Joyce • Sudden death of my husband

When my life was snatched away

You are the God who sees me – Genesis 16, 13

The Situation

It was in the summer a few years ago. My husband and I had just celebrated our youngest child’s wedding and now that the last chick had left the nest, we were looking forward to the exciting years that now lay ahead. What did God have in store for our lives? Where would we work together or where could we guide and support other people? Weren’t we a great team? Didn’t we complement each other perfectly?
One evening we were sitting comfortably on our terrace and philosophizing about how many years might lie ahead of us. “Forty,” Tom said. That was too high for me, I said: “20 years would be great” – because we were both over 50 already.
Then our summer holiday arrived. At last, we could finally leave all our obligations behind. Just nature, space, peace and the two of us. Tom enjoyed jogging in the mornings. Long before the day had even begun for other holidaymakers, he was already back and had brought fresh bread rolls with him for our breakfast.
There are so many lakes here in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, so his sports programme often included swimming. He really enjoyed the cool water, and not only here. On so many holidays before he had jumped into anything and everything that looked like water to have a quick swim, whether in the waves or in quiet lakes.
That morning – he had already written some postcards that he wanted to drop in the letterbox on the way – he said goodbye with the words: “Don’t worry if it’s a bit later today. I’m going to swim out a bit further.”
I was used to him being out for longer periods of time, especially when jogging in unfamiliar surroundings, where the paths suddenly – contrary to what he had imagined – didn’t go quite in the desired direction. He had memorized the path he would take beforehand, and he didn’t take a mobile phone or any other means of navigation. His Boy Scout spirit liked a challenge and he didn’t want to have to carry anything which would make running more difficult. So, he set off for the lake carrying only his towel and the postcards. It was a beautiful summer morning, just like in a painting. The evening before there had been a short but refreshing rain shower followed by a beautiful double rainbow, which we had enjoyed together. Strangely, hundreds of birds had landed in the tree in front of our house and had chirped so madly, so full of the joy of life, in waves of loud singing and then more quiet chirping. I was so moved by this and said: “That sounds like paradise, so wonderful. Paradise is right here.” I wanted to express how wonderful this place was. I never dreamed that that would soon have a completely different meaning.
I was sitting in the living room reading, when suddenly two elderly gentlemen knocked wildly on the front door. When I opened, they told me that my husband had had an “accident” while bathing and was now being resuscitated.

I felt as if someone had turned on a detective series on television, with my husband and I as the main characters. It was just like being in a film, only without the happy end. After futile attempts to get Tom’s heart going again, all the policemen and the emergency doctor could do was wish me their heartfelt sympathy. I sat on the beach in a daze. “It can’t be true!” kept repeating over and over in my head. Can someone please turn off the TV! Tom was so full of life a minute ago, how can it all be over now? I wanted to stop the world and shout out: “Look! He’s dead! My life as I know it has just been snatched away!”
But life just continued to sail past me, unimpressed. People in canoes, happily chatting and lively, and me here, with the body of my beloved husband, on the beach.

In my mind the words were ringing: No more… No more hugs. No more chatting together or enjoying things together. No more….

Then, immediately, a second thought arrived, one of never-ending gratitude for the wonderful life I had experienced with Tom. Gratitude was something that I had only ever really experienced in the odd moment of joy. It was so totally out of character for me to be feeling it right now. When someone asked me where I thought my husband was, I answered without hesitation, “In paradise, because paradise is right here.” The memory of the rainbow, the birdsong and what I had said at that time came flooding straight back to me. Tom had swum over, his soul had arrived on the other side, he’d been ferried over into the invisible world. It was like a blanket of comfort wrapped around me. And I knew he had reached his final destination, he had arrived where we are all heading: in the glorious presence of God, in heaven.
Yet I was still caught up in the tragedy of death, here on earth, with the merciless abundance of tasks that my broken heart could hardly cope with. It was beating so violently, it felt like it was jumping right up out of my chest with each new beat, like it was trying to reach out to Tom and not have to admit this brutal finality.
But in all the mercilessness of having to go on living, I was surprised by God’s care and guidance, particularly in this difficult time. The next morning, I read the following verse from Luke 7,13+14 in my Daily Watchwords booklet: When the Lord saw the widow his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” Unbelievable! Up until now I had not even been aware of my new title “widow” and now I was reading it here! And not only that, but also that Jesus sees me and is broken hearted to see me so alone. It is such a huge comfort to me that Jesus is also sad about Tom’s death. It comforts me and it even makes me happy. Only that Tom has not risen into the visible world – but I am certain that he has risen. “Heaven is closer than you think”, that’s what I have experienced in the past and that’s what I experience every single day. I need God’s care and help and encouragement to live. He places his peace in my heart and every day he gives me the courage I need to get up and keep going forward.

