When fallen heroes don't come home

(CNN)Theresa Jones watched her son's eyes light up with excitement on December 25, 2013.

Presents flooded their San Diego home. "This is the best Christmas ever!" 6-year-old Anthony shouted.
But as he bounced around with joy, Theresa cried silently, holding her newborn Hunter in her arms.
She felt a deep, dark sadness. Reality was settling in. It was just the three of them now.
    According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, more than 2,300 US military servicemen and women died while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. Her husband had become one of them.

    The midshipman

    Thirteen years earlier, during her senior year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a special man walked into Theresa's life. He, too, was finishing school -- at the US Naval Academy.
    It was a girls' night out in Annapolis; Theresa was finally 21. As the bar was closing, her friend pointed out a midshipman who wanted Theresa's number. He can come over and ask me for it, she thought, intrigued by the cute stranger across the bar.
    A few minutes went by.
    Midshipman Landon Jones finally struck up a conversation with the woman he'd been eying and eventually asked for her phone number.
    Theresa didn't know what it would become, but in the following months, a special bond would form.
    Landon's schedule became increasingly busy as senior year came to an end, but his love for Theresa was growing.
    That May, Theresa donated a kidney to her father. "I was hooked up to machines, hadn't showered. But he still visited me and brought me flowers," Theresa said.
    That's when she realized Landon was the one.

    New beginnings

    Happy and in love, the Joneses started their married lives together in 2003 as Landon's flight school training came to an end. Like most military families, they moved around frequently. From California to Japan, Theresa was right beside Landon, supporting his career as a naval pilot.
    In 2006, Theresa found out she was pregnant. Landon moved back to the states just in time for the baby's gender reveal.
    "I remember pulling up. He ran out and said, 'What is it?!'" Theresa said. They'd always wanted a baby boy, their dream was coming true. "He was running around the front yard so excited," Theresa said.
    It's some of life's sweetest moments, like this, that Theresa misses the most.

    The unimaginable

    On September 22, 2013, Theresa saw an article posted on Facebook citing a helicopter accident in the Red Sea.
    Landon was finishing up a deployment in the Middle East. Theresa and her in-laws nervously waited around the house for any sign of Landon's well-being, constantly refreshing Facebook and checking in with other wives from the squadron.
    Then, the doorbell rang.
    Theresa looked through the peephole of her front door and saw three men in uniform. They'd come to inform her that Landon was missing.
    "I just started screaming. I couldn't open the door," Theresa said tearfully.
    Just two months earlier, Theresa had given birth to a healthy baby boy. On deployment, Landon had called into the hospital room for the birth of his son, Hunter Jones. Their three had turned to four. "He could hear him [Hunter] cry," Theresa remembered.
    But on September 23, 2013, as Theresa looked at her 2-month-old son on a baby monitor, anxiously awaiting an update about her husband, the doorbell rang again.
    This time, she knew for sure. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jones -- her love, her partner, and the father of her children, just weeks away from finishing his deployment -- was not coming home.
    Theresa was incapable. Sick.
    Days before his death, Landon arranged for Theresa's friends to take her to dinner in celebration of their upcoming 10-year anniversary.
    He even made sure they bought her favorite flowers. Yet somehow, despite Theresa's prayers, the 33-year-old widow found herself explaining to Anthony that his daddy had died.
    She picked him up from school early, drove home and sat together next to Anthony's grandparents.
    "He's dead, isn't he?" Anthony demanded. "But he never got to meet Hunter!" he screamed.
    Hunter had only met his dad once -- over Skype -- shortly after being born. Anthony had six years of memories.
    "I remember Anthony would draw really angry and sad pictures," Theresa said. "But he tried not to cry. I think he knew if he'd cry, I'd cry."
    At one point, Anthony asked to write his dad an email. Even though Theresa knew he'd never see it, she typed as Anthony spoke sweet words he hoped would get to his father.
    "He talked about how he wished he could play Legos with him and wrestle with him, how much he missed his dad," Theresa recalled. "He told me he wanted to go to heaven and be with his dad."

    'Looking down a black tunnel'

    The first year after Landon's death was shock for Theresa. The second was the darkest.
    "It felt like looking down a black tunnel," she said. The idea of living 50 more years like this was unfathomable.
    Theresa remembered her boys giving her the only will she had to live. All the big decisions that Theresa and Landon had made as a team, such as purchasing a car or a home, she now had to make alone.

    'Using the bad things to propel us'

    After Landon's passing, Anthony made a special drink to remember his father. He used blue Gatorade to represent water, Sprite to represent bubbles in the water, and red punch for the Red Sea.
    "He thought maybe Landon was still alive," Theresa said. "That maybe he had been picked up by a submarine."
    These days, the 10-year-old practices taekwondo, a sport he greatly enjoys, that doubles as a coping technique.
    Theresa and the boys do a lot of activities with other Gold Star families. She is also involved in the Travis Manion Foundation, where she gives back to the community that gave so much to her during a time she needed it most.
    "My hope is that we continue using the bad things to propel us and that we continue making good memories," she said. "We have a very short time on this Earth and we have to take advantage of this amazing opportunity that was cut short for my husband."
    Despite many hardships, Theresa wants people grieving a loss to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
    "Life can be good," Theresa said. "It's a new normal, but it can still be a great normal."