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updated: 2/20/2013 10:20 AM

Valentine's Day never the same for those widowed young

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  • With photographs of their late husbands on the coffee table, Wendy Doyle Diez, left, and Laura Tully Dennis explain how they came together to start the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection. The group hosts a Valentine & Wine event Saturday in Glenview.

       With photographs of their late husbands on the coffee table, Wendy Doyle Diez, left, and Laura Tully Dennis explain how they came together to start the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection. The group hosts a Valentine & Wine event Saturday in Glenview.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Laura Dennis, right, says she understands when friend Wendy Diez tells the story of how her husband, Chris, died 10 days after the birth of their daughter. Dennis' husband, Kevin, died of a heart attack at age 31.

       Laura Dennis, right, says she understands when friend Wendy Diez tells the story of how her husband, Chris, died 10 days after the birth of their daughter. Dennis' husband, Kevin, died of a heart attack at age 31.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Holding a photograph of her husband cradling their newborn daughter just days before he died, Wendy Diez and friend Laura Dennis, right, explain why they needed to start the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection. The group hosts a Valentine & Wine event Saturday in Glenview.

       Holding a photograph of her husband cradling their newborn daughter just days before he died, Wendy Diez and friend Laura Dennis, right, explain why they needed to start the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection. The group hosts a Valentine & Wine event Saturday in Glenview.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Struggling with the death of their husbands, Wendy Diez, left, and Laura Dennis formed the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection. The group is hosting a Valentine & Wine event Saturday in Glenview.

       Struggling with the death of their husbands, Wendy Diez, left, and Laura Dennis formed the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection. The group is hosting a Valentine & Wine event Saturday in Glenview.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Help for kids coping with loss

 
 

Giddy young lovers can't wait to exchange perfect gifts on a romantic Valentine's Day they've planned for weeks. Old married couples make do with an obligatory Valentine gesture, content in knowing they celebrate their love every day. Some single people worry about whether their fledging relationship can live up to the holiday's hype. Others don't have a date and fear that they will never find a true love.

Then there are the people who observe Valentine's Day as part of a new and growing club founded by Wendy Doyle Diez and Laura Tully Dennis -- the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection.

The stories required to gain entrance into this exclusive club with the mostly suburban members all have the same sad ending.

Wendy and Chris Diez and their baby boy, Ian, were in the midst of a joyous Christmas season in 2008 with Wendy just days away from giving birth to a daughter. Then Chris developed a headache bad enough to send him to the hospital. That's where doctors discovered two large brain tumors that were going to kill him.

"Chris saw her as a newborn and then that was it," Wendy Diez recalls, showing the photo of her husband holding their baby, Claire, in a hospital moments after her birth on Jan. 3. Chris died 10 days later at age 48.

Everything happened so fast, "we were getting three different cards at the same time -- condolences, congratulations on your baby and get well," Diez remembers.

"Since Claire and Chris had such little time together, I wanted to do whatever I could to make those moments special," says Diez, who had their daughter baptized in the hospital room where Chris was dying. "Our pastor baptized her and then anointed Chris. Everyone said their goodbyes and he literally died about 10 minutes later. I swear, it was like he was waiting for all that to happen first. It is surreal to experience the bookends of life in the short time that I did. All I can say is that thank goodness I had the joy part of the equation with Claire."

Dennis didn't get a chance to plan a goodbye for her husband. Married with preschool sons, Jack and Quinn, she was having a fun day with friends and family in Wisconsin in 2009 when Kevin Dennis struggled to climb a ladder from the swimming pool and staggered to a chain-link fence.

"He leaned against it and just fell over," his widow says. "He got out of the swimming pool and never got back up."

Her father, a retired Chicago firefighter, performed CPR as she dealt with her young sons. Attempts to revive Kevin continued at the hospital, but the 31-year-old man thought to be in good shape died of a heart attack known as the widow-maker.

A lingering illness provides a chance to say goodbye while a sudden death alleviates suffering. "We talk about this all the time," says Dennis, 34, adding that her widowed friends all reach the same conclusion. "There is no good way to go."

One night after her boys were in bed and before she would cry herself to sleep, Dennis went on the Internet.

"I was looking for somebody who knew what it felt like," she says. "Everybody else was worried about when their husbands were coming home for dinner and my husband was never coming home for dinner."

On a widow chat site, she found a posting from Diez that mentioned St. Paul of the Cross, the nearby Park Ridge church where Chris Diez had been choir director.

"It had been nine months for me, so I was a veteran," Diez, 42, says about being a widow.

"I had a very hard time with that word for a long time," admits Dennis. "I felt much more comfortable with wife or mother."

Meeting in person, the women "made the word conform to us" and decided to form a club for the widowed, Dennis recalls.

"We doubled membership in one day by adding two friends," says Diez. The first official outing was in December 2011.

"Everything was done at a restaurant," a chuckling Diez says.

"With a glass of wine," Dennis adds with a laugh.

They needed a name. One that wouldn't make their group seem like organized grief therapy sessions, a dating service or a gathering for senior citizens.

"The word we talked about the most was 'connection.' We kept coming back to the important thing is the connection," Diez says.

"We're all in this club we don't want to be in," says Scott Bauer, a Long Grove father of three teenage boys and one of the few male members of the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection group. His wife, Lauri, was 43 and in great shape when she died of a sudden heart arrhythmia in 2011. As active members of the community, the family had a wonderful support network of family and friends that others often do not, says Scott. To help remedy that, he founded the Lauri S. Bauer Foundation For Sudden Loss, which funds counseling and other services for children coping with a loss. In addition to a grief center in Deerfield, the group plans to open a center in Evanston on April 1.

The 46-year-old dad writes a blog for the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection, which now boasts 150 people on its rolls.

"We're not single parents. We're only parents, which is a huge difference," Scott notes.

"Valentine's Day is probably one of the toughest holidays because of what it is with love and couples and being together," says Paula La Gioia of Mount Prospect, who was 46 with a first-grade daughter, Grace, when her husband, Bill Hunt, died of a blood clot in 2007. But there is no predicting when the grief will wash over her.

"It can be the second Wednesday of the month and you're driving in the car and it hits you," La Gioia says.

With the widowed group, she doesn't have to worry about keeping a stiff upper lip or forcing a smile. "You don't need to say anything because you know they get it," Dennis says of the members.

"You just feel a comfort knowing there are other people. On some level everybody is walking a similar path," La Gioia says. "Whatever you say, you know somebody has experienced something like that."

"You feel safe," Bauer says. "You can cry, and you can laugh."

People probably will do both Saturday at the group's Valentine & Wine, from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at WineStyles, 1517 Waukegan Road in Glenview.

"I don't know if that Valentine & W-i-n-e or Valentine & W-h-i-n-e," La Gioia quips.

Tickets for Valentine & Wine are $25 each and a portion of the proceeds will help fund CYWC's not-for-profit 501(c)(3) filing fees and its outreach efforts. Tickets can be purchased online at chicagolandwidowed.org. For more information, email "It's one-stop shopping," Diez says, noting members find resources, help with grief and a social outlet in the club. Perhaps most important, it provides a chance to regain something that can be lost -- fun.

"I have not laughed as hard as I do when I get together with other widowed people," Diez says. "It's crazy."">info@chicagolandwidowed.org

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