November 6th, 2020
As much as I’ve been dreading this, I realize that I need to attempt to record the events of what has so far been the worst day of my life, Friday, November 6th, 2020 — the day that Melissa, my wife of 23 years, died just 17 days after her 46th birthday.
08:30 — My son came to get me: “Dad, Mom has fallen and needs your help.” This wasn’t the first time she had fallen, so I didn’t think too much of it, but still I quickly went to her to make sure she was OK.
I found her on the floor in the hallway, at the intersection of the bedroom, the bathroom, and the hall closet. The door to the hall closet was open.
As I knelt down beside her, I could tell she seemed dazed, and her eyes were closed. But when I talked to her and asked if she was OK, she said, “I think so, but I need a minute.” So I knelt down even closer to her and held her in my arms.
I asked her what had happened. She said she was trying to get something out of the closet and had lost her balance. I visually checked her over, but could find no signs of blood, a contusion, or any other mark indicating that she had hit herself on the wall or door as she fell.
Within a few minutes of us sitting on the floor, she began to have a seizure. She slumped over to her right side, her eyes closed, her breath ragged and labored. This was a new development for us in her journey through chronic illness — she had never had a seizure before this. I held her even tighter, and the seizure ended within what seemed less than a minute.
I called her name, and she responded, still coherent. I asked her if she wanted to try to move to the bed, thinking she might fare better if she were off the floor and on something comfortable. She responded that she needed to stay there, so I sat on the floor beside her, still holding her.
08:50 — She started a second seizure, with the same symptoms, and I knew this situation was completely different than anything we had faced before. I quickly called for my son to grab my cell phone, and I dialed 911. The dispatcher answered quickly, I explained what was happening, and an ambulance was sent to the house.
I also took a moment to call my Dad. When he answered, I simply said, “I need you. Melissa is having seizures, and I need you to come get Jake.”
The ambulance arrived within just a few minutes. I explained to the EMTs what had happened so far, and Melissa started having a third seizure. I’m sure one of the EMTs mentioned what kind of seizure it was, but I didn’t understand the word he used, as I was focused on Melissa.
They brought the stretcher into the house as close as they could get it to Melissa, and between the three of us, we got her loaded onto the stretcher. Her face was pale, her lips losing their color, and I somehow knew that these seizures were impacting her in ways we had never experienced, but I also didn’t realize just how much.
I felt so unprepared for what was happening. One of the EMTs asked for Melissa’s driver’s license, and it took me and Jake a couple of minutes to find her purse in the house, get out the wallet, and locate the license for them. I wondered what else they might need, but they didn’t ask for anything else.
The EMTs took Melissa on the stretcher out to the ambulance, and I went to check on Jake. He was standing just outside in the back yard, obviously worried. I told him that we needed to focus on getting things together, and that Grandpa was on the way to pick him up and take him to their house.
Jake went inside and gathered a few items, and then asked if he could go say something to his Mom before the ambulance left. I told him he could try, and we walked outside together.
The ambulance was still parked in our driveway, but the back doors to the ambulance were closed. Jake knocked on the door, and one of the EMTs opened the door slightly. Jake asked if he could say something to his mom, but the EMT said it wasn’t a good time as they needed to prep her for transport to the hospital.
At this point, I still had no idea how serious the situation was.
Jake wandered up the driveway toward the house, grabbing at his hair and stopping at the garage door. I walked up behind him and gave him a hug. He cried out, “They had better take good care of Mom, or else!” My heart broke at the challenge I knew he was facing. He’s 13 years old. What prepares a 13-year-old for this? But it occurred to me to remind him, “Jake, they’re going to do the very best that they can. But who is ultimately in control of what happens?” And we both answered, “God is in control,” not realizing how much we would need to lean on that belief.
I walked Jake back into the house to wait for my Dad while the ambulance left and headed to the hospital. I had asked them to go to our preferred local hospital, assuming that I’d wait with Jake until my Dad could arrive, and then I’d be able to drive to the hospital and catch up with what was going on.
