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.
Sadly, children are not exempt from suffering, especially when they are faced with the death of a parent. Over the course of their lives, they will experience the many stages of grief, and as they grow, grief can grow and pop up in surprising ways. Shaping their perspective will play a huge part in producing positive fruit from their grief. Children must be directed and encouraged to see that God is both in control and a loving, kind, and gracious Father. Through that lens they will be able to see that God gives purpose in their pain—ultimately to know Him in a way they never would without the pain.
In a perfect world, childhood is a time of joyful innocence, brimming with family activities, warmth, and wonder at all you’re learning and experiencing. Yes, my childhood included many of these things: a loving family, fun activities, sports, crafts, vacations, church, school, friends, birthday parties, girl scouts.
I was ten years old. It no longer mattered to me how good my life had been, or what I had learned at Vacation Bible School. Death taught me, “God doesn’t love me!” The loss I felt screamed in my ear, ”God isn’t good!” And the pain I carried whispered,“Things will never, ever be good again.”
I tried so hard to reconcile a good and loving God with the death of my mom. Deep down I wanted to believe that God was real and kind. That my mom was in heaven, not buried in the ground. I wanted to believe more than anything, but it felt as if there were a gulf separating me from God.
I turned inward with my feelings. Everyone was falling apart around me, so I resolved that no one would see me cry. I would remain stable. Steady. Only I wasn’t. My anger was so overwhelming, I could not manage it. I was mad at everyone. God. Why did He allow this to happen? My family. Why wasn’t I told more about what was happening with my mom? My friends. Why did they all have whole families when mine was torn apart? Didn’t they know how lucky they were to still have a mom?
To cope I began doing the things my mom used to do – making sure my brother and sister were okay. That they had eaten dinner, done their homework. I did laundry. I cleaned. I did all I could to maintain order amidst the chaos churning all around me, and within me. I grew more and more bitter. What ten-year-old has to endure these things? Why is my life so hard compared to those around me? Why did this have to happen to me? Will things ever get better? Is the rest of my life going to feel like this? Will I ever feel joy again?
In the months after my mom’s death, I decided that either God wasn’t real—or He wasn’t good. Since I prayed for my mom to live, and she died, these seemed the only possible conclusions. Either way, I wanted to know. I wanted to know more about this God I didn’t even believe in. Months turned to years as I sat in this place of anger, pain, and brokenness.
Without my praying, without my asking, without my even dreaming it could be so, God blessed me with another amazing mother. A mother who sat with me for hours to talk about the loss I had experienced. A mother who would allow me to ask any question about God I wanted—or needed—to ask. A mother who took me to church, but let me make my faith my own. A mother who cooked for me. Cared for me. A mother who loved me unconditionally, as I had been loved before. Without my even asking, God redeemed. Without even knowing it could be possible, He restored to me what I had lost.
As I processed my grief with my new mom, I began to grow in a true knowledge of who God is.
One summer my life-long best friend invited me to a church camp. Sitting in the crowded chapel, I listened, stunned, as the speaker walked us through Jesus’ crucifixion. I had no idea that Jesus had suffered like this. The truth rang loud and clear in my heart: Jesus was familiar with suffering. The man continued, “It does not matter what has happened to you, God was with you. He wept when you wept.” This time, my faulty paradigm shattered. God wasn’t distant. He wasn’t bad. He didn’t hate me. He was intimately aware of my suffering. He wept, too, in fact. When I would scream into my pillow at night, when the tears wouldn’t stop flowing, when the hole in my heart threatened to undo me, Jesus was with me. He cared. He loved me. He had, in fact, never left my side.
Being reassured of God’s goodness, His mercy, His love—it changed my life. He has provided for me, and restored to me what I lost. He has mended my broken heart. These miracles are proof to me of who He is and what He can do. He is much greater than my ten year old mind had allowed.
My new mom is like one of those stones the Israelites took up as they crossed the Jordan River—a symbol of God’s goodness. I can look back on my past and, instead of seeing a shattered life, a broken heart, I see the hand of a loving Father—restoring, redeeming, and healing.
To order the great resource for children click here: Emily Lost Someone She Loved
For more information helping children grieve, contact Kathleen Fucci Ministries
Kristina Fucci earned a B.A. in English from Westmont College and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Talbot School of Theology. Before joining Kathleen Fucci Ministries, Kristina worked in Christian publishing as a contributing writer and marketer for a number of children’s ministry resources, including Sunday School and Vacation Bible School Curricula. She has also worked in Christian radio.