I don’t know about you, but my whole life I thought I understood suffering, that was until it really came knocking on my door with the death of my husband. Then it became personal, and just like that the questions, doubts, and fears came rushing in all at once. Where was God in all of this? Would he be faithful to me? Could I make it without my husband? Did I have reason to hope like I had grown up believing?
These questions can be overwhelming and downright terrifying, but in my lowest moments, I found answers and hope in scripture, in Christ. When the tears were many and there was no place else to run, these words held me safe and gave the courage to take another step.
In the midst of your suffering, I urge you to turn to the only place you will find lasting hope and purpose in the pain. It won’t make all your problems disappear, but you will never be alone. God wants to meet you in your suffering—he promises to. Take the timeless words of scripture and write them on your heart, day by day repeat them to yourself, and watch how they renew your mind and bring you to a place of contentment and trust in God.
Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
1 Peter 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
2 Corinthians 4:17: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Psalm 68:5: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
God was a not silent about those who suffer, in fact scripture is full of his promises to meet you in the mourning. His Word makes it clear that he has not left us to make it alone. There is hope, respite, and even new joys to be found in Christ. Anchor yourself in His words and though your boat may rock, it will never be thrown off course. He is faithful.
It took me a long time to figure out who Alex was after my husband JM died. There was a period of time where I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror (no joke). I would stare for minutes and genuinely not recognize myself, tears slowly starting to flow steadily down my cheeks. I was so lost. Lost in the grief, the tears, the funeral planning, the putting my life back together; I was only 23, and I didn’t have a clue who on earth I was.
We all know how it goes, when we are kids we are anyone the world wants (for better or worse, right?), we change with the wind and with whatever is “cool” and whichever friends we had that year. But as we get older, we start to care who we become and what we stand for, figuring out that life is HARD. I spent almost all my latter years of high school and most of college finding the real me, and somewhere in there I finally liked her and the path she had taken. Then college came to an end, I entered the “real world,” and married my best friend, JM, and legit became the best version of me…US. Of course, marriage was hard, as for all, but we were having fun defining our new roles and living life as a team of two.
On September 19, 2015, with the death of my husband, it seemed like all the figuring out I had done came crashing down on a BIG, FAT reset button, and right there, a week before my 24th birthday, I had to learn all over again. Or so I thought. My role changed but maybe, just maybe, my identity didn’t. It took several weeks to see it, but underneath all the darkness of grief, my identity was still there shaken but not destroyed. The things I had learned from God though all those formative years about who I was as a daughter of Christ and all the qualities God instilled in me through all my life’s highs and lows were there, ready to help me navigate the long road ahead. Sure, some things had to change, and they did in their own time, and eventually I found a me by remembering the old me and allowing God to shape the “new” me.
The me before my first husband—my humor, things I liked doing, and my faith in Christ. I had to remember that just because I was no longer a wife did not mean that I was no longer me. I always liked traveling, so by gosh, I could still travel, even if it was alone. After all I still had Christ.
Then it moved to relearning who I was because of my first marriage—characteristics I picked up in our marriage, like learning to not throw in the towel so quickly. New hobbies like trying every cool foodie spot we could find, and trusting God’s goodness even when I couldn’t see it (boy would that come in handy).
The last part, and probably the hardest, was learning who Alex is because of all of this, the death, the life after, and even one day remarriage (a WHOLE different relearning, but fun). And, if I am going to be honest, the me I found before my new husband, and after my first was the best me. It hurt immensely finding her, but God was creating her all along the freaky, bumpy road. People who are in Christ don’t get lost in their grief, at least not permanently. Changing roles is never easy, but if we cling to our identity as Christ’s child who is loved and not forsaken, though we change a LOT, we don’t get lost.
Grief is a journey of truly finding and rooting your identity in Christ, not in a husband, not in tears, not in Alex the widow, not in remarriage, but in Christ. It’s taking the longings I have to see my first soul mate (even still) and saying, “God what do you want these longings to make of me.” If we don’t give them to Christ, they will literally rule our life, and we will never be able to move forward into what God has for us still on this earth. I had to learn that the role of Alex, as JM’s wife, was not identity, so that I could be okay when my role changed, which it inevitably will in many ways over my life. Of course, I still miss him, but as time passes, and as God gives me the grace to be content and then even elated again, my longings have become a tool to help me keep going and not one that stops me.
