Jennifer Pilant and Tina Fornwal have been close friends since 2009, and their bond has only grown stronger over the years. In this episode, Jennifer, who is the Supervisor of IT Specialists, showcases the power of friendship through widowhood by demonstrating her unwavering support for Tina after the loss of her husband Mark. Alongside her partner Paul, Jennifer dropped everything to be there for Tina during this difficult time, displaying her own silent strength and emotional depth. Tune in to this inspiring episode to witness the depth and resilience of friendship in the face of adversity.
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Silent Strength: The Power Of Friendship With Jennifer Pilant
Friends Who Were There
Our conversation in this episode is with my friend Jennifer Pilant. She took me back to some places that I forgot and didn’t even realize. I appreciate Jennifer being able to come to this conversation and share her heart. She has some good nuggets. She would call herself one of my quiet friends, but once I got her to talk, you can see the richness and the wealth that she brings to our relationship. Let’s get into the conversation.
In this episode, my guest is all the way from the other side of the world is my girlfriend, Jennifer Pilant. Welcome, Jennifer. Where are you right now?
I’m in a city called Wiesbaden, Germany. I work at Wiesbaden Army called Clay Kaserne for the Department of the Army.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Share with our guests and friends that are here who is Jennifer Pilant.
Jennifer Pilant is a Supervisor of IT Specialists. I work here for the Department of the Army and for NETCOM-Europe. I’m here in Wiesbaden with my son Connor who came over with me. My husband is still in the States, but we’re hoping he joins us soon with a job over here. Before that, I worked for Tobyhanna Army Depot, which in 2012 is where I met Tina. We both started working together on the same day in October 2012. I had the privilege of going through new employee orientation. She was my battle buddy during that.
We sat literally next to each other.
I’ve been married to my husband, Paul, for many years. We’re going on 29 years on Valentine’s Day this 2023.
When you told me that, I was like, “That means double gifts, right? That doesn’t mean you get cheated on Valentine’s and your anniversary.”
I guess because he got away with only giving one gift for our anniversary and Valentine’s into one.
How did you and Paul meet?
I took a hiatus from college and so did he. We both had gone two years. He did school in San Jose California. I was at Rutgers for two years and then we took a financial break from school as we were paying for it ourselves and started working. I had a summer job at a Nine West Distribution Center in New Jersey. He had come back with his parents that retired from the Air Force at that point and they settled back in New Jersey too. We both started working there. We did it before we got married.
You talked about Paul’s parents being in the Air Force. How has that impacted anything that happened in your life with you and Paul as far as a military career or serving in the military?
It impacted it. As I said, financially we couldn’t afford to support ourselves through college and work full-time and all that. At that point, neither one of us had considered the Air Force. We sat down and started talking to his dad about what he did when he was in the Air Force, the benefits of getting tuition paid for, seeing the world, and getting out of New Jersey. Both were not very happy.
From his experiences and guidance, I was like, “Not just Paul joining the Air Force but myself also.” It was a good deal for both of us and it sounded exciting to me as I grew up in a pretty disciplined household thinking about basic training and all that’s involved. As scary as maybe some other people, we both decided, “If we’re going to do this, let’s get married first.”
We did that. We got married on Valentine’s Day in 1994 and two weeks later after our honeymoon, I got shipped off to basic training. They called me. They said, “We got an earlier spot than what Paul’s was. We had an opening.” I was like, “I can do this.” I got shipped off the basic training and then probably a month and a half later, Paul got shipped to basic training.
What was basic training like in the Air Force? I was in the Army. I’m curious about what that looks like. I want to know. The first day, you remember getting there, the initial part, the shocker, or what do you recall from boot camp?
The time from getting off the bus, getting yelled at, and being told what to do and where to stand. From that time on, it was probably a shock to the system, but not a terrible thing. It’s a day of being shocked and then at that point, it was like, “All I do is follow the rules and what they tell me to do.” I already knew from Paul’s dad. The biggest thing I always joke about is, “You have to do what they say and follow orders. Be smart enough to learn what you’re supposed to learn and the way you’re supposed to learn it. They can yell at you all the way up in your face.”
Screaming and yelling are there.
They’re screaming and spitting in your face but at least, in the Air Force, they can’t hit you. For all this time growing up, you’re getting disciplined, and the discipline I went through it was, “I can handle this.”
This is light work. This is cake.
It’s realizing what they were doing and why they were doing it too. They bring you down so they can build you back up to be what they need you to be. After that realization, it was like, “Okay.” In the schoolwork and learning part of it, I excelled so that I help others. I was 24, which is old to go through basic training. I became the big sister to all the girls.The Airforce will bring you down to build you back up to be what they need you to be. Click To Tweet
There were five girls on the flight. That was nice because I had two sisters growing up. It was like, “I was braiding people’s hair at 4:00 in the morning. I’m helping people make their beds and making sure their uniforms looked okay. With the studies, I became the academic leader or whatever it was because I could help people with learning. A lot of them were 17 or 18.
I was going to ask you their ages since you said you were like the grandma. It was teenagers.
Some of them had to have that signature from their parents to get in because they were only seventeen or whatever. It was interesting. It wasn’t as long. The Air Force is much shorter basic training than yours. It still sucks because, in San Antonio, the weather is hot and humid. I went to Biloxi Keesler Air Force Base for tech school and that was even more hot and humid. I wasn’t there much longer than six weeks also and then I got to my duty station, which was in Germany.
