Location: Charlotte, NC
There are certain days everyone remembers vividly, and February 12, 2009 is one of those days for Holly Gainsboro. That is the day her husband, Steven, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. “We were completely blindsided,” Holly says. She had encouraged Steven to go to the doctor because he had been having headaches and “something seemed off,” she says. A bunch of tests and some additional consultations later, they were given the devastating news.
Holly and Steven were set up on a date in 1989 in Newton, Massachusetts. They got engaged one year later and married in February 1991. Their son Derek was born in 1993 and they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1995. “The family sold the business,” Holly says, “and we were ready for a warmer climate.” Their daughter Liana was born in 1997. “We were really happy,” Holly says.
Following the diagnosis, Steven and Holly immediately went into fighter mode. Holly says Steven never complained for the twenty-two months that he endured chemotherapy, aggressive treatment and recurrences. In November 2010, an MRI showed that the tumor had grown and crossed over to the other side of his brain. They were told there was nothing more that could be done. Holly called hospice in right before Thanksgiving and Steven died on December 11th,2010.
Holly was devastated. “I wasn’t angry,” she says. “But I was heartbroken. My heart was completely broken. My soulmate and best friend was gone.” Which isn’t to say that Holly didn’t have her moments of anger. “People complaining would piss me off,” she says. She wanted to tell them that every day is a gift. “Don’t complain to me,” she remembers thinking. “My husband is dead.” And adjusting to life without him was difficult. Raising the children alone was hard, as were tackling things by herself. “When the smoke alarm went off at 2 am and I didn’t know where the batteries were,” Holly says. “That kind of stuff would make me crazy.”
Holly says she got through it day by day, and sometimes moment by moment. “I was in a widow fog for a while,” she says. “But I just kept doing the work.” She thinks that reassurances that it will get better with time do not tell the whole story. You have to put in the work and actively process and move through your grief. “It’s not really a matter of time,” Holly says. “When you get a flat tire, you don’t pull up a chair and wait for the tire to get fixed. You have to move forward and through it.” Holly went to therapy. She sought comfort and advice from other spouses she’d met in the brain tumor world. She read books on healing and spirituality. And she accepted her grief. “For grief, you have to sit in that space,” Holly says. Instead of trying to move through it as fast as you can, Holly suggests embracing it. “Honor where you are and sit in it and feel it,” she says. “Otherwise it will come back and bite you.”
Holly didn’t rush her grief, but she also knew she couldn’t wallow in it. “I was okay being in the abyss,” she says, “but I didn’t want to stay there.” She says she invited the grief in whenever it showed up but she was determined to find joy again. “The children gave me purpose,” she says. “I knew for their sake I had to be resilient.” Helping her find her way was the gift Steven gave her, something she says she feels lucky to have. “Steven made it very clear that he wanted me to be happy and live my life and find love and get married,” she says. “That stayed with me.” Knowing that Steven wanted her to move forward has meant the world to Holly. “It was a beautiful gift that Steven gave me,” Holly says. “Permission to love again.” She jokes that she never returned the favor. “I used to tell him that if something happened to me, he needed to grieve me for the rest of his life.” Thanks to Steven, Holly felt no guilt or regret when she found herself falling in love again. Holly and Joe were friends while they were each married to their respective spouses, and they followed each other’s journeys and supported each other when their spouses became sick and died from their illnesses. They formed a grief support group together and went on long walks together. Eventually, the friendship evolved into a romantic relationship. “It felt like a natural progression,” Holly says. “It was effortless.”
Holly and Joe were married on July 19,2014. They lit memorial candles for each of their spouses so that they could be part of the ceremony and so that their children knew that their deceased parents would always be a part of their lives. “I hated that Steven couldn’t be a part of my world anymore,” Holly says, “but I knew this is what he wanted for me and whom he would have picked for me.” Holly feels blessed to have Joe and his sons in her life, but she says that
In addition to finding love again, Holly has found comfort in giving back. She created The Steven Gainsboro Brain TumorResearch Fund at The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center and has volunteered with and co-chaired annual fundraising events for the National Brain Tumor Society. She has also shared her story on multiple occasions. “How do I not honor what our family went through and make sure it wasn’t for nothing?” she asks. She works tirelessly to raise awareness and money because she wants other families to be spared the heartache that hers endured. “I am hopeful that one day a dad will be diagnosed just like Steven was,” Holly says, “but the doc will say, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got this.’”
In finding her own healing, Holly is eager to help others. She has begun pursuing meditation and Reiki and facilitates both with others in need of healing. She still has her sad days (the Jewish holidays are particularly difficult for her) but she feels incredibly lucky to have found love again. She rejoiced over recently turning sixty, a milestone many people dread, because, she says, “Steven never made it to sixty.” So she feels grateful for every day, even the lousy ones. “Life is for the living,” Holly says, “and I honor Steven by living my life fully, passionately, purposefully, and lovingly.”
“Every day is a gift,” she adds. “If I get up and my feet touch the ground, it is a good day.”