Reflect on the past year without wife, mother
By SARAH DOOLITTLE
Four Points News
Meals, laundry, house cleaning, yard care, carpooling and comforting are some of the many ways neighbors, family and friends helped and continue to help the Brown family while they learn to live without Mara, a devoted wife and mother who died unexpectedly in 2015.
“The first day after (Mara died), people were lining up to do stuff, and I was like, I can handle this. I can suck it up,” explained Steve Brown, a former Army man. “And after about 30 seconds I said, I can’t handle this. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t even know what help I need.”
Steve and their four children, Riley, 15, Mary Cate,13, Eleanor, 11 and Sam, 9, marked the one year anniversary of the death Mara a couple of months ago.
To thank their community for the outpouring of support received in the wake of Mara’s death at age 47, the family hosted an open house barbecue on the Aug. 13 anniversary that was attended by over 150 people.
“Healing in helping”
Sitting at the family dining table with daughter Mary Cate, it is clear to see that the events of the past year have changed Steve and his children in ways they did not expect.
“I’ve seen a side of humankind that I really didn’t know was there,” said Steve. ““The (kids’ friends) have been wonderful, the neighborhood, the whole Four Points area, our extended families… Everybody wants to help in some sort of way because everybody feels some sort of a pain, and as I say, there’s healing in helping.”
Furthermore, by losing his wife Steve quickly discovered, “all the stuff Mara used to do. I had no idea what was going on in the background. The school stuff and the sports… It’s something else.”
Neighbor Darla Fisk, who lost her own mother when she was just 10, stepped up with others to coordinator care for the family as soon as it became clear that, for everything they needed, the community was ready to provide concrete support and resources.
As Fisk explains, “What I think both Steve and I were not expecting is the overwhelming outpouring of support from our community.” An online care calendar helped to coordinate carpools, the children’s activities, meal deliveries, the family’s laundry, donations toward housekeeping services and lawn care, much of which is still ongoing.
For Fisk, who wasn’t close with Mara beyond friendly neighborly exchanges, the urge to help came in part from her own experiences. “When I saw the children’s faces, I saw my own and my younger brother and sister’s. I knew what they were going through.”
That same personal connection is what the kids found this summer at Camp Brave Heart, a free program established through Hospice Austin specifically for children who have lost a parent. The family has also appreciated the support of their schools and church, St. Thomas More Catholic Church.
Additionally, support came in more intangible ways. Mary Cate is grateful to everyone who has lent an ear in the past year.
“My family, everybody who’s here, and all the neighbors… They didn’t know how it felt, but they sat there and listened to me when I had to talk,” she said.
Steve, who used to be described by others as “like ice” has learned, “that it’s okay to show emotion.” He and Mary Cate both have benefitted from being able to share their feelings with others — what Steve calls “talk therapy” — but recognize it’s not the same for everyone.
Reflecting on how she is doing now, Mary Cate said, “I’m doing okay… a year ago, if I looked at myself, I was probably a mess… I’m not 100 percent, but I would say I’m doing better.”
How does she continue to feel her mom’s presence in her life? “My siblings and my dad. Everything in our house is the same. It feel different but still… I see my mom in my siblings every day.”
Steve and Mara dated for two years and were married for 18 before her death. And so it is with characteristic candor that he admits there are things he is currently working toward. “Three things that are missing that I use to have. Obviously my wife, but I was more productive. I was having a lot of fun. And I was happy… I miss my best friend.”
Still, he said, “I’m in better shape now than I was a year ago.”
“Are you prepared to be a survivor?”
Losing Mara has ignited in Steve a passion for sharing his family’s experience in the hopes of helping others to be better prepared for the unexpected.
“If your spouse were to die instantly tonight,” he asked, “are you prepared to be a survivor?”
“You don’t know what you’re getting into because nobody teaches it,” Steve explains. “They teach you how to drive, how to do calculus… but (death is) a morbid subject that people are scared of.”
Currently in the process of writing a book of sorts about his experiences that he plans to make available for free, Steve has key advice to share with everyone in his community:
- “You’ve got to be sure your will’s in place, you’ve got plenty of insurance, your guardianships — you’ve got to have your estate in order.”
- Have the death talk. Find out where and how your spouse/parent/family member wants to be buried.
- If you experience a death,“Don’t sell your house, don’t move, don’t change jobs. You’ve just gone through the biggest and worst change of your entire life. More change is not good.”
- Steve was surprised by the overwhelming physical fatigue of grief, and the help proffered allowed Steve to survive. “Let people help you, because you’re going to need it.”
- “I say that you’ve got to find something that you look forward to doing every day.” For Steve that activity is running. “Find a positive outlet,” rather than unhealthier means of coping like drinking, drugs, gambling or compulsive spending. “It’s just going to make it worse.”
Steve also has advice for those who know someone who is grieving, though he acknowledges that grieving is different for everyone:
- Things not to say? “‘It’s God’s plan.’ You know what? I think God’s plan sucks and anybody who’s in that position who just lost someone is going to tell you the same thing.” Or, “‘He or she’s in a better place.’ Well, yeah, but we’re not.”
- Take your cues from the bereaved. As upset as you are, don’t behave in a way that requires those experiencing a loss to comfort you.
- “Give the mourners some space. There’s going to be a lot of times when (they) just want to be left alone.”
- “Let the person talk… It’s not about you. It’s about them. Let them do their talk therapy and you just sit there and listen.”
- Try to offer specific help, because someone grieving will not be able to focus enough to tell you what their needs are.
- “Find somebody that’s what I call the go-to person. I’ve had two or three go-to people — and try to identify them ahead of time — to help you with this kind of stuff, the logistics.” And make sure it’s someone who’s comfortable around death and grief.
Steve was not prepared before Mara died but is now.
From Mary Cate’s perspective, the hardest thing to cope with was the suddenness of her mom’s death. “I feel like most kids get to say goodbye. A lot of kids at (Camp Braveheart), their parents died from cancer or Parkinson’s or something. But we didn’t really get to say goodbye. We weren’t prepared.”
“There will be brighter days.”
At least the family’s last day with Mara was wonderfully normal. They went back-to-school shopping. Mara got a ring resized, which coincidentally started an argument among the kids about who would get to have it when she died. The family had dinner at home and went swimming at a neighborhood pool.
Mara’s death, though an enormous loss, has also taught them all to be resilient. “Going through this, it’s making us pretty tough,” reflects Steve.
For now, they are grateful for the happy days. Those days feel, according to Steve, “like Christmas.” He lives by the mantra, “There will be brighter days.”
“You try to (be) positive,” said Steve. “That doesn’t mean we don’t miss her.”
Adds Mary Cate, “Nobody will replace our mom exactly, (but) we have many backups,” including aunts, neighbors and family friends.
Their strength, Mara’s love, and those backups and many others are the reason this family is able to have good days. Fisk said, “Whether it was a kind word, a card, a monetary donation, a delivery of a meal, or a sweet note of thanks via email or caring gesture to Steve and his family, I am proud to live here and be surrounded by so many wonderful people who care about each other.”