Sometimes I think about how amazing it would be if we could know just a little bit about what the future holds. But, if you had told me 10 years ago about everything that would come my way, I probably would have curled up in the fetal position and opted out. (If you missed my full story, start here.)
We have such definite ideas about what we want and what we think will bring us happiness. Thankfully I’ve learned that God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, knows which prayers and desires to answer and which ones to veto, although sometimes I don’t understand the “why” behind it. I think that’s okay. I think sometimes you can go through something so horrible that even if Jesus Himself came and sat in front of you to explain everything, it still wouldn’t make you feel any better because the pain would still be there.
Eight years ago I watched my seemingly healthy and handsome 34-year-old husband die in my arms while our unborn son grew in my womb. Skip forward four years, and I would meet an amazing man who would bring such happiness to my son and me in a way I didn’t dream possible. Four years (and two more sons later!), I reflect on some of the most difficult yet beautiful years of my life. As much as I would not want to relive some of those, I also wouldn’t give them up. They have shaped who I have become, and they have given me a deep and rich faith in a God who so relentlessly loves us that He gave His life up to show us, should we ever have any doubts.
Here are some things I have learned and will take with me for a lifetime:
The pain doesn’t go away.
But you do learn to live with it somehow. When you first experience something traumatic, your mind and body are literally in shock for anywhere from days to months. When that pain sets in, however, you don’t think you can cope. Your heart feels like there is a vice grip around it and even breathing is difficult. I remember seeing a biblical counselor a year afterward and telling him that I felt as though I should be further along than I was and why did it still hurt so much? What he said in response was strangely a relief. He told me, “If you were ‘further along,’ then you would need counseling. You’re not going to get over it this side of heaven.”
Much like someone who has lost a limb and is learning to live without it, you learn to persevere somehow. The pain even makes you stronger in some ways and gives you endurance. You learn to live with it but it is never easy, and there are days when you feel like you are living through it all over again. But “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,” He will sustain you (Colossians 1:11).
You will have incredible empathy for others.
I think it’s impossible to have gone through something difficult and then hear of someone else experiencing that exact thing and not feel tender toward them. It may not be a club you ever wanted to be a part of, but one of my favorite pieces of advice was to look outward and comfort others. My friend said it’s the only thing that will “calm the fire in your heart.” She was right. To this day, when someone asks if I will speak to a fellow widow or widower, fear rises in my chest because I don’t want to revisit that pain. But, I know from experience of having been on the receiving end of that comfort that it can make all the difference. Not only will they be deeply encouraged and comforted, but you will also be blessed, and you will go through another level of healing. “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Corrie Ten Boom once said in prayer to the Lord that she didn’t want to keep speaking to others about her experience of surviving the concentration camp; she didn’t want it to be her story. But the Lord pressed on her heart that that was the story He gave her. And she spent her lifetime blessing others by sharing how His love and faithfulness sustained her in the bleakest moments of her life.
Don’t close yourself off to love.
The temptation to isolate is strong. Believe me. I’ve been there. But if you refuse the comfort of God, refuse the comfort of others, and refuse new experiences out of fear of pain or self-pity (been there too!), you close yourself off to some of the most important lessons of your life.
When Spencer first died, I vowed never to get re-married out of reverence for him. If I had stuck to that, I would have missed out on not only a marriage to my incredible Dominic, but I wouldn’t have two of the three beautiful boys that bring such joy and delight to my life. Trooper, my eldest, would have missed out on having the physical presence and love of a devoted father and also the pleasure of being a sibling. These new additions have changed us for the better.
If you refuse the comfort of God, the comfort of others, new experiences out of fear of pain or self-pity (been there too!), you close yourself off to some of the most important lessons of your life.
Don’t think that anyone or anything can fix it.
