to watch my husband die, in my hands. I couldn’t even hold him in my arms, just my hands, with the organ donation team waiting to do their gruesome, but desperately needed work just feet away from me with the bittersweet hope that other families wouldn’t go through what I was going through that very moment.

In the weeks following Greg’s death, we attended the funeral, memorial services and tended to the estate. All the details of a death that have to be taken care of, the mundane paperwork, yet still, I had to go grocery shopping, feed the dogs, and take Gwen to school. I eventually returned to work, and what was now my new life, a life without Greg. A life worth living because that’s what Greg would have wanted. He wouldn’t want me to waste away, and he’d never want for Gwen to live a sad, miserable life.

He wanted the best for us.
Why would that change?

By October, I had a call from Sheila, a mutual friend of Bobbi’s and mine. She told me that Mason was in trouble and needed my help. Bobbi was terminally ill, and in her illness, she was addicted to prescription pain-killers, and suicidal. I agreed to call Mason, but didn’t promise Sheila I could help him. I knew he was stubborn. I didn’t even know what I could do to help. Mason and I spoke for some time. We got caught up on the last several years, and I began to understand the totality of his problem. Bobbi had become abusive, and he was trying his best to hide the abuse from everyone, including his command. I offered my support and friendship. Mason rallied and promised to keep me posted of what was going on with his family. A month later he sent a text to say things were improving for him. His command was aware of the abuse he was suffering and the issues his family was having. He was being supported. That seemed like some good news, even if Bobbi was not improving.

In December, a week and half before Christmas, Bobbi took her own life. Mason came home to find her body and dropping to his knees, he cradled what was left of 20 years together. He mourned their possibilities, their past and everything that happened in between. The day after Bobbi’s funeral, I began calling and/or texting Mason regularly to check in. I’d send him funeral jokes because tears come easily enough; laughter is much harder to come by. It surprised him that I knew how he felt, only because he forgot I was just there myself.

I called it “Lilith Fair,” when you don’t shave your legs, eat cold pizza for days and cry to Sarah McLaughlin songs. And after a few weeks of wallowing in your own boogers and grief, you have to clean up and get moving. Life keeps goingWe don’t want it to though. We want to stay in our pity party. It’s comfortable there and people bring you food. But, you have to get up at some point. You have to keep going. We did. We had each other. Our unlikely new friendship grew, and we joked that it was because our other friends left us. Many of them would say, “Have a good day! Oh no, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean that! You’re not having a good day. You won’t have a good day!” What a horrible thing. We wanted to have a good day. It’s where we wanted to get back.

After several months of more death paperwork, headstone spell checking and other various “what next” details, we both remarked how awful death and grieving was.We planned a trip to Mexico. We thought we should take the kids and take a break from grief – and paperwork – and wondering what was next for us. While we were in Mexico, we talked, we laughed and our friendship grew stronger.

Two years later we got married.

Mason and I began our life together, and found ourselves having to rebuild again after he retired from 20 years of service. Facing a new life, new choices and new possibilities again is daunting with the promise of help from so many angles: Veterans Administration (VA), the community and fellow retirees. One thing that was certain, none of the good advice Mason was getting actually worked. It all seemed like fluff. Mason was encouraged to just take a job flying for the airlines or work a 9-to-5 job. He wanted to be home. He’d spent 20 years in the Army and 18 years at war. He didn’t want to be in the same box everyone else was in. He wanted to make an impact. I had been trying to move forward after remarriage, but was stigmatized for it.

One of the first statements I had heard from a colleague was, “How dare you move on?” I was shocked. I knew I was going to lose my benefits from Greg’s pension, and my VA education benefits. I wanted to be happy though. I wanted to thrive! I wanted to do more. I didn’t think collecting a check and being sad was the answer. Our children were happy. Our children were thriving. We decided to homeschool Gwen, Eli had just graduated college and everything was working out so well. We were able to travel, enjoy things we had put off for years while we waited for a deployment to be over. Why was marriage a bad thing? Why is there a punishment for it? Why was retirement depressing? We had so many questions because we weren’t fitting into the typical mold. For a year after retirement, Mason struggled with plans that weren’t working for one reason or another. He wanted to serve a purpose, but what was that purpose?

Where was his value?
Where was mine?
Where could we be useful?

After Greg died, Mason encouraged me to enroll in Harvard Extension School (HES) and I did. I’ve been taking classes for a few years – as I can afford to – because I have to pay on my own. My VA benefits were taken from me when I remarried. I’m okay with that too. I’d rather be happy, on my own terms. Mason eventually enrolled too.

HES has an amazing community of students, and that community introduced me to a workshop through a social media post. Not one to shy away from something that’s new and scary, I went up to Virginia for a workshop for Women Entrepreneurs: Innovation and Technology. It was scary because I barely know how to use my phone! I met this amazing group of people – people with this incredible, contagious energy to succeed, love and help others. “This is my tribe!” I thought.

I became involved with IMPACT JUNKIE because I felt like this was the missing piece in my life. I told Mason about it, and he felt the same way. The things I was learning in these workshops were things we were both taking into our community here in North Carolina and using to help others. IMPACT JUNKIE threw a rock in a pond and the ripple effect was far and wide.

The hope we have to see others succeed is so powerful.

We know what grief is, what it feels like. We have seen failure. We know what uncertainty does and how complacency calls… but, we also know how to fight, and how to win.

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This post was written by Bethanie MacDonald

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