On September 25, 2015, my wonderful 30-year-old son-in-law, Patrick, suddenly passed away from an unknown heart related condition. He left my only daughter, Brittany, who was 25, the mom of 3 small boys. The oldest son, Peyton, was one day from turning 3-years-old, Evan was 1 1/2 years old, and Nathan only 3-months-old.
My wife was out of state so it was just Brittany and I at the hospital crying together. My tears were not for Patrick because he knew the Lord and was in heaven, my tears were for my daughter and 3 young boys without a father. God immediately placed in my mind and heart that I must do my best to provide a father figure for those boys.
At nearly 58-years-old and with a busy life of my own as a realtor and flipping houses, I was already spread thin, so I prayed for God to help me help them. They stayed in our home for approximately 6 weeks before they went back to their home and then stayed with us a lot of weekends and holidays. I also stopped by to see them as they live only 25 minutes away.
It has now been almost 4 years and these 3 boys are well balanced, good kids that I believe will do great in life despite not having a father in those early years. These are 3 of my 14 grandchildren, at the time of Patrick’s death, all were 5 or younger and 12 of them are boys! During the early days it was obvious that I spent more time with these 3 than the rest and my 3 sons and daughter-in-laws graciously understand that.
At times, I was their 3rd mom behind my daughter and wife, but most of the time I am just “Pops” to them. I was, and still am, very intentional about everything I do with them.
Her 3 boys are young and resilient and will be good God-fearing successful men with their own families someday soon enough. I’m glad that God somehow gave me the time, strength, energy, and wisdom to be there for them in this season of their lives.
I was not alone in the quest to help these boys, they were blessed to have their other grandfather, several uncles all living nearby, and other men who had also been intentional to pour into them. They are loved and prayed for by many of us and that all combines to make for a great support system for them.
These past.4 years, especially the first 22 months, I changed many diapers, got up during the night more times than my tired body wanted to, fed, cleaned up, clothed, bathed, and did what a father would normally do with them and what their amazing father, Patrick, did for them. We also played, wrestled, rode the 4-wheelers and zip line, went fishing, did routine house chores, like taking out the trash, repairing things, and have many other great memories.
We cannot control what God allows to happen to us but we can choose to make the best of it. I choose to embrace the task and enjoy the journey and that makes all the difference!
It is so crazy how life can be going one way one minute and can literally come crashing down in the next minute. April 7th is one of those days, and it is a day I will never forget. I was driving back from Brunswick, Georgia after the most fun weekend with one of my best friends. Life was good. Halfway through our drive, I received an unexpected text that was going to change everything. It was a text telling me that my best friend’s husband, Evan, had gone into cardiac arrest and had been declared brain dead. I had to read the text multiple times just to allow my brain to register what I was even reading. I remember thinking “Evan who?” There was no way it was Evan Gill. Our Evan. The Evan that we know and love so deeply. The Evan who made us laugh more than anyone else in the world. The Evan who loved sauce more than the food he was eating. The Evan whose personality was bigger than life itself. There was just no way.
I was in so much shock, tears were streaming down my face before I even realized I was crying. I was crying at the sudden death of our friend Evan, and I was crying thinking about Lauren, his wife. I can remember saying over and over again in disbelief, “My best friend is a widow. Lauren is a widow. At 25 years old, she is now a widow.” All I wanted to do was get to my friend.
Walking through the doors of that hospital still seems so surreal. When Lauren walked out of the room, I hugged her, and we wept. Through her tears she mustered out words I will never forget, “Evan is not coming home. He’s not coming home to me.” I had no words. None. All I could do was fall to my knees and cry with her. Losing Evan as a friend was the hardest thing I’ve ever walked through. Watching Lauren say goodbye to her husband as they rolled him away was even harder. The grief of those moments are unmatched in my memories. I will never forget the sounds of the rawest parts of her soul crying out as she said goodbye to what she thought was her forever. There was no preparing for it. You can never really know what it’s like until you’re in it. All I knew for sure is that she is my best friend, and while I would have given anything to mend her broken heart and take the pain away, I knew that was the Lord’s job, and I would have to trust him as he walked with her through the valley of the shadow of death.