My Dad arrived soon after, and I said goodbye to Jake, promising to keep him updated on what was happening.
Then I went back into the house, trying to think through what I would need for the day. I fully expected that I would drive to the hospital, walk into the emergency room, and be able to join Melissa in whatever room they had her in, confident that she would be hooked up to some medicine and/or machines, but more stable than she had been at home. I thought for sure that we’d spend a good part of the day in the ER, and then ultimately she would be admitted to the hospital while they ran tests to diagnose these new developments and figure out a treatment plan.
With all of this in mind, I took a quick shower, expecting it to be a long day at the hospital, and then packed up my backpack with the items that I thought I would need for a long day at the hospital.
On the way to the hospital, I remembered that Melissa was scheduled to have an appointment with our primary doctor that afternoon, so I called the doctor’s office as I was driving to let them know what was happening, and that Melissa wouldn’t be able to make her appointment that afternoon.
09:35 — The 911 dispatcher called me back to let me know that the ambulance needed to take Melissa to a different local hospital, so I changed my route to head to the other hospital. I still didn’t think anything of this, even though the hospital they rerouted to is about 5 miles closer to our house. I just assumed that it was due to hospital capacity or some COVID-19 protocols.
I arrived at the hospital and parked in the emergency room’s parking lot. I grabbed my backpack and my face mask and braced myself for what I thought might happen that day. I had no idea that at that very moment, Melissa was entering eternity — the death certificate lists her official time of death as 09:36.
I entered the outside doors of the emergency room, surprised that there were really no patients or family members in the waiting room. I went through security and checked in at the desk. They asked me to take a seat in the lobby, so I did.
Within just a few minutes, someone came and took me to a consultation room off to the side of the lobby. It was a pretty large room — I don’t think I’ll ever forget the room as long as I live. There were chairs and double seats against three of the walls, at least one more door to another hallway, and a bookshelf against one wall. It almost seemed like another waiting room off the lobby, a room that could seat about 8 to 10 people.
I genuinely thought nothing of this — I thought it was simply a precaution with COVID-19, that they would need to talk to me and scan me before I could go into the area where the patients were. I also thought they would need more information on Melissa, as the EMTs had only her driver’s license and not even a copy of her health insurance card.
Around 10:15 — Two nurses entered, and again, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. They began to ask me questions about what had happened at home, and I relayed to them the same information that I’ve shared above.
And then they said it. “We’re sorry, Mr. Dunn, but she flatlined before arriving at the hospital, and we were unable to revive her.” I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Surely they had us mixed up. Surely they were talking about some other woman, not my wife. I said as much. “You must have us mixed up. My wife is Melissa Dunn, age 46. She came in with seizures.”
They gently responded, “Yes, that’s who were talking about. We’re sorry to tell you that she’s dead.”
Time stopped. My brain froze as emotions took over. It made no sense to me, yet my body immediately reacted with overwhelming grief. I cried and kept saying, “No, no, no, no…” I don’t know how many times I said it.
After I finally settled down a little bit, the nurses gently explained what would happen in the next bit of time, and asked if I wanted to call anyone who could come be with me at the hospital. I knew my Dad and Mom had my son, so I called my brother (10:29).
After he agreed to come as quickly as possible, I began to make a mental checklist of the people I would need to call. I knew I needed to get the worst one out of the way first thing — I had to call my parents to tell them, and then tell my son that his Mom had died. I called my Dad and he answered the phone (10:30). I asked if he was sitting down and somewhere quiet, and then I tearfully told him what had happened. Then I asked for him to give the phone to Jake, and I somehow managed to tell him, too. My heart broke again as I listened to him cry in shock and response to the news that his Mom was gone. And the knowledge quickly overwhelmed me: I was now a single dad to a 13-year-old son who deeply loved his Mom. How could I even cope with that? Somehow I knew I couldn’t even process it then, as I had more phone calls to get to.
