Widow preserves memory while building new life

Even though Master Sgt. Thomas R. Thigpen Sr. never lived in his wife's new Grovetown home, his presence can be felt throughout.


A portrait of him in uniform, which hung in the Georgia Legislature in Atlanta, now looks out at the living room from its spot above the staircase. A glass case topping 6 feet tall houses his things -- a pair of boots, a silver Nokia cell phone, a pinochle deck.

Unlike some of the Iraq war widows she has met, Theresa Thigpen has no problem talking about her husband or having his things so close. Bottling up the memories just makes it worse, she said. Remembering him "keeps him alive."

For the first year after her husband died from a heart attack March 16, 2004, while at a base camp in Kuwait, Thigpen said she was numb. She did what she had to do. With the help of the Army-assigned casualty assistance officer, Capt. Christopher Britt, she made the funeral arrangements and began all of the daily tasks that come with losing a loved one in war -- meetings with Judge Advocate General attorneys, changes to her income taxes, all the paperwork it takes to end one life and start anew.

By September 2004, Thigpen had enrolled at Augusta State University and began taking her core classes. She decided to get a ministry degree -- something she had always wanted to pursue -- but because ASU didn't offer one, she left and took online classes through Beacon University in Columbus, Ga. All of it was paid for by the Army, she said.

"It was something that I was allowed to do due to his death," she said. "Before he died, we couldn't afford it."

She spent that summer in Acworth, near Atlanta, with her daughter, Tammy. They talked about the death a lot. They used it as a way to heal. Trips to the mountains and the beach helped break them out of the routine.

Thigpen returned to Acworth that Thanksgiving. Instead of cooking, they ordered dinner from Publix -- a clear break from the normal holiday routine.

"We were so unhappy and so depressed and so missing him that we didn't really want to celebrate Thanksgiving," she said.

Thigpen spent most of December crying.

For seven months, she worked on her new house in Grovetown -- picking out the décor and supervising its construction. She moved into the house in October 2005.

Last year, her sister, Marcia Albea, and her two granddaughters moved into the finished basement. Albea's husband also died from heart problems, and Thigpen said it's been comforting to have her in the house.

Thigpen served as the president of Augusta Christian Singles, a group that holds dances every Saturday night in Evans. Now, she is treasury secretary for her neighborhood association for her vacation home on Lake Murray, outside Columbia.

She tries not to dwell on the past. Mourn, but move on with life, Thigpen says. For several weeks this summer, she has been at the lake, working on cleaning up her home.

"The key is staying busy," she said.

But there is one area where she still holds back. Thigpen said she will go out with men, but that's about it.

"I date, but I can't imagine giving up being Theresa Thigpen," she said.

Sergeant saw return to service as duty