It all just takes time. There will be so many hard moments where all you can be is sad, confused, and more sad, but eventually, if you keep clinging to Christ, that does break away and opens you to be the “new you,” and really keep living with purpose and life. I have never been so content and that’s not because nothing hurts anymore. It’s because when I thought I was permanently broken, God was with me, bringing beauty from the ashes, giving purpose to the pain.
Summer busyness is over, and a new slower paced season is right around the corner. Although the turning of the leaves and cooler temperatures are a nice change from the summer heat, fall, and winter, can be some of the loneliest seasons for the widow. The many holidays ahead shine a bright spotlight on the fact that her husband is no longer here and force her to change a lot of the traditions she had become accustomed to – it’s a scary thought. Even though the widow might not verbalize her needs this fall, she will be needing the warmth of her community and a reminder of the closeness of Christ. As the warm weather begins to fade, consider the following ways to warm the widow’s heart and home this fall:
At the time of my husband’s unexpected death, I had eight children under the age of ten. The first four months were filled with business meetings, phone calls, and visits from well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers…oh and chaos – complete grace-filled chaos! The normal rhythm of our daily life had been turned upside down.
There were days that I would focus on something I had planned to do, like teaching school, when suddenly, I found myself doing something completely unplanned! It was that “grief thing” of keeping busy so I wouldn’t feel the pain. Or, it could have been the “grief brain” that removed the ability to focus on anything at all. Can you can relate? In my flurry, I would often enter a room to put something away and before I walked out again, I was involved in something I hadn’t ever planned to do.
For example, one afternoon I had the idea to separate a set of bunk beds into twin beds. I zipped into the room to perform this simple task without any thought at all that it would be something beyond my physical capability. My husband built the kid’s furniture to withstand any storm, apparently except for my grief attack. As I pulled the top bed off, I quickly realized that this was not a task to accomplish by myself. I was stuck! I couldn’t get it down to the floor, and I couldn’t get the bed back on top, and I couldn’t leave it hanging in mid-air. Frantically, I looked around only to see my precious little ones staring up at me willing to assist in any way they could. With the help of my two sons (ages 4 and 5) and my determined six-year-old daughter we managed to get the bed to the floor without hurting the babies in the process. The only damage was a minor hole in the wall and a broken bed. That little fit of independence brought out so many emotions. My inability to complete a simple task brought about anger I has buried deep inside. What do I even do with all this unresolved anger? Who do I resolve it with? Is unresolved anger what leads to depression? Oh my, what an emotional price to pay for the new bedroom arrangement!
Taking care of 8 children was always a bit overwhelming, but now, without my husband, I felt shaken, pressed down to my wits end, and running over. Actually, I felt that I had been run over. Even though I knew God was working through it all, life was hard, oh so hard. Change was taking place – physical, emotional, and spiritual change. Many days by 5:00 p.m. I felt that I just couldn’t make it through the rest of the day. However, with a houseful of small children, stopping wasn’t an option, so I pushed through. Soon dinner would be over, children bathed, and we would be onto my favorite part of the day – devotions and listening to the hearts of my children. Often, I had to confess my own wrong attitudes, a poor choice of words, or an action I didn’t think fully though. I loved to hear my children share their hurts and struggles, as well. (Side note: this simple but planned time of communication brought more fruit to our family more than anything else we do.)
Even though I had help here and there with the whole single-parenting thing, I still felt that my yoke wasn’t easy, and my burden was not light! Didn’t the Bible offer that promise somewhere? I asked God to give order to each day and to the large task ahead. I worked hard to be brave and courageous, but honestly, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. As I evaluated where I was in the timeline of my life, there were some very difficult years still ahead of me. I didn’t have in-house babysitting, I had a bunch of toddlers that need lots of consistent training and encouragement, and the adjustment to doing all of this alone was still very new. If God’s yoke was easy and His burden light, then I must be wearing the wrong yoke, right? I felt confident that the old yoke would feel so much better than my new one! But, I couldn’t take this new yoke off! (Weren’t yokes made for two oxen? I’m sure if it was for one ox, the load behind was smaller than 8?!)