I remember shortly after talking with our girlfriends, we had NO idea how to be the friend of a widow at 25. What do we say? What do we do? We were truly at a loss. However, God made it so clear to me that all I had to do was walk. Not walk ahead of her and try to direct her steps, not to walk behind her and let her fend for herself, but to walk WITH her. As her friend, I was called to fight, pray, hope, believe, and worship on her behalf when she was too broken to do so herself. I was called to cling to hope on her behalf when she had none. I was called to declare victory over her life when she didn’t believe she would overcome. I was called to believe that Jesus WOULD turn these ashes into beauty, that He WOULD reopen her heart to hope again, to love again, and have courage to keep moving forward.
I was called to sit and listen to her as she processed things out loud. I was called to be sad and cry with her. And I was called to CELEBRATE too! To celebrate the wins, reminding her that joy and grief can coexist. LET THEM!
Side note: It’s okay to laugh and to still have good times in the midst of hard times. You do not have to feel guilty about that! As hard as this past year was, the moments when Lauren would laugh so hard she couldn’t breathe or felt some sort of emotion other than grief, were the moments that brought hope during the hardest times. Seeing a widow experience those joyous things amongst the grief are truly gifts from God. We held onto those because I believe they were unique ways that hope was being rerooted in her life again.
And just like there is no ABC way to grieve, there is no ABC way to walk with somebody. It will look different for everyone. As long as you are seeking the Lord and taking it one day at a time, I promise you will find your way, because just as the Lord was guiding Lauren’s steps, He was also guiding mine all along. Surely, he will yours too!
Unfortunately, there will be people along the journey that will find it hard to walk with her and it might make things harder rather than easier. There will be people who will be quick to judge and criticize the way a widow goes about her life moving forward. If a person won’t walk with her, truly walking day to day with her, they will have NO idea how the Lord is healing, guiding, and leading her. So we must first remember, scripture has called us to care for the widows, not tear them down. Caring isn’t assuming we know what’s best for them, but actually listening to them. Just because they are grieving does not mean that they are incapable of living their life. At the end of the day, I trust Christ in Lauren and I trust that He was, is, and will continue guiding her every step.
Grace over criticism will go a long way in the healing of a widow. Trying to take control of a widow’s life won’t bring you healing or take the pain away, only Jesus can do that. So instead, hear what they are saying and know that regardless of what life may look like from the outside, they are not only grieving the loss but also the life they had and the future they wanted but will not get. So, I ask of you, if you know a widow, be kind to her because I promise you, nothing about her life is easy right now and the last thing she needs is added hardship and unnecessary pain.
Lastly, friend, as you walk with the widow know that moving forward does not mean that you are forgetting the person you have lost. We will ALWAYS miss Evan. Always. Nobody would ever try to replace him because literally nobody ever could. Moving forward isn’t moving on. Moving forward is trusting and believing that Jesus is 10,000 steps ahead of us in all of this. AND, not moving forward is exactly what Satan wants. He wants us to sit in our grief forever. He doesn’t want us to move forward because moving forward is merely a reflection of God’s grace, hope, healing, and provision and that is the last thing the enemy wants.
If you are reading this and you happen to be the friend of a widow, first let me say that I’m so sorry for the loss and pain you are experiencing. It hurts. So much. And there is no other way around that. Even when you feel so lost and it doesn’t feel like it, remember that your friendship matters, Jesus is bigger, and there are brighter days ahead. Here’s to you and your journey with your friend. I wish you weren’t on this path, but I am confident you will both know Jesus more deeply because of it.
Growing up in a Christian home laid the foundation for my strong desire to be a wife and mother. Trusting God to fill that desire, I enrolled in Liberty University as an early education major. Much to my surprise and delight I met the love of my life, Jay, in January 1987 of my sophomore year. Our first date was in February and we were married in August…a whirlwind romance.
Jay had been in the Navy and was super intelligent, skilled in electronics and computers, and loved studying and talking about theology and the Bible. He was easy-going, optimistic, very affectionate, and always wanted me to feel loved and be happy. He brought balance to my “Type A” planner, organizer, worrier, perfectionist personality. We were very involved in our church and missions and we were devoted to our families. Jay and I were in agreement that I should be a stay-at-home mom as long as the Lord allowed.
