A previous blog described how one of my former students gifted me with a selection of her homemade jams. What I left out of the story was my initial reaction to the package: 

I couldn’t open it.

I had looked forward to receiving the package. After all, my student had messaged me that she was sending it. I checked my front porch a few times every day, hoping that my postman had delivered it. The afternoon the box arrived, I was elated. I think I did a little happy dance in the foyer. I mean, who doesn’t like gifts? I brought it inside, and after reading the return address and imagining the desert and cactus plants where she lives, I had to walk away. Leave the package on the foyer table.

Later that afternoon, I sliced open the packaging tape to find a handwritten note. And, I closed the flaps of the box and walked away again.

I was too overwhelmed to go further. I knew that note would make me cry. I knew the jams were going to be delicious. But, I couldn’t handle the intensity of my emotions.

I waited until later in the evening to read the note, and I sobbed over it at my kitchen counter. It was the kind of note that reaffirms that what teachers do and say matters in the lives of their students. That was enough. I left the jams in their bubble wrap in the box for the next day. Maybe by then I’d be calm enough to unpack them.

Why did I react this way? I think I was emotionally overwhelmed. My brain went back into the fight or flight mode that takes over when we experience trauma. I flew. Stepped away. Whatever I had to do to avoid total emotional breakdown. 

I’ve stepped away, too, from other events like Thanksgiving dinner, discussions of weekend plans, birthday parties –potential triggers of overpowering emotions, even happiness!

I opened the gift in stages to avoid being overpowered and because I wanted to savor its sweetness. Each morning for three days, I’d open one jar, spreading out the jam and the happiness for as long as I could in smooth, even doses.

I don’t (can’t?) feel deeply moving events anymore, without Todd. That’s not to say I don’t have small joys in my life, but the really intense happiness, the emotional high that was my life with Todd, died with him. Any imitation of it steamrolls me into a near anxiety attack. 

It seems my head and my heart have built a buffer zone around me, like invisible bubble wrap or an emotional airbag. Two years and seven months. It feels like I’m still in survival mode.


Sue Leathers is an English teacher and mother. She had a huge crush on her husband Todd Kleffman, a journalist, when she was in high school, and she'd save his columns and stories. Decades later, she and Todd found each other through Facebook. He was the love of her life, her high school crush, and she was his biggest fan. She lost Todd in October 2017 to a heart attack. She has found solace in Hope for Widows and in writing of her own journey, and hopes to help other widows by sharing her experiences here.

Sue can be found on Instagram: @susanjanie