They Say Death Comes in Threes
by Mare Tupper
I became acquainted with grief at age six when my Grandpa Smith died. At age 10, my great-grandparents passed away. At 16, my Grandpa Hober died. Within 17 months time, my Uncles Joe, Eddie and Tommy died, followed by my Aunt Mary Lou. A year or two later, my father-in-law, Al, died. Ten my niece, Melissa died, which was very hard because she was only seventeen. However, the hardest of all the losses was not a single loss, but a triple loss within four months when my closest brother, Kenn died on September 25, 1999, loving husband, Ed died on January 31, 2000 and my Grandma Hober died on February 9, 2000.
September of 1999
My brother, Kenn was in a house fire. Nestled deep within the Rocky Mountains on that fateful day in late September, when the warm fall sun was shining and the ultra-blue sky reflected upon the clear, still water of Holland Lake, Kenn and his friend John both had the day off. They passed the day away knocking back beers and smoking joints. We were told that Kenn, John, and their dogs walked the half mile to The Ole General Store in town and purchased two “big ole fat” porterhouse steaks. Their intent was to barbeque at John’s cabin. They fell asleep as the grill was heating up. They never noticed that the weather began to change, the wind shifted and reignited the charcoal. They never knew the porch roof was on fire. Carbon monoxide filled the log cabin before either of them woke up which caused them to be anesthetized, they died before being “kissed by flames”.
A neighbor passing by spotted the house on fire and called the fire department from the general store. Both of the men’s pickup trucks were parked outside. Kenn and John were well-liked and the townspeople all wanted to believe that they were possibly picked up by a friend and out somewhere around town or in the woods, anywhere except dead. A search party was set up for them.
My brother and his dog, O.D. were found first, lying on what used to be a couch. John and his dog were found in the next room. The Missoula, Montana coroner told us that he never saw carbon monoxide levels that high in his whole career. Years ago, I worked in the fire safety industry. Because of my training, I knew that they were anesthetized by the smoke –they never felt any pain at all, there was no suffering, they just went to sleep and that was that.
January 31, 2000
Four months later. My husband was at work, having just finished un-chaining and un-tarping three trailers full of steel pipe with his two co-workers. He told them that he was going to go lay down for the half hour until it was his turn to “roll in and unload”. This was a normal morning so far. Thirty minutes passed. It was Ed’s turn to unload. Jaybird and Fatboy knocked at Ed’s window, he did not answer. They knocked again, no answer. Ed hated it when the guys would pound on the door of his truck, that got him up and screaming at them instantly. Fatboy pounded on the door, no response. Jaybird instantly knew that something was wrong. Fatboy called him on the CB radio, still no answer, still no Ed. Jaybird entered Ed’s truck and found him sitting up on his bunk, one shoe on and one in his hand, mouth opened and face already blue and cold. His autopsy said it was a heart attack.
February 8, 2000
Nine days later. My Grandmother had been living in an Alzheimer’s Care Facility in Columbiana, Ohio for approximately two years. Dementia had robbed her of all the beautiful memories she had of her grandchildren over a year before. She called me by my mother’s name, she thought my son, Kenn was my brother, Kenn. She would point at my son, AJ and ask me, “Joanne, who is that little fat boy?” That question broke my sons’ hearts. It was obvious that our grandma was gone. She did not know us anymore, she was rapidly declining. Her “good days” were filled with false memories. My sons begged, “Please! Don’t make us see her “that way” again!” It was a hard decision. I did not want to abandon my Grandma, but I had to do what was best for my children. My Mother had already been dead for about 17 years by this time and “the old man” was dead for about 15 years. Sometime in mid-January, Grandma fell out of bed and broke her hip. She was given morphine for the pain and died in her sleep.
Return to September 25, 1999
The phone rang and the caller ID showed my sister Patty’s number. Kenn told me, “It’s Aunt Patty, Grandma must have died. That’s the only reason she calls, to tell us someone died.” It was even worse news than Grandma passing. We were ready to accept her “going home”. She had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know any of us anymore. Essentially, we’d already lost her.
