THOMSON --- On a recent afternoon, Daphanie Kinlow sat in a front porch rocking chair wearing an empire-waisted black dress with matching black necklace and sandals.
Pink toenail polish and a thin silver bracelet provided her only splashes of color.
She rarely wears anything different.
"My daughter keeps bugging me to update my wardrobe," Kinlow said.
A closet full of dark clothes and a sadness in her eyes are signs that Kinlow, 38, remains in mourning five years after her husband, Sgt. James Kinlow, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. But she is making progress.
This year marked the first time the family celebrated Christmas, complete with a Christmas tree. Kinlow's daughter, Chelsea, 15, wanted one in the living room, despite not having her daddy there to help decorate it.
It's her children who motivated Kinlow to forge ahead. For their sake, she learned how to wear a brave face and set an example of how to continue with life after death.
Still, she doesn't fight the tears when her grief becomes too great. A good cry sometimes helps, Kinlow said.
Occasionally, she will drive to her husband's grave and have a long talk about how life is going. A big pillow in her bed keeps it from feeling too empty, and Chelsea will join her mom in bed sometimes, too.
Kinlow spent most weekends in bed under a pile of pillows in the "lost year" after her best friend's death. She's more comfortable now, getting out on Saturday to visit family in Lincolnton and going to church on Sunday. She also stays busy during the week as payroll manager for McDuffie County schools.
At home, there is a closet of old clothes and boots to remind Kinlow of her husband. She has old letters from him and a journal he kept while in Iraq. She still has his last e-mail in her in-box at work.
Before his final deployment, Kinlow wrote his obituary, then gathered the family into his bedroom. It was rare to see the buoyant, joking soldier so serious, but there was no smile on his face that day.
"He had evolved into that type of person," Daphanie said.
Her husband explained in detail how two men in uniform would visit their house if he died while serving overseas. She listened but discounted the idea that would ever happen.
But "that's exactly what happened," Kinlow said.
She remembers that day vividly. She was at work when she saw two men in Army uniform walking down the hall. She immediately flashed back to what her husband had told her: "If you see those two men coming, it means I'm already gone."
Still, Kinlow argued in vain with herself, that maybe they were there just to say her husband was hurt. The scripted message from the Army officers said otherwise.
"It was devastating," Kinlow recalled.
Chelsea was already at home, so Kinlow called her son, Chauncey, and told him to drive home immediately from football practice.
Chelsea would recount what happened next in an short essay for the Georgia Laws of Life contest about Friedrich Nietzsche's quote: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
"As soon as I heard the news, I ran down the hall to my room. I simply could not breathe," Chelsea wrote. "I felt a huge burning sensation in my throat that prevented me from even swallowing."
Her mother came and pulled her back into the living room, where the three of them sobbed "uncontrollably."
"I just wanted to lie down and die," Chelsea wrote. "I wanted my Daddy!!! I wanted him to walk through our front door like he had done so many times before and give me a great big hug and kiss."
Kinlow has come to realize that raising children as a single mother presents its own set of challenges. She'd had some experience while her husband was out of town as a truck driver, but he always came home.
Both her children have internalized their feelings about losing their father, especially Chauncey, now 20. Aside from the tears shed at the funeral, he's built up a protective wall and spoken very little about his feelings. This year was the first time he initiated a conversation about the disappointment and sorrow he felt, Kinlow said.
She knows she has to strike a balance between sympathy and not letting her children use their father's death as an excuse to fail at life.
Before her husband died, Kinlow watched another mother spoil her child to compensate for a missing parent. She promised herself never to act like that if something happened to James, and she's stayed true to that vow.
"You can't be a victim," Kinlow said. "I took that crutch away."
There were many plans for a future together that won't happen now. Kinlow knows other widows who understand her loss, but they are older women in their 70s who spent more than half their lives with their husband. The Kinlows were married for 12 years.
"You're not supposed to be a widow at 33," Kinlow said.
Asked whether she ever considered remarrying, Kinlow replies with a wry smile and a short answer: "Who?"
Anyone she married at this point would have to share her affection for her late husband.
"Nobody," she said, "wants to play second fiddle."