What did you do in the Air Force? For the people joining us, what does T-school mean?
It’s a technical school. After basic training, everybody goes through that experience the same way enlisted because I was enlisted, not an officer because I had only two years of school and not four. We went through enlisted basic training and then they give us orders to go to your technical school because they give us a job, which in the military is called the MLS.
Is it an occupational skill? I’ll have to find that out for sure. MLS, I’ve said that for years. I don’t know if I’ve ever looked that up.
Your position is chosen in either one of the four categories that the military offers positions, depending on if you’re a Marine or a Navy. You still take what’s called an AFSAT and it’s your Armed Forces specialty. They group them into general, administrative, and electronics. I scored high in administrative and some of those job categories are personnel specialists.
It’s like a human resources specialist. Ultimately, after my technical school, you learn what the regulations are and the different things about being a personnel specialist. They send you to your base. I was a personnel specialist and then my first duty station was the Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany where I worked in the Security Forces in an orderly room.
They had no specialists in other administrative-type positions. An orderly room for the squadron that was Security Forces. That was fun. I was here for three years and Paul got the same duty station. His technical school was in a different place and because he chose to work on the flight line, his technical school, instead of being only six weeks like mine, was six months. I got to Germany before he did and it took him another six months to get to Germany.
You were in a different capacity. You were there as military, now you’re here as a civilian.
I do think that being in the military on active duty, they take better care of you overseas than as a civilian. I found out I had to do 80% of the arrangements that the military took care of the active duty people themselves. I take care of them but I respect the fact that I’ve been on both sides now. I can see it from both sides.
I can see why they take care of the military because it is, for the most part, a much younger group of people coming over to the military. They were young kids, little kids. It’s scary to come here from the States where you speak English. You’re not coming into a foreign country where they speak pretty good English here, but not 100%.
It’s not their primary language. I’ve heard people that travel. It serves them well to try to learn the host language. The people that do speak English will be more apt because of the respect that you’ve given them outside of the country. They’ll lean in and help you more. It’s important, as you said, to have the opportunity to travel and to see the world.
You guys love that. To come back to a place you were there as a military and to come there again to enjoy that culture, to broaden up Connor’s horizons, family and friends that are coming to visit. We’re planning to come soon. I’m trying to be there myself. That’s my goal. Maybe we’ll have an episode there from Germany while I’m there. You mentioned having two years of college when you went. Did you pursue your education further?
When I was at Spangdahlem working for the Security Forces, I wasn’t a cop but I worked for the cops. They were very understanding about education too. The Air Force, in general, was. Within the three years that I was there, I finished my Bachelor’s degree. When we left, unfortunately, Paul wasn’t able to finish. He took a couple of classes, but because he chose a flight line job, he kept deploying to places during that timeframe. He only maybe finished 1 or 2 classes while we were over here.
I was able to finish my entire Bachelor’s and got reassigned to McChord Air Force Base in Washington where I did one more year in the Air Force before I separated after five years total. Paul continued to reenlist. Unfortunately, right about that time we loved it at McChord Air Force Base. I got a job in the financial industry over there in Washington State. I loved the job.
Shortly after probably two years into that job, the financial industry was not doing well as a whole. It was a small family-owned business and they shuttered their doors when I was seven months pregnant. That was a shock. Right about that time, Paul reenlisted. They immediately got orders to South Dakota. That was the gamble when you reenlist with the military. “I don’t care if you’ve only been here for two years and you have a good job,” which he did.
He not only reenlisted but he changed career fields to being a personnel specialist database administrator. That’s his first job in IT. He was in school while I was still pregnant and thank God, the school ended and he got back before I had Connor. Six weeks after Connor was born, they shipped us to South Dakota. That was an adventure. After three years, then he separated. He stepped out of the military. He did a total of ten years. I did a total of five.
You’ve mentioned before about starting at Tobyhanna Army Depot. How did we meet? I’ll let you go into that a little bit.
They have an in-processing class. There were eight of us who started the same day, or maybe less, but they in-process you in so you can get your security badges and things. It’s not an easy process, but it was eight of us or whatever went through that whole first day together until they send you out into wherever you’re going to be working. They then bring you back together and I can’t remember how soon after that they brought us back together to do a three-day in-processing. Maybe it was weeklong at the time.
I think it was a week.
At that point, they get into, “This is what Tobyhanna’s about, our financial areas or the security areas.” They go into what the mission is for Tobyhanna. Tina and I sat right next to each other from the first day on. I oftentimes try to remember how this came to be. This was in 2012. It was ten years ago or more.
It was 2008 and 2009.
We’re in this class and when we were first in-processing, they were going around the room like, “Who are you? What is your rank?” I remember, Tina and I both started as a nine or something and everybody was like, oh, “You’re starting as a nine.” I was like, “Yeah.” We’ve been there a while. It was a shock to bring somebody brand new into Tobyhanna at that rank. Even one of the neighbors that I had that worked for the Social Security Administration, later on, said, “Why do I have to start at GS-4?” I’m like, “We had education but no experience.”
A lot of things led to that. It’s interesting. I respect anybody who started at 2, 4, or whatever it is. It’s great for you to have that but I didn’t realize how big of a thing it was. I was extremely grateful but I didn’t know that you found out too.
