Finding the presence of God in the
wilderness of widowhood.
by Paula Freeman
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. . . . Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
“Mom, I think you need to come — now!”
One of my sons, Tyler, towered over me and gently touched my shoulder. “Dad . . . ,” he continued, turning toward the hospital bed in the center of the small ICU room —the bed I had kept vigil beside through the night, trying to grasp and make long the minutes, holding and studying his hands through lifeless metal rails.
I remembered the babies they had held, how perfectly they fit with mine, and knew that before the sun set on this day, they would be gone.
I silently passed the vigil baton to adult sons Nick and Tyler. Stepping aside to the lone window framing surreal normalcy of other people’s lives several stories below, I answered my phone. It was our pastor.
“He’s not going to make it,” I said when he asked about Ray. “He’ll probably die today.”
In the time it had taken to say those words, things changed.
I clutched the tear-soaked blanket draping my shoulders, useless against hospital room chill, and rushed to Ray’s bedside. Slumped, unconscious. I knew.
How close could I get? I wanted to crawl through the railing, untangle wires and tubes, and soak him in. Instead I leaned close, caressed his face and head, breathing in the smell of him. “I’m walking you home, baby. I’m walking you home,” I whispered into his ear, feeling life leave. “I think he’s gone,” I sobbed to sons sharing holy ground.
Nick rose, seeking confirmation from the “dying team” who watched outside our door, monitoring everything living and dying in Ray’s body. “No, not quite,” one said. “Almost.”
How do you do this dying thing? There are no do-overs. Lord, help me. Help me do this letting go well.
Uninvited and barely noticed, she stepped into his room. Rubber soles carried her silently to his bedside — our bedside. Sensing her presence and the fading of his, I looked up, into unknown eyes that were neither kind nor harsh — intruders for a time in our story.
Leaving the tent
“May I examine his eyes?”
I nodded, returning my gaze to Ray’s face, continuing to caress it, willing hands and eyes to remember the feel of it: its warmth, blended textures of graying cheek stubble and life-etched creases, crows-feet that crinkled when he smiled, salt and pepper full goatee trimmed close, one he longed to grow years before I agreed. I continued to pour love into his ears, hoping he could hear — or see with resurrection eyes.
“The time of death is 9:48,” said the intruder. Ray had peacefully left his tent.
Prayer of thanks
We sat, my sons and I, silent, surrendering in our own ways to this overwhelming grief.
“I want to pray,” I finally said, reaching for the man hands of our once little boys. I needed to give thanks in the face of death, to stake my claim on the hope of a grand reunion at the end of this long goodbye.
Tears blanketed the foot of his bed as we bowed our heads. “Thank You, Father, for Ray’s life, for Your gift of him to me . . . and to our family. Have mercy on us. Help us learn to do life without him. And may Your presence become greater than his absence.”
Then we left, walking wordless through sterile hallways that delivered us into a waiting room filled with family members and unknown others who hoped our story would not become theirs.
“The time of death is 9:48.”
After forty-two years, three months, and ten days of marriage, I must remember when it stopped — the clock of life as I’d known it.
But the countdown had begun years before.
Our happy place was the beach. Any beach. We discovered its magic, the transforming power of surf and sand on business trips and family vacations.
Ray and I needed that magic when we arrived in paradise to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary: long, hand-in-hand beach walks; lingering breakfast talks; and just enough snorkeling and bicycle riding to convince our bodies we’d exercised.
Unpacking our suitcases would be easy; the baggage we brought might take longer. Exhausted from our two-career, large family dangling in the grip of teenage hormones, we craved rest, relief, and romance.
We met Hans on our second day in Bora Bora, a small, romantic island in the South Pacific. He was our neighbor, renting the beachside bungalow next to ours. A quiet man of average build, he sported neatly cropped hair above dark eyebrows — reflective, observant. His understated elegance and confidence bespoke a man comfortable in his own skin.
