(Listen to the audio version of this article here.)
I remember getting the call. “Paul has had an accident and it’s not good. We need to get over there.” It was his dad delivering the news, and we needed to travel an hour and a half to learn more. The detective called him because the friend who was with him on the job site didn’t know his phone passcode but did know his dad’s number. By the time I reached my in-laws’ house in the neighboring city, they had decided we were all going because the detective had called again asking where we were and reiterated that we needed to get to the other coast urgently. So, his parents, our three-year-old son, and I got in the car and rode in near silence (except for Lincoln; three-year-olds can’t be silent) not knowing what we would find on the other side of this road trip.
I remember the morning after his brain surgery coming in to see him after shift change and noticing that the nurse on call’s name was “Jesus.” I laughed with a confident hope. God was in control.
I remember when his best friend arrived from across the country at the same time the surgeon entered the room, who callously told me his scans showed no improvement and it was time to talk about his organs. His friend quickly and sternly asked the doctor to go find someone who could speak to me with some respect. I needed that.
I remember meeting with the doctors the next day when they literally had to restate the same facts a few different times for my foggy brain to grasp the truth that we couldn’t “wait for him to die” as I had already stated I would, however long it would take… No, his condition was not going to improve or decline. His fall from a ladder at least 15 feet high was not survivable. So, I had to choose to turn the machines off. He couldn’t die without my consent. I had to be the one to say it was time to let him go.
Letting Him Go
I remember the last moments we spent just the two of us, two days later on the night before we were to “let him go.” He had been having a lot of trouble with his feet the last several months, and yet worked through the pain. He was stubborn like that. I have no doubt that part of the reason he fell from the ladder was because of the plantar fasciitis he refused to have treated by a doctor. In the stillness of that hospital room, I felt God speak to my heart that I should wash this man’s feet. The one who’s path I had walked alongside for 5,725 days at that point. He was stubborn, often harsh, and hard to reach, but I was called to love and serve him so it made sense that I should perform this worshipful act that Jesus modeled to us as one final moment of service to the partner I had covenanted my life with. Tears rolled down my face as it began to sink in that I would never hear his voice again, and yet, during those Spirit-filled moments, I felt like we made amends for all the difficulties we’d had in our marriage. It just didn’t matter anymore. God knew what He was doing in bringing us together, and now, He knew what He was doing parting us in this way.
I remember the heaviness of holding his hand the entire last 67 minutes of his life. I whispered in his ear how proud I was to be his wife, how I was thankful for our life, and how I would raise his boy to always know the best about him. I hummed the tune of “Good Good Father” on repeat, desperately watching the machines, hoping he would pass in 59 minutes so his organs could be donated to save the lives of several people waiting in the rooms next to us. He didn’t. I begged the doctors to find a way to use them anyway; it was only an extra 7 minutes after all. But they couldn’t. “We could’ve done six minutes,” one doctor said—but not seven. So, I held his hand for another 11 minutes while his mom came in to say her last goodbye. I remember the sensation of it slowly growing colder and stiffer as the moments passed, confirming that he was surely no longer here. But, it was instinctual. I had to be the last one to leave his side, the last to walk away. I had promised to love him “till death do us part,” and that’s exactly what I did.
I remember how the hospice nurse turned to me right after they wheeled his body away and said he’d never witnessed a woman handle that experience with “such grit.” I was stunned. Did he really just say grit? Okay, God. I hear you. You’re here. You’ve equipped me, you’ll give me the grace I’ll need for every unknown step I’m about to take. I hugged my best friends in the waiting room, those who had traveled the nearly two hours back and forth multiple times over the last five days and were waiting patiently to be with me when it was all over. Oh, how well I was loved. He was loved. We were loved.
