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When Mommy's gone

Widowed dads have some advice for the Tampa Bay Storm's Nyle Wiren, whose wife died after giving birth to their first child.

Published May 27, 2007


Healthy, young dance coach Caroline Wiren died in childbirth on May 16. Her husband, Tampa Bay Storm arena football player Nyle Wiren, will raise their newborn son, Clay, alone.

Every loss of a loved one is a tragedy, but there's something particularly sad about the death of a mother. How does a father begin to cope?

The St. Petersburg Times talked to three men who, like Nyle Wiren, were left to raise their children alone after the unexpected death of a spouse. We asked them what advice they would give Wiren. Here's what they had to say.

* * *

Sherri Thielbar died eight weeks after doctors diagnosed her with cancer in 2004. Her husband, Joe, 44, is now the sole parent for their two sons. The family lives in Pinellas Park; Joe works as a computer programmer. At the time of Sherri's death, Tristan was 7 years old and Luke was 8 months. They are now 10 and 3.

I've been lucky. Sherri's parents have been helping out quite a bit, pretty much whenever I need them. Without that, I don't know how I'd be able to do it.

We've done a pretty good job of getting a routine down. I have a maid come in every other week - that really helps out a lot. The dishwasher for a while wasn't working, so getting that fixed really saved me a lot of time. Those were two big things that really helped me get on top of everything.

Another thing that would be really useful, and I haven't done it yet, is having a lawn service take care of the yard, because it seems like I never have enough time to get the yard straightened out.

Luke is now getting to the point - it's really sad - where he calls me Mommy a lot, because he misses his mommy. Sometimes he asks where his mommy is and what happened to his mommy. Sometimes he'll ask what his mommy's name was. I don't think he fully understands that his mother died and isn't around anymore.

I think it makes it a little bit easier to let the children understand what they're ready to understand, and not give them too much all at once. I've never sat down and given even Tristan more information than he's asked for. If he asks a question, I'll answer it completely and as honestly as I can, but I wait for him to ask questions. I figure as time goes on, they'll ask questions as they're ready for them. It's probably not such a good idea to bombard them with stuff all at once.

I don't usually suggest we go see Sherri's grave site, either. Tristan will ask, can we go see Mom, and I'll take them. I get the feeling sometimes when I'm there that it's more stressful to be there thinking about it, for them. I usually don't make it a big point to go there on regular occasions. I let them decide when they want to go.

The best thing I can say is, it starts out really, really, really rough. You think you're going to go nuts. You think you're going to lose your mind. But then as time goes on, things start working themselves out, and it starts getting a lot better. The biggest thing is to off-load as many of your regular domestic chores as possible, because you're really not going to have time for them. I was going crazy trying to keep the house clean, keep the dishes washed, keep the laundry done. It was making me nuts. But having someone come in every other week was a great help, unbelievable help.

* * *

Tom Windeler, 44, a nurse, is raising five children after his wife, Debra, also a nurse, died in her sleep last year in their Spring Hill home. Doctors said she had undiagnosed heart disease. The Windeler children are a set of 9-year-old quadruplets - Ashley, Christopher, Jaclyn and Victoria - and Jonathan, who is almost 4.

It's had its ups and downs, of course. Thank goodness for grandmas. Both grandmas are helping me. We're having some construction done so my parents can move in permanently.

It's getting easier, taking care of the kids. I'm getting more adapted to it. Right now, for the past year, I've tried to be their friend more than their father. They've gotten a little spoiled. Trying to get them back to being unspoiled is hard. I just hate to punish them. I hate to tell them no. It's really hard to tell them no.

He Nyle Wiren needs to keep as many memories of her as he can, pictures and things like that. We talk about Mommy and look at pictures of Mommy. The kids really like that.

The first Mother's Day just passed. That was hard. The kids wanted to do something special, so they wrote her a letter they were going to read. Then they decided to put it onto balloons and let the balloons go. So we did that, and two of the balloons got stuck in trees. That upset them a little bit.

My advice is, accept any help you can get. Don't try to do it all on your own. Take it one day at a time. They keep telling me it'll get better, and it has, a little bit.

* * *

Keith Boyer was working as a manager at an Albertsons supermarket in 1997 when his wife, Susan, 33, died suddenly. Their two sons were 7 and 9.

It was especially hard at that time. I had just had a liver transplant, and I was just starting to get better. Casey was in third grade, and David was in fifth grade. The day she passed away, the boys were home with her. It was just a sudden heart attack out of nowhere; she just passed out and she never revived.

With the liver transplant, I wasn't in the best of health, and I still had to get back to work. I had six or seven people who stepped up and helped with the boys when I was working.

When you lose your wife in a sudden death like that it's - I don't know how to word it. We had plans if I passed away. But the thought of someone healthy being gone out of nowhere - your mind just can't grasp that. It takes time to grasp that that person is not going to walk through the door.

Having the children was a blessing, because then you don't focus on your own self. Meals and stuff, I had to cut people off, because they were lined up for months and months.

What gets you through? In my case it was my children. If I didn't have my two boys, I don't know if I would have physically made it. That's the key: focusing on what you still have, making sure they're okay. You have to take it day by day, and know that you're going to make it.

I remember when it first happened, I sent everyone away, so it was me and my two boys alone for a while. I felt like I needed to have that time with my boys, to get them through this without everyone else being around. It's a fine line between helping some- body and overwhelming them and stressing them. Obviously, you do need a lot of help, but you also need that time to get through it and work it out yourself.

Boyer has remarried. His younger son, Casey, graduated from East Lake High School this year and will be following his older brother, David, to Lipscomb University in Nashville. Boyer is a volunteer youth minister at Northwest Tampa Church of Christ. He and his wife, Tonia, recently took custody of two sisters they met there, Ashley and Alyssa Keyso, whose mother had died, so their family now comprises four children.

Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at

[Last modified May 26, 2007, 17:59:13]

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