In 2001 doctors diagnosed Robert Ortega, a veteran firefighter of 22 years, with Lou Gehrig’s disease. For the next several years, he and his wife, Susan, lived with a death sentence. They watched Robert’s once-strong body weaken to complete helplessness. After one particularly rough night, Susan “just knew” that day would be her husband’s last. Their youngest son Ben, 13, tightened his grip on his dad’s arm and said, “It’s okay, dad. You fought long enough.”
And with that, Robert Ortega took his last breath.
In Life After Breath: After Her Husband Takes His Last Breath, and After She Tries to Catch Hers, Susan Ortega VandePol chronicles her family’s journey through illness and loss, and her entry into widowhood. She calls the book a companion for widows. She hopes it enables widows to “look into grief and heal when others want to look away.”
The 40 short devotional-style entries offer poignant details of her husband’s death and ooze with Scripture and word pictures that bring theological truth into technicolor view. With the precision and care of a brain surgeon, VandePol uses God’s Word to cut us at strategic points throughout.
VandePol has certification in grief, crisis, and trauma counseling. But in reading Life After Breath, it’s not her certifications or educational qualifications that shine—it’s her intimate relationship with Christ and quiet trust that God’s not wasting her pain.
While VandePol shares her pain with brutal honesty and vulnerability, she frames her suffering in the context of the gospel and offers purpose and hope to widows. “The truth of what is ahead for you must be found in God’s Word,” she says. “You will see there that you are meant to be one of his greatest allies in these times of faint hearts and tribulation.”
VandePol has a tenacious grip on the concept of grace, particularly in the way she remembers friends and family who “could not face” her husband’s diagnosis:
They never came or called or sent a Hallmark sentiment, yet they loved him, and we recognized their love in the weight of their absence. Others might call them cowards or self-centered, but I thought of it as a type of courage. . . . So we loved them all no matter what and gave up the right to have an opinion about how they dealt with Bob’s illness or death.
She also shows how life after Robert’s death brought additional burdens not always seen by others. After speaking with other widows, she identified common threads:
We needed help in seemingly endless ways. . . . After the funeral and the first few months of love, calls, cards and meals, our grief increased in intensity, but it became increasingly difficult for others to continue to face our grief with us. We knew we were loved, but we didn’t even know what our needs would be; how could anyone else? Our churches, neighbors, friends, and firefighter family wanted to help and offered it without condition or exception, but to be a widow means a woman is now single, which puts her in a very vulnerable position.
To that end, VandePol created Families of the Fallen, a protocol for those coming alongside a widow. Though initially written with families of firefighters in mind, it’s now being used by employers and churches around the country and has been endorsed by experts in the fields of grief, crisis, trauma, and suicide prevention.
When my own husband, Jim, passed away, it seemed nearly every visitor offered me a book I “just had to read.” Most of these books put a heavy emphasis on “rejoicing in tribulation” and didn’t give me permission to grieve. Other books advised me to not spend too much time watching TV and to make sure I didn’t overindulge in spending or eating. And others simply presumed I faced widowhood as an elderly woman. Few offered me the gospel salve Life After Breath articulates and extends.
Grief’s Desperate Prayers
A word of caution: Sometimes the grief of widowhood leads to desperate prayers that might be unnerving to those unacquainted with it. VandePol’s pastor and close friend told her that, after much consideration, he “asked the God of the living and the dead to raise his friend from the dead. . . . Friendship’s love was torn in two, and he asked that God would make it right again and mend the tear.”
Crazy prayer? Maybe. VandePol herself speaks of the days following her husband’s death when she visited his grave to finish the book they were reading together while he was alive. As she remembers the raw pain of that first week—with the cutout of the grass still freshly marking the place Robert was buried—she shares her prayer: “Lord, if you’ll raise him, I’ll dig him out.” She explains, “Grief churned so violently inside that, given the chance, I would have torn the earth apart myself to get him back.”
Crazy indeed. This quickly took me back to the wee hours of the morning when my husband went into cardiac arrest. I walked out of the hospital room as my coworkers tried to come to his rescue. I looked up to heaven with an uplifted fist and said, “No, Lord. Not him, not now. You can’t do this.”
VandePol offers profound empathy to widows of any age and circumstance by pointing them to lasting hope in Christ. To the hurting woman who wants to know where God is in the midst of it all, VandePol’s answer is as gentle as it is confident: God abides with the hurting and broken.
Many books for widows presume a lot about our circumstance and age. But Life After Breath isn’t that kind of book. It won’t advise you how to respond to your mother-in-law’s grief or whether or not you should sell your home.
