They say that life can change in an instant, and no one knows that better than Angela Mencl. Her whole world “turned upside down with one phone call,” and life has never been the same since.
Things had been good. She and her husband Gary had three beautiful children and they were all happy and healthy – or so they thought.
One afternoon, Gary called her from work where he had been performing a root canal and asked Angela to take him to the hospital because he felt “off” and thought he might be having a heart attack.
After hours of waiting in the ER, Angela looked up to see a doctor walking toward her with tears in her eyes. Her heart sank.
“He has a tear in his aorta,” the doctor told her. “It is catastrophic.”
At that point, Gary was still conscious. Angela was tasked with the almost impossible job of breaking the news to him while keeping him calm, as an elevated heart rate meant he would bleed out even more.
“He couldn’t freak out,” Angela wrote, “but that didn’t stop me from falling to the floor and crying as hospital personnel walked around me.”
Gary was life-flighted to a hospital in Portland that was better equipped for the severity of his surgery.
Before he left, he tried to make a video for his kids, but he couldn’t finish.
“The thought that he would have to say goodbye was upsetting him too much,” Angela said.
Angela drove four hours to the new hospital to meet up with Gary. The life-flight nurse texted her updates throughout and, once they landed at the hospital, he let Gary call Angela from his phone.
“I told Gary he was my most favorite person ever and that I loved him so much,” Angela recalled.
Once she got to the hospital, Angela was told that Gary was still alive, on bypass, and in surgery. She asked the nurses if he was going to be okay, but they couldn’t give her an answer.
For eight hours she waited. Finally, the nurses came out and told her the surgery had been successful and they would be bringing Gary to the ICU.
“I jumped up and down and cried tears of joy,” Angela said. “He is okay! He is going to live!”
But just as quickly as the joy came, it was washed away.
“The surgeon came out minutes later and stripped away all the joy and hope that filled the room,” Angela said. “He informed me that Gary was conscious entering the OR but as soon as they got him under anesthesia his aorta tore completely and he coded.
“They performed CPR as they were opening him but he was without oxygen for five minutes. He told me it was a miracle he even got him this far and that if he did wake up, he would have severe cognitive and physical disabilities.”
They told her she should go in and see him.
“Nothing can prepare you to see your sweet, loving husband laying there ventilated, swollen and unconscious,” she said. [The nurses] told me that hearing is the last thing to go so to talk to him, tell him to keep fighting. I sat next to his lifeless body and encouraged him to keep fighting, that I would never be okay without him.”
More hours went by and more surgeries were performed. After what felt like a lifetime, Angela’s mom came to be with her.
“[S]he was hysterical,” Angela recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘pull yourself together, I need you to be strong and support me.’”
That’s when her mother told her something that brought her to her knees.
“Your sister died last night,” she said.
“It took a few minutes before my brain could register the words my mom was speaking,” Angela said. “I walked back into the room and screamed ‘MY SISTER DIED!’ and I chucked a cup of water across the room.
“A wave of relief washed over me as I thought now that my sister is gone, there was no way God would take my husband too.”
But just a couple hours later, a doctor walked in and told Angela the words she never wanted to hear:
“If there is anyone that wants to say goodbye, now is the time.”
“What I heard was, ‘now is the time to sit your four small children down and crush them with the news that Daddy would not be coming home,’” Angela said.
Angela now had to get her children to the hospital to say goodbye to their dad. She had to sign the papers to take Gary off life support. Everything was a blur.
“When my children arrived, I was forced to say words no mother should ever have to say to their children,” she said. “We marched past the nurses’ station sobbing and entered the hospital room. The image of those final moments with my children and their Dad will never leave me. It was the most heart wrenching part of this whole experience.”
After they had said their goodbyes, the nurses turned the machines off and Angela got into the bed with Gary as he took his final breaths.
In one day, Angela’s entire world had come crashing down around her. She didn’t know how she was going to go on.
“How does one survive losing their dear husband and sister a day apart?” she asked. “How do you survive spending your son’s first birthday at a funeral home planning your husband’s funeral service? How do you pack up your beautiful home and move to a different state and start your option B. It all seems impossible.”
But through it all, she has learned some important truths.
“You learn that God truly carries you when you cannot walk yourself,” she said. “You learn that the people around you are his hands and they never leave you alone.
“I have survived because of the kindness and selflessness of friends, family, church members, and complete strangers.”
Even though it sometimes feels impossible to go on, Angela says she is surviving because of the family, friends, and strangers who have shown her love, support, and encouragement through her darkest hours.
“I don’t know why my husband and sister had to die,” she wrote. “All I can do is have trust that God is here with me and is molding me to be the woman he knows that I can be.
“He gave me a wonderful sister and brother-in-law who immediately called and said they were finishing their basement into an apartment for me. Not only would I be living with them but they have been helping me raise my children.
“We have made our own little tribe. My brother-in-law doesn’t try to replace their Dad but loves them and is willing to fill that void. He takes my kids individually on outings so they can talk and get to know one another better. I could not have asked for a better option B.
“I made a promise to my husband while in the hospital, when I viewed his body for the first time and right before they closed the casket. I promised I would keep going even when I felt like it was impossible. I promised him I would be a good mother and do my best to raise our kids.
“I intend to keep these promises.
“I am working on healing and finding ways to cope. I am praying, reading my scriptures, working out, seeing a therapist, taking anti-depressants, listening to music, drinking copious amounts of Diet Coke and just taking life minute-by-minute.
“I am a different person now. I am more vulnerable, raw and authentic. I call these changes in me a ‘gifts from grief.’ I like the perspective this experience has given me.
“Would I give it all back to have Gare here with me? Without a doubt.
“The reality is option A is no longer available so I have to move onto option B. You better believe I will do everything to make sure option B is worth living. That I will provide a beautiful life for my children and I will not let this break us. That even when I think I can’t possibly pick myself up one more time, I will do it anyways.
“I am doing this for my sister, my husband, my kids and most importantly, me. I deserve a beautiful life and I have the ability to create it.”
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