By Gina Kell Spehn
In tragedy, grace is often hidden from view. But shared experiences helped a grieving widow and widower find love again.
Occasionally, husbands and wives have conversations about what will happen if one of them dies. Discussing things like beneficiaries and who will take care of the children is prudent preparation for life’s unexpected tragedies.
The practical matters of dying are important, but morbid curiosity is piqued when the conversation shifts to matters of the heart. Anticipating what will happen if you or your spouse dies is uncomfortable at best. It’s easy to make light of hypothetical questions like,
“Would you remarry if I died?” by joking about your chances with your favorite movie star. But for my husband, Matt, and me, these imaginary scenarios became a reality. Though we prepared wills and life insurance policies together, I had no idea that Matt also planned for me to find love again.
Matt Kell was my funny, sometimes romantic, sometimes rugged, husband of 13 years. I can still see him walking through the door after a long day at the office — slightly disheveled, sleeves rolled up, dark hair contrasting with the crisp white collar on his dress shirt. His tie was loose, top button undone, and the faint scent of cologne still lingered when he leaned in for a kiss.
We were an ordinary couple living on the suburban conveyor belt of life. From the early days of dating and discovery, into the years of kids, careers, and mortgages, Matt and I liked being together and always found ways to laugh and play. This was the glue of our marriage, and it served us well when, the week of our 10th wedding anniversary, cancer entered our lives.
Matt’s diagnosis brought many unexpected blessings to our life. We discovered grace in the paradoxical relationship between the struggles of cancer and profound gratitude. As cancer bore down, our love and faith took flight. We learned the truth of what it means to live in the moment. When death is on the other side of a moment, being present in the now becomes effortless. The alternative is fear, and God makes it clear how He wants us to respond to that.
Cancer taught me to stop pulling against the hand of God and simply hold it. Matt and I trusted Him to lead because our sight was limited to only what we have seen. Our unknowns belonged to God, and this brought genuine peace.
On Christmas Day 2005, three years after Matt’s diagnosis, I led my sons (Drew, 6, and Sam, 4) to their father’s bedside to say goodbye just minutes before Matt slipped from this life into the loving arms of Jesus. Matt died peacefully in our home, and everything uniquely his was no longer with us in this world. His voice, his touch, the look in his eyes, no longer existed. There is not a word to describe the moment when my children became fatherless, and a piece of my heart left me forever.
With Matt’s last breath, I lost my identity and my context. Laughter and play were replaced by solitude and grief. I began my life as a widow raising two young boys. They were all that mattered to me.
Matt’s absence was palpable. I longed to see his face and hear his voice. I missed his opinions and his wet towel on the bathroom floor. I couldn’t have those, but I did have Matt’s last tangible gift, his video diary.
In the last months of his life, he recorded messages to Drew and Sam hoping to leave them with a piece of his wisdom, experience, and heart. As I watched for the first time, I didn’t want the video to end, but when it did I was forever changed.
Although a video diary can never be complete, Matt touched on many important life lessons for his sons. Faith in God, respect, expectations, and pragmatism topped the list. Also, unbeknownst to me, Matt spoke to Drew and Sam about how they should treat and regard me as a “princess.” I was humbled to the point of grief. When I thought of all the ways I had not been a Proverbs 31 wife, and how undeserved and unfitting a royal title is for me, I was awash in grace.
As if that weren’t enough, Matt explained to the boys that it was possible I might remarry someday. He said, “If mom respects and loves somebody enough to marry him after I’ve passed away, then I want you to expect that I love and respect that guy, too.”
In just a few sentences, Matt’s altruistic legacy of faith was exemplified in a 1 John 4:19 manner: “We love because He first loved us.” Despite facing death, Matt was not angry or hopeless. He knew he was loved. As a result, Matt was able to teach our sons that love doesn’t have limits, grant me permission to love again, and leave behind a gift for a man he didn’t know. Receiving this generosity and grace was transformational.
