JOLIET – Mary Ann Burns couldn’t wait to show her husband, Jim, their dream townhome.
When Burns was done with the tour, she turned on music and then set the white box that held his ashes on the buffet to await his Feb. 20 interment, the date of his mother’s birthday.
It was a tender moment for Burns, bereavement coordinator at Joliet Area Community Hospice. Jim had entered hospice Sept. 28, the day he and Burns were to close on their newly constructed home.
Jim’s illness – diaphragmatic paralysis – was sudden and unexpected. Jim died Jan. 17, but the snowy weather delayed his burial. Burns, who has helped hundreds of people journey through grief, is now arranging her possessions in the room that should have been Jim’s study and transitioning from the “we” of 43 years to a life of “just me.”
“Our lives were so entwined together,” Burns said. “It’s a day at a time.”
Former New Lenox Park Commissioner Ed Selvas, who lost his wife, Barbara, in 2011 after 49 years of marriage, agreed rebuilding is a process. He loved Barbara ever since he glimpsed her red hair and freckles, and said he swept that full-blooded Italian lady right off her feet. Their marriage was exceptionally close.
“People said we were attached at the hip,” Selvas said.
They battled cancer together in 2005 – nonHodgkin’s lymphoma (Barbara) and leukemia (Selvas), and Selvas was Barbara’s caretaker during her brain cancer. Today, he maintains the life they had together – attending church, taking annual cruises, and improving the immaculately kept house with new windows, roof and patio.
He also still volunteers, chuckling in memory at Barbara’s mandate, “If you take on one more volunteer project, you’ll have to drop one.” Heeding Barbara’s wish that he not be alone is difficult, but Selvas said he’s trying.
“I’ve done some dating this last year,” Selvas said. “It’s nice to have someone to eat with and have someone to call and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got these tickets to a show.’ ”
Keeping occupied is key, said Martha Schoffstoll, of Shorewood. Working as a bookkeeper, as well as sewing and reading, kept Schoffstoll so busy, she didn’t dwell on sadness when her husband, Charles, died 30 years ago.
“I think that women who don’t work have a harder time,” Schoffstoll said. “But I had a job and worked until I was 85.”
Growing as a person
For eight years, Cliff Erwin, of Shorewood, a former Joliet police sergeant, cared for his wife, Shirley, through her many health challenges, a happy turnabout. For almost a decade of their 57 years of marriage, Shirley raised their two sons while Erwin worked two jobs.
Shirley was Erwin’s inspiration.
“She made one hell of a man out of me, in her own way,” Erwin said.
Erwin said he has missed the hugging and hand-holding and even playing cards without checking on Shirley. He resisted suggestions for art therapy, saying “I don’t want to crochet,” until Erwin started making memorial tributes during counseling sessions.
Therapy, Erwin said, enabled him to create a yard others admire, visit nursing homes with his new Shih Tzu named Snuggles and deliver baked goods to cancer patients. It also provided a new network of friends who laugh and cry with him.
Erwin’s advice for the grieving is, “Go to counseling for God sakes and get some therapy.”
Reaching out to others
For Jeanne Noonan, 76, of Naperville, help came through the bereavement minister at her church – St. Mary Immaculate Parish in Plainfield. Noonan now is a bereavement minister at the same church, as well as a volunteer with Joliet Area Community Hospice. She helps lead a hospice grief support group at her church.
Noonan recalled those early days after Robert’s death from cancer 10 years ago. At the time of diagnosis, Robert had just retired and they had moved from Grayslake to Plainfield to be near their children. She being so overcome with grief that she couldn’t remember driving to the grocery store.
“I would tell myself, ‘Take your time, be gentle and it will fall into place eventually,” Noonan said.
New life despite sadness
That seems to be happening for Myra Stuart, 64, of Joliet. After Bradley, Myra’s husband of 40 years, died last year, she took that trip out west they had planned, presented her 19-year-old grandson with Bradley’s SUV and finally gazed upon Mount Rushmore, as Bradley had once done during a business trip.
At Thanksgiving, Myra continued their tradition of serving dinner to the homeless, except her son and brother carved the turkeys this year, not Bradley. She still takes trips with their friends and finds that if she plans ahead for special days – Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries – the sorrow is easier to manage.
“I’m sad because I miss my husband. I miss him with every breath,” Myra said. “But I have to live and I’m going to try to make the best life I can for myself.”
Joliet Area Community Hospice offers a variety of bereavement programs, For information, call 815-740-4104 or visit www.joliethospice.org.