Picking Up the Pieces
I remember telling Lincoln his daddy was gone. Everyone assured me “he wouldn’t understand” being only three. But you see, in God’s sovereignty, just two months before Paul’s accident, our two dogs had each had their own accident and passed away within a week of each other, and Lincoln had just stopped asking when they would come back from heaven. It seemed he finally understood on his level that heaven was a forever destination. So, just after I had finally gotten him calm enough for bed at around 11pm (after being away from him for four days), I figured I’d wait until the next morning to tell him “since he wouldn’t get it anyway.” But my sweet, smart boy—he sensed my sadness and asked why I was upset and if I was okay. So, in the quiet of our now shared bedroom, I tearfully told him that his daddy had had an accident, got a bad boo-boo, and went to heaven. Instantly he was sobbing and screaming uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to do. They said he wouldn’t understand. But, he did. So, I rocked him. I cried with him. I prayed with him. When we finished praying, he asked if we could pray for a new daddy. I was dumbfounded. But, it was a faith-teaching moment. So, yes, we prayed for his daddy in heaven, and that one day God would send a new daddy for us, too. And together we promised to trust God to take care of us because He was in fact, a good, good Daddy.
I remember the chaos of planning his funeral. The man hated attention. I laughed several times with friends about how much he would have loathed how many people visited him in the hospital, and worse how many people would likely show up at his memorial service. I was right. There had to have been 550 people and he would’ve not believed it. We sang “Nothing But The Blood,” a worship song that had been sung as a prelude at our wedding ceremony. One of our dear friends sang Matt Redman’s “One Day,” and it was perfect. As I gave his eulogy, I read a text he had sent me just weeks before his passing that had brought me such peace: “I pray that God gives you a peace that surpasses all understanding. That He comforts your heart as only He can do. I ask that He gives you strength to embrace each day as a fresh new day and to know without a doubt that He is in control of all things. Not just the big ones. And that knowing that will bring you rest and rejuvenation.” I loved sharing his words with those who came to celebrate him. Paul was a man of few words, but when he spoke it usually carried great weight. It was painfully perfect.
I remember handling all of the other “affairs.” First, ordering copies of his death certificate. “How many will you need, Mrs. Graham?” I don’t know?! 5? 10? Sure, 10. I had his business to close after all. I mean, I better send one to that awful OSHA lady who visited me the day after his fall to talk to me about “his worksite accident,” which she had determined from watching the video footage was his fault—“but don’t worry, Mrs. Graham, if he passes we won’t issue a fine.” Wow, thanks. “You know he isn’t even dead yet, right?” Yes, I said that to her. I was under a lot of stress and he was still in the hospital and I didn’t even know yet if he would survive. After his death, I had to figure out who and how much his clients owed him. I had to create and send invoices and collect the funds. I had to return phone calls and make sure they all knew he wasn’t ignoring their needs; he had passed away. I had to pack up his shop, the one he had moved to only a few months prior and was so proud of. His friends were so helpful. I had no idea what all the tools were or what they were worth. They bought most of them or arranged their sale for me. He loved his business. It was gut-wrenching to watch it close. But it was also good. I had told him for years “he was killing himself working.” I hated that I was right. But I rejoiced that he no longer had to toil.
I read a text he sent me just weeks before his passing during his eulogy. It was painfully perfect.
I remember meeting with the attorney who would help me handle his estate. There were so. many. questions. I felt clueless. And I’m actually kind of smart. But the emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion was nearly impossible to operate under. I needed new bank accounts, I needed to follow up with creditors for his personal and business affairs. I needed to get out of our rental house way out in the boonies (that’s a whole ‘nother story) and find a new place to live. In fact, I moved five times the year he died. But worst of all—I had to sell his beloved truck and watch it pull away for the last time. Off to a new owner who would undoubtedly never be able to keep it the way he did. Every time I hear a diesel engine, I can’t help but think it’s him at first.