After four years we began our family with our oldest daughter, Candace. Not quite two years later came MaryKate. Then four years later we had our son, Joshua. God had given me the family I’d always dreamed of, but not without sacrifice and struggle. Despite job losses, financial strains, family issues and losses, and marital stress, we believed God’s promises and He remained faithful.
Jay had always been in excellent health and was very active. Around 2007-8 he began having some digestive system and abdominal pain issues. After various tests were clear, other than some acid reflux and gall stones, one scan did show 2-3 “giant hemangiomas” on his liver. We met with a surgeon who assured us that many people live with these and never know it. Doctors just leave them alone since they present no problems. A year or so later blood work showed Jay was anemic. More tests still produced no significant diagnosis or improvement. All the while I was thinking “it’s those hemangiomas.” We were finally referred to a specialist who confirmed the hemangiomas were the problem and needed to be removed. We felt confident to proceed with surgery on December 6, 2010. Surgery took much longer than anticipated because the hemangiomas were more involved, and the doctor had to take much more of the liver than expected. After 10 days of misery trying to recover in the hospital, Jay went into cardiac arrest, and went home to be with the Lord on December 17 at the age of 47.
I’ll never forget the 5:00 a.m. phone call telling us to get to the hospital right away. Hearing Jay had passed from a devastated surgeon, who had never lost a patient before, was a feeling of dread like I had never before or since experienced. What was I going to tell the kids? How would we pay our bills? I didn’t work and Jay had no life insurance. Would we lose our home? How could I get Candace through college and keep MaryKate and Josh in Christian school? Who would walk the girls down the aisle? Who would teach Josh how to be a godly man? How could I be a widow at 43? GOD HELP ME!
And help me He did! God has provided for us in more ways than I have space to write. From taking care of tuition expenses, a job at the kids’ school, an AC unit at a deep discount, new tires, many vehicle repairs, a hot water heater, a new car, money for Christmas and bills, vacations, and on and on. Great is His faithfulness! I’ve come to know God in a much deeper way as a widow. He is my devoted husband and loving father to my children. He fulfills every need in His time and His way which always exceeds anything I could think or ask. Total dependence upon God and prayer is the ONLY way I have persevered for 8 years. There are many days I’d rather stay curled up in bed in the fetal position feeling sorry for myself. But because He lives, I continue to press on and live out whatever plans He has for me, “to give me a future and a hope.”
Month 42 looks a lot different than month one. Daughter, sister, friend, wife, teacher, widow, creator, maker, plant lover, wife again… Of all the hats I wear and roles I play, I’d call myself a fragmented mess this week.
Pouring over my journal from the first year after my husband, Tim, died, I recorded snippets I wrote in week one, month one, month seven, month twenty-four. I transcribed Bible verses that had buoyed me through some of my earliest, darkest days. Then moving bits and pieces around, I tried to pull out some sharable message from the blur of memories and past thinking. I edited down, slept on it, reread it, waiting for that moment when it all clicked. But something wasn’t right. This wasn’t how my writing went—it usually came pouring out of me in one fell swoop needing only a few grammatical fixes and then, boom. Done.
Why was this so hard for me? Why couldn’t I find the words to share one of my most sacred stories? Frustrated and sad, I talked it through with my now husband, Ben, who knew and deeply loved Tim, and watched me walk through the last years of cancer and the early days of grief. He knows the details well, he knows my heart, he has seen the underside of grief that can carry me away, and he agreed that something wasn’t quite ringing true in my words. He encouraged me to write from my perspective today, not from my past. I had changed, but I was trying to go back and tell an old version of my story. So, I deleted it all—all 2,500(!) words I originally gathered, all of my efforts to explain what this is like, and started over early one morning, after the week that had kicked my butt was finally over.
The word widow doesn’t quite feel right for me – it never has. I wish I could create a word without the charged, pitied image that comes to mind. Even that though, the desire for a different title, shows this deep longing I’ve felt my whole life. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I fear the potential of being misunderstood, especially on my dark days. Yet once your person dies and you’re left with a shattered world to eventually reclaim as your own, being misunderstood is part of your inherited struggle. How could we possibly articulate what this is like?
