My husband Mark passed away in his sleep unexpectedly from a heart condition we did not know he had. He was forty-nine years young. I was thirty-nine. Our two boys were three and five. It was without question the hardest day of our lives.

And, it was the hardest day in other people’s lives as well. I’d known my husband for almost ten years when he died. His family had known him all of his forty-nine years.

Many weeks later, I came out of the shock of losing my mate. I looked around at what had been ‘our’ life that was now ‘my’ life and realized there were deeper and new responsibilities everywhere.

There was the business, our finances, our kids, and, the daunting task of our family. Our family, I’m happy to say, is quite large. Both of our parents had re-married and so there are grandparents and aunts and uncles everywhere. When times are tough, I have support coming out of every crack and crevice. But keeping up correspondence and relationships by myself seemed an overwhelming task.

At first, I didn’t know how to handle Mark’s side of the family. A few of them had been calling to check in on us, while others I hadn’t heard a word from.

After wading through several tough issues, including probating the will, financial support and just plain heartache, I came to some conclusions.

First, in many real ways, my in-laws’ loss was greater than mine. I lost a husband, the boys lost their father but they had lost a brother and son.

Second, I knew I couldn’t handle their pain until I was partly healed. I took time to take care of myself. This was no small task. Life pulled and pulled on me. I could have let it crush me. Instead I made time for myself, for being with friends, for exercising, reading and on some days just enjoying a cup of tea. I learned how to nurture myself again.

Third, I made sure most of the major fires that needed to be put out were handled enough so they were not burning in my face, before I began.

And finally, I thought about how to keep Mark’s family in our lives.

I thought back to how Mark used to communicate with them. He called. He didn’t email, he didn’t text or send letters. He called on a normal basis. And he asked them to come visit until they agreed.

So that is what I did. I started not only returning calls but also initiating them. I tried to talk to each person by myself, but also I called at times when the boys could get on the phone, and made sure they did.

One of the things that came up was about money. Some of Mark’s family assumed Mark and I would take care of them if any major financial issue came up. They brought it up with me. At first I was hurt. I couldn’t believe they were asking me about money when I had to take care of the boys by myself. I talked with them and told them I’d do what I could but Mark had been the breadwinner and things had changed.

But after our conversation I realized maybe the issue was not really about money. Maybe they were scared that they were not going to be in our lives anymore. Mark had been their link to us. Now he was gone. They were hurting as well as drifting.

In my situation, with two small children who would eventually not remember much about their father, there was no choice. Mark’s family must still be our family. Not only because I loved them and the boys loved them but because they loved Mark, and could share his life with the boys.

It was obvious to me that they would stay in our lives. I don’t think it was obvious to them. And at times I think they still don’t trust it. Because of this, I make a concerted effort to invite them to visit us on a regular basis. Sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t. We do our best to go see them when we can.

As I watch my seven-year-old son sitting curled up on his grandfather’s lap, cuddling him like he was his father, I know that all of the effort is worth it. Mark lives through his family. My children experience him through his family. Maintaining a relationship with them is not something that is optional for me. It is essential.

Jennifer Hawkins 2012

Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer’s diverse background includes swimming for the University of California at Santa Barbara, competing in the Olympic Trials in 1988, owning a residential real estate company for fifteen years and authoring five books. She has spoken in front of audiences up to 700 people, traveled to over forty different locations, and is raising two boys who are five and seven years old. She currently lives in Texas and is an active real estate investor, mom and author working on her sixth book.

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