Category Archives: When the Other Parent Dies

Finding Safe Harbor

“Hi, my name is Jen.  I bring my daughter Stephanie tonight.  She is 16 years old.  On July 2, 2017 we lost her father, my ex-husband and dear friend,  after his  81 day battle with Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer.  He was only 50.”

These are the words I say as I introduce myself at Safe Harbor, a bereavement support group run out of Abington Hospital.  WTF?

I can remember the first time I had to say those scripted words…it was during Stephanie’s Safe Harbor orientation  – just the two of us and one staff member.  That time started with a video and then masterfully  moved us through the rooms.  We were eased into the healing power and raw emotion of the space.  There were books about grief, blankets of comfort, games and cushy pillows.  They knew we would need time to process the art on the walls….the sadness of an unknown child who simply colored “Daddy I miss you” on her picture.   You realize you are there because you child is not ok and needs this level of support. I hoped and prayed that this would help.  At the end of that first visit Steph and I  practiced that scripted introduction they have written for you – that parents and children say as each session starts.  I was so grateful for the practice as I choked on the words – I would not have wanted to debut that in front of a crowd.

How did we find ourselves at Safe Harbor – a program that requires a scheduling extravaganza every Wednesday as we pick-up early from cheer practice, have a quick dinner and then make the 45 minute drive to Abington, PA – arriving home by 8:30 pm exhausted?

Because this past September my youngest was angry at just about everything in her life.  From her cheer stunting to doing the dishes of others – anything would set her off.  The coaches called…I dried her tears when she would rage about life being unfair.  She would hear how a kid was mad at his dad and think how she would kill to be fighting with John.  Her friends didn’t understand and she didn’t expect them to.   While I agreed her life was unfair, I was firm that she needed to learn to control her anger  – it was not going to serve her.  The guidance counselor and therapist were amazing but she needed peers who understood.   She needed to be able to talk to other teens and be able to cry…and laugh…and remember her father with other kids who knew her loss.  I had heard about Safe Harbor and cried during the intake call asking the volunteer on the other end of the phone to “please help my child.”  I felt like I was failing to help her and knew I was doing the right thing.  It was just another weird event in a series of weird events that had started on April 12th – day 1 of the 81.

Stephanie jumped at the chance to attend – she knew she needed it.  And now she won’t miss a session for anything.  It has become so important that my older daughter will volunteer to drive home from college to take her down if I think I might be late in getting here to Abington (the older daughter is amazing and can be found here).

There is an optional parent component available while Steph is off with the teens – and while it sounds strange, I go.  I was hesitant to join at first thinking that it would be filled with spouses who had lost – and really what could I contribute to that?  I was shocked to learn that while there are spouses there are also ex’s like me – who were friends with their ex and equally devastated he/she is gone – and some grandparents as well who lost their own child and now raise a grandchild.  I have mad respect for them.

There is kvetching and commiserating.  We share our great ideas on helping our children through the process and pass around the tissue box when we admit that helplessness overwhelms us.  Our children are processing a grief that we ourselves have never experienced.  For those with teens we share how hard it is to carry our children through the saddest time of their lives while struggle to give them the independence they crave.  We talk about our shared disappointment  towards the family of the parent who died (married or not – it just doesn’t go well).  It is a Breakfast Club type of group filled with people I probably wouldn’t bump into in my normal circles, and I have come to cherish them.

Steph has learned that whatever she is feeling is just all ok.  She has also realized, all on her own, to appreciate the time she had with John and knows that in many ways big and small she is actually lucky.  Her school and home remained stable, she didn’t have to move.  She has a big blended family that, while loud and annoying, is here to support her unconditionally.  And, most importantly, she knows that John would have fought for more days with her – for just one more hug- there are many children at Safe Harbor dealing with the loss of a parent who chose to permanently leave.

Last week I shared with the group how well my daughters were doing.  This was not bragging, I was sharing my amazement.   The big one has amazed herself by just surviving since she originally thought her world would fall apart.  The middle one is  moving through her senior year like a champ, missing her buddy desperately but determined as ever to make him proud.  The little one flying through Junior year with friends, hopefully a driver’s license in the coming weeks, and knows the void he left can not be filled.  I shared the amount of support I put in place for them – the maneuvering that is done  – the pixie dust I sprinkle – sometimes they realize sometimes they do not – to relieve any little amount of stress  – the endless number of times I have solved a problem with my credit card.  I share how supportive my amazing husband is and I could not live without the few close friends who check in often and tell me I’m amazing (when you write about me make sure to spell my name correctly – it is Dannielle – with two n’s).