I tried calling Melissa’s mom, but got voicemail. I can’t even remember if I left a message for her, or if I just decided I would try again.
I tried calling Melissa’s dad, who is a school teacher, so I knew getting in contact with him would be difficult. I called his home phone number, and it rang through to his wife’s cell phone. I asked her what she was doing, and she answered that she was driving. I asked her to pull over, and she said, “Nate, you’re scaring me.” I responded, “I know, and I’m sorry, but Melissa is dead.” Obviously, she was in disbelief, and I had to repeat it for her to process it. She told me that she would immediately get in contact with Melissa’s Dad and have him call me.
In the meantime, I knew I had other people to call — a few of Melissa’s close friends; Jake’s school, as he was obviously going to be missing that day; my pastor.
Melissa’s Dad soon called back, and I had to tell him what had happened to his daughter.
After that conversation, I tried Melissa’s mom again and was able to reach her on her cell phone. Again, I had to relay the reality of what had happened to her daughter.
My brother showed up at some point during all of this, and I just hugged him and cried. It was so good to have someone I loved and trusted to just be with me, to let me cry, and then to help me think through the things that I needed to do. We prayed together, asking God for the strength that I would need to get through whatever was happening.
I made numerous phone calls from that room. I can’t even remember how many. I paced as I talked on the phone, sometimes leaning against the bookcase.
My pastor called me back after the church office was able to contact him, and I relayed the information to him. I asked him if he would perform the funeral or memorial service, and of course he said yes. I know we discussed a couple of items about how the church could help support us in the coming days, but I don’t remember the specifics.
A member of the hospital staff came into the room to ask if I knew what funeral home we would use. I had no idea. This was nothing I was prepared to handle at this time. The only thing I could think of was the funeral home where our next-door neighbor worked, so I called them and actually spoke to him on the phone. He was able to answer a few questions for me about the process, and we set an appointment for the next day to discuss more details.
Next, a member of the County Medical Examiner’s office came in to explain that because of Melissa’s age and the fact that the ER staff did not have an obvious cause of death, they would need to perform an autopsy. She said that the ME’s office would take Melissa’s body from the hospital later that day, and that the autopsy would be performed on either Saturday or Monday, and then her body would be transported to the funeral home. She gave me her business card, and I was grateful for that, as I knew I would not remember all of the information that she had given to me.
I still felt like I was in shock. I was functioning, but I don’t know how.
Finally a nurse came back into the room and asked if I was ready to see Melissa’s body. How can you answer “no” and “yes” at the same time? How can you ever be ready to be taken to a hospital room where your wife’s dead body is waiting? But how can you put it off?
We followed the nurse down several hallways. I had no idea where we were going, but we finally stopped outside a room that had glass doors and a curtain pulled across the doors inside the room. We stepped into the room, around the curtain, and there she was. She was somehow still so beautiful, even after everything she had been through.
I slowly walked across to the bed and put my hand on her head. Her skin was cold. I leaned down and cradled her head in my arms, kissing her face and crying. I apologized over and over that I had not been able to do anything. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
We were supposed to spend all of our lives together. She and I both knew that her health was slowly deteriorating, but we assumed that it would take many years, and that she would simply lose more of her abilities and mobility as her chronic illness took over. We were prepared for that, and had discussed and made plans for modifications to our house to accommodate her. This was not part of that plan.
I remembered back to our wedding — June 14, 1997. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce, which of course was devastating to her. But Melissa and I were committed to each other. I still remember the way she said her vows, especially the phrase, “Until DEATH do us part.” She emphasized that word, “DEATH,” vowing that we would be together until the end. We just never realized it would come only 23 years later.
As I stood beside Melissa’s dead body, I had reached a point where I was keeping my hand on her forehead, but I could no longer look at her body. I also felt a strange urge to pray, so I lifted my face to the ceiling and began to pray: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who gives us life and knows the number of our days…” I don’t remember the specifics of what else I prayed, but I know I thanked God for the gift of Melissa, for the privilege of being her husband, and now especially for the promise of heaven, that even though her earthly body was dead, her soul was now in God’s presence in heaven.