I didn’t mean for it to come out disrespectful to anybody because we all had to start at the bottom somewhere but Tina and I bonded for that reason and other reasons. That might have been a bond also for us to say that were in those places and neither one of us knew a single person from the base. We come to find out that in the depo world, it is mostly my uncle, my brother, my dad, or whatever had worked there and that’s how you got in.
It started shifting. A lot of times, it started like that and then they started opening up to more military. They started opening up to different skillsets. It’s a small location I have seen where they have done a better job at turning that around and there were more new faces coming in. More people organically are getting the job. As the system changed to using USA jobs compared to something local, it broadened the scope. I was glad to be part of that insertion. That was good.
They were doing a lot of good work and they had a massive amount of workload. There were a lot of people hired during the 2008 and 2009 timeframe. I was very grateful to have that job. Even as GS-9, it was a very well-paying job for that area. We started in-processing together. We started going to this class and talking to each other. In one of the classes, they were trying to get people to bond and talk to each other. I sit there in class and am told what’s going on.
We had to share material. You had to share a piece of clothing with the person next to you or something?
It could have been anything. Share something with each other. We shared our shirts or something.
It was an outer sweater, a shell, or something and then we put it on backward. It was like, “Hi. I just met you. I hope you all have a life.” We’ve been talking a little bit but now we’re wearing each other’s clothing.
Other people had to guess what we switched. That’s where we started our friendship from that class and the bonding experience.
It’s been a good friendship. What are some things you remember about our friendship and being in Pennsylvania together?
Being that neither one of us had grown up there, it is, at times, a harsh environment. They get a lot of snow. They get a lot cold and neither one of us grew up there. I visited the Poconos area as a child. All throughout my childhood because my family owned a hunting cabin there. I grew up outside of Philadelphia in the suburbs of New Jersey and it was a city. You grew up in Chicago. I grew up right outside of Philly and we’re both city girls. Your husband had grown up in that area.
Mark is from Bloomsburg.
Friendship-wise, I’ve enjoyed having somebody like you to share intellectual conversations and what’s going on at the depot where our careers both blossomed. We were given opportunities and accepted those opportunities very well. We’ve never competed for a job, which was great. We’ve oftentimes teased about that. We didn’t have a competition for jobs, yet we both blossomed there. We were given opportunities where we did well.
I like the idea that we did not have and nor do we now have the same career field. If there was something going on in your world, you could come over and vent or find me. I could come to find you or go for a walk. I also remember our lunch crew being together and everybody had a different job. That lunch table almost was reserved for us. Where are you at? Where are you doing? Who’s eating lunch here? Who has a tour and can’t come or who’s doing something?
That lunch crew was an intricate part of everyday life being there as it grew, different people took jobs, had different responsibilities, or deployed. That was fun. I like having another tall friend at work because tall girls rock and having that is always interesting too. That has been fun. I think we enjoy that. Also, watching because sometimes your friends were people at work and that’s where it stays and that’s fun.
Every relationship doesn’t go beyond that but we went to watch Jesse in New York. My brother Jesse was on the American Bobsled team. Jennifer had seen pictures and we talked about it. This was our first excursion outside of work we were doing something. He was in New York in Lake Placid. It was more freezing than in Pennsylvania where we were.
We had a timeshare scheduled with my children, Mark, Connor, and Paul. We were all going up as a family. We were going to spend a weekend there. We had it like something out of the dream books. I host up the dates. I got a phone call, “When are you coming up?” That’s a week after. It was like, “When is it?” That phone call was on a Tuesday and we needed to leave that Thursday. I called Jennifer and said, “About that thing, I understand if you don’t want to go, I’ll just go by myself,” but deep down inside, I was crying. I was like, “She’s got to go.” She says, “Okay. We go together.” I’ll let you take it from there. What do you remember about that trip?
I had never been to that area of New York State. I don’t think you ever had either. The Pocono Mountains aren’t as high and crazy as these mountains at Lake Placid. There’s a reason why the Olympics were held there. In the February or January timeframe that we went, the weather was crazy. Tina drove her car and maybe we took turns at some point, but at some point, I’m like, “I’m not driving somebody’s car on these crazy snowy roads.”
We got there safely but it took us a while. There were huge beautiful mountains. It’s a beautiful little town. I had heard of people going to Lake Placid but I had never been there. It was a gorgeous hotel. We got lucky. We had two beds in a hotel. It was like a lake that was frozen over and people were doing sleigh rides on with the sleigh dogs right outside our room.
We got to visit Jesse at the Olympic Center where he was staying. We got pictures of ourselves sitting in one of the Olympic bobsleds. It was bitterly cold and windy but we’re so excited to go see him race and to be that close to an Olympic race. He practiced a lot. It was a gorgeous run where you were able to get close. I took a lot of pictures before my phone froze.
I remember you kept going, “It’s not working.” I’m like, “It’s frozen.”
We were so bundled up. Even with all the layers, we were still surprised we didn’t get frostbite. It was an amazing time. We were there at the crack of dawn to see the race start all the way up to almost sunset. We go find somewhere to eat and try to meet up with Jesse and his friend. It was a gorgeous little town. It was like Switzerland.
When we were driving, we were going to switch drivers and we opened the door, and if it wasn’t for the railing. Do you remember that part? It was like, “We’re going to die out here. This is where it’s going to all end.” I was like, “I don’t even like my brother that much.”
