Darin Jensen’s husband, Daniel, died of brain cancer in 2015. He shares some of the challenges he has faced being a 50-something, sole parent to three young children. His ten-year-old daughter, Ella, imagines what life would be like if she still had both of her dads.
DARIN: I think people who haven’t experienced a loss in their lives cannot understand what the void is. the absolute finality of loss. Sadness can be so, so heavy. I remember mornings where I just had to keep it together until I could get the kids delivered, and then I would just lose it in the car, and I would scream, and, and cry, and just really wail, and, and pounding on the steering wheel and I remember at times pulling over because I realized I could not be driving safely in that state (laughs).
And then over time, sadness can become lighter and can be something that can actually be the touchstone to Dan. Make me feel close to him, by allowing myself the little bit of sadness that ... the moments where, uh, you know, Jack hit his first tee ball into the outfield, and can celebrate that for him, but also feel a little bit of sadness for Dan not being there to see that, and Jack not having this other dad be there to see that. And that’s not so heavy, and can feel like, um, a little moment that I can still share with Dan.
When I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to react to, uh, this little behavioral issue that Max is having, or this combative attitude toward homework that Ella might come home with one day, if I can take a moment to think about how Dan would react, and the beauty of being together for so many years before you have kids is you kind of become each other. So, I feel like I am passing on to them a lot of the wisdom that Dan would, if he was here, by just consciously thinking about what he would do, to inform how I react - it’s important for my decisions and my actions to be informed by that.
I know what they’re missing out on. I know how much fun and love they’re not getting in their lives because Dan’s not here. Doesn’t mean that life can’t be beautiful and full of love and full of fun for them. But it would just be so much richer if Dan was here.
I don’t know how I necessarily intuited this, but it was not an option for me to not wrap my arms around this grief experience for me and the kids. Maybe without the kids, I would have been more inclined to push it aside or push it down because I’m in my fifties, Dan’s gone, I don’t have to be healthy for anybody emotionally or otherwise. Maybe I would’ve let it destroy me. Maybe that would’ve actually felt good in a way. But I had these little people who I am committed to raising into happy, stable, independent people. That was Dan and my mission together, and so I know that the only way to do that is to help them have this experience and have a positive outcome from it.
They called him daddy and they called me poppy. And I guess because a child with a father needs someone to call daddy, I’ve become daddy. And that’s really another bittersweet thing for me because that’s him, but it also feels good that I get to embody something about him through that name.
I think we only believed we could be good parents because we believed we could be good parents together that... and I- and I still don’t think that I can make the sound decisions required all by myself and not having Dan to help me with that and me help him with that and- and talk things out before making a decision about a school, about, uh, a s- sport, whatever. Um, it’s- it’s scary. It’s very scary. And at that time, it was super scary. I had probably a year where I- I didn’t believe I was gonna survive. And I don’t know that I could’ve emotionally survived the loss of Dan without having the love from them and- and them to give my love to. But also, I’ll say, a burden. It felt like a tremendous burden that all of this was on me. We had... Dan and I had just made every decision together for so long, for more than 20 years. It wasn’t one of us that said let’s be parents. It was both of us. A- and I... sometimes, I don’t know how I managed to make the decisions, except for that I have to.
The little things I try to do for myself, um, I’m, I’m very much a fan of acupuncture for various reasons. And I do that weekly. I try to get a massage every few weeks. Um, I treat myself to, uh, good food, uh, at lunchtime when I can be by myself enjoying a restaurant, or with a friend downtown, uh, during lunch. Um, uh, my garden is a huge source of self-care because I love being in the garden and it’s a great place where, um, I can be with the kids. Because we’ve got it, uh, set up so that they have a place to play and I can putter in my garden, and we’re all together but I’m having my thing. And that’s, that’s really gratifying.
When you’re going through a grief journey, you’re inevitably going to eventually have the idea, ask yourself the question, “When is it gonna be okay to smile in public?” Uh, when I go to the neighborhood where the kids’ school is, and where we do a lot of our shopping, for a l- quite a while afterward, I felt like I had to put on my glum face, uh, because I didn’t know who was seeing me across the grocery store or from down the block, and might register, “Well, he looks okay. It must be over.” because I made a commitment to Dan that we could laugh and smile every day as he was dying, because I knew that that would make the experience better for him. Uh, it was only in public that I had this, uh, impulse to cover up my smile, to not laugh. And at some point, you have to let go of that, um, because especially with little kids, sweet, funny things happen all the time, and to not react to those appropriately with giggles and smiles, uh, is strange and At- At some point, you have to not care anymore what you think people are thinking. Um, I- I remember, I remember understanding that there would be people who needed to see me destroyed, who needed to see my life in shambles, uh, who needed my kids to turn out to be dysfunctional But you can’t worry about those people, because you have to worry about your own, and the social anxiety associated with worrying about those people to us would understand that we can laugh and have smiles, even not so long after Dan died. I think also, I realized that that would be the way I would know who the people that would matter to us were, because it would be those people that could handle that.
We talk about him a lot. I try to tell stories about Dan. I try to, um, always find a way to bring him in. there’s ways really every day to bring up his name, and to, um ... You know, something happens and it reminds me of something that happened before, or it reminds me of a story I heard about his childhood. You know, Ella’s talking about something that happened in fifth grade, and I might have an anecdote that, uh, that I remember from- from Dan. Um, we also have a lot of photographs, a lot of photographs and I’ve been trying to go through them, and it’s the pictures of us together, the selfies, um, and that sort of thing that allow access to stories about Dan