At the end of that last session we went out to the hallway and the teens were coming out of their room.  Stephanie was hysterical – it was a sadness I had not seen in her since she learned the meaning of hospice and that her father would be entering.  Mamma Bear kicked in and I ushered her into a conference room so she could escape and bawl on my shoulder.  I felt my baby fall into my arms as we waited for the others to go down in the elevator. She just kept crying.

What set her off?  She had to talk about it…every last detail.  That night’s session was about organizing thoughts, and learning to be able to speak them…about his illness and his death – the sadness she experienced walking into hospice finding him already unconscious – holding his hand saying goodbye…never talking with him again. You see, the facilitators know what it is like to explain the details to a new college roommate or an employer.  And they want to make sure Steph now has the coping skills that they wish they had had to get through those explanations.

During orientation I didn’t really pay attention to the video – I was not really even able to process the words the narrator was speaking.   I was still in shock that he was gone and was exhausted from watching my children in so much pain.  Stephie was sitting next to me so angry and a little broken.  This is really only for those who can “go there,” but in those moments I pictured John sitting in the chair across from Stephanie – right there at that orientation…just like he had sat near us so many times – at concerts and parent-teacher conferences.  He was looking at her with his usual attitude he saved just for me in these situations,  “Steph, your mom is crazy but always right about this type of thing – god knows she  dragged me to all this  stuff for you guys plenty of times in the past…Stephie, I am sorry you need to be here, but you need this.”

His spirit whispered to her “I love you” as he left us there to heal.

And at Safe Harbor we have both found the perfect place…surrounded by the perfect support system…to do just that.



The 15 Minutes of Fame

As many know, one of my children needed a group of peers whose members had also lost a parent.  And to get her the type of support she needed we found our way to Safe Harbor.  Honestly, not even I, the great wordsmith could do it justice in a sentence – so I won’t try – that is blog for another time which I promise will include the reasons I attend the parent component.  But let’s move on…

I should stop here for a second and warn you that I am not in the best of moods.  So, if you get insulted easily or don’t like complaining, this just isn’t your post.

And at that support group I have met Debbie – she is the Ellen Buschbaum of Safe Harbor – red hair, Jewish, a bit outspoken and absolutely awesome.  If you know how much I love Ellen, you can imagine how glad I am to have Debbie in the group.

A few weeks ago Debbie shared the concept of the 15 minutes of fame.

That time period that surrounds the wake and the funeral – where everyone is around you, supporting you…they make promises that they will be in touch, help and check-in.  My children were promised trips to Jamaica, “we will be there for you,” “we will see you.”  Some in attendance bawled as if they talked with John every day… and as such they attended each and every minute of the activities right through the luncheon.  And then they vanished – the 15 minutes was up.

When Debbie talked about the 15 minutes of fame concept so much was made so clear – the 15 minutes of fame his family and friends needed – to get through – to pretend like they were close – to give speeches and toasts and cry on each other’s shoulders.  Of course now, not one of them can take 15 minutes out of their busy day and call just to see how one of my girls is doing – forget caring about me.

But wait, this is my blog…let’s talk about me for a minute – I’m actually sick and tired of being forgotten.  You see…I’m the one who has to carry said child out of Safe Harbor when she is hysterical after a session…I’m the one who now has raging guilt when I can not attend a swim meet because of a cheer leading event – I have to choose – my children don’t have a parent in attendance.    I’m the one who has to ask my oldest daughter to please come home and work the cheer competition because for me to give up an entire day is completely impossible.  I’m the one who was told I had no rights during the estate process but was saddled with insurmountable debt I now have to pay – and was lied to by his lawyers and family as they kept money for themselves while I paid for three sets of teeth extractions (it was a long weird summer).  Dinner on the night when we have to go down to Safe Harbor?   You would like to cook my contribution for the swim team pasta party?  Oh my gosh I would fall over dead if someone volunteered all that.

I get it, I’m the ex – but you would think that would make his side want to be even more involved – to make sure he was represented. But don’t worry – I got that too – scrapbooks of his entire life for Christmas – yeah, I did those – even though his family did not contribute one stinkin’ picture.  And, let’s not forget the squares – that the family fought me on as well   For the record – attending graduation is not supporting a child – nice gesture – but it is in the day to day – it is down in the trenches where the kids really need the help – where it gets hard – where so much has to be done and schedules are stretched thin.  Where you know they crave the other parent and I’m the only one available.  It would be REALLY NICE to have his side represented once in a while.  My side is freakin’ exhausted.

I’m glad they all got their 15 minutes of fame…I’ll be here getting the real work done…all by myself.