Patty informed me that our brother, Kenny who was almost 41, died in a house fire. My husband had just left for work. I quickly put in a “911” page to him to call home. We were soon off to Montana, where Kenny lived, two days later.
I felt panic-stricken until Ed got home. Anxiety filled until we boarded the airplane in Cleveland, Ohio. It was my first time ever to fly in an airplane and all I could think of was it did not fly fast enough. I wanted to be there, even though there was nothing I could do. I just had to be there.
All the while that we were in Montana I would look to the woods line, waiting, hoping, watching, for Kenny to come walking out, laughing, welcoming us to Montana. That never happened. As we visited his campsite near the river, I hoped and watched and stared at the dense evergreen trees, praying that he would come walking out, asking why everyone was around his fire pit, excited to see his family who had come all the way from Ohio. That never happened either. My magic thinking was broken and there were no new magic wands to be had.
I kept hoping it was all a mistake. Ed and I drove to where John’s cabin once stood. It was a pile of cinders, a chimney, some appliances, what was left of a couch and a pile of books. We saw charred blackened evidence that a home once stood there. Charcoal-blackened-embers of what used to be a man’s home remained. Looking back, I know that I was in shock, denial, …enough!! Death took those I loved most away from me and this just HAD to be a mistake!
Kenny was my favorite of the two brothers, but I love them both dearly. He and Roger were always more special to me than Patty and Diane. We were the “outlaws” along with Cousin Karen… And … just…this did not seem real—I just wanted to wake up, safe in my bed next to Ed…NO!… I did not want any of this to be really happening!!! He couldn’t be dead! He was only going on 41! Yet on my exterior, I appeared calm and held together. I did not want to upset my son or draw attention to myself.
When we were leaving, I didn’t want to go. I felt like I was leaving my brother behind. I left with a heavy heart and a great need to cry, to cry hard and to be left alone for at least an hour when we got home. The first day back to work all my co-workers asked where I was last week. I told them that my brother died and naturally they asked how he died. I told them. Several said, “That was really stupid!” My response came of hurt and anger, “Yeah! Really what would make you think so!” and to cover it all up I laughed. That Friday was pay day. I cashed my check and went directly out and purchased a half-gallon of Wild Turkey and got smashed. I was angry at Kenny for barbequing himself. I was angry because I now only have one brother and no mother and missed the others who I love dearly that are dead. I felt emotions that I didn’t want to feel, I wanted to be numb and stay numb and never feel the pain that was breaking my heart into pieces.
A neighbor came over from across the street, we drank together and sang songs that Kenny loved, including “our song”. Oh Sister by Bob Dylan— which I played on harmonica, using my brother’s harmonica. I drank until I got sick, then I drank some more. I drank the next day and finally slept all day Sunday so that it was possible to go to work on Monday.
I was not denying my loss but the feelings that I would not allow myself to feel. I took the day of his birthday off from work, the next day I was laid off. By Thanksgiving, depression was setting in and I told Ed that a big black hole swallowed me and it was impossible to climb out. I told him that I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. My hands were shaking worse than they had all year, and swallowing food made me gag. These things were getting worse all year long, but especially after Kenny died and I didn’t care to find out why.
Jump ahead to December 31, 1999
The nightmare began! This dream would reoccur every night, only this time there was no man in a black bathrobe. This time, there was an orange eighteen wheeler with a flat bed loaded with steel and it was somersaulting down the side of a steep hill with a cliff on one side and nothing but trees on the other. I sat up in bed and immediately looked for Ed. There he was sound asleep, that boyish-man face that I loved to watch as he slept when I could not. His soft round cheeks and lips that even in his sleep begged for a kiss. His tiny eyelashes and that round nose. I drank in every feature, began to burn his image in my memory. The following night when I woke, he was not there. He was out on a run to York, Pennsylvania and then off to Baltimore. I was nervous until he got home. Every night this dream came, every night when he was home I would cuddle up tight to him and hold him tight. I was afraid to tell him about these dreams. I was afraid this would cause him to be overly careful and have an accident. I missed my brother and was afraid that I was about to lose my husband too.
