Last month I lost my wife to a seven-and-a-half year battle with cancer. I’m a 38-year-old pastor and a dad to three incredible boys who are 12, 10, and 7. I’m learning that grief is an unpredictable, lurking beast that strikes when you’re least expecting it, and in the most unusual places—Disney World, the bathroom at Target, Starbucks. No place is safe from an attack.
I’m also discovering I’m a verbal processor. I think best when talking or with a literal pen in hand, even more so as I’ve been unraveling this tragedy.
Many have asked, “What is it like to lose your wife?” I’m sure it’s different for everyone, as is grief, but here’s one recent attempt, in my journal, to lasso the chaos amid the storm.
Losing the One Who Saw Me
“What is it like to lose your wife?” A number of words come to mind. One is “invisible.” I feel invisible in plain sight. Not physically invisible; I’m a big guy, so it’s hard to miss me, and so many have blessed me and my boys with care and attention. So I’m not saying I don’t feel cared for; I actually feel unworthy and humbled by people’s kindness.
I mean “invisible” almost in the sense of when a girl looks at a guy in a movie and says, “You see me.” She means there is a person in this world who gets her, who understands her with a depth of intimacy no one else does. Of course, in the movies, they usually say this after knowing each other for five minutes. But after 14 years with Cari, I felt like she saw me—all of me—and loved me anyway. The good. The bad. The ugly. She saw my imperfections and challenged me to grow.
In the first years of our marriage, I saw Sunday naps as an act of worship; Cari saw them as sin, since they intruded on family time together. We fought about it, but she patiently loved me anyway. I found it annoying until I asked why it was such a big deal to her. She said, “Josh, don’t you see that one of our biggest issues is that I just want more of you?” That shut me up pretty quickly. How do you process that? A woman who’s watched you for many years still wants more. My first thought was, Why? I came up with two reasons: (a) She’s nuts or (b) God’s grace. Maybe a little of each.
Cari saw evidences of grace in my life and told me about them in ways that made me blush. She knew she could bring me to my knees with just a word, and sometimes she did. She knew my fears. She knew my dreams. We dreamed together all the time. I opened it all to her. Entrusted it to her. Only her.
And she trusted me. She trusted me with the secrets of her heart, with her hopes and fears. Cari allowed me to witness her thought process on all kinds of issues. I saw her and she saw me in a way no one else ever has.
And now the one person who saw me is gone. The only one who could read my every glance and anticipate my response is no longer available. There is no replacing 14 years of being seen by someone every day and night. You can’t replace a soul who covenanted to stay with you no matter what. I miss the warmth and safety of that—the unrivaled beauty of it. So there is a real sense in which a crowded room makes me feel more invisible because she’s not there—the one I always looked for in a crowd, the one who saw me and was for me no matter what.
Being that seen and loved is as close as any of us will ever come to experiencing the love of God for us in Christ. Christ knew me while I was in my mother’s womb. Not one of my days was hidden from him (Ps. 139). Not one sin has ever escaped his attention. Nevertheless, I have a promise: Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:28–39). That’s good news, and it’s real. But the pain is real, too. It’s deep and barbed. If the agony of separation from Cari is but a small picture of that greater tragedy of separation from God, then God save us all, and only in Christ. Maranatha.
I wrote that a month ago, a few days after Cari’s death. I continue to process, continue to grieve, continue to learn. Here are two simple lessons God is teaching me.
1. He Sees Me
First, the loss of being seen by Cari reminds me that in a much more profound way, Christ sees me. I know Jesus isn’t my girlfriend, but he is the lover of my soul. His laser-like gaze never moves. His attention never wanes. He never abandons me, no matter how ugly I am. He died to bring me out of the grossness of my rebellion to himself.
And he, like Cari, wants more of me. That’s enough to make you skip a few naps.
2. His People See Me
Second, I’ve realized I need to be more transparent with others, especially with some brothers who love me. I need to share the parts of me I’m ashamed about. I need them to speak into my life. And in that process, it feels like my sanity is coming back and grounding me.
Here’s the startling reality. I’m fearful of being seen, being vulnerable, being honest. I fear others will think less of me. And yet the greatest gift in all of this has been the experience of desperately needing to be seen, then being seen and drawn in by the body of Christ. It’s life-giving to be seen in my brokenness and yet still be embraced, not rejected, by Christ’s body. It has served as a healing balm for the sense of invisibility that can only lead to despair.