Sheri is a dear friend of mine that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for several years. We met at the local YMCA, where Sheri’s enthusiasm for fitness and love of teaching kept me coming back to her classes. Over the years, we struck up a solid friendship, and I learned that she had lost her husband some years prior. Not until I interviewed her did I learn the details of her story.
Sheri and her husband Gary met at a party thrown by a mutual friend. All through that night, they flirted and danced, and at the end of the evening, Gary wrote his phone number on a dollar bill and gave it to Sheri. With a grin and a laugh, Sheri recounted that she forgot the number was on the bill and ended up spending it somewhere. Luckily, Gary wouldn’t give up so easily, and talked to their friend about getting in touch with Sheri. It was a good thing too, since they quickly fell in love and got married not long after.
Gary and Sheri were both on top of the world in regards to their businesses, and wanted to live the American Dream. Not long after they were married, they got pregnant with their son, Max. Max was born healthy and happy, and they had the start of a beautiful family. Everything was great.
Gary was a bit of a thrill-seeker. He took up motor-cross racing, which Sheri wasn’t too thrilled about due to the danger factor, especially while they were raising a young son. About the time that Max was 15 months old, Gary went motor-cross racing one morning.
The night before, Sheri and Gary had a big fight, ending up with them sleeping in separate bedrooms. Max was sick, and Sheri and Gary disagreed about Gary going riding the next day while Sheri was taking care of a sick son.
The next morning, Sheri said that something woke her up and made her feel like she needed to go apologize to her husband. They made up and made plans for Sheri to join Gary with Max at the race track if Max ended up feeling better during the day. Gary was dressed in all of his motor cross gear and was getting ready to leave.
Something prompted Sheri to say to Gary as he went to leave, “Hey.” He turned around. “Be careful,” she said compassionately.
About 12:30pm that day, Sheri got a phone call. It was Gary’s friend. Gary’s friend said that he and Gary were riding together and that Gary had been in an accident. He told Sheri not to worry. Gary was alert and talking, and the friend told Sheri that Gary was going to be taken to the hospital.
Gary’s friend was trying his best to keep Sheri from worrying, downplaying the severity of Gary’s accident. He told her, with some attempted measure of levity, that Gary was going to get a helicopter ride to the hospital. He stated they were doing this because the bumpy dirt roads leading to the track weren’t safe to transport Gary on.
One of Sheri’s brother-in-laws came and drove Sheri and Max to Swedish Hospital in Denver. As they were driving towards the hospital, Gary’s flight for life helicopter was landing on the hospital’s roof helipad.
When Sheri got to the emergency room, nobody would tell her anything. Eventually, one of the hospital representatives came to Sheri and her brother-in-law to explain that Gary was in the building, but had no other answers as to his condition. At this point, Sheri had assumed that Gary broke a rib or an arm or something similar. She had no idea about the severity of his injuries, since nobody was telling her anything.
Eventually, the hospital chaplain came to meet with Sheri, which, for anyone who has encountered a chaplain in a hospital, is a scary experience. Chaplains are trained in counseling techniques and are often a first contact with families when family members are dealing with serious injury or life-threatening events.
Finally, Sheri and her brother-in-law were allowed to see Gary in his room. It was Gary’s will that he tell them what had happened and what they were looking at in terms of his injury. Gary was completely alert and composed. He told Sheri that he was in a motor-cross accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. At this time, Sheri was still thinking that his injuries amounted to broken bones, but the truth of the situation was about to sink in.
Gary told Sheri that his spinal cord was completely severed, and that he was going to have to have surgery immediately. He told her that chances were very good that he may never walk again.
Gary had the reputation of that guy who could do anything expertly. Whether it be kite surfing, skiing, or just about anything else, Gary was a natural at everything and could over-come anything life threw his way.
When Sheri heard of his severed spine, she immediately thought, “It’s Gary. He can overcome this.”
After a 17 hour surgery, they stabilized his spine and put in plates. The hospital staff told Sheri that at that point, Gary had less than 1% chance of walking again. Even with this news, Sheri still thought, “But it’s Gary.”
Gary was transferred to Craig Hospital, renowned for its expertise in traumatic brain and spinal cord injury. Sheri became very involved at Craig, raising thousands of dollars for the hospital. Gary was at Craig for four and a half months.
