In May of 2017, my wife Ashli died at the age of 45. A few times I tried to write about it here, to share the tragic news with my cousins that read this journal. I thought that writing about it would help me to deal with it, but I couldn’t do it then. The emotions were too raw. Even now, seventeen months later, opening up about it is only slightly less painful.
Through the gray days of grief, I would often make little observations to myself about how people reacted to her death and interacted with me. I’ll post of few of them here to clear my thoughts.
There will be some swearing.
When Did She Die?
I’m not even sure when Ashli actually died. She went into cardiac arrest on Friday, 28 April, as the paramedics were taking her into the ambulance. They performed life-saving measures there and got her back. She went into cardiac arrest again in the emergency room, this time for around twenty minutes.
The hospital kept her sedated over the weekend and attempted several procedures to reduce the swelling of her brain. Brain damage was likely considering the amount of time she’d been in cardiac arrest in the ER.
On Monday, her doctors and nurses all gathered in the room to see if she could survive without a ventilator. That was the moment of truth. If she took a breath on her own, she’d probably live, albeit with some kind of impairment. If she could not breathe on her own it would be because the damage was too significant.
She could not breathe without the ventilator, so she was declared brain dead on 1 May 2017.
Ashli was an organ donor, so they kept her body alive. We had a memorial service in her room on Tuesday, then she was prepared for organ donation.
Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network is the group that handled that process. Our contact there, Jenny, was amazing. She helped us prepare some things to remember Ashli, gave me some workbooks on grieving for the kids, and helped settle some of the hospital bills related to the donation. I cannot say enough good things about her.
When is a person really dead? Is it when the brain goes? Or is it when the body expires? Ashli’s mind left on 28 April, but some time after 1 May is when her body really died.
Ashli’s body was cremated in accordance with her wishes. The kids picked out a beautiful flower-etched urn that has become its own memorial to mommy as they decorate it and hang pictures nearby.
The bastards cremated her on her birthday, 17 May. Though, I suppose Ashli might think that fitting.
A short time after Ashli was declared dead, her father asked me, “What are your plans for the future?”
I realize now that he meant well, acting out of concern for me and the children. But my thought at that moment was, What the fuck?! Your daughter just died! I simply said, “I don’t even know what I’m doing on Friday.”
Later that same day, my mom asked me, “So, what are you going to do with them kids?”
I had a similar reaction to mom. What the fuck? Do you think I’m just going to wish them into the cornfield? “Raise them,” I said incredulously.
“How did she die?”
This is the first, and most annoying, question people would ask upon hearing the news. I am standing there emotionally destroyed, struggling just to speak the word “died” without breaking down, and now you want details?!
In the days that followed, Ashli’s mom would call every couple of days and take me back to those dreadful moments. Was there anything she said? Were there any signs? Was there something we missed? Tell me everything again.
No. Just, no.
My employer pays only four days of bereavement leave. It was not enough. I took three unpaid weeks off from work, and I really needed to take six months. I couldn’t afford that, so I returned to work and remained in a zombie-like state for several weeks, not giving any fucks about anything.
“If there’s anything I can do…”
I can’t tell you how many times someone said this to me.
“Well, now that you mention it,” I would say, “I could use some help paying the hospital bills.”
Then a panicked look would cross their face, and they’d back out of the commitment they just made. Oh, I didn’t really mean anything, that look would say.
“Okay, I need someone to watch the kids while I…”
And there would be that look again.
Don’t ever – EVER – say that phrase to someone unless you mean it.
Sometimes I would try to open up to my friends about what I was going through in the days that followed. Some of them would, with no ill intent, suggest that I talk to someone else – a grief counselor.
Discussing death makes people uncomfortable. I get that. But I didn’t want to talk to some stranger. Friends and family have a history together, and a kind of verbal shorthand develops between people where ideas and feelings and references can be conveyed with just a few words. You don’t get that familiarity with a grief counselor.
If a friend wants to talk to you, be a friend and listen. Don’t ask questions, don’t say anything. Just… listen.
Dying Is Expensive
Ambulance rides. Hospital room. Medication. Tests. More medications. Medical procedures. More tests. And then, the dreaded eventuality of death.
The medical plan provided by my employer is pretty good. It cut down the total of my bills from the hundreds of thousands to just the tens of thousands. Life insurance policies covered most of the remaining costs, but I still have one unpaid hospital bill that went to collections.
If you are one of those people that say things like “If there’s anything I can do…” and mean it, there is something you can do! I started a fundraising page at GoFundMe last year to help out with the bills, and it only raised half of its goal. Please consider helping.
And if you really want a description of how she died, it’s on the GoFundMe page.
Well, that’s it for now.