“If mom respects and loves somebody enough to marry him after I’ve passed away, then I want you to expect that I love and respect that guy, too.” — Matt Kell
Still, the weight of my vulnerability crushed any desire, expectation, or longing for love. I had to minimize exposure to risk and protect my children from the potential for further loss and heartache. But as the vignettes of my life with Matt rolled through my mind and the lessons and gifts of our life together guided my new path, Michael Spehn entered my view. I met him at the funeral of his wife, Cathy, who was a childhood friend of Matt’s.
Cathy had attended Matt’s funeral in seemingly good health. A month later she developed a painful headache that led her to the emergency room. With her husband by her side, Cathy was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and tragically died just 17 days later.
Meeting Michael was an unexpected turn in my life. At Cathy’s funeral, he pulled me aside privately, even though we had never met, and shared that Cathy, on her last day, told him to call me so that my sons would have a male mentor in their lives. Having met her only once, I was confused, grateful, and humbled. Cathy, like Matt, in her last hours of life, was thinking of others. To this day, it makes me breathless to think how the heart of the second commandment beats strong.
Our shared experience bonded us, and though this didn’t imply love was a given, it did set the stage. For months, our families uncovered our shared history and the many connections between us through Matt and Cathy. The more I discovered about Michael and his children, the more I wanted to bring them into our lives. The friendship and selfless generosity that began with our spouses was being woven into a beautiful new tapestry.
Despite what society dictates as appropriate, grief did not exempt us from loving again. Matt and Cathy, in their own ways, planned for this possibility and ultimately they guided us by faith.
Matt was able to teach our sons that love doesn’t have limits, grant me permission to love again, and leave behind a gift for a man he didn’t know.
In tragedy, grace is often hidden from view, but it reveals the truth of love and fear. Love doesn’t wait in the shadows of grief, unless fear attempts to hold it there. Michael and I, by the grace of God, broke free from fear because we were first loved well, both by God and our spouses. •
Help Kids Process Grief
Having five children who have each lost a parent to cancer has given me practical experience at guiding children through the minefield of grief. As much as we want to spare our children from suffering, we can’t always protect them from tragedy. We can, however, equip them to grieve in healthy ways that will serve them for the rest of their lives. We don’t just want them to survive grief; we want them to thrive in the midst of it.
Grief is not a linear process with a beginning and an end. It cycles around and over time, becoming less acute. Kids are unique because with time they move further from the loss that causes their grief (making it less acute), while simultaneously growing and changing developmentally, which increases their understanding of loss. This has a way of keeping grief fresh for kids. Our job as parents is to help kids make sense of it by leading them to and through their grief.
Leading kids toward grief can seem unnatural, especially when they seem to be doing well. Kids can be tricky because they often get right back into the swing of life and can appear to be thriving, but just below the surface are a host of unanswered questions. If left unanswered, our children can suffer lasting consequences.
The confusion and uncertainty caused by grief can manifest in a variety of behavioral ways that can throw parents off. As the focus shifts to correcting behaviors, we miss the opportunity to help our children address the root issues of their grief that have led to the behavior. Our job is to help them see what they cannot.
My son, Sam, was playing with five balloons on his fifth birthday just weeks after his father died. When one of the balloons popped, Sam began to weep and became hysterical about the popped balloon. Although we had four other balloons, he only wanted the one that popped. What may have seemed like a temper tantrum was actually grief. I explained to Sam that the balloon was like his dad, and he responded with sobs. I went on to say that we all want Daddy back, but he’s in heaven for now and we will see him again someday. This simple explanation made all the difference for Sam’s young mind and heart.
A strong foundation of faith and a willingness to talk to kids about tough issues will give them the tools they need for processing grief throughout their lives. We can’t avoid the conversations just because “kids are resilient” or let their acting out throw us off course. We must point our kids toward difficult issues so we can help them give voice to the complex and confusing issues surrounding grief.
Gina Kell Spehn is the mother of five children, co-author of the book The Color of Rain (Zondervan), and director of New Day Foundation for Families. After losing her husband to cancer, she remarried Michael, who lost his first wife to cancer. They host a weekly radio show and began the Forward Through Faith ministry. Visit michaelandgina.com.
This article originally appeared in the February, 2012 issue of Home Life. Subscribe