Transitioning Into New Lives
Women Share Their Stories
BY KARA SCHWEISS
Shantel Rodgers loved being married, and felt especially blessed to have a husband whose career made it possible for her to stay at home with their two young children. “When I met him, I knew that I wanted to be married to him and have kids,” she says. “I enjoyed my fairy-tale life.”
Tracy Wernsman was a single woman with a fulfilling career in education and an active life that included leadership roles in several community-oriented groups. “I kind of had this whole life planned out,” she says. “I figured I’d have a successful career and be doing well in life. And then I’d get married in my 30s and start having kids.”
Cheri Campbell was raising her teenage son alone after an early marriage and divorce, succeeding in a challenging teaching career and proud of her self-sufficiency. “I was a single mother; I was independent,” she says. “I thought I could do everything on my own.”
Leigh Kuhry was simply enjoying her roles as a wife and a mother of five after weathering a serious health crisis that came with a silver lining: It left her and her husband of almost 20 years with an even deeper appreciation for each other. “We valued our marriage so much,” she says.
How quickly life can change. Rodgers’ happy marriage of 10 years dissolved after her husband was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing mental illness that defied treatment efforts. To compound matters, she discovered she was three months’ pregnant.
Wernsman plunged swiftly into single motherhood after adopting a 7-year-old girl, soon and unexpectedly to be followed by her daughter’s 4-year-old biological brother.
Campbell was struck down with an immune system disease that left her largely incapacitated, in constant pain and living on Social Security Disability benefits. Kuhry became widowed without warning when her seemingly healthy husband had a fatal heart attack at age 44.
According to mental health practitioner Lynn Anderson DeMott, LICSW, one of the biggest challenges of getting through major life transitions, in addition to the tangible loss, is the loss of a person’s role in life.
“It’s kind of an identity thing,” Anderson DeMott says. “It’s how we see ourselves and present ourselves to the world. It’s also how we present ourselves to ourselves.”
Rodgers, for instance, thought of herself first and foremost as a wife and mother. Looking back to the days when her whole world was her husband and children, “I think I lived in my little bubble,” Rodgers says. “No one could have ever prepared me for what happened because there was no sign of it before, ever.”
Her husband was known for being upbeat, dynamic and charismatic, while she was the quiet one. Injuries from a serious car accident, followed by a death in the family, seemed to trigger a profound change in her husband that Rodgers first assumed was depression. His primary condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia; Rodgers later found out it ran in her husband’s family. Thirteen years after their divorce, her ex lives across the country with his parents and his mental health condition is still debilitating.
“It’s not something we could work together on,” Rodgers explains. “It’s so sad. He doesn’t talk; there’s no emotion in his eyes whatsoever.”
For Wernsman, whose career had largely defined her by the time she reached her mid-30s, it was during the process of her father dying that she came to a hard realization about the rest of her life plan.
“I dated a lot of great guys, but none of them were a good fit for me,” she says. “I really thought by this time I’d have a family.”
Inspired by the love and comfort her father found through his children during his final weeks, Wernsman told her father she had decided that she wanted to adopt a daughter. As a person of faith, she asked him to “pull some strings for her in Heaven.”
“There were moments when he was sure angels were in room, and the hospice workers assured us this was part of the transition and that we should honor him as he was seeing these images,” she recalls. But there was another surprise. “The last thing my dad said to me, he grabbed my hand and said, ‘You’re going to have a son, too.’”
Campbell was defined by both her profession and her role as a single mother, and now her focus was shifting more to her teaching career as her son neared graduation. But, suddenly, her Crohn’s disease became unmanageable.
“It was a busy life, and then this just hits me like a ton of bricks and everything stops,” she says. Her medical team struggled to identify the source of other symptoms (which turned out to be rooted in fibromyalgia) and find effective treatment. One medication produced a dangerous allergic reaction. She hated the effects of pain pills. Drugs that helped one condition aggravated another. Dietary changes were risky, and she was unable to exercise, which further impacted her health. As Campbell says, “It’s all one big Catch-22.”
For Kuhry, the transition from wife to widow was harsh and abrupt as she found herself planning a funeral while still overcome with shock and grief. “A day at a time was just too much after he died,” she says. “I wrote on the whiteboard the day after he died, ‘A moment at a time’. It was really about ‘what did I have to do this second?’ because what I had to do ‘this day’ was overwhelming.”
Anderson DeMott says that while traumatic experiences like death or divorce clearly lead to grief, seemingly smaller losses, like that of a long-held dream or of a person’s sense of self, also involve a grieving period.
“It’s kind of universal, some of these things; it’s part of the human condition,” she explains, adding, “In terms of grieving, there’s not a set period.”
