Ten years ago, they took their first annual trek south to winter in Arizona. Those who knew the couple envied not only their chosen lifestyle, but also their loving relationship, which endured nearly three decades.
Running was an activity they enjoyed, and they routinely put in two-and-a-half miles, every other day. "I guess we found something we could both do, which was good for us and made us feel really good about our ability to do so, especially Al, at his age of 67."
On February 8, 2003, Jean and Al registered for a 10K run in Yuma, Arizona. Jean had decided to run 5K and Al was to complete the total 10K. She recalls: "Al was ahead of me in the pack and turned and said, 'Break a leg.' I laughed and said, 'I think that's for the theatre people.'" That was the last time she saw her husband alive.
"After the awards for the 5K, I was wondering as I saw some of the 10K runners arrive, where Al was. I knew approximately how his times were, and started to get worried. Organizers called me up to the front and the co-ordinator of the races took my hands in his and said, 'Your husband, Allan, fell and has been taken to the hospital.' I asked if it was his heart (I don't know why I said this) and he said he didn't know and I should go to the hospital. My brother, Fred, and I scurried around looking for our vehicle. Al had parked it after he dropped me off earlier that day. We were thinking out loud: maybe it's a broken leg, maybe he had chest pain, trying to convince each other it would be fine." Upon arrival at the hospital, doctors informed Jean that Al had died of a heart attack.
The days, weeks and months following Al's death were a litany of decisions, choices, confusion and grief to the point where Jean realized she was near the breaking point.
"I really can't remember who put me onto the Nanaimo Community Hospice Society, but it was a lifesaver. I called the hospice and said I was at my wits end and needed help. They fit me in for an appointment almost immediately. Although I was desperate at the time, I was also relieved and happy to have a path to follow through this crisis."
The next day, Jean joined the hospice walking group. She says she felt an immediate sense of family being with people who "got it." They understood how she felt and, because they were still able to walk around and function, it gave her hope.
Jean and her new friend, Carole, whom she'd met through the walking group, attended an eight-week grief course offered by hospice. Through this time of getting to know each other, Carole invited Jean for lunch with her and her son, Ron, who was visiting from the Mainland.
"I felt immediately impressed by Ron's manners and his gentle nature."
Even though it had been less than a year since her husband's death, Jean said she was attracted to Ron.
"This was a very strange phenomenon," says Jean. "I felt a great love for my deceased husband but, at the same time, found myself drawn to this man!"
Eventually, Ron (who had recently lost his father and his sister within a few months of each other) suggested to his mother that if I needed an escort for a Christmas function he would help me out. Jean sensed the attraction on his part as well, and said yes.
Not surprisingly, Ron was concerned Jean would be too fragile at such an early stage of grieving. He wished he were her second or third date after being widowed, rather than her first. Ultimately, Jean and Ron made contact and they got together over that Christmas for their first date.
The relationship, though long-distance, has blossomed, while much of their getting to know each other has happened over the phone. They visit on weekends and intermittently during the week when Jean is not working. Ron's business on the Sunshine Coast and his other responsibilities make long-range plans difficult. But they do hope to be together and Ron has given Jean a ring as a symbol of that commitment. In the meantime, Jean continues to work part-time at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital as a transcriptionist in Medical Imaging, maintains her home in Nanaimo, and attends the grief support group through hospice.
"The comfort of being with people going through the same grief and pain is a very powerful gift," says Jean. "The walking group represents that gift. I have made very close friends whom I will cherish forever. We have helped each other and the initial pain that united us has blossomed into great friendships. As I move forward in my relationship with Ron, they glory in my happiness and encourage it at every step."
Does Jean believe in love after loss? "Yes, I am living proof. Just think of children. If you have one you wonder how you could love another; then, if there are more, you love them all. Your heart expands with the amount of love you give and receive."
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