Lunchtime is the hardest, Shannon Dingle says.
That’s when she really misses her husband, Lee, who worked close to home and would eat with her every day as a way to stay connected despite the demands of his job as an engineer and hers as a writer and the mom of six children.
No, she reconsiders. It’s at nighttime. She misses Lee most when the day is winding down and the children are getting supper and baths and the next day’s homework assignments.
Lee handled a lot of that, giving her time to catch her breath and get ready for whatever would come at her the next day.
But then, she misses him in the mornings, too, when she has to be jarred from slumber by an alarm because Lee isn’t there to wake her with a word and a human touch. She misses him when the gas needle drops low on the van, because when he was here, Lee always made sure the tank got filled. She misses him when the closet door jumps the track, because he was the one who fixed things like that. When she notices all the lights in the house are on, Shannon misses her husband because, it turns out, he was the only person who ever turned them off.
She misses Lee every time she has to take over a chore he used to handle, such as depositing a check in the bank or paying for the WiFi.
Each new thing, she says, “is another moment when I have to tell a stranger my husband is dead.”
‘How to be an adult without him’
Lee Dingle died July 19 in a fluky accident while playing in the ocean with his children at Oak Island on a family vacation. He was struck by a wave that knocked him hard to the ocean floor, breaking his neck.
In the more than two months that have passed since Lee’s death, Shannon Dingle has been learning “how to be an adult without him,” she says, “and hating it.”
Some of the family’s struggles and Dingle’s grieving have been a matter of public record because this is a family that talks about things: with each other, with friends and with tens of thousands of readers who follow Dingle’s blog or her Twitter or Facebook pages, or have heard her interviewed on national television or radio shows.
In her blog and in articles for other publications, Dingle has talked about being the victim of child sexual abuse, disabling physical issues and politics, all topics that readers either find gripping or repulsive. She doesn’t really concern herself with which way they respond, she says, because for her, writing is therapeutic and unavoidable.
“We’re very open here,” she said during a News & Observer interview at her Raleigh home, which the family shares with two dogs, two bearded dragons and three chinchillas.
‘It’s healthy to look at it and talk about it’
People are compelled by the family’s story, Dingle says, because it’s human nature to try to avoid difficult things, and a man’s death at age 37 — as the result of a random act of nature at a time when his career is soaring, his children are thriving and his faith in God is palpable and strong — seems a cosmic injustice. And Dingle, who also identifies as a Christian, faces it boldly, while rejecting the platitudes offered by well-intended social media commenters such as, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
Of Lee’s death, of his absence from the family that relied on him and that is incomplete without him, Dingle says, “It’s not right. It’s not fair. But it’s healthy to look at it and talk about it.”
Dingle says her husband was deeply involved as a dad, that he relished the time he got to spend with his children. The family came together relatively quickly.
“We had planned pregnancies and surprise adoptions,” Dingle jokes, explaining how she and Lee produced two children and adopted four others in quick succession. One of the adopted children is a daughter from Taiwan, and three are a sibling set from Uganda. All six are between the ages of 7 and 12, and they include children with disabilities.
Each child is dealing with their father’s death in their own way, Dingle says, but she says all have access to counseling if they need it.
At the start of the school year, Dingle complained publicly about her frustration with the principal at the school where youngest daughter Zoe was about to begin second grade. Zoe, who has cerebral palsy, had been assigned to a new teacher, and Dingle felt it would be in Zoe’s best interest to stay with a teacher she had the previous year.
The principal cited logistical problems precluding the move.
Dingle also has used social media to thank donors to a fundraising drive started by a friend of the family to pay for Lee’s funeral and to help the family with living expenses. The money will make life manageable for the family, Dingle says, but no amount of money can make the family whole again.
‘It just happened’
Reading through comments to Dingle’s posts about Lee’s death and how her family has fared since is like scanning reviews of a new television show: people react as viscerally to the story line as if they knew the characters personally.
One theme Dingle noticed early on was the search for a cause, an explanation for the way Lee died, which Dingle says was based on an assumption that it could have been predicted and prevented. It couldn’t, she says; he was young, strong and healthy, he wasn’t reckless, he wasn’t caught in a rip current.
“It just happened,” she says, out of the blue, the way some things do. “But that makes people feel vulnerable,” she said, and they’re uncomfortable with that.
The Rev. Lisa Yebuah, pastor of Southeast Raleigh Table, a campus of Edenton Street United Methodist Church, where the Dingle family has attended for a couple of years, said Dingle’s outspokenness about her grief has been a revelation to some in her faith community.
In general, Yebuah says, “Americans are great with displays of celebration. We are not great about public displays of mourning or lament.”
Dingle’s refusal to accept that Lee’s death was somehow part of God’s plan for her family may help some people who know or follow her to think about why, as a culture, “we are so concerned about being the happy widow or the happy cancer patient,” Yebuah says.
There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist and a fighter who smiles in the face of adversity, Yebuah says, but that’s not how everyone copes.
“Sometimes, you have to let tragedy linger,” Yebuah says. “We are equipped to celebrate. We are not equipped to sit with pain. Sometimes you have to sit with pain.”