Culture

How Do You Survive When Your World Shatters?

“And now I know that every single day, the best and the worst, only lasts for twenty-four hours.” — Tricia Lott Williford

Two days before Christmas in 2010, amid the festive pictures of family Christmas celebrations, cookie recipes, and excited discussions about plans for the holidays, some terrible, heart-sickening news began to spread through my network of Facebook friends and acquaintances:

Stunned by some news. Please pray for a friend and her young family. The husband and father was unexpectedly taken to heaven for Christmas.

Pray for Tricia Williford as her husband went to heaven this morning. They have two little boys, Tucker and Tyler. What a sad day this is.

Three years later, I have fresh tears in my eyes as I re-read those words and I think about the shattering of lives, dreams, and families in that one terrible moment. How does a family survive such a profound tragedy? Can those shattered pieces be fused back together again? What does that really look like? I mean, in real life, starting with how you get out of bed the next day and how in the world you explain to two little boys that their daddy has died?

Tricia Lott Williford, a writer and editor — and a fabulous storyteller — had a blog at the time of her husband’s unexpected death at age thirty-five. Her bio explains, “On the day of her husband’s death, an unknown someone posted a link to her blog on Twitter with the words, ‘Please pray for this woman. Her husband died this morning.’ Overnight, her blog went viral and her community of readers grew exponentially.” Tricia continued with her long-established discipline of writing every day and shared her story, in all its brutal transparency, with friends and strangers around the world. Her story has now been turned into a book, And Life Comes Back: A Wife’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope Reclaimedreleased February 18th.

tr_086

In the interest of full disclosure, I knew Tricia and her family when we attended the same church together and my husband and I were adult leaders in the youth group that Tricia and her brother attended. Tricia was then a bubbly, ebullient middle-school girl with wild red curls. Though I never met her husband, Robb, I was acquainted with his family; his father was a pastor at our church for a time. So when I read Tricia’s description of that awful day right before Christmas when her husband died in her arms, I had vivid images in my mind of various family members reacting to the news (though in my mind, they are all frozen at the ages they were the last time I saw them in the the early 1990s with the same hairstyles and clothing).

But this story went viral among friends and strangers alike, not because people knew the family personally, but because of Tricia’s ability to weave a compelling story with words and phrases, with laughter and tears. This is not a How-to-Be-a-Widow-in-Five-Easy-Steps book. It’s a raw, sometimes very dark, look at the underbelly of grief and and depression — the parts of life that sometimes make us avert our eyes. But it is also (somewhat unexpectedly in a book on this topic), laugh-out-loud funny at times, as Tricia writes honestly and vividly about marriage and motherhood. Her writing style makes you feel as if you’re sitting across the table from a friend, sharing stories over a good cup of coffee. You pour cup after cup because you absolutely will not leave until you’ve heard the whole story.

And Life Comes Back is more than a book about grief recovery. It’s also a love story about opposites that attracted and found a way to embrace their sometimes extreme differences. It’s a fun story about a healthy, Christian marriage that doesn’t shy away from the bumps in the road. It’s a story about parenting, both married and single. It’s a story about the importance of the extended family. It caused me to think deeply about the societal impact of our scattered modern families and the nearly impossible job of a single parent. It gave me a new compassion for moms who don’t get to look forward to daddy coming home at the end of the day to relieve the pressure cooker that life with rambunctious toddlers can become. Would I have survived that? As much as I loved staying home with my kids, there were some days that the only thing keeping me sane was knowing that my husband would be home at the end of the day.

I realized as I read this story that I’ve been incredibly ungrateful for my husband and for the easy life I’ve lived. Profoundly ungrateful.

aslan-and-child1

And Life Comes Back is also about faith that shakes and wavers but never completely capsizes. Again, it’s raw — there is questioning, anger at God, disappointment with His plan. You won’t find trite, formulaic advice about how to overcome grief. This is not a self-help book. It’s a story of a wife and mother who walks through a tragedy one day at a time.

In real life, you discover that sometimes there are no easy answers for the “why” questions in life. We won’t know some of the answers this side of heaven, though our finite minds are dissatisfied with that truth. We often demand answers from God, but are left with the words of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 55, verses 8 and 9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

   neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

   so are my ways higher than your ways

   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And that can be enough. Sometimes, it has to be.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s novel, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is an allegorical lion who represents a Christ-like figure in Narnia where it is “always winter but never Christmas.” As Mr. Beaver describes Aslan,

“One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

And so it seems to feel with our Christian walk at times. Though often we feel God very near, at times we wonder if he has completely abandoned us. He’s not a tame lion. Not a God who bows to our demands. Yet he hears our cries and walks with us in our sorrow, promising to never leave or forsake those who trust him.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Tricia uses four words to describe the first year after Robb’s death: Shocked. Terrified. Blind. Numb. 

In January, when I began speaking to God again, I made a deal with him: if he would get me out of bed and safely to Starbucks, I would visit with him there. I might not talk, but I would listen. My mornings became my sacred hours; Starbucks became my sanctuary. God met me there. My journals are filled with schizophrenic psalms, from temper tantrums to triumphant praise. His companionship has been nearly tangible, certainly a presence I could feel strongly enough to know I wanted more. In reading Psalms, again and again, and again, and again, I let the psalmists cry out on my behalf, when I had no words left.

There’s a reason why Psalm 88 made the cut into the Bible’s final manuscript. It is pure heartache, hard questions, and raw anger. Yet God said, “Keep it in the book. I’m okay with that.

Some days getting out of bed is the definition of success. Other days there is more tangible progress. Through it all, God never leaves. He’s good. He’s the King.

Will_9780307731982_cvr_all_r1.indd

I doubt that Tricia meant this book to be in any way a prepper’s manual (I suspect that would have been her husband’s beat), but whether intentional or not, the book helped me to visualize the practical fallout that necessarily accompanies a sudden death as I prepared for a recent surgery. I cleaned my house and even contemplated cleaning out my closets to spare someone else that ordeal in the event that something went wrong. Note my careful choice of the word contemplated. Sigh. I really did have the best of intentions. I was very conscious of what my final footprints on social media would be, just in case, and as I drifted off to sleep with my husband the night before the surgery, I sweetly whispered to him those all-important passwords for various accounts he’d need to access in the event of my death. Sigh, again. One of these days I’ll get in touch with my emotional side, but for now, my logical-practical side was more concerned about my husband having access to our bank account and my PayPal login, just in case. I sent one last text to let the kids know how much I love them and I’m proud of them so they’d always have that. Because you just never know.

That’s the gift of Tricia’s story. I’m a Christian. I’m sure that when I die I will go to heaven, as will my family members who trust in Christ alone to save them. But that doesn’t spare any of us the excruciating pain of loss and the devastating wreckage that accompanies death, especially when it’s unexpected. The strongest faith can waver under the weight of such a blow. It’s good for us to look that in the eye now and then, despite our modern culture’s tendency to avoid eye contact with what we fear most. It’s good for us to take time out of our busy lives to consider that our days are numbered and that every hug, every smile, every goodbye could be our last. Life is not as “safe” as we’d like to imagine it is. Tricia reminds us about the preciousness of life with warmth, wit, and more than a little bit of attitude.

You can read a preview of And Life Comes Back at Amazon—though I warn you, you may not be able to put it down.

 “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe