Matters of Life and Breath

by Susan Jean VandePol

Susan Vande Pol

I’m not sure why, but I always seem to start with the memory of watching him breathe whenever I sit down to write. Sitting in the little stuffed chair in the corner of our bedroom was something sacred as I stared, often without blinking, at the rise and fall of his chest. His breathing was so shallow and labored towards the end. Maybe I thought that if I kept watching, he would keep breathing.

Bob Ortega was a beloved member of the Los Angeles City’s finest, and though he died on that rainy day in April, he still is. If you are a Firefighter, you’ll know what I mean.

Bob Ortega

He’s the guy you think of when you say “Firefighter.” He was the best of them. You may not think it a virtue to brag about… but he was “meek,” primarily because of his absolute faith and trust in God. While mercy, kindness, gentleness, and self-restraint are part of the fruit of meekness, it does not mean “weak;” it means “strength under control.” The impact of Bob’s life and character continues to teach us to this day, and the kids and I continue to grow in our love and admiration for him, even as the years have passed.

There is an emotional contradiction that wreaks havoc in those who have cared for a loved one with a long, cruel illness like Lou Gehrig’s Disease. We want it to end, and we want it to keep going. We want it to be like the joyful trauma of giving birth, but the opposite is true. There is no exhaustion like that of helping someone live and die all at the same time. The relief is palpable when it’s over, as is the grasping. One doesn’t “get over it” nor does one simply “move on.” But for grief to be healthy, it must be expressed. It must “move.” Grief itself longs for purpose, and though humanity’s first question is always “Why?” the answer eludes us. But for the kids and I, we have learned that God gives more than an answer because an answer wouldn’t be enough anyway.

We gave our torn hearts and un-mendable pain to God, as we do all the other parts of our lives, but to be honest, we weren’t looking for any “purpose.” We just wanted him back.

The words came to me for the first time while I was sitting in that same little stuffed chair in our bedroom – “Speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.” I had been sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe, and when I finally came up for air, there it was. It didn’t make sense to me, but it was abundantly clear. In the middle of my splintered heart, God was giving more than the answer I sought.

As it turns out, the origin and meaning of the word “widow” means “unable to speak.” But I didn’t know that at the time.

Most people think that widows are all elderly and that there are only a few of them, and that someone else is taking care of them. But as the call of God’s invitation remained, I began to find out that wasn’t true. The widows I met were mostly my age. I was 47 when I was widowed. I found out that we were all going through similar and usually extreme difficulties. And then the call from that day began to lay itself out and I was reminded: “Speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.” And a plan emerged.

Firefighters are a profoundly close-knit family. When they lose one of their own, the grief cannot be understood by an outsider. In the midst of it, they wanted to help us, but they didn’t know how. They needed a way to express their grief that wouldn’t compromise their masculinity, the integrity of their department or family. They needed bullet-points, but there were none in their training manuals. Remember, a firefighter’s grief needs to be expressed to be healthy too, and without that expression, trauma compounds and takes its toll.

A widow needs help from someone she trusts, but to ask for help can seem an insurmountable task. Remember – she is “unable to speak.” I’m not being dramatic here. She is now single, and her pain causes a raw vulnerability that wasn’t there before. Who does she call to come over and fix the plumbing that her husband always fixed, or who can help her with the legal issues, or counsel her on financials, or how to decipher the lingo of selling the home where her husband took his last breath.

If she calls a firefighter, what does he tell his wife when he spends hours with the newly-widowed wife of his friend? What are her real needs anyway? Who pays for the help? Who follows up? Who makes sure she doesn’t fall through the proverbial cracks? It gets more complicated than can be imagined, and it’s already life’s most complicated circumstance. This is just the tip of the icy glacier that we call grief.

You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? She’ll get over it.”

No. She won’t. Nor should she have to because life is sacred. But there’s a right way to do it. It’s easier than you know, and harder too. It will take the rest of her life, but if you walk with her, she’ll thrive and so will you. If you walk with her, you can make it count. If you walk with her, her kids will learn to walk with honor and integrity. Her screams into her pillow at night will become less frequent, and she’ll have hope.

When we step in and come alongside a grieving widow, and stick with it, after a time, the desperate clawing for her husband begins to soften, and she can begin to look up and see clearly. She can begin to honor him, and that breathes life into what she thought was forever lost. Forgetting him isn’t an option. Repressing or ignoring grief makes it worse. So, we face into grief when others want to look away. We “remember” intentionally. And that means we need a plan.

After a firefighter takes his last breath, and after his wife tries to catch hers, what do you do? Here you go:
Matters of Life and Breath

Now you can speak for those who can’t speak for themselves too.


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