It was blizzarding.
You can hardly see with the windshield wipers. It was horrible. We said, “We’re not switching drivers.” When we drove back that way in the daytime, I was even more frightened for us. I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” because even though the windshield wiper was going, you could hardly still see. It was like, “What are we doing?” We had gone too far that we couldn’t turn back and freaking out trying to get there. I was so glad we got to that hotel. Do you remember the big bear in the foyer? We took pictures with the big bear.
I still have that picture.
Me too. Over the years, we have been living life together. I know the title of this conversation, but what have been some big losses or challenges for you in life? It may be grief relating to someone passing or maybe a life experience that you want to share.
The most emotional one was your loss. I’ve been lucky over the years. I lost my grandparents when I was young. We weren’t exactly close. I didn’t have any friends that were lost. The closest I came was my niece who had leukemia and got that for a year before she went into remission and my uncle. My Uncle Frank was also lost to dementia which he battled for years. That was somewhat recent but after Mark’s passing, the grief that I felt for you at Mark’s passing was probably the most emotional.
Do you recall how you found out about what was going on with Mark and how that was for you?
This is a conversation because there’s going to be someone’s friend that has been through this experience and they will be able to go, “They can take from your experience and make that their own and what they need to do. That’s why I told you to have your tissue because this is real talk. Please do.
I know we’ve talked about things but not like this. The most impactful part of this is when you called me because I knew you were going to see him in Delaware. I had lived in Delaware for four years. We had talked about where to stay because Mark at the time was living in Virginia and you were up in Tobyhanna and the middle part was that place in Delaware, which is close to where I live for four years. You had called me and I knew you were going down to see him for a long weekend or something.
It was a lover’s weekend. That’s what we were going down. I haven’t seen him in a while. We were going to spend time with each other.
When I got the call from you, I was like, “Why are you calling me on your special vacation?”
It’s your lover’s weekend. Why are you calling me?
All I heard was you sobbing. In between the sobs, I’m trying to understand what you’re saying. I was laughing at first when you called, “What are you doing calling me? You should be busy doing something else.” I thought you were laughing at first. It took a minute or so for me to realize that you were sobbing. You were telling me that he was dead. I fell on my bed. I remember standing by the window looking out like, “What are you doing, crazy lady?” and then I fell. I couldn’t comprehend it. All I could ask was, “Where are you? Do you need me to come there?”
That was my first thought. The sun setting, you telling me he’s dead and I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to get to you to do something to help you or to get to the hospital. I couldn’t even ask the questions that were slamming around in my brain because they were coming at me too quickly to see what can I do. At that point, you weren’t even sure. I’m even sure where you were calling me from the room or the hospital and you said I’ll have to call you back or something.
I’m not even sure if I heard that or felt bad and then you hang up. I waited. I started getting dressed. “Let’s pack a bag.” Paul pumps the brake, “What’s going on?” I’m like, “She’s calling me he is dead. I have to find out where she is before we take off.” He’s putting the logic in my brain, “Let’s find out first before you go off.” Now, at this point, it’s dark at night and we don’t know where we’re going. “What’s going on?”
It took a little while for you to call me back or for me to get ahold of you for obvious reasons. At that point, you might have been in the hospital. It might have been like 1 hour or 2 later. At that point, Paul is like, “We’re not driving anywhere. We’ll get up at the crack of dawn, go down, and find out where she is. That’s what we are doing.” I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I went over to my sister’s and sobbed with her because I couldn’t be there with you.
It was unlike anything. I’ve had a bunch of things happen, surgeries, and things that were difficult, but nothing compared to that. My heart broke for you. That’s why I could put it. I try to get all the tears out the night before I saw you first thing in the morning. We met up that morning. I can’t even remember where. Wherever it was you told me to be, that’s where we were. I believe we were going to take you home because you had somebody else to drive your car.
You and Paul drove down. You drove my Subaru back. Paul drove your car back and then a friend drove Mark’s vehicle back to Pennsylvania. You met us for breakfast because where we stayed, there was a golf course. Do you remember seeing me or what that looked like or your thoughts? It’s important for people to understand that void and what it looks like. It’s okay.
I remember walking in, hugging you, crying again my eyes out with you, and trying to put myself in you to know what to say. There’s nothing that could compare because I know the love and the life that you had which is completely different from then on. All I had to do was look at you and know that you’re probably the strongest person I know, yet your heart had to have been in pieces at that point. To put myself in your place, I started falling apart.
I don’t even know what to say or think, but to hold you in silence and know that no matter what you asked me, I would’ve done for you because of the loss and the tragedy that you went through. Somebody so young and you and Mark are so vibrant together. That yin and yang that you had together were now in half. To think of you without him, I knew you at work, I knew you as a person, yet it was always like Paul and me, and how do you pick that up?A friend will hold you in silence. Know that no matter what you ask, that friend will do it for you. Click To Tweet
Certainly, less than twelve hours later to see you and know that there will never be you and Mark together again and not even be able to comprehend how you felt. Not even try to put me in your place. There’s no comprehension. There’s just, “What can I do for you? Can I sit here in silence with you?” A lot of that time together after that was, “I’m here for whatever you need. I’ll listen to whatever you say. However you feel, bring it and I got you.”