On that note, when going through a painful experience, don’t fall for the lie that anyone but God can ease that pain. So many people wanted me to get re-married, thinking that would help. Having watched many people around me rush into that and seeing it didn’t fix anything, I knew I had to let God heal me. As much as I love Dom, I still miss and grieve Spencer. The temptation to take pills to sleep or to get out of bed (been there), to buy things to distract you, or to drink, eat, or binge watch TV in order to numb you is strong. But if you do the hard work of feeling it, getting counseling, reading the Bible, praying, and talking with others, you will come out as a better version of yourself than going in.
Your life can mean something long after you die.
Spencer genuinely lived his life in service to others. His impact still touches the hearts of those who knew him. There is a woman who is not only off the streets and off of drugs but now serving Christ by giving to people in her community. There are children in Africa who still remember the funny “white gorilla” who danced with them and gave them gifts. There is a little boy who loves to hear stories about his dad or meet people who knew him because they always talk about him with a smile.
What you do now counts. Spencer didn’t focus on worldly achievements or possessions. He focused on people. On loving them and telling them how much Jesus loved them too. His legacy will truly live on for generations because he focused on what matters for eternity. “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
You can let your experiences define you or refine you.
I remember Spencer’s brother, Kevin, and I had a discussion a few weeks after his death, and it has stuck with me. He said, “To see the heart of God, we need to look to Jesus who loved us so much that He gave up His life for us. And without God, the natural order of things happening after something terrible is a continued downward spiral.” (Think drugs, alcohol, depression or crippling anxiety). But with God, that spiral can actually and unbelievably go upwards. Good things can come from something terrible.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Those good things will surprise you. We have a choice when tragedy strikes. We can turn inward or upward. Inward leads to things continuing to go worse, upwards leads to comfort, hope, deepened relationships, and the strength of Christ that will miraculously see you through. I can honestly say I did both and the darkness of the inward almost broke me.
Trooper’s favorite verse is Matthew 19:26, “But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” I’m not sure what the impossible is in your life right now, but whatever is, I plead with you to look out and up and invite Jesus in. I promise you, He will give you the love, grace, and strength to make it through.
Eight years, two husbands, and three sons later, I can honestly say I am as happy as I’ve ever been.
That doesn’t mean things have been easy either! This year alone we went through a devastating hurricane while I was 40 weeks pregnant, our third son, Enoch, joined the party one week later, we’ve had a toddler who refuses to wear clothes, we relocated our business closer to home, Dominic slipped a disc in his back and was down for a month, we dealt with financial difficulties as a result, close friends and family went through some serious trials that we walked (and prayed!) with them through. But, the beautiful thing that can happen as a result of difficult things is that you learn what’s important and what isn’t. People are eternal. Things are not. What you invest your time and energy in can be eternal, or not. How you react to trials can have eternal consequences, good or bad. I’m starting to sound like a fortune cookie here, but I guess what I’m getting at is that if I’ve learned anything this past year (or eight!), it’s that fleeting successes and ephemeral possessions scream for our attention, but they rob us of our purpose. We get so distracted by the things that don’t matter.
Sometimes trials are actually severe mercies to bring our gaze back to God and get the eternal perspective that will make this life make sense. God won’t waste your pain. He will use it to set you free.
And if you’re reading this smack dab in the middle of something painful and eight years seems as impossible to you as it did to me, then remember to take it one minute, one hour, one day at a time. Someone said to me that every sunset you see is one sunset closer to seeing Spencer again. With Jesus’ power and grace enabling each and every step, you’ll look back on this journey with eyes full of tears but a sweet smile across your lips.
If you want to read Ashby’s full story, click here!
Listen to this podcast episode and be inspired by another strong woman walking through difficulty with grit + grace: Hardship Hit This Singer’s Life and She Chose to Fight! with Cameron James Pt. 1 – 048.
You’ll also like Posttraumatic Growth: Finding Meaning in the Pain, What Your Grieving Friend Really Wants You to Know, When You’re Desperate to Know the Reason for Your Pain, How to Have Your Own Coffee + Bible Time, True Beauty is Found in a Woman’s Strength, and For the Woman Who Wants to Be Strong.
Eight years, two husbands, and three sons later, I can honestly say I am as happy as I’ve ever been.