Saturday, December 05, 2015

A story of grief: six months and counting

Today is the six-month anniversary of the day my wife died. You can’t help but reflect back on something like that. Grief is an ongoing thing, and it comes back to bite at you at the strangest of moments.

About a month ago, my church interviewed me for the church newsletter. That went like this:

Tell us a little bit about your family.

She was feeling very good before she died.  
My roots are Roman Catholic. I was a lonely young man, and I had considered becoming a priest. After three years of consideration, I decided that it wasn’t for me. Right about that time, God put the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my path. We fell in love quickly. We were married June 1, 1987, and we had five children through the end of the 1990’s. At 9/11/2001, Beth was deeply moved and wanted to help somehow. A former soldier (1980-85), she re-enlisted in the Reserve. But she was such a good soldier, that she was transferred a reserve unit that was to be activated, and she was among the first to go into Iraq. She served there from April-October 2003. When she returned, we had our 6th child, Dani.

I have always been a devout person, but through the 1990’s, after much study and prayer I came to the conclusion that I could not remain Roman Catholic, and I came to embrace the Reformed faith. My oldest three sons did not come to those same conclusions. So my family is somewhat divided (but we are all close).

Beth came down with Leukemia in 2011. We thought at the time it may have been caused by exposures she received in Iraq. City Reformed stood by our side, “closer than a brother”, and helped us through that time. Beth received a “bone marrow transplant” in December of 2011. Most of the next year involved fighting infections and getting through “graft vs host” disease. The transplant cured the leukemia, but it was a long process that took a toll on her body.

What has happened recently?

As most everyone knows, Beth died of a heart attack in early June. I was with her when she died. She had worked a night shift, and she slept all day; she was waking up, and I was finishing my work day on a Friday. We were laughing and joking together, and then she felt pains, and not five minutes later she was gone.

We had just celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. She was feeling healthy for the first time in a while; she was enjoying the springtime, and she took on something she loved to do – digging in the garden – and apparently she worked a bit too hard.

How have you seen God at work in your grief?

Marriage is a one-flesh union to be sure, and after 28 years, to mix a metaphor here, there are many threads – many living threads – that connected our lives. Every single one of them is torn in an instant … although at first you are numb to it, in the subsequent weeks and months (and even years, I am told), each time you come to the endpoint of one of those threads is an occasion for pain and grief.

For example, Beth died while planting flowers that she loved and planting tomatoes for me. So through the summer, I got to watch the tomatoes blossom and grow and ripen, and I got to watch the flowers reach full bloom and then die from frost. All of this meant many memories and much pain from loss. In cleaning out the house, I found a newspaper from a trip that we had taken to Maine the year before. I thought, “I’ll never be able to go to Maine again”.

My faith in Christ never wavered, but there is also an accompanying sense of bewilderment. I don’t hear any audible voices but I know He is there. I know that she is with Him, and that she is rejoicing. I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I will see her again, but that places me beyond my own death (a thing from which I naturally recoil).

I have started to keep a prayer diary, and I am more diligent to pray for others in their needs. I can’t imagine what it means when Jesus says “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). I do know that I can enjoy moments in life – fellowship with church and friends, a good conversation, a hug, a good meal, laughing with my family. And I know that there are moments that come, almost on a daily basis, when I sit alone, and I miss her, and I feel the full weight of the grief, and I know that somehow He will shepherd me through this time.

I mentioned “the tomatoes”. Essentially, my wife gave up her life planting these tomatoes for me – and the Morning Glories and the Sunflowers, and a bunch of other flowers – I don’t even know what they are. She loved flowers. Those who have followed me on Facebook are aware that I followed “the tomatoes” on their journey through growth and flowering and fruiting and ripening and then death. I’ve said, “it was not a good trade”.

The tomatoes and the flowers now are all gone.

* * *

I’ve learned a lot about grief over the last six months. I’ve read a lot of books, a lot of articles. Probably the best book by far – the most practical, the most pastoral, was James White’s “Grieving: Your Path Back to Peace”. It’s a short, an easy-to-read accounting of how grief works and God’s purpose for it in our lives. It’s a generalized piece, however. It speaks to the loss of children, parents, and others, in addition to the loss of a spouse.

The loss of a spouse is different, somehow. “Two become one flesh”, and then that is torn asunder. Over 28 years, there are a lot of threads binding the lives together, and each one of those threads is torn in an instant. Think of those threads as nerves, and every one of them is scalded and throbbing at various times – depending upon the memories that are associated with them, and how we are reminded of things.

Initially, I was in a state of shock. I was numb. Things didn’t seem so bad.

One of my first thoughts was to write about our life together. After all, Beth had an unusual life. She was sexually abused as a very small girl, her mom fell ill with Multiple Sclerosis, her father left the family, she was dumped off to live with the abusive grandfather (who had only the opportunity to abuse her occasionally when she was younger). She ran away, fell into all the bad things that teenage girls can fall into on the streets. Joined the military. Learned about honor. She managed to overcome a lot.

We married after she was out of the military, had a bunch of kids; she re-enlisted in the Reserve after 9/11/2001; she got deployed to Iraq, exposed to Benzene, came down with leukemia, had a bone marrow transplant, recovered from it.

Two medals that Beth
was awarded for her service
in Iraq 
After a bit of a challenging start to our marriage, we had an opportunity to live almost the perfect life of a happy suburban couple: a series of moves, a growing family. We settled into an old (built in 1880!) home and Beth spent a number of years in the late 1990’s that she herself characterized as the happiest years of her life. We lived in a wonderful old neighborhood. She had wonderful friends. Our kids were young, and they had wonderful friends. Of course, things crop up. We were forced to move out of that old house; 9/11 happened, she went “off to war”.