Even Wernsman, who chose to adopt and embraced this major change in her life, says her joyful decision followed the harder acceptance that marriage might not be in the cards for her. And her nontraditional path to parenthood came with some unique challenges. Her new daughter Tamarrah came from a troubled environment and seven years of experiences Wernsman found nearly incomprehensible after her own happy childhood. When her father’s last words to her proved prophetic and she brought a second child, Tamarrah’s biological brother David, into her home, Wernsman found that David’s needs were so significant that as a mother of two she needed to make major adjustments in her own life.
“I realized that my dreams of becoming school principal had to really take the back seat because he needed me,” Wernsman, who is an assistant principal, says. “It’s been a happy sacrifice in the end … but I had to really realign my career objectives to see that I was meeting the needs of my kids.”
A strong support system, Anderson DeMott says, can help women cope with change, and all four women interviewed for this article say they credit family support with helping them transition into their new lives. Plus, Anderson DeMott says, women are more likely than men not only to talk about their emotions, but also more willing to seek counseling, perhaps due to greater depth of insight and self-reflection. Wernsman sought counseling for her children, Rodgers and her children went to counseling through a family-centered service, and Kuhry utilized counseling for her children during different periods of their individual grieving processes.
“I think women are maybe more aware of the emotional aspects of what is happening with them. I think they’re more tuned into that aspect of things and also able to express what’s happening to them a little bit different than men do,” Anderson DeMott says.
Unfortunately, stress can still cause negative emotions and behaviors to take over, she adds. “I think the idea is that people want to numb the pain of the loss that they had.”
“I really didn’t know how I was going to manage all of it,” Rodgers says about a brief period where she “partied a little bit too much” while employed at a bar and grill. “I thought, ‘This is just too easy. It makes it all just go away.’” She quickly recognized “this was not the way to handle it.”
Kuhry says she experienced guilt when she began finding joy in life again, a process that Anderson DeMott says can actually be indicative of healing.
“It’s not too unusual…it’s a paradox,” she says. “It’s about letting go and like saying ‘I’ve survived’. It’s like accepting the death of what was and accepting the rebirth of what’s going to be.”
Kuhry says she recognized a similar process in her children. “I did see that with my kids. When they started complaining about dumb stuff again, I knew that they were kind of getting back to normal life.”
With time comes healing, and all four women say they’ve found happiness in their lives. Wernsman, Kuhry and Rodgers say their children provide constant motivation to keep moving forward. Campbell, whose son is now an adult, says it was “four-legged kids” who eventually gave her a new sense of purpose.
“When I got sick and was laying on the couch staring at the TV, my mom decided I needed to get up off my butt,” Campbell says. Her mother took her to visit an animal shelter, and Campbell came home with a new dog that same day. She soon became involved with various dachshund-oriented organizations, including foster and rescue groups. Campbell grew up with dachshunds, but she’s found that because she is physically limited to spending most of her time at home, she’s especially effective with dogs that have been traumatized and need extra love and attention. She also has a soft spot for dogs with serious health conditions or special needs, showing a rare compassion developed from her own experience.
“You work with them and you build up the trust, and they’ll be a good pet for someone someday,” she says. “They give me a reason to get out of bed every day. I’m a stay-at-home dachshund mom.”
Rodgers says she no longer sees her life as worse than before, just different. Her career takes center stage now that her children are getting older. She strives to keep them in contact with their father and teach her youngest, who was born after the couple separated, about who his father was before mental illness changed him forever. Considering the family’s experience, her daughter is studying psychology in college. Her oldest son is also out on his own.
“We have a great life,” she says. “I still sometimes stop and go ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I’m not still married to him.’ It took me a long time … believe me, the first year I thought ‘I’m not going to get through this; I can’t do this on my own. And I did.”
Kuhry says that, two years after her husband’s death, she is finding joy in life again. Her children and new job keep her busy, and the family talks about Pat often, even joking about some of his quirks.
“He was a whole person, and I was married to all of him,” she says, adding that she still feels his influence in her everyday life. “I’m still parenting, I’m still making decisions the way we made decisions, I’m still Pat’s wife.”
Wernsman and her children have been a family for a decade. Her daughter is looking at colleges with aspirations to become an educator like her mother, and Wernsman’s son talks about culinary school and someday owning a restaurant.
“There is such a need for families to adopt school-age children because they’re very hard to place. I just know that if you can make a difference in the life of a child, you can change a generation,” she says. “I broke that cycle that these kids were born into.”
Campbell still worries about the stability of her health, but she says she’s come a long way from the darkest days of her illness. “Realistically, I know that I’m probably about as good as I’m going to get. But I’m not just lying on the couch all day watching the TV or staring at the ceiling, mumbling because I can hardly talk (due to) the medicine,” she says. “It’s not going to be the same life, but you have to find something to do that makes you happy.”
“It’s really hopeful that people can get through these times,” Anderson DeMott says. “At the time, they don’t realize it; it seems like it’s always going to be this painful and this horrible. But then they get through it and they’re in a better place for it.”