From wife to widow, living without Arch

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Editor's note: Living through grief is difficult. Missourian photographer Ellen Thommesen watched firsthand as her grandmother adjusted to life without her soul mate. Thommesen documented her grandmother's story for an assignment in the Photojournalism and Microdocumentary Videography course.

COLUMBIA — My grandparents always held hands. Even into their 70s, they reminded me of newlyweds, excited to show each other affection any chance they had.

Arch Leean, my grandfather, was studying abroad when he proposed to Mary through a letter. As soon as she read it, she hopped on a boat to England to spend the rest of her life with him. They got married and their cab driver served as the witness.

Married life was full of adventure for them. They lived in England, traveled Europe on a scooter, moved to New York, then to California where their two daughters were born. They finally settled as a family in Northfield, Minn., where Arch was an art professor and Mary worked as a foreign student administrator at St. Olaf College.

Settled in but always traveling, the couple frequently went on study abroad trips with students to places such as Thailand and the Middle East. Camping trips, road trips, backpacking trips, you name it, the Leean family did it.

I couldn’t have asked for a better example of love than my grandparents showed. They were happily married for 56 years — completely devoted until death parted them.

Arch’s health began deteriorating in his late 70s. He was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative brain disorder that has symptoms similar to those associated with Parkinson's disease. After a three-year battle with the disease, he died in April 2011. Mary served as his primary caregiver in order to keep him at home in the dream house they built for their retirement.

After a lifetime of companionship, love and raising a family together, Mary is left alone. She has transformed from wife into widow.

The loss of her husband has not been easy for Mary, and the transition to widow has been a difficult one. She said she notices that people speak to her in softer tones and often treat her differently now that she is alone. Many offer advice for how she should cope with her loss. Even though she acknowledges they are telling her what would help them in the situation, she thinks grief is very personal. Everyone experiences it differently.

Mary chooses to embrace sadness when it comes and relish in the good memories of her life with Arch. She loves telling stories about him to my younger brother and me every time we see her. She said she feels blessed to have had so much time with such a great man and will continue healing with the help of family and friends.

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Sarah Kribben January 24, 2012 | 4:00 p.m.

So sorry about Mary's loss. This is a beautiful story of two beautiful people!

(Report Comment)
Lois Ann Marler January 25, 2012 | 7:09 a.m.

Thank you, Ellen, for this very vulnerable look into the life of a widow. Recently, I met a widow who told me, "It's a couple's world." Your grandmother exhibits strength in her own identity, something that will help her in the coming years.

(Report Comment)
Ellen Thommesen January 25, 2012 | 2:44 p.m.

Sarah - Thank you so much for the feedback.

Lois - I think that widow you met was experiencing a lot of the same things as my grandmother. It's an incredibly difficult transition, of which I had no idea until my own family member experienced it. Thank you for your comment.

(Report Comment)
Cecilia Garza January 25, 2012 | 10:39 p.m.

Absolutely beautiful story, Ellen. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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