The Squares

As many of you know, on July 1, 2017 we lost my ex-husband John Wengler after his 81 day battle with Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer.  At the end of his life I started thinking of how we were all going to move forward and was a bit overwhelmed realizing my responsibility in helping to keep his memory alive .  After all, the girls are young with many milestones ahead, and he certain deserved to have some special presence.  I needed a way to very simply infuse him into moments of their lives honoring him without being overwhelming, since I was going to be the one who was present for them all.

And so was born the idea that is now known now as “The Squares.”

John had a love and collection of Hawaiian shirts, and was often made fun of for his lack of fashion sense.  Upon his death I was certain that no one would make a claim for these shirts.  And they could be the subtle yet powerful token to help me out.

I had each of the girls place a square with him as they said their final goodbye and then  I shared that I would make sure a square would be sewn into special moments of their lives – like graduation gowns and Christening blankets.  Sometimes I just cut a square of a shirt and write simple words and phrases like “18th birthday,” “drivers permit,” – and leave them on pillows on special days.

They aren’t meant to be messages from beyond.  They are meant to remind the girls that during moments big and small his spirit in them lives on as they move forward.  I have learned that they keep the squares in special places and cherish the pile they are building.

I have struggled with the “is this really my job” when it comes to honor his memory – after all, he was my ex-husband.   But he was a close friend, my co-parent – and I feel obligated to honor the peace we had – and I do this for my children – who lost a very special father way too young.

So, from now until eternity his memory will “own” the Hawaiian print – I’m convinced no one else will lay claim to it – certainly not the fashion industry.

Behind the Scenes

I exhausted myself staying one-step ahead of you – second guessing and overthinking, maneuvering in the background where you couldn’t see, where you would never look.  Putting so much support in place and then camouflaging it in the care of other people.     Ensuring doors opened for you effortlessly.  I built scaffolding that was invisible – well, except to me since I was holding it together, or would have to rebuild it when someone dropped the ball, or forgot, or upset you in some way that was unjust.  And again, so you wouldn’t see it.  And you thought everyone else was amazing and so supportive, with their comments and cards.

The therapy, support groups, guidance counselors and even just talking to the friends of your parents – the time in searching for the right people to talk with, at the right time, just in case you needed them, we needed them, in the future.

And everyone keeps telling you how great you are doing, how he loves you and is looking down, how his strength will get you through, and how much he loves you.  And I continue to hold up each of you like three boulders on my back.  As parents themselves it is like they do not realize what it would take to get you through this in the real world of our lives.  As if his memory is enough to get you through – and I’m just carrying on doing nothing for you.  It is really easy to post a “he loves you” comment on an Instagram post – it is another to reach out and see if you actually need help.

I get the sense that they feel I’m the ex, and the one who is lucky to be alive – they were clear at the beginning with all of the “should’s” for me, especially for my wallet.  Maybe  they can’t even imagine that I would say a kind word about him – or make you scrapbooks they chose not to contribute to.

My unwavering position from the day of his diagnosis was that you would be ok…you would survive the initial shock of the “c” word.  Right from the start my research led me in the scariest of directions, and “no hope” was the best outlook we had.  But then there was the part of me that didn’t want to be the grim reaper – sure, there is hope, maybe he would be the exception, the miracle would happen.  In my heart I hoped but new the gruesome reality of what we were facing.  Where was I wrong, that it would all be over so quickly and I would be left holding a bag of insanity to sort out, almost all on my own.

But now six months later and you have realized that you are going to get through this – where there was no hope you actually see opportunity and your own strength.  You’ve realized, “Oh look, time marches on, life goes on…I’m still standing.”  You are surprising yourself and astounding me with your insight.

Take the “he loves you” comment with a grain of salt – people need to be in the public eye showing support.  For the record there are only a handful of people who have actually reached out to me – and honestly, I talked to them on a daily basis before his diagnosis.


I Deserve Your A-Game

Let’s face it, these last few months have been rough…in fact, since April 12th I have been living under a blanket of fear and sadness.  Fear he would die, fear of what a recovery could be like, fear of my life changing, fear of you and all you would go through with whatever happened.  Sadness that his summer was ruined, that your life had changed so much while he was in the hospital.  Fear he could not come home, and sadness when I realized he never would.  Fear of how to make it without him, and sadness when we finally had to trudge forward after his death.

Through all of it, I have supported you unconditionally, never hesitating in how my life would change with his illness, the announcement of hospice, and then his death.  You have been my first thought always as I neglected myself and just about everything around me to care for you…sometimes just to worry about you – even when you were fine.

You were pissed, angry and upset with all that was going on, and that was understandable.  You are too young, as was he, to go through any of this.  It is not lost on me that you were stuck with bad cop – the stricter parent.  I know he was your buddy and that void must be heartbreaking for you to even think about acknowledging let alone begin to explore it.  But I’m doing everything I can, and I’m going to now demand your A-Game – afterall, I deserve it.