After Tom’s death, life hit me head-on. Suddenly I had sole responsibility, I had to make decisions, I had to deal with the business side of my life. Previously we had discussed and decided everything together – now it was more or less just up to me. I suddenly found myself having to run a business and keep several people employed – on my own. I had to take care of them and complete tasks, even though I had not yet had any time for myself. Suddenly it was just all about “me” and “my”. What do I want? Up until now there had only ever been a “we” in my life. Who or what am I now, without Tom? Finding these answers is a long process and I am so glad to not only have God by my side but also so many dear people and especially my family.
I can share many situations where I have experienced God’s close guidance and companionship. I live with Jesus by my side and I am thankful that my life is now, a few years later, no longer quite so overwhelming, and that I am gradually finding myself, step by step. I can start being curious about what God has in store for me now.

My mental and physical condition after Tom’s death

Right in the middle of the most wonderful holiday, in the middle of perfect togetherness, death came and ripped my life as I knew it right out of my body. A gaping wound remained. My head (mind, psyche) and heart (body, physis) had their foundation torn from beneath them. Everything that my life had meant to me since I was 16 years old was suddenly gone. Suddenly alone and suddenly different.
My mind managed to take in the current situation and accept it. The comfort I found in the Bible helped me. God’s promises about life here on earth, his companionship and presence in all our suffering. The prospect of experiencing his glory with him, in the presence of his beauty and love. Tom had already achieved this goal and that was a comfort to me.
But my heart was pounding as if it had to beat for two, it tore itself out of my chest with every heartbeat. Was that my longing for Tom? His taking me in his arms, his listening to me and encouraging me, his belonging to me? In the Bible, it says: and they become one flesh. Inseparable, one body. There is only one “we”. Neither exists alone. We were a pair, a double act.
But suddenly I am alone, everything that was once familiar, intimate, beautiful has been snatched away from me. My lungs are working overtime. I breathe deeply. I try to breathe away the pain, the longing. I’m constantly under pressure. No mercy, no rest. Day and night. When I do sleep deeply, I wake up with a dry throat and only a hint of rest. I have to learn everything from scratch, everything!
Suddenly I’m the centre of attention. Everybody’s watching me, talking about my situation. Everyone is shocked, like me, and has to get used to the fact that Tom is no longer alive. This also makes them question their own lives: What if they were to die so suddenly? The people around me have their own idea about how I should be reacting and living now. It is hard for them to accept that I am so strong and confident. They judge me, saying, “She must have taken something, it’s not normal, the way she talks.”
People avoid me, cross to the other side of the street, are shocked when they meet me unexpectedly. I can understand all this, I too have been on the sunny side of life so far. I give comfort to those I meet, gladly talk about God’s closeness and his care, remind them to enjoy life while they can.
I am often extremely exhausted and miss Tom’s support and cuddles. I feel empty and weak but come back to life when I can talk about God. It makes me happy to be able to talk about the reality of his presence.
I am glad that my little family stays with me in my house for the first few weeks. They take turns, making time to be with me. They ease me gently into what it feels like to be alone in the house. And I can share my thoughts and experiences about everything and anything with them. I don’t have to just talk into the emptiness.
There’s so much that needs to be done. Tom used to take care of the whole economic side of our lives. Now so many bureaucratic formalities and the inheritance need to be taken care of. It’s a never-ending story, especially if, like me, you also have a business to run.