Finding My New Normal
I remember the day I chose to remove my wedding ring. It was about three months after he died. I knew I wanted to remarry eventually, so it felt like removing my ring and wearing my wedding band and my 10-year anniversary band on my right hand was the right next step for me. I was fearful of being judged by others. Would they think it was too soon? Probably. Another month later I put those two bands away as well. I had a ring made with some of his ashes in it. It’s simple and beautiful. I wear it on special days like our anniversary, his birthday or homegoing day, Father’s Day… I also had a charm made for his mom with his ashes, and cuff links for Lincoln to wear to his prom and on his wedding day. (I won’t unpack the full circus show it was trying to get some of his ashes into the little vial the company sent me to make this jewelry from. I remember thinking, “Surely this isn’t how you’re supposed to do this, but what else am I supposed to do?” I think he watched from heaven laughing at that whole ordeal.)
I remember the first time I referred to myself as a single mom. Gut-punch. Humbling. That was a path I never expected to walk. One I knew I was ill-equipped to handle without massive amounts of grit and grace. The words fell out of my mouth with equal measures of shame, fear, and sadness. I quickly followed it with, “I’m a widow.” The person needed to know why, after all. Truthfully, they didn’t “need to know,” but it’s like when you’re first pregnant and you know your body is different and you want to just yell to any innocent bystander, “I’m not fat, I’m pregnant!” I wanted to explain my lack of a doting co-parent to anyone who looked at me twice.
We promised to trust God to take care of us because He was in fact, a good, good Daddy.
I remember the day I decided to change my Instagram handle. For about eight years I was “@mrsjuliegraham,” there, and some people even referenced me as such in person because I’m unashamedly active on the gram (it’s my name, OK!?). But every time I saw it on my phone’s screen it just felt… wrong. So, about four months after Paul died, I became “@thejuliegraham”—tears rolling down my cheeks as I pressed “update profile.” Yet, how proud I am to continue to carry his name.
I remember the first time I had to fill out paperwork that required me to check the “widow box.” That felt final. Right under it, I had to write in my email address. That still needs changing: mrsjuliegraham@… Those boxes don’t define me, but wow, seeing it in black and white? Reality check.
For a deeper look into Julie’s journey into widowhood, listen here: Julie Graham’s Untold Story of Heartbreak, Healing and Hope – 101.
I remember when I arrived at the local school administration office. I had already filled out the paperwork to get Lincoln registered for kindergarten. On the form, it asked for both his mother and father’s contact info. I had written in “deceased” on the father section but penned in his name. I don’t know, maybe they need to know it just in case? Well, when I sat down with the placement specialist to make sure all my T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted for this already emotional experience, I saw it on the form. Under “Father’s Name” it said Paul Graham. Why did his name need to be there? It hit me like a ton of bricks. He should’ve been sitting next to me for this. But no. He’s deceased. I checked the widow box, remember?
Remembering Him Always
I remember the day that Facebook’s memories feature reminded me of our dating anniversary. Like I didn’t remember. What I wasn’t prepared for was how it collected all 566 tagged photos of us together and made them easy to cycle through. To think, I’m sure I’d taken 5,666 pictures of us in the 5,726 days we spent together.
I remember the first time I saw a ladder after his death. I still tear up when I see them. Then I had to buy one for the new town home I purchased with his life insurance. I needed something to get the Christmas bins up on the racks I installed in the garage. I cried as I loaded it into the car from the Lowe’s cart. Worse, I remember the first time I had to use it. I remember asking Paul’s dad to help me change out a light and he declined (he’s normally super willing to help with anything). But he said no—because he couldn’t get on a ladder anymore. I remember when my friend’s son did his school invention fair project in my husband’s memory, creating “ladder legs,” so another daddy wouldn’t have to fall to his death like his parents’ friend had. I remember the first time Lincoln excitedly pointed to a ladder in a work truck we passed on the road. “Look mommy! A ladder!” I found it odd but downplayed it. The next week he got a new Lego set (everyone and their mother gifted that boy Legos to show their love. So. Many. Legos.). He grinned from ear to ear when he saw the fire truck had—yep—a ladder. To this day, my son loves ladders. He wants to climb them first at any park, point them out to everyone anywhere he sees one, and talk about them. The fact that he has this attachment to ladders amazes me, a bittersweet example of a child’s ability to be resilient, hopeful, and full of life no matter what the circumstances.