Even if it’s sitting quietly, giving you a hug, holding your hand, or going for a walk in silence at some point, whatever you need. I wanted to fix it. I’m a fixer in most of my friendships and my sisters. “Tell me what I can do and I’ll help you fix it.” There’s no fixing it and bringing Mark back. There’s no conversation you can have with him after that and I know that’s terrible.
I appreciate it. You guys did do any and everything I have ever needed. Sometimes people say, “I’ll do whatever you need,” and they say it haphazardly. The people that have said that to me have meant that intentionally. Mark was a light bonafide electrician. He had gone to an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ five-year program. That man could build a whole house if he had anything. I was not and to this day, I’m not the fix-it girl. It was like, “This needs to be done.” Mark will do that. “This needs to happen.” Mark would do that. He got to a point, I was like, “You need to do stuff too like your dad so you can be like Mr. Fix It.”
The house we had in Pennsylvania did not have central air and summer was coming. I am strong because confidence equates to strength but there are a lot of things I cannot do and Mark’s passing showed up to the reality of what I cannot do in my limitations. Even if I could in that fog of my husband’s death, I could not think straight. I needed to not be miserable and hot. I remember you and Paul coming over and us getting these two AC units and going, “Mark made this look so easy. He put these in and the house was cooler. How does this work?”
We were going to the hardware store. We were trying to get all this stuff. I started to see there are everyday little nuanced things that when you have to do in the absence of your spouse, it is so overwhelming and it makes you so mad. “I don’t want to do this myself. I didn’t set this up to do it this way.” Sometimes when you’re the widow or the widower, you may not feel comfortable reaching out to your friends that still couples because you’re the oddball.
You’re the one that doesn’t fit in and you’re not sure if people don’t want you around anymore or if they said they would help you, do they mean it? Are they going to help you when things are at 2:00 in the morning or something is going on that you can’t do yourself? You guys showed up every time. Do you remember going to the gun range?
Yes. My husband thought that it would be a good idea.
It’s because Mark and I did shoot.
The gun range is one of them. I almost completely forgot about that one.
I have a picture with us in the circle, the one we made.
We are movie watchers. We like to go to the movies. We bought some nice funny shoes when we went to the mall at one time.
Yes. We have shirts that are like the pictures.
It was my comfort zone and I bought some sexy strappy sandal thing for my husband. There was a lot of that. “What do you need?” I remember cleaning your garage and doing some things around your house.
Let’s talk about that garage. I love my husband but he was quite the collector of things to the point that we had a two-car garage that was full of things. Both kids have gone to the military. Mark has passed and I live in Pennsylvania where if it snows two feet of snow, the only question is, “Why are you late to work?” It’s not, “You’re not coming in.” It’s like, “You better figure that out.” There was nobody cleaning off the car and I look at this stuffed garage. Jennifer, another girlfriend, Georgette and my sister, Ulanka, come up from Virginia. We roll up our sleeves and we are superwomen. We were going to clean the garage and then we saw a mouse.
That dumpster was a lifesaver.
There were guys from church. The dumpster was out there. We were removing stuff but we saw the mouse. The three of us were like, “Burn it all. I don’t care.” However, Jennifer says, “It’s just a mouse.” Let me be clear. The mice were dead but they were still there. Jennifer says, “You wisps.” She gets the broom and the dustpan. She gets them, puts them off, takes them to the edge of the property line, and scoops them away.
She then became our shero. She was the shero of the day. We continue to move. We get everything out of the garage. My sister and I get some bikes and we ride circles in the garage. I get a garage door opener installed. I remember parking that car in the garage for the first time and telling Mark, “I did it. I am doing this. I am here. I am figuring this out.” I was mad at him for keeping that garage so dirty that I could have been parking at that before.
I was so glad that I didn’t have to deal with the rain and the snow. I could come from the house, get into the garage, hit the button, and drive out. I remember thinking it was a small thing, but it was such a big thing to be able to just say, “I’m doing it. I’m taking this as it comes step-by-step and there are some people that are here helping me with each step of this along the way. Also, there are some things that I have to figure out on my own but it is a process.”Some people will help with each step along the way. But there are some things that you have to figure out on your own. It is a process. Click To Tweet
In my eyes, it was difficult to ask you for every single box we opened. There was something personal. There was something from Mark’s childhood that he kept. Every box, you didn’t know what was going to be in there. Some of them were labeled and it was obvious. With other things, it was like, “Oh, my God.” I felt like I had to ask you what was going to happen with the box and you had to make that decision over and how emotional some of that stuff was. It’s not the decision on what to do like, “Am I throwing that out?” It was something important to Mark to keep. That had to have been heart-wrenching for you.
It was. It was a big house and there were a lot of things in there. We got to the point of keeping, thinking about, whether I could mentally make those decisions. That became easier than trying to make the entire decision. Some things are, “I don’t even know why we have that. Get rid of that.” I would open a box and then I would start looking at the contents and then next thing you know, I’m going back down memory lane. You can’t pull me up and half an hour is passing you and Ulanka are going, “What do we do?” I can see out of the peripheral, but I couldn’t pull myself out of this.
When I got the box, I was like, “We do not have the bandwidth to do that. We need to figure out a better one.” Ulanka may have watched something about hoarders and other stuff that you start making different piles and then, from those piles, you can slim down. That made the process fluid. We were able to start doing here, there, and that but because we have so many memories, we keep them. However, it was good to have friends with me because I don’t think I would’ve ever gotten through all those boxes by myself.
