Crossing Borders: Finding Happiness In Life After The Death Of A Loved One

May 22, 2018

Matilyn Mortensen and her mom Gaylynn Mortensen in 2011.
Credit Ron Mortensen

“I didn’t have to compare before to after and make one better than the other. I just could make what I had the best it could be. And it wasn’t comparing to life before Gaylynn passed away and life after and one’s better and one’s worse, it’s while she was here we made the best of what we had and had a lot of fun, and while she’s not here, I can make the best of that time. And they’re separate. You don’t have to compare them.”

That’s my dad, Ron Mortensen. In 2013, my mom, his wife, passed away nearly two years after being diagnosed with a rare brain disease.

When you lose a family member, it’s like everyone is awkwardly trying to work around a hole left in your family. Nothing fixes it or compensates for it, but there are still responsibilities that have to be taken on by other people so everyone can function.

Although I logically knew my mom’s death and this struggle to adjust affected people other than me, I was 16 and it felt like her death impacted me more than anyone else. But in the five years since my mom died, I’ve started to wonder what it would be like to be the surviving spouse.

“I miss just the friendship and the companionship,” Mortensen said. “That’s what I miss. When you’re mad at your kids, there was somebody you could go talk to about it who loved your kids as much as you did. Or whatever. When things are hard, somebody just to be with. And I miss being that person for somebody.”

As a child, I viewed my parents’ relationship as very stable. It was something I could rely on. Because of this, I never considered what it would be like to have a single parent or to be a single parent. Since losing my mom, I’ve become friends with other families in situations similar to mine and I’ve become more aware of the challenges widows and widowers face.

“Being a single parent is just hard,” Meldina Mack said. “There’s no two ways about it. There's nobody to talk to or go over ideas with or say, ‘I can’t do this today, you take that child, that one’s crazy.’ You don’t get that option.”

Melinda Mack is one friend I’ve made in the time since my mom died. Her husband Jason committed suicide in 2014.

“I remember the first time I felt like I was a single mom was when my second child was born,” Mack said. “He just was unavailable and I didn’t think anything of it because he didn’t say it was depression. He said it was migraines. So we probably spent 10 years chasing down how to fix his migraines when that wasn’t the cause.”

“I just got used to it. So as it would get harder, I would just pick up more. And so you don’t really even think about it,” Mack said.

Michelle Skousen is another one of my friends. Her husband Dan died of brain cancer in 2013, a few months after my mom.

“Every month, after the first year, he just got sicker and I noticed changes and more and more of the things that he used to take care of, I had to start taking that load,” Skousen said. “I think I still don’t completely accept that this is how it’s going to be. And some things just aren’t going to be the same. They’re not going to look like they did and there’s nothing I can do about it. My yard doesn’t look as nice as it used to. My kids have learned to adjust to having just one parent there.”

“It became just apparent to make sure that some things were getting done," Mortensen said. "Mostly just trying to accomplish as much as I could in a day and not look at much beyond that. If people weren’t hungry and made it to school and I got some work done, that was a day.”

I still miss my mom a lot and I know my dad misses her too. But as hard as all of this has been, it hasn’t all been bad. We’ve made friends, went on trips, tried new things and created a version of life where we do our best to be happy with what we have, while still acknowledging someone always will be missing.

“Everybody has great moments, but in general our days are just regular mundane days. That actually would look the same whether Dan was here or not,” Skousen said.

“No matter what happens in life, it’s a mixture of good and hard things. How good the good can be is based on how we can respond to the hard things. If we have hard things happen to us and we don’t respond very well then the joy that you find in life is greatly decrease,” Mortensen said.

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here.