During this time, Sheri was essentially a single parent, taking care of Max full time, working full time, and being at the hospital for Gary.
Gary was fine when he was in the supportive environment at Craig, but when he came home, the reality set in and he was different. Gary went from being a 33 year old who was on top of the world with his marriage and his career, to a man who (he thought) was stripped of his autonomy and manhood.
To deal with nerve pain and other effects of his injury, Gary became dependent on pain killers. Sheri noticed a pattern that either he’d be happy and really high, or would be down and almost falling asleep in his wheelchair, depending on when he had taken his pain killers.
Sheri started asking him about his pill intake, and although Gary showed her his pillboxes, Sheri thought there was something going on.
In September, 2002, Sheri’s mother came out to visit, and they had a nice time. One day, Gary got really sick, with cold sweats and flu-like symptoms. A couple days later, Sheri insisted that he go to the doctor. When he returned from the doctor that afternoon, his mood had drastically improved. Gary told Sheri that the doctor had prescribed a new pain medication called Fentanyl, in a patch form that would release medication over time.
Gary went into his bathroom and locked the door. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be in there taking care of business for 45 minutes or an hour, so the fact that he was in there for a long time wasn’t unusual at first. When their dog became agitated, whining and whimpering at the bathroom door, Sheri knew something was wrong.
Sheri went to the bathroom door and called out to Gary. There was no answer. She knocked on the door, then pounded on it, still with no answer. Sheri’s mother called 911, and Sheri went to get a screwdriver to pry the door open. She found Gary there, slumped in his wheelchair with his head in the sink and his arm out to the side. He was purple and was not breathing.
The 911 operator told them to get Gary out of his wheelchair to perform CPR. When the paramedics arrived after what seemed like an eternity, they worked on him for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, they couldn’t revive him.
In the sink of the bathroom that Gary was in, they found needles. Gary had used the syringes to extract the Fentanyl from the patches and injected it into his veins, similar to a heroin injection. Later on, the coroner said that Gary had enough medication in his bloodstream to kill 5 men.
Sheri recalled that following Gary’s passing, there were times when she didn’t remember how she got through the days. While seeing a psychologist, Sheri said that she wouldn’t cry, but would just sit there and feel numb.
Everyone kept telling her “you’ve got to be strong; you’ve got to keep your job; you’ve got to hold on to your house; you’ve got to stay strong, strong, strong.” She never had the opportunity to grieve. Sheri was suddenly a single parent to a child just under two years old, with a house, a job, and all the responsibilities that come with all those things.
For about two years, Sheri said that she went into a pattern of just going through the motions. She would go to the psychologist and he would tell her that she needed to take care of herself. He remarked that he could see her hipbones because she had lost so much weight. She told me that she was 98 lbs at the time. Sheri would tell the doctor that she was fine, although she later was able to see that this was the opposite of the truth.
Sheri was in a programmed state of mind. She told me that during those two years, she has little recollection, and feels guilty that she doesn’t have a lot of memory of her son, Max, during that period of time.
After losing her job because she just couldn’t function at work, Sheri hit rock bottom. She had the realization that during the past two years, she had missed out on some good years with her son. It took her a while to come to the realization that life goes on, and that her purpose on the world at that time was to be a good parent for her child. It was up to her to start living life again.
One thing that helped get Sheri moving down her healing path was a conversation she had with her mother. Sheri was sitting on the patio one day, and suddenly started crying. Out of nowhere the tears came to her and wouldn’t stop. Sheri said that during the previous two years, she did not cry at all, not even a little bit. She was so closed off that the tears would not come. On that day that the tears finally came, Sheri called her mother. She came to the realization that she never asked her mother how she was doing through everything they went through when Gary died. Her mother was right there too, and Sheri remembered that her mother had been through a similar situation in the past, having found her own husband dead of a heart attack one morning when she came home from church. The fact that she never asked her mother how she was hit her suddenly. They talked on the phone and cried together for a long time, finally letting it all out. This was the first step Sheri would take towards picking herself up again.