Return to January 31, 2000
A deep dark depression fell over me in the weeks to come. I was swallowed into a deep, dark pit and couldn’t get out. My job sucked! I hated it passionately. It made me sick thinking of going there again. Monkey work! Monkeys could easily be trained to take and load stacks of plastic bags into cardboard boxes as I did, but much more costly to train than I was! Great feeling!
Our local and county school administrators were meeting with us constantly. Battling back and forth over my son’s rights – the legalese of a child with a learning disability. A meeting was coming soon to the pass the buck. Educational offices of our school system, principal; all sixteen members of their team were going to be there to tell us what was so terribly wrong with our (my) son. Tell us what they weren’t going to do for him, which of his civil rights they’d chosen to ignore, yet again, and ask what medication he was taking (for that was their only answer)!
The most positive thoughts I had were that death could be near, but not the one I was re-dreaming, not the nightmare that sat me straight up in bed, cold sweat pouring from my drenched body. As orange trucks rolled off hillsides, I wanted to go first! Thoughts ran out of control of how to make it look accidental, maybe at work, family gets workman’s comp.
Yet I lay in a room full of high power guns, ammunition accessible enough. No, too big a mess and what a final memory that would leave my family. No, it had to look like an accident. This aint right, you aren’t supposed to think this way. Yet the schemes kept pouring into my thoughts. Drive off the road in the car, the snow was falling like a thick-heavy-wet-slippery-blanket, falling heavier still; visibility poor, roads slick. Yeah, I’ll do that! I thought of a bridge where you could easily run off the road and crash to the freeway 40 feet below. No, you aint supposed to do it that way, cowards’ way out.
I picked up the phone and dialed the number on the back of an insurance card. I wanted to know what it was going to cost financially to get help, help now. I knew better than to get into that car! So finally and eventually the ambulance came. I sent Ed an email to tell him where I was and I went.
I was admitted to the hospital for depression and a bum thyroid on January 21. My Ed was both supportive and very concerned for me. He would head home from visiting me and looked up every drug prescribed. He never missed a chance to visit and didn’t miss a day’s work either. He was my strength and my rock, yet I still could not tell him about the nightly dreams where the orange eighteen wheeler with the flatbed loaded with steel would somersault off the cliff.
For ten days the doctors poked, and stuck me. We discovered that my thyroid was going kerplewy. And because of the depression that came on after Kenny died, after that deep dark hole swallowed me whole and refused to release me, they filled me with good drugs! Drool trickled from the corner of my mouth, vision blurry, I swaggered when I stepped, speech slurred and people smiled. People in white starched uniforms, cups full of pills extended to me in their starched white hands. Morning chats with the man who could give me even more pills, stronger pills, starched white pills in this starched white place. The man in the prim smart suit with the pills laughed and dismissed the orange trucks somersaulting in my dreams. He just wouldn’t listen! Delusional was written across a starched white paper and placed into a starched white file and deposited into a cold metal file cabinet.
The man who I loved held me on his lap as I uncontrollably cried, the only words that would sound were, something bad, something terrible, is going to happen to us. The gentle man with the full rounded cheeks and soft lips, and the big blue-hazel eyes looked sad and remained silent as he held me tight and let me cry.
The evening of Super Bowl Sunday, he told me that the guys he was running with wanted to catch the game when they arrived at the mill in Harrisburg, they would be leaving early. Ed was dedicated to me, he was doing back flips to cheer me up and to take care of me. He deserved a little break. I held him tight at the door the following night, begged and begged him to be safe and to come home to me, kissing those soft lips, mist filled his eyes as I fought back tears.
they told me the next morning that he was found dead in his orange truck
On the tenth morning just after breakfast, I tried paging him at 8:35. I kept waiting and waiting for his call, knowing that he was parked at the mill waiting to deliver. He’d left the night before on a trip that took only 8 hours to get there. No call came in. I went to take a nap while I continued waiting.
At 10 a.m., a social worker entered my room and asked me to please come into her office. Figuring it was papers that needed signing I followed her, no questions asked. The words I was about to hear were cold and sterile, and changed my life in an instant!