Here we are – irreversibly different. Now, I talk to hummingbirds every day because that is one of the ways I feel close to Tim, when before, I wasn’t really sure I believed in anything like that. Now, I lead a room full of fifth-graders through the ups and down of learning (and hormones starting), when three and a half years ago, I could barely get out of my bed.
I now have an innate sense of how to show up for my student whose mom just died of cancer. God is aligning me – he is using and growing every part of me – all the pain, loss, and confusion, as well as all the persistence, connection, and hope. Without having lost Tim, I wouldn’t know how to do this. I am so incredibly sad for my student and his family, and so incredibly glad to love him from a deep place of knowing.
I now have an intimate relationship with feeling two (or more!) emotions simultaneously that seem to contradict one another – joy and sadness, peace and confusion, hope and sometimes even despair. Once you lose someone, the gray feels much more like home than the black and white naivete that, “it’ll all work out.” Well, it didn’t work out, and yet here I am, continuing to live a life full of promise, love, and meaning. I’m sad and I’m grateful. Now, my relationship to God has a frankness that is so much more compelling and real than the felt-storyboard version of faith I started growing as a child. God is good, all the time, not just when things are “going well.” I am grateful for His unchanging character in the midst of the constant ebb and flow of this life.
During an assembly at my school, we watched a short video about raising money for kids with cancer. As soon as I saw that the main character was a little redheaded boy (Tim was a redhead before chemo made him bleachy blond), I leaned over to my mentor and said, “I don’t think I can watch this.” Of course, I did, though, and as the story progressed, tears started falling down my cheeks, ever more rapidly. I couldn’t get it together and could tell the kindergarteners I was sitting by were wondering what was up with me… so I stepped out. I sat, I sobbed, I was comforted by colleagues who know all about Tim- I was completely swept away by a wave of grief so fresh it felt like month one all over again. And then, back I went, red face and all, to check in with my fifth-graders, sharing how much that video reminded me of Tim, and how important it is to help families going through cancer. Then, we kept going with our day.
We keep going. We are sad, funny, scared, irritated, thankful, bold, quiet, loud, and every contradiction possible, in the most beautiful, fragmented, pieced together ways. We may not ever be able to fully let others into this experience – to be misunderstood is part of this path – and yet we know that God sees us. The inevitable growth and change of grief may make people uncomfortable, but it also creates in us a beauty that can really change lives. My hope as you read my words is that you feel space to feel all the layers, to press into who God is shaping you to be, today.
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). – Matthew 1:23
Far too early on Christmas morning, my daughters burst into my bedroom with the announcement that Santa had come and it was time to wake up. At 10 and 4 years old, they knew the Christmas routine. No one could open a gift until Mom had her first cup of coffee. The girls ran back and forth between snooping through the presents and pleading with me to hurry. The anticipation was almost too much for them to bear as I put the cinnamon rolls into the oven, turned on the Christmas music, and poured myself a cup of coffee.
The truth is, I needed that cup of coffee. It gave me a few minutes to collect myself and muster up some semblance of Christmas joy. My daughters deserved that much. They didn’t need to know I only got a few hours of sleep because I worked into the night wrapping presents and taking perfect Santa and Rudolph-sized bites out of the cookies and carrots. They didn’t need to know I hid my grief behind every decoration, casserole, song, and pine-scented candle. And they certainly didn’t need to know my half-hearted prayer as I sipped my coffee and watched them fuss and giggle in their red, plaid pajamas.
I glanced at the tiny, baby Jesus in the nativity beside the Christmas tree. The figure of Mary knelt in adoration beside him. Joseph, the shepherds, and angels stood behind. I wondered if the real Mary felt the same way I did. She gave birth to the King of the world in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. When she labored among the animals and filth, did she think, “It isn’t supposed to be like this?” Did she wonder if she had failed her Son or worry if she would be enough for Him? Or did the concerns of this world fade into praise as Mary held GOD in her arms?
