On grieving the loss of a spouse

Amy Welborn is the lay Catholic author of more than 20 books, most recently “Praying with the Pivotal Players” for Bishop Robert Barron’s new Word on Fire series and “Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope” (Image), a memoir of the months after her husband’s death. She blogs at http://amywelborn.wordpress.com and lives in Birmingham, Ala.

On Oct. 13, I interviewed Ms. Welborn by email about the process of grieving the death of a spouse.

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Your husband passed away unexpectedly seven years ago. What has helped you to grieve his loss and where are you now with it?

Yes, my husband Mike was 50 when he had a heart attack while exercising on a treadmill at a Y.M.C.A. He died immediately, and it was hours before they could figure out who he was and find me.

It is not a cliché to say that faith, above all else, helped me grieve: Faith that the Gospel is true, that Jesus is real, that what I profess when I say the Creed are not just words, but a description of reality—but also faith nourished by God’s entrance into human suffering, by trusting in God’s presence, by simply the reality of that cross hanging in almost every room of my house.

Also very important has been my two youngest children, who were 3 and 7 when their father died. I had to ask myself each day: How do I want them to go forward? Do I want their lives to be defined by loss?

Of course, I don’t, and that challenges me to present that same question to myself: If I don’t want my kids to live defined by loss, then I shouldn’t want that for myself either. Live the way you want them to go forward.

So where am I now? Fine. I think about him every day, of course, and I can be sad and even angry that his sons are having to grow up without him here on earth. But to me, the tipping point in grief occurs when your gratitude for the person’s life starts to balance out the weight of the loss, and that happened for me some time ago.

What are some things you’ve learned from grieving?

Mike was the first person to whom I had really been close who died. My mother had died in 2001, and I confess that since we had a fractured, distant relationship, in addition to the fact that she was very ill and her death was expected. My grieving in that situation took the form of mourning the loss of a mother-daughter relationship that never was and never would be. So this obviously was different, and I learned quite a bit.

I think, first of all, I learned that to be human is to experience loss and death. It sounds odd, but after Mike died, I felt more connected to other human beings than I ever had before. Sometimes I even felt as if I’d just been pretending to be a member of the human family before this, not having experienced what so many others have.

I also learned how shallow my faith was. Like anyone’s faith, mine ebbs and flows, and as I confronted my grief, I had to ask myself: Do you really believe what you say? Do you really believe Jesus’ promises at all? The fact that Mike died right before Lent began, and I journeyed through that season to Easter with this experience raw and fresh, made the question all the more urgent.

What are you some graces you’ve received in your grieving?

The grace of prayer. That is, others praying for me. I can’t tell you how many messages I received in the weeks and months following Mike’s death about people praying for him and for us. Masses were said, Communions received, rosaries prayed. When we returned from his funeral, there was a message on my voicemail from an acquaintance. She had just given birth and had offered her labor up for Mike’s soul and for us. The kindness and generosity I encountered in that time was breathtaking.

And, honestly, I think it worked. Who knows how prayer “works?” It’s a question even the most brilliant spiritual writers find difficult to answer. All I can say is that at this point, we have come through this experience, and everyone seems healthy and at peace, and have been for a long time. I attribute it to the generous, thoughtful and even sacrificial prayers that hundreds of people offered. It taught me that whenever I am asked to pray for someone, whenever I feel a nudge to do so regarding a difficult situation I’ve heard about—just stop what I’m doing…and pray.

What have been the most challenging parts of grieving?

Probably, first, helping my children, and secondly, absorbing the fact that someday, that body in the casket will be mine.

On the second point, I think that this is one of the aspects of grief that isn’t discussed very much. Quite often, when we hear of a death, especially a sudden death, one of the responses that pop into our consciousness is a quiet, relieved, “At least it wasn’t me this time.” Followed by the jolt of realization: “Wow, that will be me someday.” Grief is challenging, not only because we are coping with loss, but because it forces us to confront our own mortality.

I have always had a rather morbid streak and, honestly, a fear of death, but what happened was very strange, and speaks to the previous question about grace. The moment I stood at the foot of Mike’s casket and saw his body lying there, the words of the Gospel I had selected for Mass just rushed into my soul: Why do you seek the living among the dead? It wasn’t him lying there. It just wasn’t, but I knew he was somewhere. And that fear I had of death, and had for my entire life, just disappeared. It re-occurs sometimes, but working my way back through what I experienced and what I believe, I get my bearings again.

Unexpected suffering often drives people away from God and from the Catholic Church. How has your faith changed since losing your husband?

It’s deepened. In the wake of Mike’s death, I really had to confront the dissonance between what I said I believed—I believe in the Resurrection of the dead—and the temptation to be overwhelmed by the loss of him.