It would’ve taken you so much longer. I know that dragging those emotions through it and alone, I can’t even imagine. As much as we could have those fun times, “It’s a mouse,” and I’m like, “I see this all the time at my house because my cat kills the mouse and everything else.”
You guys live out in the woods and everything.
I’ll never forget that.
Nor would I, nor probably will Georgette or Ulanka. We had a whole name for you. It was Jennifer the Mouse Slayer. I’m grateful for people to do that with me because there are some people that will do that independently. I am a very sociable and engaging person. We are all hardwired differently but for the person that chooses to do that on her own, when it gets too heavy, give yourself the grace to pause in that process or maybe make that an opportunity to call a friend to say, “You said you could help me do anything. I need some company in this process.” You don’t have to do it by yourself, you don’t have to be alone. Those things are helpful to have somebody else there with you in doing it.
It’s also remembering as we were talking about some conversations we had in your living room when you were going through radiation for your breast cancer. I know that with Mark gone and you alone there, it was difficult to have somebody drive you somewhere because your arm was swollen. You were going through things and in pain or needing somebody to sit there with you may be in silence or maybe what’s on your mind.
So many times to be a good friend and can’t know 100% what your friend is going through, it’s important to listen. Even if it’s not something you can fix, you can listen to them and have them feel like they’re heard and understood by somebody to explain what they’re going through and be able to listen. Sometimes it’s sitting in silence. Even if all they want to do is sit with somebody and not be alone, that’s important too.
I appreciate your saying sitting in silence and letting that person just grieve and talk because even though your desire is to fix it, you can’t. There are no words that are consolable and I know for myself, in a loop of saying the same thing over and over just like you talked about it being a shock when you heard and how you collapsed on the bed. My mind was trying to reconcile the reality of this by repeating the narrative over and over with the hopes of it locking in and saying, “Is this what happened?”
We went away for a lover’s weekend and it twisted to life doing what life does and trying to put those pieces together. For me, Audible, journaling, therapy, the workout grind, and doing things to force me into it to come to terms with the reality of it. It took time. For me, it took my hood of people being there and sometimes in silence to let me replay that narrative and not be alone. That is very important. I want to circle back to something. You drove me home. Do you remember that part? What happened driving me home? Were you leaving your thoughts or what do you recall from that?
We each had our mission. As you were saying, Paul was driving. The other person was driving somebody else’s car. I was driving your car and I believe you were in the car with me. When we started up, I said, “What do you need?” You said you need silence. You set the passenger seat back. I drove you home and maybe we said 1 or 2 things and that was it. You were visually upset, crying a couple of times, and maybe resting a little bit but I tried not to disturb you that entire drive home. It was a 4 to 4.5-hour drive home.
Even if you needed me to, I would’ve pulled off the side of the road. I would’ve gotten you something to eat, a milkshake, coffee, or whatever but you hardly said a word the whole time. Am I being a good friend? That’s why I came to that conclusion after that drive that it is okay to be silent for them to where usually, as you said, you’re the one talking and I’m listening. We’re doing things. We have a very active friendship that way but other times, I’m a quiet person by nature so I’m okay as long as you were okay with being quiet. If you want to be quiet, we’ll be quiet.
It was allowing you to tell me what you needed and not me trying because that’s worse. That’s maybe how I’m built but it’s worse saying, “What do you need?” and keep almost nagging you. I felt it might be better to say, “If that’s what you want, I got you. I can see whatever you need.” That’s part of that friendship that we built. We knew whatever you needed and if I could do it, I would. I couldn’t imagine the agony that you were going through.
I remember saying, “I’m just going to be here. I didn’t want to talk.” I remember food not being important for a long time. I was so numb emotionally and physically. I was drained. It had been a long night thinking of everything that happened. Mark died that Saturday. You picked me up Sunday and it was 3 or 4 hours. I remember being awake, sleeping, but not wanting to deal with life. There was nothing that mattered. There was nothing of any importance. There was nothing at all. I remember getting to the house and you wanting to come in with me. I was very adamant about, “No.” I saw you struggling to leave me in the house by myself. What do you recall from that?
I can’t remember if your kids were there.
No. There was nobody at the house.
That’s why. I thought to myself as a mom that if your kids were there, it’s okay to leave you with them but I struggled with leaving you totally alone, as alone as you could be.
I felt bad because I was afraid of being rude. I was like, “She just drove four hours.” I don’t think we talked much. I’m not sure if I told you this part, but there was nobody in the house and I cried in the hospital. I was there with Mark’s body and was belligerent until Catherine came finally, but when I got home, the reality that he would never come through that door again hit me so hard. I didn’t want to hold back what I felt in anyone’s presence.
No sooner than I closed the door, I fell on the floor in the front room. I wailed and cried. I released the reality that he was gone from that house and from the situation. It was the beginning of me trying to figure this out as Tina was absent from him because I knew the family was coming. I was welcoming the fullness of the house, the friends, and my kids being there. There was so much going on. My sisters were working to get Alexander released from the military, what needed to happen, and all those different things.
