Mother’s Day 1972. I’m standing in a circle with two brethren, preparing to administer to my dying wife, Julie. About to sink into her last coma, she opens her eyes, smiles, and says, “I have the most wonderful husband in the world.”
Comforting words. But they also served to begin a process that challenges many widowers: raising the memory of a departed mate into the realm of legend. Not that we do it alone. At Julie’s funeral, I passed out little “I remember Julie” folders for attenders to note their memories of my wife for our posterity to keep. We received remembrances like these:
“I remember Julie’s ethereal beauty and her special knack of making me feel I was her best friend, when I knew she had many who felt the same way.”
“I remember Julie as being a sweet, loving, wonderful woman. She always had a smile and greeting for everyone.”
“I remember Julie, and I shall never forget her, for she truly possessed the pure love of Christ.”
All that and, at last count, nineteen baby girls had been named Julie in her honor.
How could I not cling to her memory? In the words of a wise widow friend: “Some lives are so entwined that the partner left behind dies, too. So often, when the loved one goes, the anchor is cast on the other side, and life is no longer lived full measure here.”
Recently I decided to find out if, like me, other widowers had also made their late wives into legends of perfection that, for a time, had kept them from freely moving on to other things, even while their love for a departed spouse remained undiminished. I discovered that, in some cases, they had indeed created a legend. But they had also learned some important lessons that helped them reenter life.
From Kenneth E. King of Monterey Park, California: “It has been more than a year since I lost my wife, but I’ve really never felt single. Our marriage for time and eternity has been a great comfort to me. I have a firm testimony that we will be together in a few short years, and this gives me the encouragement I need to continue to function in my callings and to strive to qualify myself to be with her in the celestial kingdom.”
From former Hacienda Heights California Stake president James C. Brown: “As the stake president and a physician, I had attempted to comfort many in the death of their mates. I assumed I knew how they felt. But when my wife of forty years died, I discovered that I had not really known. I continued to practice medicine and to serve in my Church callings but could not bring myself to attend singles events. I could not accept the fact that I was single and tended to avoid any activity suggesting that I was.
“I have subsequently married a wonderful woman who had lost her husband, and we both feel blessed to have the gift of love. I used to envy those who still have their spouses with them, until I realized that almost everyone will be widowed for a time, either on this side of the veil or on the other, and we need to concentrate on building a relationship worthy of enduring forever.”
One widower I identified with was San Dimas physician Reed T. Alder, who, like me, had been left with three young children and a large house and yard to care for. Being a physician, he had learned about the grieving process, and he had a hope in Jesus Christ, the resurrection, and a life hereafter. However, “even when I finally expressed, in soul-rending prayer, that I was prepared for God’s will and not mine to be done,” he said, “when the event finally came, I found I was not ready at all. There were clothes to wash, meals to shop for and prepare, floors to be swept, furniture to be dusted, bathrooms to be scoured—so many things to be done. Daily living chores and functions came washing over me in an almost devastating reality. There were also the personal demands: sorting through items to be disposed of; fulfilling my duties in our bishopric; and underlying everything, meeting the needs of my children—how could I help their healing? The numbing loneliness was the worst. I found myself up at all hours of the night—not that I wasn’t tired to exhaustion, but sleep simply did not come.”
For him, trying to date was painful. “I felt guilt: If I really loved her, how could I even think of dating others? I also felt some awkwardness as I excluded some potential dates while being rejected by others.” In time, his searching brought him another companion, and together they have begun to accomplish some new goals. But change is never easy. “There really must be opposition in all things, even when you are doing what you are supposed to be doing,” he said. “As President Spencer W. Kimball pointed out often, what seems a tragedy at first may someday be seen as destiny.” (See Spencer W. Kimball, “Tragedy or Destiny,” Improvement Era, Mar. 1966, pp. 178ff.)
After my Julie’s death, more than ever before, the Lord and his church became my life: attending singles conferences and youth gatherings, continuing to work in my calling in the stake presidency for another fifteen years. And all the while, the challenge of children: piano lessons, helping Brad earn his Eagle Scout award, counseling, journeys, shopping, meals.
I found that I had a difficult time being the bill-payer and bookkeeper that Julie had been all of our marriage. Keeping to a budget and holding to financial priorities was a skill I had to relearn.
One blessing that helped me through the difficult years following Julie’s death was keeping some of the traditions we had started together. Two years before she died, Julie and I had begun a family tradition, an open house that we dubbed “For the lost and the lonely on Christmas Eve.” It included refreshments, music, story telling, and a piñata for the children to break. I kept the tradition going, and it has now grown to include not only the genuinely lost and lonely but also our closest circle of friends.
Another tradition Julie established continues to bless my life. Julie always strove to make our home a spiritual refuge. To that end, we inaugurated a “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words to Each Other” award for family home evening, which we held religiously. During the week, whenever a member of the family did or said something of value, a note of recognition would be given to that person. I continued to hold to that tradition, and it eased the pressures on our family considerably.
But that was then. This is now, many years later. The children are all happily married and raising families of their own. Recently I attended two special events—my fiftieth high school reunion and, the next week, the funeral of my lifelong best friend. Both events reminded me of my own mortality, the swiftness of the passing years, and the thought, more than once, that I may have stayed too long at the fair.
In a few years, I will undoubtedly meet Julie again, and we will renew our former precious relationship. Until then, I will continue to cherish her memory and live life as fully as I can without her.