  1. Flush the toilet
  2. Make your bed
  3. Clean your room
  4. Engage at the dinner table (don’t just stare into space).
  5. Do your chores.
  6. Mind your manners
  7. Show kindness to others when they try to help you through
  8. Look for the good in our home
  9. Say good morning and hello
  10. Say thank you

Above all, it is what your father would have wanted.  He would want you to bring your A-Game to our home, to represent him in the best possible way.  He would want you to remain somewhat together, neat, and to realize that this situation is not perfect for anyone.  He would want you to appreciate that while this impacts you the most there are others who have adjusted around you.

We have heard horror stories of other teens who have gone through exactly what you have experienced…and they have not handled it with the grace and success we expect of you.  They go off the rails turning to others and substances to ease the pain and heal the void.  But the void you feel from his loss is so big that there is nothing that could fill it and I will not allow you to dishonor him by trying .  So as you move forward fill the loss with your own success and happiness. Nothing can dumb or dull the pain of his absence.

Luke, I am NOT your father

He cooks your meals, starts your car in the morning when it is cold, and has dinner with your boyfriend.  Takes you on fancy vacations, checks your oil, and hugged you tight when dad announced he was going into hospice.  He has helped your mom in too many ways to count…and held her up through the imaginable of this summer as she struggled to hold you up at that time.   Continue reading Luke, I am NOT your father

The First Birthday After a Parent Dies – Happy Birthday Buddy

The first birthday after a parent dies.  I was told the day was going to suck …and that this day in future years will always suck.  I prepared myself mentally which means I braced for tears…mine and theirs as well.  The oldest has come home to be with us – I arranged for them to go out to dinner with your person.  I’m sending them to Wawa for Treat-yo-Self Friday.

I want to erase this day from the calendar or race through it with lightning speed.  For 30 years or so I have reached out to you on this day…in person and then on text with a Happy Birthday.  You considered it a national holiday – I threw you elaborate parties – and even after our split helped you honor yourself in ways big and small.  I laughed as you always took off from work – and now as I look at all that has happened, I am glad you did.  It is also not lost on me that since your birthday falls in October it is the start of the holiday season – and this year that start is one of dread.

Look, I’m a happy person…glad to be the parent who is alive for sure.  But their pain is so great I want it to be over with already.  I’ll carry them on my back, wipe their tears, give them hugs…but at the end of the day this isn’t very fun, in fact it is profoundly sad.  We all just miss you.

Over these last three months my heart has broken a thousand times for what you are missing – both for you missing it and them missing you –  there have been so many moments each day when my eyes have filled with tears, and other times when I have sobbed.  Drivers permits, college tours, campus drop offs, first days of school, new boyfriends (ughhh to that last one).  I know you aren’t missing it, I can feel your presence, somehow watching over us.  But to not be there with them, for them, and enjoying it all for yourself.

I know that wherever you are, and whatever the temperature, you have a beer in your hand and friends surrounding you.  Just know that we are all sitting here thinking of you..and wishing you were still with us.

Just Keep Passing Out the Peanuts

On April 12, 2017 while attending a conference in Philadelphia I received a text from my ex-husband.  I knew he was also down in Philadelphia, his trip was to visit a surgeon at Penn hospital to remove a growing bump on his neck.

“I have anaplastic thyroid cancer.”

I originally thought, “oh jeeze, like me need this.  But whatever, we will get through it.”   Having never heard of this type of Thyroid Cancer I immediately looked it up.”  Tears filled my eyes, my hands started to shake, and stresses ripped through my body settling with that tingling feeling in my calves as I read…


I immediately asked him what stage he had…afterall, isn’t that one of the first thing they tell you?  I thought of our three teenage daughters…but as I dug a little deeper into the internet from my phone, I learned that this cancer is always stage 4.

As I look back on these last six weeks (it seems like I have been in a time warp, I have realized that at that moment John shared his news with me the plane our little family usually travels on started experiencing extreme turbulence.  And just like a flight attendant, my job would be to stay calm and just keep handing out the peanuts.

But let me tell you, that has not been easy.  He left his original surgery with a tracheotomy and was not able to speak for weeks.  Upon learning the results of surgery (which did not produce the miracle we hoped for), and many times since I have been the one to share news with our three daughters, and none of it has been particular good.  I was the one who told them the actual diagnosis, “dad is back in the hospital.”

I’m just now realizing the importance of writing about this.  My dear sister Susan reminded me of my gift and the cathartic impact.  Not to mention that I have a resounding message, that every divorced parent needs to hear…which will be shared with every post…

For the sake of your children make friends with your ex.  As divorced parents it is the greatest gift you can give to your children.