I finished praying and stood there for a little while longer, my hand on her head, my chest heaving with sobs. Finally, I realized there was nothing more for me to do there, and I had other responsibilities to see to.
We walked out of the room and asked a nurse to walk us back to the consultation room. When we arrived back at the consultation room, someone from the hospital had provided a tray with some snacks and beverages, but there was no way I was hungry at this point. Besides, I was ready to leave the hospital and knew that I needed to get to my parents’ house to be with my son.
It was now about noon as we gathered our belongings and walked out of the hospital. It was a sunny and unseasonably warm day for November 6. But I was thankful for the warmth and sunshine. It made it just a little bit easier to move through this grief I was now carrying.
As I drove to my parents’ house, I called a few more people to update them. I don’t remember the specifics of the phone calls, nor do I really remember the drive to my parents’ house, but I somehow arrived safely there.
I parked my car in the driveway, and my son came outside to meet me. I immediately started crying as soon as I saw him, this wonderful kid who had left home that morning thinking his Mom would probably be OK, but now would never see her again until we all got to heaven.
To my surprise, he walked up to me and calmly said, “Dad, you don’t have to cry; Mom is in heaven now. She has no more pain.” What a sweet kid with a deep understanding of God’s promises.
I replied to him, “I know that I don’t have to cry, but I also won’t be able to help it. It’s just part of who I am and a result of our current situation.”
We hugged each other, and then walked into my parents’ house, where I hugged each of them.
I sat down at their kitchen table, and it felt like my brain just stopped. I know I answered questions. I know my Mom made us grilled sandwiches, and I was able to eat mine. I know my Dad explained to me how Jake responded to the news, how he had paced the floor at their house. But I don’t really remember anything else.
At some point, we decided to go to my brother’s house, where my son could be with his cousins. We drove to their house, I think mostly in silence, although Jake may have asked me a couple of questions.
As the day progressed, I knew I needed to return home to check on our dogs. I was dreading going back home, but I knew it needed to be done, and it wouldn’t get any better if I put it off.
As soon as I walked into the door of our house, I started crying again. My wife’s faithful service dog, Zoey, was waiting there to greet me. She acknowledged my presence and then kept looking expectantly at the door, waiting for anyone else to walk in. I had to try to explain that I was the only one returning, and then I sat on the couch and cried, holding on to Zoey.
Beyond that, I can’t really remember much of what else happened that day. I know that toward the evening, I returned to my brother’s house for dinner, but I couldn’t tell you what we ate.
Gift of Life Michigan called while I was at my brother’s house, asking if I would consider letting them use Melissa’s body for tissue and organ donation. I didn’t even hesitate in saying yes. Melissa was such a giving person, I knew that she would have wanted this. She would have wanted someone to be able to benefit if at all possible. That was a lengthy phone call — about 30 minutes — with lots of questions about medical history, travel history, etc., but I think it was worth it.
Jake asked to spend the night there at my brother’s house with his cousins, and I was OK with that. I eventually returned home and collapsed on the bed, crying some more, and somehow eventually fell asleep.
Looking back, there had been different times over the years when Melissa’s health had taken a turn for the worse and we had to visit the emergency room, or she had to be hospitalized. At these times, I would try to mentally prepare myself: “What if this is it? What if she doesn’t survive this one?” I can tell you this: nothing I had imagined came close to what I felt when it actually happened. Nothing can prepare you for the unexpected death of your wife at the age of 46.
But through that entire day, I knew there was hope. There were promises from the Bible we could claim and cling to. I’ll write more about that later, but it’s important to me here to acknowledge that in the midst of everything that happened on this terrible day, there was still a glimmer of hope.
And that’s all I can write about this for now.Posted on November 6, 2020 #Death #Melissa Dunn