Cold and sterile, cut and dry, emotionless and matter of fact. The man in the prim, smart suit with the pills who had laughed and dismissed the orange trucks somersaulting in my orange dreams. He, who just wouldn’t listen! Delusional he wrote across a starched white paper and placed into a starched white file and deposited into a cold metal file cabinet, now angry because he had to return to his cold corner office to sign papers to allow me to be released in order to dispose of my husband’s body. The body found dead in his orange truck! The orange truck that made me delusional!
There’s no other way to tell you this, Mrs. Tupper, than to come right out and say it. Your husband was found dead in his truck this morning.” Disbelief was joined by shock and numbness. I kept saying, “NO, this aint right, it can’t be right!
Half an hour later, my brother-in-law showed up and confirmed the horrible news. My husband was gone, I was alone and too young to be hearing this or believing it!! Only 38 and parentless in my 20’s, lost scores of friends and family and now my husband. I became furious with God for the longest time. The wind was bitter cold, but I didn’t feel it. The sting of the snowy gale blowing my eyes and cheeks didn’t hurt, numbness was all. The wet, icy snow caked and stuck to my long, silky red hair, the wind whipped it hard against my cheeks, but I didn’t feel that either. The look of there’s nothing I can do, pity was all over everyone’s face, eyes to the ground, primly and properly going through polite motions. Emily Post’s lil redheaded robot! The world was gone, he was gone, my world was gone and what to do now was my biggest worry. What would I do without him I hadn’t a clue!
Twelve days later
His ashes, held in a tin like flour or sugar, and ten death certificates came home in his place. Friends showed up by private invitation. His family was there, complaining about walking so far in the mud and snow. Covered in their good clothes, all came to say their goodbyes.
He is laid to rest where he requested each season as the green flag fell on the first race. And again, as the checkered flag fell upon the last race, his request to cremate him and scatter his ashes under our seats to rest after he died. I did as he asked. I did as I was told. His family was not very happy, and to his family, it wasn’t what he wanted at all but he always said they never listened. I understood now.
Jump ahead, February 9, 2000
The phone rang and the caller ID showed my sister Patty’s number. Kenn told me, “It’s Aunt Patty”. Grandma. Mom. NO! Not again! I took the call and made it short. We cried, we cried until we couldn’t cry anymore, then we cried some more. I had already been crying for nine continuous days and my eyes were so swollen they must have been invisible.
I let Kenny stay home from school. When my brother died, he was out of school because the school was not following his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). I pulled him out until our October 9 meeting. They were never told about his uncle. They never sent a sympathy card in regard to his stepdad, they didn’t need to know about his Grandma. I just let him stay home as long as he wanted to be alone. Kenny was taking care of me, bringing me meals in bed, making me take my meds, he would come upstairs and watch television in my room with me. I never left my room long enough to do more than bathe or go potty. Then that big bed just felt way too big and I took to living on the couch. I stayed there for weeks.
Kenn surprised me by returning to school the day after Grandma was buried, February 15. He sort of got me back in my own bed a few weeks later by having a friend over for the night, then I refused to leave it. I could smell his fragrance on our sheets, especially after a rain. It was comforting and all I had left. I felt cheated, angry and as I told everyone “half alive”. It hurt to breathe, it hurt to think, it hurt to be alive. I didn’t want to eat because Ed loved to eat and couldn’t anymore, and I couldn’t sleep because he wasn’t there next to me. I didn’t’ want to see anyone or talk to anyone, but nobody called or came to see us anyway. I was alone, like someone on a deserted island, in an airport without planes and taxis or people. Friends avoided us in the grocery store because they didn’t know what to say. Kenny and I were shopping for groceries one afternoon and I stopped and realized that everything in the shopping cart was Ed’s favorites, I ran out of the store in tears. Another day, a cashier asked me where my husband was, he was always doing our shopping with me. I broke into tears as I finished writing the check. Songs on the radio made me cry, it seemed like all I did was cry! I started telling everyone that I was not crying, my eyes were leaking!
Grieving for Grandma Hober was different; I couldn’t really grieve her death. My sons and I cried and grieved when she lost memory of who we were. It was actually a good feeling that she was released from her pain, she knew her mind was not right. Every day that she had some clarity she cried for the loss of her memory. This is when my doctor told me about Grief Relief as he wrote me out yet another prescription on his sterile white pad in his sterile corner office asking me if I was suffering any further delusions!