I think I have also become more accepting of whatever life has to bring. I have never been a fearful or anxious person, but neither have I been the boldest person in the world. But I have to say that once what seemed like a normal February morning turns into you looking at your husband’s dead body on a gurney in an emergency room, and by the grace of God, you get through it, nothing else can really faze you.

What has helped you face the challenges of single motherhood since this loss?

Oh, a lot, but I think I will answer this question by telling a story. A couple of months after Mike died, I received an email from someone who lived here in Birmingham. He was a fellow parishioner and, as it happened, a theologian—his name is Chris Barnett, and he teaches at Villanova. He expressed sympathy for my loss and asked if we could meet for coffee.

So we did, and we chatted about various common interests, and then he said that he had a specific reason for wanting to meet with me.

“My dad died when I was a little boy,” he said, “and I just wanted to tell you: It’s going to be O.K.”

I honestly still tear up when I think about that kindness and his hopeful words. It was a reminder to me to not be shy or hesitant about reaching out to others when I have an intuition that something in my experience might be of help.

When our loved ones die, we Catholics often find that our relationships with them continue long after they are physically gone, as we find ourselves praying for them to get to heaven and to them for their intercession in case they are already there. How does your husband continue to be present in your life and prayer today?

First, I’ll say that whenever Mike talked about death, he would always make clear that we’d better keep praying for his soul or else. He was not a fan of funeral canonizations and insisted that “When I die, you better keep praying for me.”

But of course, I do think of him as a possible intercessor. It’s human to do so, especially in raising the children. I admit that I tell him, “You did this. You died and left us. So now you have to help!” It pops into my head in serious moments, but also at moments that might not, to an outsider, seem so important, like when one of them is on the free-throw line in a basketball game.

I also will say that he was spiritually very grounded and realistic, and part of my grieving journey has been guided by pausing and thinking, “What would Mike do?” The truth is, as much as he enjoyed life, Mike knew and tried to live with the truth that real, authentic peace of soul comes only from God, not from what is around us or who we are with. What I’m saying is that I would mentally flip the circumstances: What if I had died? I would ask myself, how would he have responded? He for sure wouldn’t wallow or forget that God loves and lives with me in the present moment, no matter what.

On a more practical note, Mike was buried in an all-wooden casket made by the Benedictines of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, and the lid featured a small removable cross that hangs on my wall. It’s not a sad reminder. It’s a reminder of hope.

Who are your role models in the faith who have helped you particularly through the grieving process?

Not long after Mike died, I revisited Augustine’s Confessions¸ specifically Book 9, in which he recounts the death of Monica, his mother. And, of course, his confession related to this is that he wept at her death!

Now, this might sound harsh and inhumane, and of course, I didn’t take that as my model in any literal sense, but really, is Augustine so wrong? I wasn’t going to excoriate myself for missing my husband, of course, but keeping Augustine’s words near reminded me not to get fixated on the loss and to focus on the reality of the Resurrection.

As the years pass, I become aware of so many other people experiencing loss—all those wives, husbands, parents, children and friends, most of whom I don’t even know, but whose suffering and death pop up on my Facebook feed—and they and their grace are constant models for me as well.

From your perspective, what do Catholic women need most these days to navigate the challenges of losing a spouse?

It depends on what stage of life. Losing a spouse at the age of 80 after 50 years of marriage is completely different than losing a spouse at 47 after nine years, or losing a spouse at age 24 after three years of marriage, which happened to a former student of mine. But no matter who you are, it seems to me that anyone dealing with any kind of loss is well-served by a strong faith. And by that, I mean something quite specific: Faith that God is God. God is Lord of your life, and after all the shock and sadness have faded, you can still be at peace. Because in the end, that peace of soul is not dependent on any person or any circumstance, but rooted in the fact of God’s love.

In addition to your family responsibilities, you have found time for a writing career and other work. When you eventually see God face-to-face in the next life, what will be the first thing on your mind?

Gratitude, I hope.

The summer after Mike died, I visited a friend of mine in Florida. Molly was a few years older than I was and had been battling cancer for many years. When I visited her, she was absorbing the news that the cancer was everywhere, and there was nothing doctors could do anymore. So she was preparing for death.

We sat there on her couch, and I asked her how she felt. Was she scared? A little, she said. “I’m sad to leave this world,” she said, looking around. “It’s just so beautiful.”

But, she continued, she trusted the beauty that lay ahead was even better. Perfect.  “And I want—I can’t wait—to get to Purgatory.”

This was surprising. I asked her why. She looked at me with intensity. “Because I want to live in love. I want everything but love burned—burned—away. Nothing but love left. Just love.

A few minutes later, it was time to go. We embraced, and she whispered, “I’ll say hi to Mike for you. Okay?”

So, face to face with God? I think all of my questions will fall away at that point. They will have been burned away, as Molly said, leaving nothing but gratitude, nothing but love.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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