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NASB).
Easy? This was anything but easy. Light? In my own strength my new load was heavy. Rest? I didn’t think that would be possible for decades. I found myself pulling into a shell. I wanted to hide, disappear, and pretend that this had not happened. God kept telling me this was not a shell but a cocoon. To get the easy-light-rest that the Bible talks about, I had to trust God and learn from Him in this season, so that I would come out a beautiful butterfly rather than a dead caterpillar. When I looked up the meaning of the word easy in this text, I learned that the Greek meaning was much different than one would think. Easy is not the opposite of hard, but rather means to be fit for use, virtuous, and good. The process in this spiritual cocoon would be worth it all, and it was. His faithfulness proved that His burden is light when received with humility from His hand. God was performing a work of grace with this yoke upon me.
Most of us widows find it easy to mourn with others and sympathize with pain, but when it comes to rejoicing with others, temptation can easily be creeping at the door. The temptation of resentment, the temptation of, “Why not me?” lurks. When it seems like life’s new joys have stopped for the widow, the new joys of others suddenly become more obvious to her. This new sensitivity to others’ joy, as well as pain, can be a beautiful thing or an ugly thing depending on how we respond to it. It may seem like an obvious concept, “rejoice with those who rejoice,” but when new joy for others becomes our own new loss, rejoicing with others may not come so easily.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the acknowledgement of loss in our lives, but we have to redirect our focus at some point. It’s okay to feel the sting of loss when you hear the news of another pregnancy, knowing you may never be able to have children again. It’s okay to acknowledge the pain when you see your fatherless child watching another child snuggled up in his own daddy’s arms. But we can’t stay there, we can’t dwell in the pain. Someone else’s gain does not make our loss any greater.
Three months into widowhood, I found myself sitting in a classroom at a hospital, seven months pregnant about to begin a water birth class. I sat at my desk, and I started to scan the room. I was the only woman in the room who didn’t have her husband by her side. Instead, I had my mom. My eyes welled up with tears at the reminder of my loss, along with the thoughts of this isn’t fair, why me? Thankfully, my mom was there for me, rather than no one at all. She mourned with me in the moment, acknowledged my pain, and redirected my thoughts towards thankfulness. What a blessing that those women had support, and their children would have fathers! Their gain ultimately became my joy.
“And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26 NKJV
We will never have joy if we don’t desire good for others. Our rejoicing with those who rejoice while we’re in a season of mourning is life giving on both sides. It’s an act of selfless love, rather than something that simply happens naturally. Most of us have high expectations for those who are rejoicing to mourn with the mourning, but the mourning are called to the same act of love. Considering others better than ourselves is not easy, and it’s certainly not what our sinful nature is inclined to do, but it’s what Jesus does and asks us to do, as well. Jesus asks difficult things of us, but He never asks us to do things that won’t benefit us in the end. God knows we gain joy in loving others and rejoicing with them.
There are seasons for everything and everyone. Sometimes we’re the ones in a season of mourning while others are in a season of rejoicing, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Keeping in mind that everyone experiences suffering at some point in their lives, is a good reminder that we aren’t always in the valley and others are certainly not always on the mountaintop. When we’re in the valley, we have the opportunity to share in the mountaintop moments by rejoicing with others, while also giving thanks to the ones choosing to mourn with us.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 NKJV
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” Philippians 2:3 NKJV
If you would have told me 8 months ago that I would never speak to my husband again, never look at him, never kiss him, never receive a text message from him, I would have told you to put a pillow over my face because I wouldn’t be able to survive one single day without him. If you would have told me that he wouldn’t be here to lay with every night and feel his warmth, reach up on my tippy toes to kiss him, or hear his handsome voice telling me he loves me ever again, I wouldn’t have been able to fathom the pain of what that may feel like and I would just assume to not feel it, and put me out of that misery before I would have the chance to experience it. Yet here I am every night falling asleep alone, looking at my phone and not seeing his name pop up, nor seeing him walk through the door. And it really is more painful than I would have imagined if you would have told me this would be my life. 8 months later, how I am getting through every day is beyond my own capability.