Eventually, Sheri forced herself to start going to the gym. She began to take spin classes and eventually began weight training classes as well. Getting out of the house and meeting new people greatly helped Sheri on the road to recovery. The people she met there helped her to start laughing again. Sheri credits her friends, both the new ones at the gym and her old friends that stuck by her side, with getting her through the roughest of times.
Sheri wanted me to tell anybody reading this a few things. “Grieve, mourn, get it out. Don’t hold it in. Don’t let people tell you how to act, or what to do, or what to say. Get it out and don’t suppress your feelings.” Sheri acknowledged the fact that people grieve in different ways and at different paces. But what she really wanted to convey is that if you hold it in, it can have some really bad effects on your life. She lost two years with her son because she didn’t let it out.
“What makes life interesting is how quickly your life can change. At a split-second, one phone call…. One minute everything is great, and the next minute, life is changed forever. And that’s what tragedy does. You can overcome it. You can deal with it. You can say, ‘this sucks, why me?’” She went on, “I think you can look at life a few different ways. You can certainly question, ‘why, why, why? Woah is me. Why me? Why me? Why me?’” She passionately explained that while the questioning is normal, eventually you come to see that you have the choice to move on with life and deal with whatever tragedy you’ve encountered.
“We all have a story. Everybody’s got a story. One may not be as tragic as another, but we all have a story.” These are the words that rang out loud and clear to me: “It is what you do with it. You can either keep yourself down, and choose to live your life that way, questioning things, being resentful, and wondering, ‘why?’”
You have plenty of choices.
“When you feel like you’re at rock bottom, you probably are, but you don’t know that you’re actually there until you actually hit it. Sometimes you have to hit it before you get that reality awakening. But man, oh man, life is definitely worth living. I feel this has made me a stronger person. Unfortunately, sometimes it does take you to hit rock bottom. If I didn’t have my son, I don’t really know where I’d be.” Sheri took the time to honor her efforts in raising Max for the last 10 years. She proudly noted that Max is a good kid. She was happy to say that she has been a good mother and has given Max a great life.
As for what’s important in life, Sheri changed her priorities a bit. She offered me a few tidbits of how to live a better life. “Surround yourself with positive people. Surround yourself with people who have goals and don’t look at life negatively.”
Sheri’s story is a powerful one. There are many things to take from her story, but I’d like to highlight a few.
When you’re moving through a loss, there are really no rules as to how you should feel, or what you should do. Everyone moves through these things differently. Psychologists have outlined stages of grief, which many people are familiar with. These are a decent guideline, but the critics will tell you that no one model of grief, or anything else psychological for that matter, holds completely true for any individual. The best gift you can give yourself is patience, openness, acceptance, and time. They say that time heals, and it really, truly, does.
If you happen to be in the unique position to be a support for someone who is experiencing grief, there are many things to consider. First of all, you are in a fantastic position to give the gift of you to someone else. It can be stressful, draining, and difficult, but moments like those are good ones to throw your energy into. Be there for your friend or loved one, hug them, cry with them, compassionately tell them that it’ll be okay, because someday, it will.
Do not, for any reason, tell the grieving person what to do. It is not your place to pressure your own values or beliefs on someone else. If you do that, chances are that the grieving person will draw away from you. The last thing they need is more stress in their life. Simply sit next to them and listen to them and encourage them that what they’re going through is normal and it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling.
The exception to not telling them what to do is when their own action or lack of action puts them or another in danger. If someone is endangering their lives or the lives of others, appropriate action should be taken.
Everyone grieves at some point in their life, and everyone will likely be called upon to support another in their time of loss. The healing process takes time, and if it is met with openness, understanding, warmth, and plenty of time to recover, things will start to make sense again.
And it all takes time. If you’re moving through grief, be gentle with yourself. Give yourself enough time to process your emotions and be completely in touch with what you are feeling. Even if this takes ten times longer than you think it should, it’s okay. The heart mends in its own due time. Things will get better. Be sure of that in the darkest moments.
Sheri is a warmth and a source of light to those who are blessed enough to be around her. She has been able to make the most of things, and has moved along on her own personal path. Sheri is a Phoenix because she was able to work through her grief and enjoy the life she shares with her friends and family. She rose out of the ashes and brings great things to those she touches. She did it.
You can do it too.