When Cindy suddenly passed away, I honestly didn't know if I could manage my grief and raise our then 7-year-old. Whether you're ever in this position or you know someone who is, what I've learned in the year since can help make a staggering loss less painful.
I will never forget when I first heard the name Cindy Klaja. It was 1988, and a coworker shared a story about a colleague, a 27-year-old brand manager who'd had a sudden cardiac arrest while training for a race. She'd been in a coma for three days, received last rites, survived emergency open-heart surgery, and had a defibrillator implanted; the jury was out on her prognosis. I remember asking my friend, "How the hell do you come back from that?" If you're Cindy, you come back by not allowing yourself to be defined as "the woman who'd had the cardiac arrest." In our 23 years of marriage, she had at least six cardiac events caused by her condition, ventricular fibrillation; these often required hospitalizations and surgery.
Beyond our immediate family, most people in our lives didn't know this. We kept her heart challenges in the background and focused our energy on enjoying life. But I found it hard to keep this code of silence; I was proud of the courage Cindy always showed. We all go through events that fundamentally change us. During my life with Cindy, there were three. The first was the 2007 sale of the company in which I was a minority shareholder. This gave us enough money that we could take the bold step of traveling around the world. We quit our jobs, sold our car, and rented out our apartment. We'd made the decision long ago not to have children and to trade that experience for the option of doing anything we wanted at any time. Our trip included eight weeks of volunteering at the Starfish Foster Home, in Xi'an, China.
The core mission at Starfish was to rescue medically challenged children from the provincial orphanages and get them healthy enough to be eligible for adoption. Going there was Cindy's idea; she always helped the underdog. This brings me to the second lifealtering event. In our first two days at Starfish, we fell in love with an 8-week-old girl with spina bifida and hydrocephalus and decided to go through the complex process of adopting her. Sixteen months later, on January 26, 2009, our family of three was born. Cindy and I became parents of a child whom we named Norma Xi'an McLaughlin and nicknamed Xi'Xi ("She She"). The third defining event happened on January 29, 2014, while Cindy and I attended a fund-raiser at a comedy club in New York City. Cindy had a catastrophic cardiac arrest, and on February 7, she died. Once again, my future was altered forever. Nobody wants to believe this could happen to them, but now that I'm standing on my own two feet, I want to share what I've learned. Everyone can draw life lessons from my experience. Think of it as the ultimate test of coping skills.
Key Word: Survival
That's all that comes to mind when I think about the first full year without Cindy. I'd been a witness to every traumatic element of her death: the cardiac arrest, finding her at the bottom of the stairs at the club, giving her CPR, helping the EMTs, sitting by her side in the ambulance, learning of her brain damage, choosing to remove life support, and holding Cindy's hand as she took her last breath. It left me physically and emotionally shredded. Our daughter, now 8, is the reason that I was able to survive. I find it difficult to describe how instrumental she has been in my recovery. But I'll admit that at first I actually felt angry with her because she was not as sad as I was. Why wasn't she as crushed? My grief counselor, Kathi Gieri, helped me learn that kids process loss very differently than adults do. A good example is the night I asked my brother Matt and my sister-in-law, Terri, to be with me when I told Xi'Xi that her mom was not coming home ... ever. We went into her bedroom.
Xi'Xi sat on her bed while Matt, Terri, and I sat on the floor. She'd just come from ballet class; she was still wearing her tights and had her hair in a bun. I will never forget how beautiful she looked as I prepared to share the tragic news. Naturally, Xi'Xi struggled with the concept of "never coming home again." "Is she picking me up after school tomorrow?" "Will she go to art class with me on Saturday?" We answered "no." She looked down and started to cry softly. Then she lifted her head and asked, "Daddy, can you leave? I want to play Barbies with Matt and Terri." A few minutes later, Xi'Xi emerged from her room and announced to a large group of family and friends in the living room that "Mommy died and she's not ever coming home." She went back to her room to play with her dolls. In the weeks after Cindy's death I'd be sitting on the couch, lost in my pain, while Xi'Xi sat on the floor in front of me engaged in a happy conversation with her dolls. I struggled with this. It's trite, but misery loves company, and I had an irrational expectation that a 7-yearold could help her father through his fog of loss. However, time has allowed me to understand—and to be eternally grateful—that Xi'Xi did not grasp the situation in the same way I did, or at the very least she didn't express her grief in the same way.