“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19
I realized then I needed to treasure up and ponder the things of Jesus if I was to find Christmas again.
Our culture glorifies Christmas as a feel-good, do-good, $465 billion-dollar, secular industry. Providing our children with a memorable Christmas seems an impossible task for a single parent who struggles with loneliness, grief, or financial strain. As we navigate the holiday season, it is imperative we take an honest look at our expectations and consider if it is time to shift our focus.
This Christmas, you may feel pain. You may grieve. You might feel lost, lonely, or afraid. You may wonder where Christmas is in the midst of your loss and suffering. Let me assure you, friend, Christmas is not lost. It is not out of reach. You may be far from home or perhaps you have long abandoned the tree and presents. Perhaps your pain lies hidden behind the noise and bustle of the day… but know this. It is for this suffering that Jesus came. This babe, borne into a humble state, came to heal the broken-hearted. Our broken hearts.
Pain and suffering may hijack the traditional trappings of Christmas, but we do not have to let it steal our joy. Our thanks and praise. We know that joy and suffering can occupy the same place in the heart. And so, through presents and wrapping, through the pain and loss, we still see Christmas… perhaps more clearly than ever before.
MICHELLE LYNN SENTERS (B.A. Education; M.Ed. Integrated Teaching Through the Arts) raised two daughters on her own and experienced many issues common to single mothers. She is the author of The Unseen Companion (Moody Publishers 2017) and has founded the Arise Ministry for Single Moms at her local church in Colorado Springs, CO.
I met my husband on a blind date. Sounds ordinary enough. But it wasn’t. A long-time friend of mine called me one day and said, “Sit down. My wife and I have prayed about this, and we want you to meet someone. He’s a widower with three kids.” Ugh. And then he told me some of the awful details. Cancer. A four-year, hard-fought battle. Three beautiful kids and this strong man of great character left behind. I couldn’t comprehend a person my own age having gone through such a trauma. And what about the kids?
The gravity of what they had lost began to set in the very first time I met them. A picture of their mom and her obituary was framed in the entryway of their home. Her handiwork was everywhere. She had made the curtains in the kids’ rooms, and hung the wallpaper. She had decorated every room. I looked through albums, and more albums, of the birthday parties she had thrown for them and the hairstyles she had fashioned for the girls. The Christmases, dance recitals, soccer games, baseball practices–all of them captured her smiling face, loving touch, or playful sense of humor. Her hand-written recipe cards were in the kitchen; her coat was in the closet. But the warmth and security of her presence was most certainly gone. Now what?
One out of seven children will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20. That statistic overwhelms me.
My kids were 6, 8, and 10 when their mom died. I fell in love with their dad, and I fell in love with them. They were 9, 11, and 13 when I became their second mom. I made most every mistake a person could make in trying to navigate them through their grief. I didn’t know what I was doing. Our lives seemed too frantic, at the time, to try to figure it out. I was desperately trying to make a home for our kids, while also trying to manage the effects of their trauma. I see everything more clearly now that they are grown. I’ve learned a lot, both from Scripture and from experience, about broken-heartedness. What does a broken-hearted child need in order to heal? To re-engage with life? To prosper? To believe in God’s goodness again? The short answer is Jesus. Revealing Jesus to our sorrowful children is our privilege and our calling. The long answer, well let me take a crack at it:
In fifth grade our oldest daughter, Kristina, was placed in a grief group at her public school. The school counselor was trying to facilitate some discussion by pointing out the kids’ body language and what it said about how they were feeling. Our daughter looked at him with fury and said, “Did your mom die?” When he replied, “No” she said, “Then you don’t know anything about how I’m feeling.”
Grieving kids often feel alone. They think no one understands what they’re going through. This gets magnified in their thoughts and sometimes manifests itself in a tornado of angry outbursts, tantrums, obstinacy, and other tempestuous behaviors. Sometimes it manifests itself in depression, withdrawal, apathy, or panic. Don’t take these behaviors personally. I did. Big mistake. This is just what childhood grief looks like. It’s rough and raw. Your child doesn’t hate you. She hates being in pain.
