Dennis Eckhard is the consummate family man. Ask him a question about his family and without fail a smile will shine upon on his face. Dennis proudly shares the love he has for his family. He will tell you in a heartbeat that he values the unyielding love and support he finds in them, that he will forever appreciate the warmth he receives from his wife, Polly, and how much he will always need the strength he discovers in the smiles of his two daughter’s Jaina and Emily. Dennis is someone you meet and within seconds you know all about the wife who he counts as his best friend and their two beautiful, bright daughters.

He is never without gratitude for his family. Dennis never forgets to kiss Jaina and Emily goodnight and always whispers “I Love You” to a sleeping Polly. He tries to frequently say “Thank You” to those in his life who have influenced him and whose love he cannot imagine going a day without. Dennis loves hard because he knows what it means to lose a loved one in one of the most heartbreaking ways– To lose suddenly, without a chance to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘I Love You’ for one last time.

On July 2, 2006 Dennis’ Dad died suddenly of a heart attack.

Dennis is a wonderful husband, father, and man in large part because he was loved by a wonderful husband, father, and man. This is Dennis’ story…

Tell me a bit about yourself and your loved one.

This is hard for me, I don’t know where to start. My dad grew up in a lower middle class family in St. Louis, MO. He was raised Catholic and at times went to Catholic grade schools. He moved around a lot because his dad was out of work a lot. After high school, he went to Harris Stowe State University mostly because it upped his chances to stay out of Vietnam. He met my mom there and they were married in 1973.
He worked at a number of jobs around St. Louis before settling down as a bottler for Anheuser-Busch.

I was born in 1976 and am the oldest of four children. Together mom and dad raised us much the same as they were brought up. We attended Catholic schools and went to church every Sunday. Dad wasn’t a strict believer but mom said he prayed every night. There was no shortage of bills to be paid but dad worked overtime every weekend to make sure he could afford a few fun things on top of our necessities. We didn’t travel a lot but we made several camping trips. He always encouraged us to play sports and was frequently an assistant coach for all of us. My dad was my shining example of what it takes to make it in life. He was a hard worker, a faithful husband, a loving father, a loyal friend and an all around good guy who people enjoyed spending time with. He was genuine and true.

He died from a massive heart attack on July 2nd, 2006. About 3 hours before, we were all together at my sisters house warming party. There were no warnings. Just here one minute and gone the next.

How has your ‘loss’ changed you?

It’s still changing me. Looking back over the last six years I’ve changed quite a bit. I used to be a very laid back person who wore their heart on their sleeve. I took things in stride and when people did stupid or ignorant things to me, there’d be fleeting flashes of anger or sadness but I could brush it off and move on with very little resentment. I thought of myself as a fun loving and easy going guy. I was a patient person with so much time I didn’t know what to do with it all. When dad died all of that changed. He passed so suddenly. It was a shock to my system; I was now constantly reminded of how fragile life truly is and how quickly things can change. Every little thing seemed so much more important to me.

I still wear my heart on my sleeve but I don’t recover as fast. The anger and resentment linger and are much harder to shake. The easy going, laid back attitude is gone and for awhile was completely replaced with fear and anxiety. I worry about things now I never even thought about when dad was around because somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew my dad would have me covered.

For a long time worry and fear became the norm for me. The anxiety was so bad I thought I was going to have a heart attack. And just like my dad did, I would die leaving my girls in the same situation I was in. Eventually I started having full blown panic attacks. At some point I realized I was worrying my life away. I found myself stressed to the max because I believed that every chest pain or twinge I felt was going to be the end of me. I sat on my couch watching my girls thinking ‘This is it, this is how I’m going to leave this world’.

Interview Dennis

In dealing with your anxiety, was there a defining moment that helped you to overcome your fears?

Thank God for my wife, Polly who recognized the signs of anxiety and convinced me to look at the symptoms. I was comforted by Polly’s words of encouragement and simple honesty. With one sentence I went from an anxiety filled mess into someone finally confronting my sobering reality. “It’s very normal for someone who lost their dad the way you did to get anxious and have attacks”, that’s all I needed to hear and the pains in my chest stopped and the fear changed instantly from panic and fear to the feeling I all along had tried so hard to avoid– sadness.

I cried harder at that moment then the night he died. I felt like a sobbing child who for the first time realized his dad really wasn’t there anymore. In that profound moment, my wife looked at me and simply told me I was normal. That’s all I needed to hear in order to stop the cycle of anxiety that I had created for myself. I was free from the box I had enclosed myself in.

It was that experience that led me to start seeing a therapist; that was one of the best decisions of my life. Going to therapy hurt like hell. It forced me to face the pain I’d been running from. I started to realize just how much I had bottled up and had been hiding from. I began to connect the fear I felt on daily basis to things that tied back to my dad and even my childhood. I started to understand myself more clearly. I was finally starting to figure out who I was and where I belong in this world.
I’m not the same person I was before dad died. I’d like to think I’m a better person now. I’ve not completely overcome the anxiety in my life but I’m able to recognize it and utilize it in positive ways. I find my temper still comes quicker than it used to but I let go of it easier. I take much less for granted now. I enjoy the time I spend with my family more. It’s easier to teach my girls about feelings and support them emotionally. I do more to show the people I love that I love them. I’m more thankful for the little things. I’m more prepared to deal with hardships and that makes me feel more confident.

What advice do you wish you had known during the first days of your grief?

I wish I knew how deep into a state of shock I was really in. I wish I knew how much I was running from and bottling up.

What surprised you about facing your loss and grief?

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how hard it was to really allow myself to grieve. I knew I was in trouble right away because my Dad was always a very big part of my life. I tried to find comfort in all of the handouts and little pamphlets they give you about grieving and how to handle a loss. I also came up with a list of tasks I could do to commemorate my Dad, tasks that would ‘force’ me into grieving because they were entirely focused on keeping the memory of my Dad alive. I went through every picture I could find, scanned every single one of him and put together a slide show. I made a compilation CD of his favorite music and gave a copy to each of my siblings. I read the novel he started and tried to figure out if I could finish it for him. I found his plans for a shadow box of his Father’s army medals and thought maybe I could complete it.

All those things hurt. They hurt me to my core. They made me miss him so painfully. But even through all of those tasks, I didn’t really start grieving. Each job was simply a distraction. They became subconscious, strategic ways to run from the real pain in my heart. All of those things I thought I did to help me grieve really worked against me. But they were easier than really just letting the grief flow.

In fooling myself into thinking those tears I shed seeing his pictures and hearing his music were really tears of grief, I really only scratched the surface of the pain I was willing to explore. The task itself made me focus on the job at hand and acted to short circuit the grief process.

Part Two of Dennis Eckhard’s story to be published on May 31st.

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