I dared not tell him that the cold water was turning itself on, and that footsteps could be heard on the wooden steps leading to our bedroom door about the time Ed usually returned home at night or that I wanted desperately to die, just to be with him. It was very difficult to believe that two men who were still young were gone. It was not natural that they were not old and were gone.
I did not want to believe it, but knew it was true. There was nothing that would have kept Ed away from home, he used to be the man on the truck route who never stopped for any reason, and he brought his meals which were kept in a travel refrigerator. He did not stop for coffee, the other men used to tease him about it.
I forgot important things a lot of the time, things like appointments and even when to show up for work! It cost me a new job that I really enjoyed.
I had my moments when I forgot Ed was gone. I would remark that he was due home soon, or set him a place at the table. I see this more as forgetting they’ve passed because life is so taken for granted, we always believe that we will be here tomorrow. We get used to waking up at 5a.m., being at work by 7, lunch at noon, quitting time at 5, and dinner at 6 that new and unwelcome information is forgotten.
My son and I attended a Bereavement Class through our local Hospice. This is when we learned that a lot of the emotions we were feeling were the same. We shared a lot of magical thinking in both Uncle Kenny’s death and in Ed’s. We learned how angry we both were, we both felt cheated and guilty: we both thought that if we had been there they would both be alive.
My son believed that, “If only I didn’t let Ed leave that night he would still be with us” and “If I had only treated him better, respected him more and not stressed him out, had I not been such an asshole, he would not have had a heart attack!”
I believed that if I was with either of them I could have saved them. Perhaps had I been with my brother we would not have been at John Colburn’s cabin, or I would have not fallen asleep and I would have been watching the grill and making our supper. I believed that I could have saved Ed’s life by performing CPR. Realistically, I know that CPR does not always work, the actual percentage is low.
Until we took the Bereavement class I never realized that Kenny also experienced three losses. My grief was so strong that I really had not thought about how he felt at all. I am so glad that I made him attend this class with me. Initially, it was so that he could drive me home if I was too emotional to drive. I’m glad that I learned that this was not just all about me. Together we began to heal.
Reorganization/Adjust to new environment
I began redecorating our house. I reupholstered the living room furniture, brought out the glass tables that Ed said were pretty, pretty painful every time he banged his knee on them. Purchased new lamps and throw rugs, the entire house got a face lift. Every room but our bedroom.
Moving on/Let go and reinvest
These are the two words I hate most! I prefer to see this as the “Let life find me/us stage”. This is when the world around us begins to come back into our focus again, perhaps blurry, but definitely is reminding us that we are still here.
New traditions were made for the holidays. For years, we went to Ed’s mother’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Mothers Day and Father’s Day were shared at brother-in-law, Jack’s home. Life had changed and our traditions had to also. We continued to have a special holiday meal with Kenny’s mentors, continued to take special rides together to look at Christmas lights, and went Christmas shopping. We still baked Christmas cookies together, Kenny still ate all the burnt ones! We began spending the holidays together, inviting others who had no family or no place to go otherwise.
I talk to Ed every day and sometimes swear that he is whispering in my ear! This is either because he is or because “Eddyisms” live in my subconscious. I would much rather believe he is whispering. Ed had a race car and we raced on the dirt oval tracks, there are nights in the summer which I go to Dixie Speedway because I still love the sport. It does make me feel connected to him while I am there and sadly, feel like he is being left behind at the end of the show.
This began twenty-four days into my widowhood, but I did not know it that night. This was the night that Widows Forty Something and Under was founded at Yahoo! Clubs. A single prayer was said as the “Found this Club” button was clicked. I prayed, “Please, God, let this club help at least one other person besides me.” It took time for others to join and become members, but after membership began to grow, so did healing, for my members and for me.
Widows 40 Something was different from the other loss of partner groups, we laughed here! W40?&U began bonding into a family! These family members “Get it”. They understand in their own ways and in like ways what it feels like to lose a husband or wife. We laugh and cry together and share our lives on a day-to-day basis. In the last 13 years, I have watched members children grow up through photos, shared their lives through stories of school plays and proms.
