As we embark on this next decade, the significance of this time is especially poignant for KinderMourn families, who have experienced incredible loss yet also have made great strides towards healing. This is the second in a series of stories we will feature to spotlight the gifts that can come from loss.
Living Past Loss: How a Widow Continues Pushing Forward While Keeping Husband’s Legacy Alive
By Elizabeth Bennett
Elli was a student at the University of North Texas when she saw Christopher DeVinney for the first time. While approaching the dorm to visit a friend, Elli spotted a crowd on the lawn. As she got closer, she could see a male student at the crowd’s center, proudly strumming a guitar, a broad grin on his face, framed by long red straight hair that was moving back and forth with the beat.
“My immediate thought was, who does this guy think he is?” Elli recounts with a laugh because the school was known for its music program and therefore musicians were commonly practicing all over campus and usually ignored. Yet later that night, when Elli ran into the guy affectionately known by friends as “Leo,” her impression dramatically changed. “As soon as we started talking, it was just comfortable, it was like our souls just connected. We ended up talking in the dorm lobby until morning,” she said.
Elli, a dancer, and Leo, a technically trained jazz musician, initially connected over their shared love of music. As more time passed, Elli was also drawn to Leo’s warm personality and quirky sense of humor, and the two essentially became inseparable. While Leo loved jazz and had enrolled in the university for its reputable jazz program, his real enjoyment was the rock band he played with on the side, and his dream had always been to take his music on the road. As graduation approached, Elli told Leo that she didn’t want to hold him back from touring with his band, so they parted ways.
A long 14 years later, one day, Leo’s name popped up in Elli’s email inbox. “My heart skipped a beat,” she said of seeing she had a message from Leo. In the email, Leo expressed to Elli how he wanted to reconnect. He was living in Charlotte where his mom lived, and coincidentally Elli’s mom did now as well, but Elli was back in Texas. At the prospect of reconnecting, Elli said, “I didn’t hesitate because I knew he understood me better than anyone.” When they saw each other again, Elli said it was just so easy and natural, and that, this time, they didn’t question where their future was heading. Elli moved to Charlotte in 2007 to be closer to her mom and to Leo. Leo and Elli married in 2009, and a few years later, they had two boys, Lucas and Max.
Leo was a devoted husband and father, who had admired sports and particularly martial arts, but because he had battled childhood cancer, he was often forced to watch from the sidelines. Jiu Jitsu particularly was a sport Leo had always wanted to try, and now that Lucas was 7 and Max was 4, he thought it would be a fun thing for the boys to try, so he enrolled them in a class.
On Jan. 21, 2019, Leo decided to join the boys and take part in the new experience at the Great Grapling Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Fort Mill, located just a few miles from their house. The boys’ class was first, and both Elli and Leo looked on, tickled at how much their boys were enjoying the class. Since it was getting late when Leo’s class started, rather than stay, Elli
decided to take the boys home to get ready for bed. But when Leo didn’t come home soon after his class was scheduled to be over, and didn’t answer his cell phone, Elli knew something was not right. Elli immediately woke up both boys, loaded them into the car in their pajamas, and proceeded to look for Leo. When she pulled up into the Great Grappling parking lot, Leo’s truck was still there. As she got closer, she could see it was still running, and Leo was inside, slumped over. Elli called an ambulance, gathered assistance from the staff at Great Grappling, and soon medics were on the scene attending to Leo. But it was too late. At the age of 46, Leo DeVinney had passed away from a heart attack.
Elli describes that night as one that was just unimaginable, and how the weeks that followed were like a big fog. “I just couldn’t get the scene out of my head, of finding him, of the ambulances and the lights and all the medics surrounding the vehicle, performing CPR on him, all the while with our boys in the backseat.”
Elli learned about KinderMourn through a counselor at the boy’s school, Tega Cay Elementary, where the organization is offering its school-based Helping the Hurt program. Soon after Leo’s passing, Elli enrolled Lucas, who was 7 at the time, in individual counseling and then into the children’s group program. She also enrolled herself in the caregiver group therapy. Max was initially enrolled in individual counseling and once he started kindergarten, she enrolled him in the group sessions as well. Today, just over a year later, Elli and the boys are continuing therapy, and Elli describes Monday nights as the time they look forward to the most.
It’s been just over a year since Leo’s passing, and Elli knows that their family’s grief journey is continuing to evolve. She talks about how KinderMourn has helped the boys process their father’s death and how much they enjoy the friendships they have made. “The boys get giddy every time they know we are going to KinderMourn. They dash towards the door as soon as our car stops at the house,” she says with a smile. For herself, Elli shares that both individual counseling and group therapy have helped her work through the pain, and how it’s especially beneficial to connect with other widows who can share similar feelings and struggles through their experience.
In addition to KinderMourn, Elli is grateful for the community support. “The community completely embraced us, with arms wide open,” she said. The Great Grappling Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where Leo and the boys started classes, held two fundraisers for the family, and the boys still love attending classes there. “It’s neat to see them continue to do something their father admired so much, and I appreciate having such strong male role models present in their lives” she says.
Elli talks too about how her loss has changed her personally. “This experience has helped me become such a more positive and spiritual person, I am the strongest version of me I’ve ever been” she says. “I am more grateful for every day, I have learned to cherish the positive things and the joy life has to offer, and I don’t let the little things get to me like they used to,” Elli says.
Above all, Elli believes in the power of connecting with others who have been through loss and supporting each other through it. She has formed many new friendships, including a widows’ group that gets together regularly, and she has started a Facebook group for KinderMourn caregiver group members to help them stay connected in order to continue supporting each other through the good days and the bad.
Two months before Leo’s passing, Elli had heard about a photographer who was offering portrait sessions to raise funds for a friend who had recently lost her husband. “I thought, that is such a tragic thing, I want to be able to support her,” she said. Today, the family portrait sits right beside the DeVinney’s front door, a beautiful reminder of the love they will always carry forward, and a reminder of the community that has embraced them.