ST PETERSBURG, FL - OCTOBER 22: Dan Wheldon's widow Susie Wheldon (C), his father Clive (R) and her father Sven Behm (L) stand together following his memorial service on October 22, 2011 in St Petersburg, Florida. Wheldon, who was 33 was killed in a 15-car crash at Sunday’s season-ending IndyCar race in Las Vegas. (Photo by Tim Boyles/Getty Images)
On what is going to be a poignant weekend of memories and tributes to Dan Wheldon in St. Petersburg, Florida, one person will not be around to participate: Susie Wheldon, Dan's widow.
A family spokesperson told Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press that Susie has elected to leave St. Pete for the duration of the IZOD IndyCar Series race weekend, only a couple of weeks after having presided over the dedication of a memorial to her late husband in what is Turn 10 of the temporary St. Petersburg street course.
Anyone who has suffered through the death of a loved one knows the crushing grief and sadness that accompanies the event - as well as the picking at the slowly-healing scabs that occurs when even the best-intentioned well-wishers offer condolences days, weeks, months, even years after the fact.
Magnified under the hyperfocused lens of celebrity, however, these moments of renewed sorrow become torturous, oppressive. The greater the celebrity and the more profuse the tributes, the more agonizing it becomes for the departed's family. No matter how well-meaning, the endless reopening of the wounds represents a serious roadblock to healing and moving on.
Liz Allison was a young NASCAR racer's wife in 1993 when her husband Davey perished in a helicopter accident in Talladega, Alabama. Although she was accustomed to fame as the bride of a famous race car driver, it was always from the periphery - an accessory, if you will, to Davey's star power.
When Davey was killed, however, Liz and her family were thrust front-and-center into the limelight. Davey had been a star, a member of the Alabama Gang, the heir to the Allison racing legacy, and when he died even his critics seemed to join the enormous flood of tributes and praises that swept across his survivors like a tsunami.
What was a warm outpouring of emotion for fans and the media, however, became a nightmare for Liz. Caught under the microscope like a trapped insect, she eventually had to flee altogether the sport that had made her husband a superstar in order to find a modicum of peace. Complicating matters was her relationship with country singer Joe Diffie, who at the time was married with children - a relationship that may have been reckless, but one that at least offered to take the edge off of her grief. The NASCAR world's reaction was vitriolic, but the onus was placed far more heavily upon Liz because she had somehow "desecrated" Davey's memory.
These days, Liz Allison embraces her past in the sport as a motivational speaker, radio host, track announcer, and author. She has even collaborated on a series of Harlequin romance novels set in the NASCAR world - perhaps as a subtle tongue-in-cheek nod to her relationship with Diffie. She is happily remarried to a physical therapist and makes her home in Nashville.
But it took years for Liz Allison to reach that level of closure - years in which she had to insulate herself and her family completely from NASCAR in order to let their wounds have a chance to heal. The infinite loop of honors, tributes, and sentimental looking back was too overwhelming.
It was part of the price she was forced to pay for being a part of her husband's fame - a price paid in deference to a memory that grew into a Sword of Damocles over her head.
This weekend in St. Petersburg, INDYCAR fans and competitors alike will be looking for a sense of closure. The long, dark off-season has worn on everyone, and the months of living with those final, tragic images from Las Vegas are finally coming to an end.
But that's our closure, not Susie Wheldon's. Susie and her family are dealing with a different set of circumstances. I hope that the INDYCAR world respects her absence and understands her motivation. Perhaps someday she, like Liz Allison, will be ready to return to racing, perhaps not. It's not up to us.
For now, distance represents relief. If anyone is entitled to relief, it is the Wheldon family.