As someone who was sexually abused, Beth had both control and anger issues. In the good years, with small children, she could manage things. After Iraq, she came home with PTSD, to adolescent children who were less willing to be “controlled” by Mom. There were ongoing conflicts. She was distant. I became close to a woman to whom I could talk about these things and other things.

Beth with our daughter Sissy,
who was just 3 at the time
Our marriage became difficult. I ended my friendship with the other woman. We went through counseling. We had several tense years. Beth got very sick and almost died. Then she was well and we had a wonderful three years, almost as much in love as we were at the beginning (but there were tensions in the household caused by the older kids). Some of those were ongoing when she died.

I thought this would be a good book to write. It still may be. But the flood of memories, the seared and scalded nerve endings ... it all became too much for me to handle, and I had to set that project (and the related memories and pains) aside.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to move on. I’ve worked hard at my job. I’ve joined a gym. I’ve joined a dating site.

With the gym, that’s been a 100% gain. Except for a brief couple of weeks in 10th grade, I’ve never lifted weights in my life. I used to walk a lot, especially in the spring, but that would taper off in the summer and become nonexistent through the fall and winter. I’ve not felt physically better for a long time.

With the dating site, that’s a bit different. Yes, it seems “too soon”. However, with grief, one of the things you need to do is to try to understand what life will be like moving forward. The dating site is programmed. Each day, it sends me a whole list of women whom I might try to contact. There is a cadence to it – even though few of the women would be a “match” for me, there is a thought exercise that you go through, “how might this work out?”

Just to make sure, I’ve written my profile in what I think is a very good way to “filter out” anyone who might not be “good for me”:

I’m looking first to find a female friend: I'll hold doors for you, and buy you flowers, and tell you how beautiful I think you are. I want you to fall in love with me, and I want to fall in love with you, the old fashioned way. I’m widowed; I loved being married, and I’m looking for a Christian woman whom I can cherish and with whom and upon whom I can spend my life. I’m an evangelical Christian first, not looking for a sexual relationship, except within the exclusivity of a Christian marriage…

Meme by Andrew Clover
A couple of women have dared to cross this hazard. I’ve met a few women online, and a few in person. Of course, “it’ll never be the same”. I find it to be both frightening and intriguing to go into these situations. The good news is that, by the time anything significant happens with this process, it will no longer be “too soon”.

[Y’all will be proud of me. One woman, who gave up the site, said, and I quote, “It didn't seem like a good thing once I was participating in it, so I shut it down. You're really the only nice, normal person that reached out to me. People are crazy!”]

One of the best things that has come of it is that I’ve come into contact, and had a chance to interact with, others who have been recently widowed. There is a real connection, a real understanding, at what’s involved when you lose a spouse.

One woman that I’ve been keeping in touch with lost her husband almost at the same time that Beth died. It was uncanny. She and I are the same age; our spouses, both long term, died at the same time. We both have an 11-year-old at home. If any of you ever does lose a spouse – and maybe you can think of a time when it might be considered to be a good thing – but if you lose a spouse in the painful way, seeking out other widowed people is a tonic that you can’t afford to be without.

* * *

Beth and I were married 28 years. That’s such an awkward period of time. I was 27 when I got married, and we were married 28 years. There’s kind of like another 30 years available to me (Lord willing – that would take me to 85) – so I’ve got four sons, in their 20s now, and two daughters at home – 17 and 11.

They are my first priority now – they drive my life. (And one of them drives me crazy!)

Tonight at my home, there will be a sleepover of 11 year old girls. This just came up yesterday. What to feed them? There are practical problems.

In the longer term, there are other practical problems. Working for a living. I’m 55 … what am I going to do until age 70? I think I’ve neatly taken care of that challenge. I’ve been learning a new skill – sales – in a highly specialized field of technology – “marketing automation”. This is a segment that’s projected to continue growing for the next 10 years at least, as companies catch on to it. And I can largely work from home (with minimal travel), and still make a pretty good living. It will be better if I actually sell things!

Two years ago, I never would have thought of myself as a sales person. I was involved in marketing, but more as a writer – huddled away, with my thinking cap on, doing my thing. Not actively reaching out. There’s a saying, though – “nothing happens until somebody sells something”. When I sell things, (a) usually the customer gets some significant problem taken care of, and (b) the people who fix those problems have actual paying work to do. In exchange for this, I receive a percentage, a “commission”.

So far it’s not been stellar, but I don’t need “stellar”. At this point, I need a process that’s both workable and repeatable for the next 15 years.

* * *

James White’s book says the hardest months of grief are 4-6 months out. And everybody says that the first round of holidays is the hardest. I’m sure that both of those are largely true.

I’d like to thank everyone who has prayed for me, talked with me or just listened, or commented about a photos I posted, tried to cheer me up in some way. (That includes especially Andrew Clover who prepared the “Rock” meme for me!)

These last six months have been a different, totally unexpected kind of journey for me. I’ve seen the Lord’s hand so many times, and in so many places.


  1. thank you for sharing your story. her spirit is aloft in you..

  2. So beautiful and touching. Pray God will continue to encourage you in the toughest moments. Bless you.

  3. My mother passed when I was 17. I was the only one left at home. My siblings were all married with families of their own. My parents were married for 32 years. At the time I didn't understand what my dad was going through, because I was going through my own grieving process. I rarely revisit those memories, mostly because I have never really allowed myself process them. Thank you for sharing your story and shedding light on the 'other side' of my own story. You and your family are in my prayers.

    1. Hi Terri -- I have a 17-year-old daughter at home (and an 11 year old). Would you mind to shed some light on what you believe you were going through? It would be helpful for me to understand what my daughter is feeling.