Ever since the day I met him, we talked- phone, text, Facebook message, snapchat, sticky notes- all the things- all day- everyday- for exactly 5 years. I was one of those over-bearing girlfriends when he wouldn’t answer a text back within a reasonable amount of time, I would become upset. Why? Maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe I craved to talk to him because he was my most favorite person in the entire world. Not talking to someone who I had an endless conversation with for 5 years is truly beyond my own capability.
We honestly did everything together. Grocery shopped, worked out, cooked, bathed our dog…when my prescription was ready at the pharmacy, the three of us (yes, our dog Daisy, too) would pile in the car and drive a half a mile down the road to get it. We didn’t do anything without each other. Why? Maybe I’m not independent enough. Or maybe because he was my partner in everything and I didn’t question doing anything without him. Or perhaps I somehow knew our time was limited. So how I am going to the grocery store by myself, out to coffee alone, or raising a 94-pound stubborn dog without his help, is positively beyond my own capability.
I feel like I have shared a few personal things, so why not dig a little deeper. Before our wedding, I developed debilitating anxiety. It came out of nowhere and it took over my life with full force. I think it stemmed from the fear of standing up in front of 150 people with everyone staring at me at the altar on my wedding day. Obviously, I wasn’t anxious of who I was marrying- it was just this unexplainable fear of having to stand up there for 15 minutes in the Atlanta summer heat. I still can’t explain why or where this anxiety came from, which makes it more frustrating. Regardless, Matt did some exposure therapy with me to try to overcome this irrational fear. He made me stand outside in the Houston heat (much hotter than Atlanta) in my wedding shoes, with a hooded sweatshirt on for 30 minutes, twice as long as our ceremony was supposed to be. (Can I just brag for a second about my sweet husband? Without judgement or criticism, he helped me through my absolute ridiculousness). And it worked because even though I felt jittery at the altar, it wasn’t as hot or as long as when we were “training.” The point of this obscenely silly story is to just put in to perspective how fearful and anxious I was 8+ months ago, when everything in my life was 100% perfectly fine. So, imagine now that something very real and terrifying happened to me, what my anxiety should be…
I was the Matron of Honor at my best friend’s wedding a few weekends ago. At her wedding, I stood up there husbandless, widowed, scared and scarred. But I was up there. I wrote a speech but convinced myself I wouldn’t be able to read it, told my friends that I wasn’t going to read it and that I would just write a nice letter to the bride and groom- up until the DJ called us up there as it was time for speeches. Something literally pulled me up from my chair and held me up there. I was able to read the words off my phone and through the microphone in front of 150 people. How I stood up there is exceptionally beyond my own capability.
All of this, the big and little things, that I’ve done in the past 8 months, are beyond my own capability and 100% through the strength Christ has given me through the Holy Spirit. This isn’t meant to brag or tell you all “I’m fine!” or “all is well.” I am writing to tell you why I can be fine. I am not fine on my own. I am not strong on my own, I am strong with Jesus. I am no longer anxious like I used to be, not because I just “got over” the things that made me feel anxious, but because I know God is in control. It is not worth the energy to be worried because God knows what will happen the next minute from now, tomorrow, and next year.
Would it be easier to hide under my covers and say no to all the opportunities that have arose since Matt has been gone? Of course. Do I hear the lies and fears running through my mind? All the time. Is it easier to listen to those lies rather than to ignore them and hand them over to God? Yep, it’s so tempting to believe them. Am I “okay?” A lot of the time, no, I am not. Bitterness, anger, pitifulness, and deep, deep grief do take up a lot of my emotions. But when I choose to see all of God’s works being put together piece by piece – joy, hope, and thankfulness begin to take over those other stages of grief.
Most of the advice I hear when I encounter a challenging situation is “give it to God”. Sounds easy… How do I actually DO that? It’s a constant learning process and I am trying all the time. But here are two things I cannot ignore:
I still have hopes and dreams for my future. A single dream cannot be put together based upon my own capability, it is through the power and sovereignty of Jesus Christ that dreams (big and small) will be fulfilled according to His plan so long as I put my trust in Him and honor Him. God isn’t going to offer me an instant solution, it is going to be a long, long road following Him, but He will point the way forward. I am confident that, in this storm, He is never going to let me down.