How Therapy Saved Me
My counselor is the other person who helped me through the first year. She'd been recommended by the child psychologist at the preschool Xi'Xi had attended. It's both difficult and crucial to find a therapist who's a good fit. I actually interviewed four of them. After all, I'd just lost the love of my life and I needed help, badly. It was worth a 15-minute phone call to see whether I could connect with the stranger on the other end of the line. Walking to my therapist's office, I was often numb with pain. I'd battle the urge to skip the appointment. But it didn't take long for me to realize that going was the right thing. My conversations with her were very different from those with my close friends and family. I now see that when I talked to them it was one-sided: I accepted their heartfelt sympathy, but I couldn't say much because I would have broken down every time. During my therapy sessions, however, I felt safe breaking down and saying absolutely anything. I often found myself in a high state of anxiety over Xi'Xi's future: Who's going to manage the services for her special needs? How do I fix her hair in the morning? Now that I'm working, who will pick her up from school if the nurse calls? Will we still go to Macy's to see Santa Claus?
My therapist encouraged me to get my worries out on the table early in each session, and then we'd address them one by one. That was critical: If I put the next ten years of being a single dad on my shoulders all at once, I had no chance of making it work. I also kept a journal, often about events looming on the horizon. My therapist called them "head-on collisions" and "feather moments." Head-on collisions are days such as Christmas or Cindy's birthday: They're on the calendar, and I know I'm going to get my ass kicked emotionally. The feather moments, on the other hand, can't be predicted, and they are just as devastating as the head-on collisions. For me, a feather moment is hearing Cindy's favorite Elton John song, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," or finding an old note from her in my backpack. Each moment sucks the air out of my lungs.
It All Comes Down to Xi'Xi
At my lowest points, it's my daughter who brings me back. In the early days after Cindy died, I dreaded school events. I felt like a spotlight was on me—the sad and suddenly single dad, a guy to feel sorry for. I often kept to myself, avoiding any interaction, and I'd leave as fast as possible just so I could get out of chats with wellmeaning moms and dads. Seeing all the kids holding the hands of both their parents and pulling them toward their most recent artistic triumph made my knees buckle. But then I'd watch Xi'Xi anxiously scanning the room to see if I was still there. When we saw each other, I was quickly reminded that she needed and wanted me to be there for her. First grade was meant to be special for Xi'Xi, not clouded with her dad's omnipresent pain. I made a conscious decision to approach these events with an attitude of joy and a promise to make them a good memory for my daughter. I've also made a commitment to take advantage of every single offer of help from friends and family. I not only accept help, I ask for it—which did not come naturally to me at first. But Cindy and I worked hard to nurture our friendships. Our lifestyle allowed us to help a friend in need, whether by being at their bedside or giving them 24 hours of "alone time" by watching their children. I've been able to reap the rewards of our investment in our friends and family in these most challenging days of my life.
My Message to Cindy
If I could talk to my wife right now, I'd want to thank her for her unwavering belief in me, which is helping me survive this painful journey. I'd tell her how grateful I am for the time and love she devoted to Xi'Xi and me. I'd tell her, again, how wise she was to make Xi'Xi part of the master plan, because our wonderful daughter has kept me alive during my darkest hours. I'd ask, "Do you think I'm doing a good job?" Also: "How do you like my version of a ponytail?" "Am I focused on the right things at school?" "Are you pissed that I got rid of the piano?" Her answers would help me with the moments of self-doubt when I look at Xi'Xi as she sleeps and I wonder, "How on earth will I make this work?" I'd tell Cindy how aware I am now of the effort she made to make our lives run smoothly. I hope she'd be proud of my growing mastery of the acronyms dominating my life as a parent of a child with special needs: IEP, PT, ST, OT.
When I consider that Cindy worked full-time in her own business, was a caring wife, and still managed all the moving parts of Xi'Xi's development, I am humbled. Thirteen months into my journey, I have an even deeper appreciation for the small things Cindy brought to my life. I miss the card that would greet me upon my return from a business trip. I miss hearing her and Xi'Xi call my name while I'm running a race in Central Park. I dream of bringing her a cup of coffee and watching her light up as though I'd given her a diamond ring. But I'm at a place now that when I think about these things, my first response is to smile instead of to cry. I've turned the corner from profound sorrow to total gratitude for the gift I had in Cindy for 23 years. It's now my turn to pay the gift forward and work hard to ensure that Xi'Xi and I live a life defined by the way Cindy would want us to go on without her.