On September 30, 2000, I awoke to my first day as a 32-year-old widow.
When I opened my eyes, all I felt was excruciating emotional pain and sheer terror. Then there was a knock at my door.
“Can I come in?” my sister-in-law asked me.
“How did the night go?” she asked.
She sat on the edge of my bed. “What can I do?”
“You could make poached eggs,” I said. “Those were John’s favourite.”
“You got it.”
Two of my brothers were waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. One of them said good morning.
I smiled. “Good morning.”
The other asked me how I was doing.
“I’d love a coffee,” I said.
Then I wandered over to the dining room window and looked out at our mountain ash tree. The bright red berries stood out against the yellow leaves and blue sky. It was a beautiful image.
My brother handed me a cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” I said, turning to him. “I’m glad it’s a sunny day.”
He looked at me and said, “You’re going to be OK, aren’t you?”
I managed a smile. “Yup. Someday.”
Then I went back upstairs and took a shower, sobbing uncontrollably as the warm water brought the hurt to the surface. When I stepped out of the shower, I noticed my packet of birth control pills on the counter – and the reality of my new life hit me like a freight train: John and I would never be parents.
And let’s just say it was a very long time before I was able to see much beauty in the world again… I mean, really see it and appreciate the gift the present moment can hold.
John was a police officer and had succumbed to brain injuries after a preventable fall at an unsafe workplace. He’d been investigating a break and enter complaint at a warehouse and stepped through an unmarked false ceiling. There was no safety railing to warn him of the danger. The call turned out to be a false alarm; there was no intruder in the building.
Shortly after his death, members of his police recruit class started the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund, a charity that educates the public about why and how to ensure their workplace is safe for everyone, including emergency responders who may have to attend the premise.
As Board Chair, I have played an active role with the Fund over the past 15 years, helping out with anything from fundraising and record-keeping to delivering workplace safety presentations and giving media interviews.
In honour of the 15th anniversary of John’s death in September 2015, I was back in my home province for the annual Police and Peace Officers’ Memorial Day ceremony. After the service, I did a radio interview about the Fund’s 29 Day Safety Challenge, which is an annual public education campaign that raises awareness about workplace safety issues.
The interviewer asked me how I was doing.
“Excellent, thank you,” I said. And I meant it.
I went on tell him how I’d been at the memorial service for fallen officers the day before and that I’d honestly felt… okay.
In fact, I had been more than okay. I had snuck out the back of the family tent at the very beginning of the service, so as to take a few photos of all the officers from the different services, marching down the hill to the service.
Anyway, in the radio interview I then heard myself say, right there on the air, “But the truth is: I don’t think I would be okay if it wasn’t for the work being done through the John’s Memorial Fund.”
And since I’d voiced that in public, I thought I better take a few moments afterwards to personally reflect on it!
There is the old saying that time heals all wounds. But I know myself and I knew John… and I can safely say that I would not be feeling the way I do today – happy again, at peace with his death and able to appreciate the beauty in a memorial service – if I hadn’t taken the path I did, working with John’s Fund to help raise awareness about workplace safety.
My experience over the past fifteen years has taught me that time itself can’t heal; it’s what we do in that time that matters.
But, of course, WHAT we choose to do is highly personal and unique to each individual and circumstance. And perhaps the only way to know if our path is a healthy one is to check in with our heart and soul every now and then… and there’s nothing quite like the anniversary of a loved one’s death to do just that.