A Big Hole

Gail Childs

As told to Cliff Williams

“My life has changed so radically that a lot of times I have to fight to hold the grief off.”

Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Gail on August 17, 2023. Gail’s husband of nearly sixty-five years, Jerry, died on January 1, 2022. She was eighty-seven when we talked.


Gail’s future husband had tuberculosis in his vertebrae when he was nine and in his left kidney when he was thirteen. “After spending two years in a sanitarium for the kidney, which did not help, the doctors said they could take out that kidney or he could stay in the sanitarium and still try to recuperate. He wanted to go home, so they took out the kidney.

“Jerry never had any problems with the remaining kidney until the last year we were married, in 2021. We knew his kidney was declining because we kept having it checked. Three weeks before Christmas of that year, he and I got our COVID booster shot. That night he woke up wanting a drink, but he was actually starting to have respiratory failure. So I called the ambulance.

“At the hospital he wasn’t himself, and he kept ripping off the oxygen mask he had on. He had another hospitalization during the weeks before he died. After the second one, we brought him home and put him on hospice. We had hoped to keep him on oxygen, but he would not allow us to.

“On New Year’s Eve night, our younger daughter and one of her sons stayed up with him all night. The next day he deteriorated, and while he was quietly sleeping, he died. I went into shock the minute he stopped breathing.

“Our four children put together a beautiful funeral service. They even showed a video of Jerry singing during those last days. Our two daughters had sat down with him and gotten him to sing. I didn’t cry at the funeral, though in the weeks after it I had periods of crying. And I was still in shock for a long time.”

Coping with Death

Gail and Jerry had met when they were fifteen or sixteen. “I was invited to go to the youth group at Jerry’s church, and within a couple of years we were dating. We got married when we were twenty-one or twenty-two. So we were married sixty-five years and had known each other more than seventy. It was tremendously hard to let go after being with him for that long.

“For a long time after Jerry died, it was like a roller coaster. I had good days and bad days. My older son, especially, called me often: ‘Okay, Mom, how’s the grief today? How are you doing?’

“Our younger daughter spent a month with us as Jerry was dying, plus afterwards as well. While she was here, I said, ‘We need something to read together.’ I found a devotional book on hope that someone had given me and that I had not read yet. We started reading it, and after she left, she called me every night so that we could read it together over the phone.

“My younger son and his wife sent me a book about a man whose mother, wife, and daughter were killed by a drunk driver. For a number of weeks, they called me every week to talk about another chapter in the book. 

“One of the things that has been helping me the most is going to the YMCA for Silver Sneakers exercise. The bus for seniors and others who don’t drive picks me up and takes me to the YMCA four mornings a week. After an hour there, it takes me to the restaurant Jerry and I owned. It’s a wonderful place. When people come in, they say, ‘I’m so happy to come here.’ And when they leave, they say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ At 2:30, the bus takes me back home.

“When I’m busy during the day, I’m okay. But the evenings are hard. I always feel as though there’s something dark hanging over me then. I feel lost from about four o’clock on. Jerry and I always enjoyed watching the evening news and talking about it. I miss having him to talk to. I also miss all the things we did together, things that I now must do alone. 

“I got acquainted with another widow at the Silver Sneakers exercise sessions, and she invited me to go to a WOW Group meeting. It is for widows and widowers. At the first meeting, I teared up when I talked about losing Jerry. The leader said, ‘Gail, we all know how you feel, because we’ve all been there.’ I found that that commonality supplied a tremendous bond. Several times a month we do a breakfast or a dinner out or play games. The friendships from that group have been enormously helpful. You are united by something that has changed your life completely.

“I have been pretty aggressive about trying to do things and meet people. I have friends come over and watch movies with me. Sometimes I have people over who may need to have someone invite them to dinner. Last week I had two couples over in which the husbands had dementia. We played a game that allowed the husbands to be involved. I try to think of things that will be positive to do for people.

“I can call my sons anytime and talk to them. They’re very good about that. One of my daughters lives on the other side of the world, in Indonesia, so when she calls me, she’s having breakfast and I’m getting ready for bed.

“The grandkids all came over on the Fourth of July after Jerry died. But I had a total meltdown that night. I cried. I lost my ability to do anything. I couldn’t even go out and be with the kids to watch the fireworks. Jerry had loved the grandkids so much that it made me extremely sad that he was not there with them. I am glad, though, that the meltdown came at night and not the next day.

“The next day we all went to the top of a nearby mountain in Colorado, up at 11,000 feet, where we were surrounded by a whole range of mountains. It was beautiful and sunny. We were all by ourselves, just my immediate family. They put together a service in which we sang and had a sharing time. My two boys read scripture and spoke. Then my two daughters took Jerry’s ashes and spread them around. We had decided even before he got sick that that was what we were going to do.”

Fighting Off Grief

“My life has changed so radically that a lot of times I have to fight to hold the grief off.

“Yesterday, I spent the day alone. There was a plumbing issue, so I couldn’t go to Silver Sneakers or the restaurant. I actually enjoyed the day. Maybe that is a little bit of progress. I didn’t have to fight the grief all day. But when I stop and think, I realize that this time alone isn’t just a case of flu or something. It’s forever.

“I’ve asked people who have lost their mates, some for a short time and some for a long time, ‘It never goes away, does it?” They say, ‘No, it never goes away.’

“I would give anything to have another day with Jerry. But that isn’t going to happen.

“When I’m in church and see a man put his arm around his wife, or they hold each other, or we sing a hymn that Jerry liked, that grabs me. These moments come at random times when I least expect them.

“Sometimes people say that Jerry is in a much better place. But that is not comforting at all. One thing I like for people to say is, ‘I know you must miss him.’

“When you are really close for a long time in a good marriage, you and your spouse are what the Bible calls ‘one flesh.’ So when one of you leaves, it’s a big hole.

“I don’t feel as lost now as I did shortly after Jerry died. But sometimes it still hits me really hard in the evenings. I just have to work out of it. I don’t have a choice.

“This coming Tuesday I leave to visit my younger son for a month. His kids are very affectionate, very kind. Later in the year I’m going to my older son’s house for a month. My younger daughter, the one in Indonesia, wants me to visit her for a month next year. That means doing a twenty-four hour plane trip.

“When young couples get married and say their vows ‘until death do us part,’ they have no idea what they’re talking about. Death at that age is totally remote.”

© 2023 by Cliff Williams


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