I am surrounded by people who are more than willing to help me. For them, it’s their own way of coming to terms with Tom’s death. Helping me is thanks for their friend, their companion, their conversation partner, their running buddy. But I find it difficult to accept help. I like helping others, but no one needs to help me. I keep thinking: “How could I ever make up for this?” and that just stands in my way. But when I do let it happen, it is a huge blessing for me. People come and clean my apartment, mow my lawn, or just turn up in front of me with a bucket and gloves and tell me they’re going to weed my garden. They ask me how I am doing and if I would like to go for a trip or a walk with them. I am surrounded by an extended family: my church. Christians with whom we have been walking for many years.
In the evenings, when my day finally finishes at about half past nine, I lie down on the sofa – completely exhausted – and sink into my music. I put my mobile phone on my stomach and listen to different sounds. Soft music without lyrics. Classical music helps me. Like the Four Seasons by Vivaldi, for example, or Dirk Menger’s CD “N°1”.
It takes time for the wound to close. My head and my heart are back in tune again, my heart is beating a more normal rhythm and my breathing has become calmer. I can handle the triviality of life again. After a good two years I can feel joy for the first time again without thinking in the back of my mind: “What’s the point?”

At first, I can’t cope with slapstick comedy or love stories. Television in general is something I don’t need or can’t even bear for over a year. Everything that touches me goes straight to my heart. The wound may have closed, but there is still no tough new layer of skin to keep things out. I love writing and recording my life – it helps me process things. And I love reading books that trickle gently and carefully into my thoughts. I am free to simply close the book and do something else at any time if necessary.
I’m still learning to be good to myself. To be a good friend to myself. To not push myself all the time for fear of not belonging anymore. To treat myself to something nice and plan pleasant things every now and then. Nature is a source of peace and quiet for me, where I can be replenished. My family helps make up for the lack of hugs and my grandchild fills my emotional tank. Just holding this little creature in my arms, hearing his breathing and feeling the weight of this tiny person does me so much good.

I am happy and thankful that I am surrounded by loving people and by my creator God, who sees and loves me.

What helped me practically

  • Writing down everything that was on my mind.
    At first, I used to write in my diary twice a day (mornings and evenings). I wanted to record as much as possible, because my sleep was very bad and that affected my concentration. I wanted to be able to go back to all this later, when this terribly busy time became quieter, at least in memory.
  • Going for walks with friends.
    Getting out in the fresh air and shrugging off the heavy load. Taking part in my friends’ lives, listening to them, and getting everything off my chest while talking.
  • Going out into nature and lingering there, feeling the sun’s warmth, soaking up the scent of the flowers, feeling the wind.
  • Looking at sunny pictures and photos and watching happy films, especially when it felt grey or dark.
  • Letting myself be warmed through in the sauna.
  • Leaving the world outside.
    I couldn’t watch the news or films. The former was too difficult for me, the latter too trivial or too emotional. I had to protect my emotions because I was constantly living in a state of overload, and that with very little sleep.
  • Planning weekends.
    I had to take care of myself and decide: would it be good for me to be alone or do I want company? And if I do want company, to then make arrangements in plenty of time, so that loneliness couldn’t strike at the weekend.
  • Asking friends if they have time to meet up but taking into account that they may already have something planned, to prevent disappointment.
  • Making creative invitations: inviting friends out for dinner (or cooking something delicious myself) or planning a visit to the cinema together – as a gift for them, but at the same time doing myself good too. Being a sort of tour guide, giving away trips.
  • In times of complete exhaustion, listening to songs that sang positive messages into my heart. I needed a different type of music for almost every year, one that constantly accompanied me in my thoughts and which I could use to sing courage and confidence into myself. The group Switchfoot was important for me during the first two years. Today it’s the songs by Casting Crowns, but also German worship songs (from Feiert Jesus 17-22). Music without lyrics did me good too. Melodies that soothe or exhilarate. Something to carry me. Songs still accompany me even today.
  • I read the Bible and have a booklet with the Daily Watchwords, where there are two Bible texts for each day and a short accompanying text. This has become a source of great encouragement for me on many occasions, as I mentioned above.
  • I pray to God and expect his help specifically for my life. My experience is that he sees me, and so I can go my way confidently and ask him for guidance and protection. I know that he will carry me, here on earth as well as in the world to come, which is still hidden from our eyes

Translated by Karen Kersten

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