Updated: Jun 27, 2020
| This is the 337th story of Our Life Logs |
When it happened, everyone claimed that the grief would only last a year until I was able to move on, so I consoled myself with this small hope of a future without tears. But as time passed, I discovered that “everyone” was wrong. Grief became a part of me. What was I to do?
I was born on May 17, 1950, in Sibley, Iowa, on a farm to innovative parents. Dad only had an eighth-grade education, but he was very smart despite this, always finding ways to use his land to make extra money—more so than the average farmer. I was the second oldest child of nine, always the peacemaker, and I always had a place in the kitchen alongside Mom (though I tried my best to hurry so I could go outside and play!).
Growing up, I attended public school and went on to become a full-fledged registered nurse. Around the same time I graduated, I met my husband, John. From the start, I knew I really liked him. He was tall and clean shaven, and he had an adventurous spirit that sparked a twinkle in his eye, much like my father. I loved everything about him.
John and I got married on October 7, 1972. We started our married life living in a duplex, then moved to a home, after John came home and said, “We should move.” He worked for a lumber company who surprised us with an offer to help build us a house. It was a dream come true.
Over time, we had four beautiful children who became the center of our world. They grew up, they went to college, and we laughed and loved for the next 41 years together. John always made life fun in little ways to break up the pace of everyday life. He never let a year pass without enjoying the unique fact that we both shared a birthday. I still remember the delight on his face when the servers brought two slices of free birthday cake to our table!
Some of our best memories outside of our children were the times when we played racquetball and tennis together. Because John was into sports, he wanted me to be in it too. I fought him on it until he agreed to play left-handed to give me the upper hand. Despite handicapping himself to make me more comfortable, he still always beat me. In our 60s he still played tennis a couple times a week.
Life wasn’t all bliss, but our love never wavered. We were together, and we were happy. That’s what mattered.
Then, the unexpected happened. John had been in excellent health all his life, but one day in 2013, he came home doubled over from violent stomach pains. I was frantic and took him to the emergency room immediately.
They said it was pancreatitis. I felt good about his diagnosis because as a nurse I knew that this was treatable. But his symptoms quickly moved beyond pancreatitis. John was unable to eat, so he just got weaker and weaker. They put him on every antibiotic known to man, but his body continued to be overrun with infection. Eventually, he couldn’t even walk because of how weak he was.
For the three months while he was sick, I was in denial. There was no way he wasn’t going to make it, I told myself. I needed him. I especially had faith he would get better when the priest came and gave him the last rites and he somehow perked up for a few hours. But it didn’t last. Soon, I could hear his terrible tight cough getting worse.
“Just keep me comfortable,” he said. I just knew then. My best friend, my love, my husband…was dying.
I knew he had such a fear of medicine and hospitals so I sat with him, holding his pale hand and praying for him. John took his last breath on December 21, 2013.
I didn’t cry at first. I remember frantically thinking, are you there, John? Where are you? Are you in heaven? Are you floating somewhere above my head in spirit form? I wasn’t really able to process what was happening. I just wanted my husband back.
After the funeral, the tears finally came, and I was overwhelmed with grief. I comforted myself by saying that it was his time to go. People had comforted me at the funeral by saying that grief got easier after a year. “It’s only a year, I can do it,” I assured myself.
One year passed. Two years passed. I was expected to wake up and move on, but the lump inside my throat only seemed to grow. Sometimes it was like my mind would go numb and I couldn’t see anything positive. Before, I had always known where he was, whether it was playing racquetball, coaching baseball with his buddy, eating supper, or sleeping. And now, he was just…gone.
One day, as I stared at the walls and floors of the home we built together, I found myself still waiting for him to come home. I felt like screaming, “John! Where are you?” Suddenly, when the silence of my loneliness filled my heart, it finally became real. The grief was the only thing that remained.
I realized I need a new plan to get by and feel better. I started by moving. The emptiness of our house soon became a burden. I didn’t know how to do the upkeep and I didn’t trust anyone to help me. I decided to move to a condo with two bedrooms to make it easier on myself. As I packed up my things, I felt empty and alone. Leaving all those memories behind made me miss John even more.
When I was finally all packed with my boxes, I kept hesitating when the time came to leave, like maybe I had forgotten the one thing inside our home that would make everything go back to normal. But that was just wishful thinking. Finally, I climbed into the driver’s seat of my car and turned the key. It was one of the hardest moments of my life.
Just when I thought my grief would never lighten, a song came on the radio that gave me hope I hadn’t felt since John died. The lyrics were exactly what I needed to hear.
Yesterday is a closing door
You don’t live there anymore
Say goodbye to where you’ve been
And tell your heart to beat again
I took a deep breath and received the words as if they were coming straight from God as tears rolled down my face. I felt like I was finally healing and that I was not alone.
I found the courage to start exercising again. It was a positive first step in taking care of myself in the way I always had when John was there with me. The first day I went to the gym after John died, I decided to try out pickleball, which was a new sport for me, a new memory, a new start.
As I entered the courts, I looked up, and to my surprise, I noticed that a few of John’s old buddies just happened to be playing pickleball too. I saw Mike, who played tennis with John, and I saw Jim, who taught all my kids in school. I saw Dotty, whose husband had coached baseball with my husband. They welcomed me to join in and play with them and I had so much fun. As we left from playing that day, they told me that the YMCA had put John’s name on the racquetball court because he had played so much.
Walking to my car afterward, I felt as if John was smiling down on me. I realized at that moment that I wouldn’t have been playing pickleball if it hadn’t been for John. Those skills he taught me were still alive in me. And his memory was alive in me and in his friends. Suddenly he didn’t seem so far away.
Since then, I’ve talked about my grief with others who have lost someone. Recently, I went on a widows’ retreat with four women from my parish. We liked the retreat so well that I decided to start a group at my own parish to help those in grief feel less alone. We have it down to a science that if we need someone to go to a movie with or go shopping with, we can give one of them a call.
I’ve become myself again. I feel comfortable knowing that while John’s body is gone, he isn’t. I can still see him and feel him in the love he spread over the earth. If I want to communicate with him, I still can. After all these years, I’m still giving him a “honey-do” list. I am grieving in a healthier way now, knowing there will always be times when I am sad, and that is okay. I will miss John until we meet again.
This is the story of JoAnn Sipple
JoAnn currently lives in Rochester, Minnesota, where she remains an active pickleball player. When her husband, John, died, JoAnn learned that grief was not something that passed by quickly. Through the support groups she attended, she learned that grief is unique to each individual. By reaching out for help and taking time to grieve, she has been able to find the healing she needs, not only to move on, but also to help others find the same healing in their own lives. She has six grandchildren whom she loves very much. Whenever she can, she spends time with her family hiking, playing board games, going out on the lake, reading stories, and just chatting. She remains an active member of her church community, while also gardening and managing beehives with her son. The John she knew on earth is the one JoAnn now talks to in her prayers, asking him to talk to God on her behalf, especially to pray for their children and family.
This story first touched our hearts on October 17, 2018.
| Writer: Mary Flanagan | Editor: Colleen Walker |