Most of all, W40?&U gave me my life back too! Four years later, I decided that I wanted to become a professional Bereavement Counselor. My life took on a purpose, a reason that I did not die in Ed’s place as I had bargained for on many occasions.
In February of 2004, I either sold or gave everything away that I owned, even possessions that were dear to me like my grandparents’ antique bedroom set. I relocated to Atlanta, Georgia with dreams of attending Georgia State University to study Psychology.
In September 2004, I became one of the five Inaugural Honorees with State Farm’s Embrace Life Award for the dedication to Widows Forty Something and Under. I was invited to a gala luncheon in New York City where Connie Peyton, wife of National Football League legend Walter Payton, was the keynote speaker at the Tavern on the Green. I was lodged in none other than the Four Seasons Hotel. Among those I was honored with included: Representative Joanne Osmond from Illinois for passing a bill to put Defibrillators in gyms and public building; Jenna Jacobs-Dick from Connecticut for her organization, September Smiles, for those widows with children whose husbands were killed in the towers on 9/11; Debbie Forrest from Arizona for leading her children in fundraising hundreds of thousands of dollars for various charities. Debbie was also awarded National Parent of the Year by the American Family Coalition. Beatriz Gomez of New Mexico was honored for her successes in taking over the family construction business after her husband passed in 1975. All of the ladies that I was honored with are amazing, caring, and loving women who I would love to reunite with. Their successes as well as the Embrace Life Award itself continue to inspire me every day.
In May of 2008, I began attending Kennesaw State University at the urging of a client with my cleaning business. Todd told me that, “You are too smart to be cleaning my toilet!” He did not know my dreams or aspirations for moving to Atlanta.
– Memorial service
Ed personally requested NO FUNERAL; he did not want people looking at him after he was dead. Arrangements were made in lieu of a funeral by inviting family and friends to Sharon Speedway to scatter his cremains. I made it possible to do this on a day when everyone was able to be there. There are many days that I felt having no service for him robbed me of closure. I never viewed his body after he passed, mainly because I knew how he felt about anyone seeing his dead body. I highly recommend to others to at least personally say good-bye, do not allow others to stop you under any condition. I was not permitted to drive due to medications I was taking when he passed and his closest family member denied taking me to Harrisburg and I felt the trip was too long to ask any friends to drive for me. For the longest time I would catch myself trying to get a good look at any driver of an orange truck. I even found myself pulling into truck stops behind them, my heart would jump when the man had long grey hair, but my heart would break all over again when it was not Ed. Do find a way to say good-bye!
– Creation of an altar or space in memory
A single end table in the living room held a cropped photo of Ed and me in a special frame decorated as a wedding frame (he hated his picture taken and we had no photos at our wedding). This sat beside a vase which held a handful of his cremains. A friend who became a widow two months before me gave me two red roses and five white roses for the vase. The red roses represented Ed and Mare, the five white roses represented two things: a pure love and the five years that we were together total. His Second Amendment Bible, obituary, and a few keepsakes were also included.
– Speaking to the deceased
I still do thirteen years later! At those moments when I believe he has whispered some usual smarty pants remark to me, I sometimes look to heaven and remark, “Hush up, Ed!” because life would not be the same without that! I do not always share these things; sometimes it just keeps me from feeling so lonesome.
– Creation of a memory book, collage, quilt, painting. Writing a letter or poem. Sharing stories. Displaying photos
Widows Forty Something and Under Writing to my online family is journaling. We share poetry and stories we have written in our files area, we have photos of our old lives and our new lives in photo albums. Over the years, Yahoo! Clubs has become Yahoo! Health Groups and many early entries from our archives are now missing. Many of them were of my personal writings to members.
I know, and will never forget, what matters most: how bleak and hopeless my bereavement felt, how alone and vulnerable life was and how lonesome the world became. That is part of why I still am the administer and founder of the group because I had no real support from family or friends. I do not want others to have no support, they deserve to have what was not available to me in 2000 and as long as I am able to provide them with love and teach them how to Embrace life with Wisdom, Strength, Grace and Courage one day at a time, I will continue.