At times my kids’ overblown emotions made me want to pull away, to punish, or to control. But when I think back on it, I know they were just trying to communicate how traumatized they felt. They were too young to tell me with words. They couldn’t articulate their inner turmoil so they showed me with chaotic behavior. In those terribly hard moments, I wish someone had told me how important it was to calm myself first, and then try to sympathize. What would it feel like if I had lost my mom at their age? Correction of their bad behavior might be necessary but I’d say double down on love and empathy. Oh what a stretch that is. But it works. Then help them, by asking many, many questions, to tell you what’s in their heart.
Another thing I found very helpful, when my kids felt all alone in their pain, was to ask them about their mom. What was she like? What do you remember about her? How did she make you feel special? I found they were eager to tell me. You know those recipe cards I said were in the kitchen? Kristina and I went through every one of them. We saved her favorites. I ended up learning to make one of their mom’s recipes, the one the kids liked the most, Korean flank steak. So let your kids tell you how much they loved the one they lost. Doing this created a very deep bond between my kids and me. I think they would tell you that sharing their mom with me made them feel less alone.
Their souls are swarming with unrest. Inside they may be screaming, “Where is God?! Why has this happened to me?!” And because of their experiences, they will often conclude God isn’t real . . .God doesn’t love me . . .God isn’t kind. Eventually these kids will want answers to some pretty sophisticated questions about God. Mine did. Why does He allow people to die? If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world? What will we do in heaven? Does God answer prayers?
Someone has to anticipate and answer these questions with the hope and comfort of God’s Word. Our faith, our knowledge of the Word, and our personal relationship with Jesus are critical in helping our kids through their dark valley. We can use the Bible to tell our kids about people who lost loved ones or were trapped in terrible circumstances. We can point to David, Ruth, Joseph and so many others to show them how God healed, blessed, and delivered them, and gave them extraordinary futures. We can teach our kids about death too, and how it originated. That way they will never have to wonder if the death of their loved one was their fault, or God’s fault. God hates death. They must know that.
Ultimately behind all of a grieving child’s questions is a deep need to be reassured of God’s goodness. We have the love of Jesus, living inside of us, to give them that assurance. We can all testify of the extraordinary ways God has been good to us, especially when we’ve faced difficulties. The revelation of God’s goodness produces faith and hope for the future.
Finally I will share with you one revelation that has revolutionized my understanding of broken-heartedness and its remedy.
“A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.” Proverbs 15:13 (italics mine)
“The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (italics mine)
A broken heart and a broken spirit go hand in hand. Grief is a spiritual issue. If a child’s spirit is broken by sorrow, who can mend it?
“He (Jesus) heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3
Jesus heals broken spirits. He does this by revealing His character and nature to us. It is not as important for children to understand their grief as it is for them to know their Healer.
Kristina’s reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion was the turning point in her grief. That’s because there is no better comfort than knowing Jesus’ heart for us. When a child no longer doubts His goodness, the healing begins.
I am extraordinarily blessed to have three beautiful, loving kids who call me Mom. What ultimately led my kids back, from despair into faith and life, was knowing Jesus is good, Jesus loves them, Jesus is with them, and Jesus has eternally good plans for them. Jesus. He’s the short answer. He’s the long answer.
To order the great resource for children click here: Emily Lost Someone She Loved
For more information helping children grieve, contact Kathleen Fucci Ministries
Kathleen Fucci earned a B.A. in Psychology from The University of the South and an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a conference speaker and has taught Bible studies for churches in Southern California, including The Vineyard Church of Anaheim and Rock Harbor Church.
Her special areas of interest include: Christian apologetics, Biblical exegesis, eschatology, and health and healing, with extensive research in human physiology and psychoneuroimmunology (the effect of thoughts and emotions on the body’s immune system), as well as neurocardiology and neurotheology. She has a passion for helping others discover and walk in their full inheritance in Christ Jesus.
Kathleen is an award-winning children’s picture book author, and recently finished her second picture book to offer hope and healing to children grieving the loss of someone they love. She is a wife and mother of three adult children, who lost their mom when they were young.
 Findings from http://www.hellogrief.org/about/life-with-grief-research/ 2015; 5:5