Grieving Libertyville family finds help at Willow House
Having known each other since they both began freshman year at Stevenson High School, Bob Lindell and Lisa Ballantini married in 2005. They didn't even get the chance to celebrate their first wedding anniversary before Bob was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
He survived that cancer and the couple had a daughter, Julia, and a son, Beau, before cancer returned in December 2012. His fight against that cancer earned him a 2015 Courage Award from Voices Against Brain Cancer. A third brain cancer, aggressive glioblastoma, killed him on Aug. 12, 2015. He was 37 years old, as was his widow. Julia was 6 and Beau was 3.
"I hired a baby sitter so I could have a cry in the shower. Those feelings were so overwhelming," Lisa Lindell says, remembering how she'd turn up the radio so her children couldn't hear her sobbing, cursing and screaming. "I called it the torture cycle. What if? Why? What now?"
She sought help a month later from Willow House, a not-for-profit agency with licensed social workers who guide parents and children by using support groups, expressive arts programs, school programs and community education events.
"I wanted to learn everything about grief," says Lindell, a first-grade teacher who grabbed a pen and notebook, expecting to pick up the answers in the same way her students learned how to read. "OK. So what do I do to get through this?"
"We're so sorry. That's not how it goes," the social worker told her. "There's no right way. There's only your way, and you'll figure it out."
Lindell and her kids still go to monthly Willow House support group meetings at the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Libertyville. They've been to many arts programs at Willow House, 2231 Lakeside Drive in Bannockburn, where they can work through grief with paintings, drawings, yoga, gardening and other activities. Willow House also holds meetings at the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights and in Chicago. To register for the free services, phone (847) 236-9300 or visit willowhouse.org.
"I hear many people say 'moving on' or 'moving forward.' I'm moving through grief," says Lindell, who has become an advocate for Willow House and supporter of the charity's inaugural Benefit of Laughter fundraiser on April 6 in Lake Forest.
Three years ago, when a first-grade boy in her class started talking with her about the death of his father, Lindell told his mother about Willow House, and now they are friends who attend support meetings together.
"Some people have been coming for many, many years," says Erin Leyden, executive director of Willow House, which started providing services in 1998. The agency has four licensed social workers on staff and volunteers who complete 20 hours of training.
"And it's free, which is good," Leyden says, noting the need for services keeps growing. "Everyone can relate to losing someone."
The Lindell house was a beehive of activity before Bob died, with the usual household bustle joined by well-wishers bringing food and people stopping by to help. It grew quiet after he died.
"The stark contrast was a reality check," Lisa Lindell says. "I had to rebuild myself. Who am I without Bob?"
After her husband's death, Lindell said she didn't think her family "fit anymore" with the Libertyville where they lived.
"I remember going to one of the kids' concerts, looking around at all the parents together and being spiteful," she says. "It was ugly anger."
People praising her strength rubbed her the wrong way. "I have to be this. I don't want to be this," she thought.
Sessions with Willow House helped her and her children find healthy ways to remember the husband and father.
"Willow House provides a place for us to grieve together. There is no judgment. It's a safe place to share feelings that are really strong," Lindell says. "This is a feelings house. Feelings are good. Feelings are healthy."
It has been healthy for her children to see her grieve. "You'll hear my children talk openly about the death of their dad," she says.
"I remember how he was always smiling and laughing because he was really funny," says Julia, 10. "He had a paper towel on his lap and he would paint my nails, and he did a good job."
When the odd appearance of something makes them smile, the family calls that a "Bob wink." Both children have books filled with photos of them with their dad.
"He cut down a Christmas tree with me," Beau, who celebrated his seventh birthday Saturday, says as he thumbs through the book, stopping at photos of his dad and him on a family vacation to South Dakota. "He carried me a lot on his back."
A photo book titled "Robert John Lindell: A Book of Smiles" is always on display. "He's everywhere. He's all over this house," Lindell says. "He had a great time doing everything and anything. And he did everything he could to stay alive as long as he could to be a part of our world."
Lindell has a boyfriend, Chris Popjoy, whom she met through an online service. "He popped into our lives and gave us joy," she says, adding that Popjoy is fine with all the tributes to her late husband.
Lindell and the kids celebrate Bob's birthday by going to a restaurant and singing "Happy Birthday." They've scattered his ashes, known as "daddy dust," in some of his favorite spots, including the family's annual vacation to "granny's" lake house in Waupaca, Wisconsin.
The grief never leaves, and that's OK, Lindell says. But she knows what her late husband would want for his family.
"He gave us that gift to look at life differently," Lindell says. "He said, 'I just want you to be happy.'"
Beneficiary: Willow House, a not-for-profit agency helping parents and children cope with death and grief
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 6
Where: Gorton Community Center, 400 E. Illinois Road, Lake Forest
Who: Comedians Ana Belaval, Paul Farahvar and Patti Vasquez