Catherine had not left for the military yet, but she was still being brought back. I needed that moment to fall apart because after then, I was going to have to be thinking. I was going to have to be part of making decisions. I needed time to not care in my own space and take the reality of it in. That’s why. I can hold myself together for not one more minute. I needed to be fully just to pieces and you guys called as soon as you got home to make sure that I was okay. At that point, my brother, Jesse, may have been there because he came very quickly. that was the reason for that.
At that point, you needed to do whatever it is that you needed to do for yourself.You need to do whatever it is you need to do for yourself. Click To Tweet
We’ve had a service. What does that look like being my friend after that where life has continued to go on and dealing with me in that process as an immediate portion of that?
Fast forward to past the service and to the realization of what Tina is going to do forward. Do you go back to work? You took some time off from work after that. You had to decide what was going to be the future for you and make those hard planning decisions as far as going back to work and figuring out Tina without Mark. I remember some long conversations with you. What can you handle now? What do you need? What does that look like?
You were also trying to decide, “Do I go back to work or not? What does that look like? Do you need time to process longer or go in a different direction?” This whole time, Mark was down there for a job and you kept applying for 100 jobs. It was happening down there. It was like, “Does Mark come back before he left because nothing was happening for you?”
That struggle of being a part of that whole time and then for this to happen, now it’s, “What do I do? Do I go back to my job here?” because of him not being permanent and you not being down there at that point. It was a long conversation about what you are going to do. I remember those conversations of, “What do you need to do for yourself at that point?”
I remember the idea, “What do you need now?” Thank you for bringing that up because your brain is in such a fog trying to take in the reality of what’s happened that beyond this day may be too much to fathom in a conversation. I remember people asking me what I need. My mind would go from the beginning and back. I could not bring it in. I remember telling some of my friends, “If you want to ask me something, just ask me for now. How am I doing at this moment? It’s because I get in a loop that my brain normally would be able to reconcile with that I could not.”
There is nobody better at logistics planning than Tina. It’s her work brain. She’s always trying to help people at work or decide on planning. Between her and I, we can organize the hell out of something. For me to say to Tina, “What can I do now?” What do you need in little bits and pieces of whatever was important at that time? That’s the time to heal and to decide what’s next. Even if in your brain, it’s one little step, what needs to happen now became important.
That’s a good point. Thank you, Jennifer. What I’m hearing is the person that you know them to be on a regular basis before this great loss is impacted in such a way that if you’re expecting the person they were before to show up, it’s not happening. The capacity of that and to be gentle with someone and to give them the grace to realize this is not together. I may look like the same person that you knew, but inside, it’s mushy up there. The mushiness is not running at 100% capacity. It was very baby steps.
There’s no way I would’ve been able to function in my job as demanding as it was with the very small mental capacity that I had and having that grace for people around me not to make me feel less than because this is what grief looks like. Oftentimes, we may have the ability to say, “I’m sorry,” at the service and then, continue your life outside that very intimate interaction with that person grieving such a great loss. You were there front and center in that process with me and that is important to be able to have that ability to give somebody space and realize they are not the same.
That’s important for others to learn as things like this happen in life. It happened to my father-in-law in 2022 and what my mother-in-law said was, “This is what I need from you right now. I may look like I’m holding it together.” Take for example, I’m in a car accident and I get bruised, broken, or something on the outside then everybody goes, “What can I do for you?”
With grief, you feel that way on the inside. You’re broken on the inside and nobody can see it because you look fine on the outside. “This is me broken and bruised on the inside even if you can’t see it on the outside.” When I think of how you have to be gentle with people, you can’t demand that they are the same person because they’re not going to be. You can’t expect that they’re going to be full-blown Tina at work the next day because it’s not going to happen. Just because they can’t see you falling apart, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t.
How has it been supporting Paul’s mom in her journey with this?
Logistically, it’s been hard here in Germany, even Paul in the Poconos. His mom ended up moving in with his sister in New Jersey because Indiana was so far away that nobody could help ten hours away move. Taking that move and getting her closer to the sister and to us was the better of the move even though a couple of months later, I moved to Germany. She and I reach out all the time over text. Text is like a storybook to me all the time. Every experience is different. I’ve tried to tell her through your experience, “Go talk to a therapist. Explain what’s going on and share your story with somebody, even a group therapy if you are not comfortable with a one-on-one,” but she’s not there yet.
She may not be there yet. She’s from a different generation that doesn’t go to therapy. Go to a church then. There are so many offerings that people do, but she has to decide. You can’t force that person into a box where you know that it might help and you could get help. That’s been a struggle to say because again, I know I can offer some things, and some people you just have to offer and then move on if they don’t take it. That’s been a bit of a struggle for me and I know Paul too because it is his mom. His dad struggled for four years with cancer. It was not an easy journey and she had to move. In weeks, she was out of her house. That was difficult too, to leave the house you and Mark shared for a long time.You can't force that person into a box where you know it might help, and you could get help. Click To Tweet
It is interesting how it can look the same from the outside, but the way we go through our grief, and our journey is unique to those individuals, whether it’s of our age, our ethnicity, the man, or the woman. Those parts play out in some way as far as what our journey looks like. I’m glad that she has you and Paul to be with her and how her journey unpacks and her daughter being willing like mom moving in with my sister. It’s being able to do that and having that community becomes very critical sometimes.