What are you going through right now that would be a lot easier if you handed it over to God? What dreams of yours haven’t been fulfilled because you haven’t invited God to help piece things together? What are you trying to accomplish that you can’t complete with only your own capability? Follow Jesus, He will point the way forward. You don’t have to do it on your own. You will be able to do the things you thought were impossible when you invite the God into your situation.
I am standing on the other side of everything I am afraid of, and God is standing there with his arms wide open*. He is walking with me, opening and closing doors, making things work together better than I could myself, He is good even when life isn’t.
*Lyrics from Wide Open by Northpoint INSIDEOUT.
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzOaWq5YczA
Well over a year into widowhood, I found myself watching the girl with the sparkle in her eye and a hearty smile. She was goofy and seemingly carefree dancing and laughing in her dining room – and I was totally jealous. I wanted to be like her with all of her happiness.
The weird thing is, that dancing girl was me. I was watching a home video of my late husband and I, and boy, was I happy. I didn’t feel the pain of missing my husband, because he was right there with me in the room. As I watched all of our home videos and looked through our pictures, the same question jabbed at me; Who am I now? Will I ever be who I was before? The differences between the pre and post-widow me weren’t only in my carefree expressions of happiness, it was in how I could hardly remember someone’s name anymore, or how I felt like I could crumble under the expectations of how others thought I should be grieving. Pre-widow me knew (well, thought she knew) what her next step in life would be, but post-widow me wasn’t totally sure if she’d be any good for the work of the Kingdom of God. Post-widow me was tired and so easily agitated. Post-widow me struggled with fear of the future. Would I ever remember people’s names, have energy again, laugh until my abs hurt, or not dread good-bye’s so severely?
I believe the answer is an anomaly—no, but yes. Originally, I feared the answer “no,” but I now understand it isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different thing. No doubt, it would be a fearful thing if the answer “no” weren’t also bundled with the answer, “yes.” There are so many similarities between myself now and who I was before, but overall, we are not the same and I praise God for that. I’m much slower to frustration again and I laugh until I can’t breathe again, but I still won’t be who I was before widowhood. Suffering is a refining process. God can use our pain to refine us in certain ways, and refining is not bad.
If our lives are surrendered to Christ Jesus, we shouldn’t want to remain the same, but rather to continuously grow in step with the Spirit. I’m glad I’m not who I was before Michael died, but it did require a season of pain and mourning to get here. And the journey is certainly not over. In the midst of the “Who am I stage?” we need to remember the identity God has given us, if we belong to Him. It’s an identity that isn’t swayed by our circumstances or emotions.
Becoming a widow did not strip me of the title of a child of God. Through tears from the pain of missing Michael, I could also rejoice in the fact that my Heavenly Father was doing a good work in me. When we don’t know who we are, we can trust Abba to always be who He says He is. When we feel our earthly identity is flaky, we can trust that the identity Abba has given us is sure and steady. We can trust God to use the pain and struggle of uncertainty to make us look more like His Son. We will laugh again, but we will never be who we were before the pain of widowhood entered our lives—and that’s a beautiful thing if we’re allowing the Spirit to lead us through it.
Setting our eyes on who we are is scary and ugly no matter what stage of life we’re in. We were not meant to find security in who we are, we were meant to find security in who God is. Our circumstances are going to reveal to us just how unstable we really are. Whether we allow God to use that to show us how stable He is, is up to us. While we’re redirecting our hearts and minds to Christ, He is growing and changing us to be more like Him. Being a new person is sweet, if it means becoming more like Jesus.
Growth and change look so different in different seasons. There are seasons of slow growth and rapid growth; seasons of invisible growth and visible growth. Nevertheless, if we are following Christ and living by the Holy Spirit we can trust God that He is growing us and changing us for our good and His glory. It’s not supposed to be a comfortable process, but it is worth it. I can confidently say, that the joy I have now in widowhood is not a result of my circumstances or my wavering personality, but instead because of who God is and who He says I am.
John 1:12-13 (NKJV)
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Romans 8:14-17 (ESV)
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.