On Feb. 24, 2014, 39-year-old mom of three Jennifer Bush-Lawson was hit by a truck that was passing too close to her parked minivan; at the time, she was buckling her toddler into her car seat outside her oldest child’s elementary school in Arlington, Va.
This horrific event caused an entire community to catch its collective breath and catalyzed a network of friends, neighbors, family and co-workers who had all been touched by Bush-Lawson’s gentle and generous spirit. But it was her husband, Neal Lawson, suddenly a widower with three young children at the age of 41, who had to shoulder the burden of every family’s nightmare.
For the past 2½ years, Lawson has been managing his own loss and grief while balancing the emotional needs and daily schedules of his growing children. When I ask Lawson how he’s been able to get through the unthinkable while still being present as a dad without just throwing his hands up and saying I quit, he laughs at my perception. “Sometimes you do just throw your hands up — but not for long.”
From a position of experience and wisdom he’d never hoped to have, Lawson shares his thoughts and advice on dealing with profound loss — whether managing your own grief or helping a friend through a particularly tough time.
Don’t be too proud to ask for help. “It sounds like common sense, but it’s harder to do than you realize,” admits Lawson. In striving to keep a sense of normalcy in his children’s lives, Lawson says he leans heavily on friends and family for everything from sports and birthday party car pools to last-minute child-care favors. And shortly after the accident, Lawson’s parents moved in with him and his children for nearly a year; his in-laws are frequent visitors.
“I can’t do everything,” says the full-time tech entrepreneur and single dad. “Even when there were two of us, we couldn’t do everything.” He prioritizes his kids’ busy schedules by continually asking himself: When do I have to be there? When would it be good to be there? And when is it okay to let someone else help me with that? “You’re actually doing better for the kids by shoring up your support system with friends, family and child care so that they can continue to live as normal a life as possible without a mom. They still need to play sports, have play dates, be reprimanded and be enriched.”
Be practical. In the wake of tragedy, everyone wants to drop off food, but there are many ways to help take daily stresses off a grieving family’s plate. “One family gave us paper goods,” remembers Lawson. “It seemed odd at the time, but we used every bit of it and were thankful when we didn’t have to worry about doing the dishes.”
Sites such as SignUpGenius or SignUp.com (formerly VolunteerSpot) help organize the supporting community and allow people to sign up for things that are most needed: play dates for kids, rides to doctor’s appointments, grocery store runs. A close friend or family member can set up and monitor the activity so that it doesn’t need to be managed by the grieving party. And when friends do drop off meals, consider requesting that they be delivered to a neighbor’s house to avoid awkward invasions of privacy or bad timing.
It’s okay to say no. Not every offer of help is actually helpful. “Everyone wants to help, but people can’t always appreciate other factors that may make their timing less than ideal,” Lawson says, graciously. “Don’t be afraid to turn down an offer if it’s not helpful at that time.” But, he adds, let that person know that you appreciate their offers of help, even if their timing isn’t spot-on.
You can also say “no, thank you” to an offer to help but suggest another way or time in which you might need assistance. For example, maybe you don’t need dinner delivered because your freezer is overflowing with lasagna, but it might really help you to have someone walk your dog while you’re at your kids’ soccer tournament.
Create something good. As a way to honor Jenn’s life and work through his own grieving process, Lawson and his family members founded the Jennifer Bush-Lawson Foundation, which helps economically vulnerable mothers and infants get access to lifesaving pre- and postnatal care.
“This is a matter that was near and dear to Jenn’s heart,” her husband explains. All three of Bush-Lawson’s pregnancies were complicated, and all three of their children were born prematurely. “We had given to organizations that supported those needs in the past, but establishing this foundation in her name was a way to formalize the legacy of her generous spirit.”
This Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, the foundation will host its second annual 5K and family fun day. “This is also a way for the kids to get involved with carrying on their mom’s memory. In the weeks before, we hand out fliers to neighbors on the race route, we put out yard signs, the kids ask to ‘train for Mommy’s race’ with me. It gives them opportunities to ask questions and talk about Mommy, and it’s a positive way to keep her memory alive.”
Be a great listener for your kids — and don’t shy away from answering tough questions. Lawson points to fostering open communications with his kids as probably the most important thing he can do for them. “I don’t ever want them to feel like they can’t come to me with questions. I answer them honestly, but in a way that won’t scare them,” says the single dad. “I want to give them a safe space where they can talk about anything from having a sad or emotional time to telling me that they’ve done something wrong. I still want them to understand that actions have consequences, but that actions accompanied by ownership and accountability can lead to a less severe level of consequences.”
Lawson credits modeling that behavior himself with helping him establish the groundwork for open communications with his kids — stepping out in front of his emotions, for example, or saying, Hey, I made a mistake when I came home after a bad day at work and blew up at you, and I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry. “It’s so important that they be able to trust me,” says Lawson. “Because they’ve only got one parent to go to, they need to be able to go to that parent.”
Understand that you will always be grieving but that the grieving process will change over time. Grief doesn’t have an expiration date, notes Lawson. “It’s important to acknowledge that it will constantly be part of our lives, and that it will come and go in waves — and that’s okay. You need to observe it, listen for it, and put the resources and tools in place to get through it.”
Lawson also says he’s discovered that the grieving process changes as his kids mature. He compares it to reading “Harry Potter” at age 5 and then again at age 12. “The kids are going to understand it in a lot more depth at age 12,” he observes.
Keep traditions alive, but allow them to evolve. Every year, the Lawsons spend the holidays in Colonial Williamsburg as a family. “That’s a tradition that won’t change,” says Lawson. This year, however, they skipped their traditional fall trip to the pumpkin patch. “I really wrestled with this,” Lawson confesses. “I was thinking Jenn would have taken these kids pumpkin-picking, but we just didn’t have time.” Instead, they grabbed pumpkins from a nearby shopping center and spent the day carving them. “We ended up having a blast. And in some ways” — and here Lawson chokes back tears — “maybe it allows them to hold on to the memories that they have of their mom even more.”
If it doesn’t serve you, let it go. I asked Lawson if the nature of his wife’s accident influences the way he protects his kids. He admits that while he dealt with bouts of anxious fear at first, it wasn’t long before he realized they couldn’t live their lives in a bubble.
“I try to focus on the things I can control and make the best decisions I can along the way. Just like Jenn — she didn’t make any bad decisions that day. It wasn’t her fault. It was just a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Lawson says that his faith has helped him through much of the past two years but that not having any lingering hate or anger has also helped keep him more even-keeled. “At some point I was even questioning why I didn’t feel angry, but really I was just so thankful that I didn’t. It could have taken me down a completely different path.”
Lawson also quite intentionally chooses how to focus his energies. “If I decided to live in fear, anger or hate, it wouldn’t make anyone any better, and it certainly wouldn’t create an atmosphere where the kids could thrive. I focus on the positive and draw energy from things that will lead me to an uplifting place.” Here he pauses, as if in gratitude, then continues: “I think if you choose other emotions to dwell on, they’ll redouble themselves. I try to be purposeful in the ones I choose to focus on and then ride the others out.”