Sometimes you don’t naturally have a community that may be blood, but your community may come in the form of friends or other people that can help you, a church, a mosque, or a community center where people are connecting to make sure that you’re not alone. I know this has been an extremely emotional conversation, Jennifer. I appreciate you for not shying away from it. When I first asked you, you were like, “You want me to do what?” but you did. We’re talking about different thoughts and I know my family is someone you know from Jesse. How does that relate to you being my friend and still me having my family?
What I knew, not only were you a beautiful, strong, amazing person and totally strong and able to get through anything. Not that this was anything but that grief is a long and personally-drawn process. The fact that I had the privilege to be your friend and to try to support you through this knowing at the same time that your family is such a strong part of you and that literally, your family would do anything for you.
At the same time, it’s having that strength and being able to just be one sliver of a friend to you on top of that is what I hoped. Given that your entire family and your siblings are so strong and amazing like you are, you were able to allow me to be personally strong for you too. Even though we’re not related and we came from different sides of the world, just being a part of that and you allowing me to be a part of that was a privilege.
I can see that because sometimes friendships are a little more removed and we’re not able to be as close or connected. There have been no barriers. This has been raw and open. It is what it is. Good or bad and sometimes get on the nerves but it’s authentic. It is the word that is used more now to be there with somebody.
I can say that I am extremely grateful. The hardest part of leaving Pennsylvania was my friends. Leaving you and the other ladies and people but I couldn’t do it anymore. It was too hard. Making that choice to move to Virginia was extremely good but it came with a choice of leaving things. It’s that physical connection but the friendship hasn’t changed.
When I come to Germany, it’s going to be like, “Paul and Connor, get out of the way.” It’s like we were there. I’m grateful to have friendships in this day of technology that not waiting for a letter to have to come or stuff like that. The bond and friendship can remain. I am extremely grateful for that. Thank you for being my friend, Jennifer.
For your genuine friendship too, thank you.
I love you.
I love you too. Thank you.
This conversation with Jennifer was amazing. Jennifer is amazing. She is beautiful inside and out. She made time to have a conversation with us as she’s all the way in Germany. I love how she talked about our friendship from the beginning, how it evolved over time, the impact my husband’s death had in her life, and how she was able to leverage that to also be there and assist her mother-in-law.
I know that I have good friends, but these conversations have revealed things to me that I didn’t even know my friend sacrificed to be there in the gap for me. I’m extremely grateful. I am sorry for the person that you have lost that has driven you to this conversation, but I’m glad that you’re a part of my hood and that you know that you are not alone. We are here and this is a journey that we are experiencing together. You take care and I’ll talk to you soon.
- Jennifer Pilant – LinkedIn
About Jennifer Pilant
Ms. Jennifer L. Pilant assumed her current position as NETCOM-Europe Data Center and Services Division Chief in August of 2022, after being promoted from the Services Lead / Chief which started in April of 2022. Prior to joining the NETCOM-Europe team, Ms. Pilant was an Army Civilian at Tobyhanna Army Depot for 13 years.
Ms. Pilant is a native of Woodbury, NJ and after two years at Rutgers University, NJ, she enlisted in the USAF in 1994, at the same time as her husband, Mr. Paul K. Pilant.
Ms. Pilant began her short five year USAF career as a personnel specialist at Spangdahlem Air Force Base, Germany and separated from the USAF at McChord AFB, Washington in 1998. After her husband’s USAF career took the family to Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, Ms. Pilant began her eight year career as a librarian, with positions in both on base and public libraries and eventually her husband separated from the USAF in Delaware. For four years, Ms. Pilant managed all aspects of technical services for the Milford Public Library, Delaware as their Technical Services Director. In this position, she held a key position within the 23 other Library Technical Managers throughout the state of Delaware when instituting a State-Wide Network Database. This collaboration was the first of its kind in Delaware and linked all libraries together under one consortium.
In 2008, Ms. Pilant started her Army Civilian Service career as the Technical Librarian at Tobyhanna Army Depot where she led a team as the first official Librarian at the depot. While under her leadership, Ms. Pilant brought the antiquated paper library to a fully digital library by focusing on continuous process improvements and by doing so, Tobyhanna Army Depot was the first Technical Library to be awarded the AMC Library Consortium Network – Federal Library Directory – Library of Congress official status due to the process improvements implemented and sustained.
Ms. Pilant’s Army Civilian Supervisory career path started as the Chief of the Integration & Remanufacturing Project Management Branch, while dual hatting as the Chief of the Mobile Maintenance Branch, and both had her leading a team who performed project management activities for 40+ programs totaling over $100M throughout their project lifecycles for seven years before taking another career path into supervisory information technology. For three years prior to joining NETCOM Europe, Ms. Pilant led a team of information technology specialists, IT project managers, contract officer representatives, IT application software developers & programmers and management analysts as she served as the Chief of the Business Architecture Design Branch.
Ms. Pilant’s awards and decorations include the Air Force Achievement Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Longevity Service Award, Air Force Training Ribbon, Air Force Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, several Certificates of Appreciation by TYAD Commanders, Special Act Awards, Team Work Awards, several Certificates of Lean Accomplishments, the distinguished Department of the Army Superior Civilian Service Award, and the Team C5ISR Ten Outstanding Personnel of the Year 2011.
Ms. Pilant holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Management from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Library and Information Science from Drexel University. Ms. Pilant is certified Project Management Professional from the Project Management Institute, certified CompTIA Security Plus, and certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.
Ms. Pilant and her husband Paul have one son, Conor.