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Kristen Simpson's journey: The pivot from grief to hope

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN (Week of October 9, 2014)
Brian Simpson's widow Kristen and daughter Samantha.

About a year after her husband Brian was murdered in the bedroom of their Fiddlewood home, Kristen Simpson realized that she had lost hope.

At first, the grief was so overwhelming she lived from minute to minute, never thinking about the day. But as time passed and she struggled through the mechanics of daily life, trying to keep going for her children, she knew she didn’t want to.

And regardless of what she did – teaching her PE students, going to counseling, running and going to every meet, game and concert of her kids – she looked forward to nothing. 

“Hope was so alien to me, I no longer knew what it meant,” she said.

But with the trial of the man who murdered her husband just over, her home saved by a caring community and the unwavering love of family and friends, she now sees the world differently.

Last week, at the trial of Henry Lee Jones, which ended with his conviction for the murder of her husband, she sat in the first row, scribbling notes in a worn, bound notebook. She also read the same quotation over and over.

“Hope is power,” it said. “We hope and God restores all that we’ve lost in this life.”

She chose that line, she said, because she knew she had no control over the outcome of the trial which could have ended in acquittal, and all she could do was helplessly hope.

“I get no happiness knowing that Henry Lee Jones is losing his life to jail. But someone who makes the choice to break in a house with a gun and do what he did is a threat to all of us, and I don’t want him to do what he did again,” she said.  

For Kristen Simpson, the pivot from despair to hope began over a year ago, she said, when Vero Beach 32963 started the “Simpson Family Home Fund” to save her home from foreclosure, after Brian’s murder in November, 2011.

With Brian gone and not enough money to pay her mortgage, she had already sold most of the family’s furniture and had packed boxes of their belongings in preparation for her kids, Scott and Samantha, and her to move to a small apartment, which she could afford on her teacher’s salary.

But in three weeks in August 2013, the Vero Beach community rallied around her and raised over $300,000 to save the home.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was overwhelmed,” she said. “Before the money was raised, I knew that family and friends really loved us. But, then, I knew we lived in a world that loved us.”

Still, it was almost six months before the papers were signed and the house became hers.  What made it finally happen was the dedication of several people on the barrier island who got top executives at the bank that held the mortgage to push the deal through.

When that happened, Kristen Simpson was so relieved that she did something with her kids for Christmas that smacked of joy: They went zip-lining, whooping and hollering all the way down.

Then, with the home in her name, Kristen went to work on it.

Two of the three bathrooms had become nonfunctional. The roof leaked. The air conditioning was out. Mold filled the walls of Scott’s bedroom. The pool and patio were a huge mess.

Kristen bought a pressure cleaner and spent weekends outside cleaning up. Greg Schlitt oversaw major repairs. Meeks Plumbing reduced its rate. The mold disappeared. The new AC went in. The new roof went on. All of the bathrooms worked. Kristen painted, cleaned and pruned. The kids helped.

Everything sparkled.  “I could look anywhere in our home – the home that we own free and clear – and feel so delighted that I began to look forward to getting up in the morning,” she said.

They unpacked, went to Ikea to replace some of the furniture. They started biking to breakfast on the weekends. And, Kristen learned to grill.

“I was beginning to live again,” she said.

Then, in the spring, her financial advisor suggested something that shocked her. He said that with the extra jobs she had taken on before and after school and the absence of the home payment, she might consider taking a short summer vacation with the kids.

A vacation like the ones they took when Brian was alive.

At first, she hesitated. What if it only made her miss Brian more? What if she spent the money and something happened?

“When you lose someone you love unexpectedly, you tend to always expect the worst,” she said.

But, in April, she booked a five-day package trip for mid-July to go scuba diving with her kids in Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas. She got recertified as a scuba diver – something she had said she would never do after Brian’s murder. The kids got certified, and the three of them took off.

“It was a great, great, great experience for all of us,” she said.

Instead of missing Brian more, Kristen could see him in their kids in ways that she hadn’t before they got out on a boat and in the water together. The funny comments, the gestures – even how they looked in their masks – thrilled her.

“It taught me such an important lesson: Don’t let loss keep you from doing the things you love to do. Find ways to keep loving life,” she said.

During the trial last week, she listened to music sometimes – like Zac Brown singing “Quiet Your Mind” – and she worked a squeeze ball when something infuriated her. Often, she sat between Scott and Samantha or next to Brian’s mom, sisters and brother.

“We all wanted so much to support each other to get through it and have an outcome based on the evidence and the truth,” she said.

And that’s exactly what happened.

After the guilty verdict and the adjournment, family and friends met at Riverside Cafe, under the Barber Bridge, close to where Henry Lee Jones and his accomplice parked Jones’ motor scooter before walking to the Simpson home almost three years ago.

No one mentioned that.

Instead, they talked about how Brian Simpson loved to go to Riverside for good conversation and a beer. Since his death, his friends and family developed a shorthand to toast him. They used to raise a glass of beer, say “here’s to Brian,” and look up to the sky.

But at Riverside last week, they simply raised their glasses and looked up, knowing it was for Brian, who died at 41, when he came home unexpectedly and was shot to death in his own home.

In two weeks, Kristen Simpson is going to Washington, DC, to run a 26-mile marathon.

“It’s one more thing to look forward to,” she said.