Constable: Bittersweet love story grows out of grief
Devastated by the deaths of their spouses, widow Julie Stressler of Ingleside and widower Dave Heffner of Mundelein made an important discovery at last year's annual Valentine's Day fundraiser for the Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection -- each other.
Celebrating this Valentine's Day as an engaged couple, the pair's romance started on Valentine's Day 2015, three months after they met at one of the CYWC support group's social gatherings in Lombard.
"I was looking to do things, to get out of the house," says Heffner, 46, whose wife, Krista, was a 36-year-old cancer survivor who died of complications from an infection on May 6, 2011. "I thought it might be helpful to talk with others who have experienced a tragic loss."
Having talked about death with her husband, Dave, during his 13½-year struggle with a rare, aggressive soft-tissue cancer that killed him at age 47 on March 23, 2014, Stressler, 49, still struggled with the simple act of leaving her home after her husband's death.
"He would tell me, 'I don't want you to sit at home crying. Live your life,'" remembers Stressler, a registered nurse who works in the intensive care unit at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. "I didn't go back to work until June."
She was looking for resources online when she found chicagolandwidowed.org.
"Well, this is kind of interesting," she remembers thinking. "I needed to get out there and meet people and make friends."
As one of the founders of the CYWC in 2011, Wendy Doyle Diez says "connections" are the most important purpose of the group.
"Julie and Dave personally make one kind of connection, but there are people who've made great connections as friends," says Diez, who notes the CYWC has 350 members, organizes events about every other month and offers online resources.
Sitting in a small group during their first CYWC outing in 2014, Stressler and Heffner shared stories of grief, memories of their spouses and a hamburger. He talked about heartache, how online dating "freaked me out," and his reluctance to start dating again with two little kids at home. Stressler, the mother of three older kids, tried to raise his spirits.
"You'll probably meet somebody and get those feelings back again," Stressler told him. "But I didn't know I would be that person."
They didn't even exchange phone numbers.
"A month later they had another meeting in Vernon Hills, and there he was," Stressler says. This time, their conversation led to an awkward moment when it seemed as if Heffner, a project manager for a pharmacy benefit management company, wanted to hire Stressler's son as a baby sitter.
"Do you want my son's phone number, my home number, my cell?" Stressler asked. Others arrived before Heffner could answer.
"He said, 'OK. Nice to see everybody,' and boom, out the door," says Stressler, who took that to mean he wasn't interested in her.
"It was totally high school, or middle school," says Heffner, who was so out of sorts that he sat at a different end of the table when they ran into each other again at last year's Valentine's event.
"I purposely stayed back. I was timing my exit for when she'd leave," Heffner says. Cranking up his courage, he asked if she wanted to go to lunch some day.
"No, lunch is for business meetings," Stressler replied.
"Well, why don't we have a drink now?" Heffner asked. And so it began.
Stressler, who met her husband when she was 20, hadn't dated since the 1980s, when all that mattered were the two of them. Now, she is the mother of Mallory, a student at Butler University who turns 21 this month; Maddie, 18, a student at Concordia University Wisconsin; and Bryan, 16, a junior at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa. Heffner, who was married almost 10 years, is the father of son D.J., 12, and daughter Mary, 9.
"It's not just us. It's our children, our extended families, our friends," Stressler says. "When I told my in-laws that I met someone, I was crying with my mother-in-law."
Heffner notes that everyone who loves his wife struggles with the loss and needs time to grieve in a personal way. For he and Stressler, there is no talk of moving on, just moving forward. The marriages they had will remain part of their new lives together. Mantels and refrigerators still showcase old photographs of happy families before death changed everything.
"We want their names to be spoken every day," Stressler says of her late husband, Dave, and Heffner's late wife, Krista.
"Their dad was an incredible person, really fun, really humorous. He lit up the room," Stressler says about the father of her children.
"My world stopped that day, but I realized the world didn't stop for everyone else, including my kids," Heffner says of the day his wife died. "They realize that I'll always love their mother."
A preschooler when her mother died, Mary was taking a bath one day when she started to sing a familiar song. Heffner asked Mary how she knew that song, and the girl replied, "Mommy used to sing it to me."
That memory brings tears for Heffner, as Stressler puts her arm around him.
"The grief thing, it's going to keep coming up," she says, explaining how, as a professional caregiver, she tries to be there for others. After her husband died, she had to be strong for their kids.
"The day of his funeral I didn't cry one tear, I felt really proud of my husband for all he accomplished in the years he had," she says. "The day after was a major breakdown."
Sorrow for the loves they lost helps bring Heffner and Stressler together.
"I had a really amazing marriage," Stressler says. "Because it was such a good thing I had, I want it again."
The couple got engaged on Dec. 28, 2015, when an ice storm canceled their restaurant plans, and they ended up in front of a fireplace, drinking red wine and playing a card game called Phase 10. They want to buy a new home and say they'll have their wedding when the time seems right.
"It's nice to do it the old-fashioned way and get to have those feelings again. I get to fall in love again," Stressler says.
"The love for your spouse does not stop and will not stop ever," Heffner says. "What I learned is that my heart is big enough to love again."