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Debbie: "Welcomed with open arms and open hearts."

Debbie and her three young girls lost her husband and their father to ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — when the girls were preschool age. Dealing with the decline of their husband and father was hard enough; dealing with his death was harder. Debbie stayed focused on her children but didn’t have any opportunity to grieve herself, until she found the Caring Place.

A Love Story Cut Short

My husband, the girls' daddy, died of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was officially diagnosed at the tender age of 38. He was gone from our lives by 41.

Those were, without a doubt, three of the most devastating years of our lives, as we watched his daily demise. Knowing that without a miracle, his future was dim.

Up until then, he was just a regular guy. Filled with passion, hope, desires and dreams. He was also my best friend … and ours was a love story cut short.

His most important role, I believe, was that of husband and father. He was the girls’ "best daddy" and his life revolved around his girls.

He was active in our church and community, and very involved in our girls’ lives. He appeared to be the picture of health — an avid runner, even training for a marathon. We thought we were "livin' the dream." But, not so, as our life took a fatal twist, and I found myself a widow by age 39, left with four daughters, ages 4, 2 and 1.

When he died, we were all left with a huge hole in our hearts. Broken hearts and broken dreams. A void that seemed like it would never be filled.

"You Are Never Prepared for Death"

And though in theory it appeared that we should have been "prepared" for his death — as we had had close to three years to watch our nightmare unfold — I have since realized that whether your loss is sudden, or the result of a prolonged illness, you are never prepared for death. Because people always hope that in the 11th hour their loved one will be miraculously restored, and that they can continue on with their life as they used to know it.

When I awoke that day after he died … in my own bed (and not in a hospital room) and felt the most rested I had in years … for I had had my first full night's sleep in about three years … the truth hit me like a Mack truck. I felt rested, and was in my own bed, for only one reason. And that was because he was gone.

From that moment on, our life would never look the same again. It was the most terrible moment of my life … surreal … empty … horrible … void.

And although my daughter's words at his memorial service rang true — "I am happy my dad’s in heaven dancing with his new arms and legs" — the joy that his suffering was over meant that ours had only just begun.

Focused on Survival

So started a very new, very unwanted chapter of our life. One where I was no longer a partner in a marriage, one where I was now a single parent in a broken family. Where my role was no longer activity director and coordinator of all things fun.

Instead, I was now the lawn boy … the house maintainer … the accountant and financial advisor, the spiritual mentor, the fixer of broken toys and things … and most importantly and most challenging, the comforter of broken little hearts — and one big one. I was the "head of the household" — a job unsought and undesired.

And so, the meltdowns began, and felt excruciating as I began the process of dealing with this loss.

But as the mother of three little girls, my priority was making sure that they were alright, and I was focused solely on survival. I had to put my grieving on hold … hold it in … repress my tears.

Outwardly I don’t think most would have guessed how blown apart I was inside. For I presented as the picture of being "together" … my kids always dressed immaculately … and presenting as picture perfect.

I was so determined to come out on top, that every day I slapped a smile on my face, and forged ahead. So, it appeared that all was well. But that was far from the truth. Each day was a tremendous struggle … and each day felt very long and very lonely.

It wasn’t even the big things that set me back — like holidays and the anniversary of my husband’s death … for I mentally braced myself and prepared for them. It was the little things …

Like the day I went to vote for the first time … and as I went to sign in, I saw his signature above mine … and I instantly felt the tears well up in my eyes … and a flash of "hot" flow through my body … and I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me … but instead there I stood, violently blinking back the tears … hoping no one would notice … and worse yet … ask … and not really caring who I voted for that day. I just wanted out … FAST.

It took us two years before we learned about the Caring Place. And in those two years, we continued to struggle to stay on top emotionally. We were in total survival mode, just making it through the day.

It wasn’t until we started attending the Caring Place that I realized that I was really very "normal" … not some freak with frequent meltdowns and mood swings and an inability to make a plan — or worse yet, to execute it (which is a very difficult place to be for someone Type A who likes things to all make sense).

I learned that it was in fact "normal" when I felt like I was in a fog of constant confusion with a brain that seem distracted and fragmented, with lack of focus (no matter how hard I wanted it not to be that way) … and years of insomnia … while being exhausted all day.

A Safe Haven

At the Caring Place, we found a sense of hope again. The Caring Place became a safe haven for us. A pathway of healing and rediscovery. A place of reinventing a new normal, while being supported, encouraged and benchmarked by people who truly felt our pain, and "got" us. A refuge for our broken hearts and dreams. A place where the girls and I felt "normal" even if only for two nights a month. A place where, when we walked through the doors, we were welcomed with open arms and open hearts.

It didn’t matter if we had puffy eyes or tear-stained faces. All who cared for us did so with smiles on their faces and open arms. It didn’t matter how small or large our issue. Those at the Caring Place supported us, listened to us, comforted us, offered counsel to us and "carried" us.

And as a single mom of three "babies," they gave me a break, a designated time and safe place where I could let down my guard and be "real," without judgment or critique. A place where it was OK to be "broken." A place where I could be a person, too.

In our darkest hours, the Caring Place offered our family somewhere to turn where we felt totally understood and accepted when life simply just didn't seem to make sense.

Because the work of grieving is hard and slow … and the learning curve feels long and lonely.

And although we live far from the facility, and had to drive over an hour to get to the Caring Place, we continued coming back and forth for two years in a row because we needed to. My kids so wanted to come; they never made a peep when I tossed them into the car. They jumped in willingly — and wantingly. That trip down and back became a special part of our lives … a time to focus on each other without distraction. A time to chat on the way down, and debrief on the way home.

The girls knew that when they walked through the doors at the Caring Place, they were in a special place. It became a safe haven for us. A place where their well-being mattered. A place where people truly cared. And a place where they could eat as much pizza, pop and cookies as they could handle.

And maybe even shove in their pockets to take home.

The girls also found their voices there … even if their voices were in the form of paintings, sticky craft creations, with tons of glitter or clay. And most of all, they learned to open their hurting hearts to others. And that it was "OK."

During our tenure at the Caring Place, we met many other broken families and formed some of our deepest friendships. People I would have likely never met. But who became such a blessing to us, as together we cared for each other and encouraged each other back to stability. A place where twice a month I could "unload" … uninhibited … and know that I would receive unconditional support, from both volunteers and families alike.

As the Caring Place helped the girls, it also offered me a place where I too found support and solace, resources and coping skills — and a prepared meal, a time to gather with others over a meal — knowing that meal time can be so lonely as it is a constant reminder of what is "broken" in our lives — time to unwind, and a time to just "breathe."

Our second year, realizing that the girls were doing better, after having spent the prior four years repressing my own feelings and almost operating as emotionally "numb," I finally found my voice at the Caring Place as well … mostly in the form of tears.

"How's Your Heart Doing Today?"

For yes, we had a strong faith, a wonderful network of friends, my family, and unmatched determination. But even with all of the faith, friends and determination in the world … we had had a missing piece. A piece that we found in the Caring Place.

Every night for years as I put my girls to bed … I would lay with them … rub their backs … hold them tight … and ask them, "How's your heart doing today?"… and night after night I heard, "Not so good Mom." Followed by heart-wrenching tears.

Last fall, cuddling close to my oldest daughter, I asked her "How's your heart doing today, Gabrielle?" and she said, "It's good Mom. It's really good." And then she turned to me, smiled and asked, "How's your heart doing today Mom?" And I told her, "Good Gabrielle. It feels really good."