Instead, VandePol mines the lessons God taught her about his undying love through the death of her husband. Though each widow's story is unique, we all only find our ultimate healing in Christ. Some will see her eloquence lacking clarity, thus making her book hard to read quickly. But Life After Breath is not best read quickly—it’s best read slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once.
Shortly after my husband died, I received an unwanted delivery basket of small soaps, a devotional book complete with reading glasses, and a card addressed, “Shut-in Member: Gaye Clark.” I swallowed hard and forced a smile toward the eager would-be encourager.
“No need to thank me.” The young man grinned and patted my shoulder. “I just wanted to remind you how much the church loves you. Bye!” With that, the fellow scurried down the steps, jumped into his car, and sped away. After all, I could see he had several more baskets just like mine to deliver.
At 50 years old, I didn’t consider myself a “shut-in.” I hated the word. Another word took some getting used to as well: widow. For years I’d been the one knocking on doors and bearing gifts. Now on the receiving end and in the midst of horrific pain, I learned firsthand it’s no easy thing to care for a widow with a prickly heart. I’m grateful the church desires to address this topic, both in terms of theology and practical application.
What the Book Gets Right
Brian Croft and Austin Walker’s Caring for Widows: Ministering God’s Grace offers a biblical mandate for this kind of ministry and specific suggestions on its implementation. In part one, Walker, pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, peruses the Old and New Testaments, highlighting both specific examples of widowhood and historical perspectives. Pointing to Israel, he writes, “The way they treat the widow was to be a direct expression of their love for God and ready obedience to him” (47). Likewise, he concludes that implications for the modern church are similar to Israel in both blessings and warnings: “For elders, deacons, and church members to neglect or ill-treat widows . . . invites that chastening hand of God and calls into question the integrity of the church and her identity as the people of God” (30–31).
Walker believes the church, and deacons in particular, ought to make the care of widows a priority. He notes all widows need care, but according to their unique circumstances. One of his most refreshing conclusions concerns the goal toward which care and concern for the widow is headed: to release her to use her gifts in the church. “By being cared for in the prescribed way, a widow can continue to live among the people of God and continue to serve Christ according to her abilities,” he writes (74). This mindset empowers widows instead of offering them humiliating pity.
The second half of Caring for Widows is authored by Croft, senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville. In this latter half he weaves helpful information on grief along with practical suggestions. For example, he notes the anniversary of a husband’s death is particularly painful for the widow, but each widow will respond to it differently. Some will welcome a visit on that day; others will prefer to be alone. In some of his most poignant writing, Croft unpacks what—including within his own family—this ministry has looked like and the effect it’s had on his children. Croft saved his most beautiful contribution to Caring for Widows for the conclusion. No spoiler alerts here. Get the book and read it.
What the Book Misses
“All widows need the spiritual comfort of the church’s ministry,” Walker acknowledges, “but not all widows have identical circumstances” (77–78). Yet most of Croft’s practical ideas for serving widows presume she is elderly. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one-third of all women who become widowed are younger than age 60, and half of those widowed become so by age 65. Most see elderly widows as the most vulnerable. Yet younger widows, faced with becoming the primary breadwinner and caregiver for a young family, endure entirely different but equally daunting circumstances. While the authors do reference younger widows, they offer little in terms of practical suggestions on how to encourage them.
Additionally, many widows would not find some of the specific suggestions offered in the book helpful, such as using prayers in public worship to inform the congregation of their circumstances and needs. In a larger church, such openness would leave a hurting widow feeling overexposed.
In 2009 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert began an uncomfortable but important conversation, noted by the title of their bestseller When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . or Yourself. The book’s premise—that some of our best efforts to alleviate suffering might cause further harm—could also apply to serving widows. It makes me think back to that well-intentioned but utterly misguided young man on my doorstep. Unfortunately, he’s one of many painful encounters I endured, each equally oblivious to just how unhelpful their efforts were.
More Than a Brief Social Call
Caring for Widows clarifies what it means to “visit the widow in her distress” (James 1:27), and gives much-needed and more detailed instruction. It’s more than a brief social call. It implies “regular personal contact and practical involvement with those in need” (25).
While I don’t endorse all of the practical suggestions offered, they will certainly be fodder to think of more. This book is a good beginning to an important discussion inside churches—a conversation where widows themselves should also be invited to participate.
Susan Ortega VandePol. Life After Death: After Her Husband Takes His Last Breath, and After She Tries to Catch Hers. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing, 2015. 176 pp. $14.99.