But he was alone in paradise. This unsettled me.
I don’t remember when Hans shared his story with us. I do remember it made me sad. Not just a little but sadness that welled up, sunk deep, and clung hard.
A retired attorney from Sweden, Hans and his wife of fifty-seven years had planned this trip together. She died two months earlier; he came alone.
Sorrow choked me. Good for you, I thought. How brave. I watched, helpless, as grief intruded space reserved for anniversary memories. And I couldn’t let it go.
I was drawn into the tragedy of Hans’ story in ways I couldn’t define. Was it the same morbid curiosity that makes me slow down and rubberneck a roadside accident? Or perhaps it was like being glued to television news as horrific images splash across the screen, when I really want to cover my eyes, plug my ears, and babble nonsense to protect my heart from feelings that threaten to pierce my deepest fears.
Hans’ story — no, his aloneness — rattled me long and hard. What made him come alone? I wondered whenever I saw him bobbing in turquoise ocean, a miniscule piece of life’s ebb and flow — collateral damage trapped in his own life.
I began to own Hans’ grief on Bora Bora. I watched it lay itself down beside happily-ever-after, this unavoidable truth that at death we would part and this marriage-gift would end. I didn’t want to think about that. Not now.
Maybe this is where I first acknowledged the presence of parallel tracks and the tension they create — opposites that coexist, racing side by side through time and conflicting realities: blessing and adversity, joy and sorrow, success and failure, life and death.
And now, the grief of seeing an amputated life at a table set for one. I was overcome by longing and the claustrophobic urge to fight the constraints of the reality that intruded upon and took up residence alongside my present reality: living into the mystery of marriage — its physical, soulful belonging; the blending, compromising, “growing better together than we can be alone” manifestation of our created-ness.
That’s when sadness began to walk in sync with beach magic – parallel tracks engraving themselves in my soul.
Hans, the memory I wanted to forget, returns. Ripened over time, it’s ready to harvest in this season of making sense of my story.
It wasn’t Hans’ grief I bore on Bora Bora. It was the beginning of my own. Hans personified my deepest fear: that Ray would die and leave me alone.
And he did.
Yet amid the grief, I heard a whisper, an invitation. “Come away with Me,” Jesus beckoned, “on a further journey.” I had nowhere else to turn. No better plan. I said yes.
Grief intrudes. Grace invites.
Journaling through tears and pain, I discovered countless healing graces — things like silence, solitude, and surrender; not my will but Yours be done. New rhythms emerged for my repurposed life. And a still, small voice insisted, I will recover your life.
It’s in the letting go.
Not just of Ray and our shared future but of lies I believed — lies that whispered I couldn’t survive Ray’s death; my spiritual growth is up to me; and if I learn to pray “right” and do enough good works, I can escape sorrow.
Letting go of lies creates space for truth: that Jesus bore my sorrow for Ray’s death. Receiving what He has done for me brings peace and comfort. Sorrow offered surrender and trust in the gentleness and kindness of Jesus. It transformed my perspective of God.
I feared sorrow. Now it shares space with joy — parallel tracks through time and reality.
Recovering my life also meant letting go of values and rhythms of my former life — useless baggage on this further journey. Striving, achieving, hurrying, and schedule-driven multi-tasking are being replaced with rhythms of grace: peace, gratitude, contentment, joy, and learning to linger.
I let go of busyness and found strength in the stillness of my soul. Solitude is my friend.
I let go of marriage and embraced personal freedom, growing strong in my singleness.
I let go of “shoulds” and created margin in my life. As I opened wide my heart to the presence of God, His unforced rhythms of grace have begun to transform the landscape of my heart.
It’s been three years since Ray died. I have survived. And God, in His great mercy, continues to answer my first widow’s prayer: He has helped me do well in the letting go. And His presence is slowly becoming greater than Ray’s absence.
I still have messy days; grief is like that. But I’m grateful for rhythms of grace and my emerging, recovered life.
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