I remember the day I was locking him into his car seat and got a look at his beautiful eyes. His daddy’s eyes. I told him how happy I was that he had gotten his daddy’s gorgeous eyes. In the way only a child could, he lit up and asked, “Did he make them small and give them to me?” Yes, baby. He did. He sure did.
I remember those first holidays without him. First, we faced Paul’s birthday just 15 days after his passing. We sent balloons to heaven and ate birthday cake. I think we were all still in shock. The next day was Halloween; he loved coming up with Lincoln’s costume ideas. The first year he geniusly suggested we do “Babe Lincoln,” complete with a faux beard and top hat. It was perfect. Halloween without him was “fine” though, was it even real yet? And the first Thanksgiving? It was not what people expected. They thought it would be hard because it’s such a family holiday. In our case, not so. Of course, we missed him, but due to his anxiety and depression, he often brought a lot of tension and awkward silence to any family or holiday gathering. Linc and I met his parents at a restaurant for dinner (neither of us wanted to cook for four), and we all remarked how it was nice to just enjoy the meal and not worry about Paul’s “mood.” It felt good to hear them express something I had felt guilty about feeling. It was similar that first Christmas. The previous Christmas together had started with a fight and things kind of just, well, never really improved. So, our first Christmas without him was actually happy, too. All eyes were on Lincoln, who at three and a half was really enjoying it for the first time. So, imagine my surprise when passing Easter and Mother’s Day was also “fine,” but arriving at Father’s Day wrecked me. That was different. I grieved deeply for my son whose daddy wasn’t there to be celebrated. I grieved my childhood wounds of not having a dad myself. Father’s Day that first year was just plain hard. And yet, year two, just a few weeks ago as I write this, was surprisingly peaceful. I visited my friend’s church, and the Lord was sweet to entitle the message that morning, “Legacy,” which immediately reminded me of my journey as Paul’s widow. Since his passing, I had sought to intentionally honor his memory using the hashtag “#LeavingPRGaLegacy.” I speak of him often and fondly to my son so he will always know the good times with his dad. Only God can orchestrate details like that.
I remember the first time we sang the song “Good Good Father” at church. I was immediately brought back to his bedside in those last minutes. It still gets me almost every time. But the last few times we’ve sung it, I can smile through the tears. Time is like that, isn’t it?
I remember the first time Lincoln remembered something I didn’t. Every time he recalls something from when he was super young, I am surprised he holds the memory. Starting even days before he died, people began telling me that, “Lincoln won’t remember him; he will only remember what you tell him. They won’t be actual memories, just stories he grows up knowing because he’s so young.” First off—why? Why did multiple people feel the need to say that? Whether it’s true or not, what good does that do? None. Don’t do that, friends. Memories are memories regardless of whether they’re pictorial in his mind or verbally passed down from those who loved his daddy and knew him personally. Now, when he recalls something, it’s a precious gift from my good, good Father.
So, this is a window into my widowhood, and while there are moments of gray, the sun is also shining on a bright future. He will always be my past and there’s no doubt I’ll continue to be struck by his memory at both obvious and inopportune times—but that’s what losing a spouse is. That’s what widowhood is. This is the story God has given to him, to us, to me, and I pray I’ll point to Him in every part of it.
“Sometimes I feel my heart is breaking
But I stay strong and I hold on ’cause I know
I will see you again, oh
This is not where it ends
I will carry you with me, yeah yeah
I will see you again, oh
This is not where it ends
I will carry you with me, oh
‘Till I see you again”
—Carrie Underwood (His not-so-secret celeb crush.)
For more help with grief and loss, check out this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: How to Feel Your Emotions in a Healthy Way With Dr. Zoe Shaw – 075!